Sunday, January 25, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part I

I tried my damnedest to just write a short, succinct post.  Or rather, I've been trying for weeks to write a short succinct post.  Which of course means it has blown up into a multi-part piece.  Hopefully someone else out there is as fascinated by sex as I am.

What?!  You are!!?!  No way!!

An Introduction

            How does sexuality shape our minds?  Certainly, we can see a link between the typical gender binary, and binary thinking in general, though the question perhaps remains open as to which comes first.
            But beyond the obvious uses of simplified labeling — good/bad; black/white; on/off; no/yes — what aspects of sexuality — what currents of desire or, conversely, harbors of stillwater, where the libido rests, cool and safe — erode, deposit into, and smooth the minds of a society to conform with the given norms?  How does desire relate to power?  To perception?  To knowledge?
            It seems to be widely known that homoerotic relationships played a huge role in shaping the culture of the Classical period of Greece.  This is the time period that gave us much of what we think of as "Ancient Greece," though not all.  I have noticed time and again that even Americans with very little historical education know about homosexual/homoerotic relationships in this epoch.
            But what role(s) did homoeroticism play in the development of philosophy, theology, literature, and politics?  And how did homoerotic desire speak itself in the various milieux of Classical Antiquity?  For we must guard against the lazy assumption that social institutions, expressions, or ideologies we have labeled with familiar-sounding terms, in radically different times and places, will look like the institutions, expressions, etc., currently going by those same names in our own time and place.  In the Introduction to his translation of Plato's Symposium, Robin Waterfield opts to not even call what we are talking about "homosexuality":
I use the less familiar term 'homoeroticism' because not many Athenians were actually homosexual in the sense of being inclined to love only members of their own sex:  Pausanias and Agathon in our dialogue, with their lifelong affair, were exceptions rather than the rule.  More commonly, the same people were sexually inclined towards members of both sexes.  (Waterfield 1994, xv)
You may have noticed that I have adopted Waterfield's convention, and I will attempt to stick to it throughout.  Also, I want to note that this post, and probably the next one as well, are going to deal exclusively with male homoeroticism. The evidence regarding lesbianism is different (and much more scarce) than that for male homoerotic relationships, and I think that lesbian relationships are interesting in a very different way.  I could go on a very long diatribe here about what I perceive as the fallacy of conflating woman-to-woman sexual intimacy with man-to-man sexual intimacy under one classification, but I shall refrain for the moment.  What was started as a one-post project has evolved into something much bigger, so I intend to work several different threads.
            But first, because I have already been dancing around chronology terms a bit, some clarifications on the historical period in question.

Attitudes Over Time

"Ancient Greece"

            First, a confession:  I am as guilty as anyone of linguistic sloppiness when it comes to old Mediterranean stuffs.  In defense of the sloppiness, I will say that the term most often used — that is, the term in question:  "Ancient Greece" — does cover a period of specific developments in poetry, theater, philosophy, and mathematics.  Homer and Plutarch may well have been separated by as much as 1200 years, but what we generally understand as the referent of the term is the birth of Western civilization.  While very good arguments exist for the vast influence of North African and Mesopotamian thinkers and artists, I do believe we see, in the vast swath of time and place we call Ancient Greece, the first layers of what would become the European psyche.
            So that is all to say:  yes, the term is sloppy, but I believe there is a there there, and that most Westerners still grasp the broad strokes of it.
            My confession and defense aside, in order to discuss sexuality in the epoch in question, greater specificity will be required.  My apologies for how awkwardly the timeline below sits, but I can't stand tiny lettering:

"Ancient Greece."  Wikipedia.
            I am here almost exclusively interested in looking at the top bar, that is, the historical periods. In particular, the Greek Dark Ages, the Archaic Period, and the Classical Period.
            To begin, I'd like to clarify where two of our major data points fit in on the timeline above.  Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, is placed variously at around 1100 BCE and 850 BCE.  That is a pretty broad range, but it does place him well into the Greek Dark Ages.  Plato lived from about 430 BCE to 350 BCE, which places him in the Classical Period.
            The book I will be drawing on most heavily throughout this essay is an amazing anthology:  Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a Sourcebook of Basic Documents, edited by Thomas K. Hubbard.  It includes everything from fragments of poems and plays to ancient graffiti and court documents.  In the introduction, regarding the changes over time, Hubbard says this:
Most previous discussions of Greek and Roman homosexuality, although distinguishing between the two cultures, tend to treat each culture synchronically, as if attitudes and practices were relatively uniform over time.  However, reflection on the various social practices of homosexuality and swings in public attitudes toward it in Western societies just in the second half of the twentieth century should caution us against such static assumptions in the case of ancient societies, which bore witness to many equally wrenching social and political transformations.  (Hubbard 2003, 14)
            Starting in the further reaches of our timeline, in the Greek Dark Ages, I want to first deal with what I believe to be a misconception regarding Homer and dating the rise of established homoerotic relationships.  Specifically, regarding Achilles and Patroclus in The Iliad.
            I know, I know.  We moderns like to smirk knowingly at Achilles and Patroclus.  I myself have never been convinced that their relationship was sexual.  All you have to do is travel outside of the US and Europe to see how much more comfortable the rest of the world's humans are with expressing same-sex — but non-sexual — affection.  Achilles and Patroclus clearly, genuinely loved one another.  But to assume that that love was sexual/romantic in nature is, I believe, to project our own prudishness back onto them.
            This point will be relevant over and over to this discussion, but I should acknowledge that a lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.  In other words, it is of course entirely possible that homoerotic love was a common practice amongst Greeks in the Homeric period, and that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, and we just have lost all the texts that would make that seem more plausible.  But almost as soon as we do start to see textual evidence of it (much later than Homer), there is a corresponding opprobrium of said sexual activity; contrary to popular opinion, homosexuality was not universally accepted and celebrated.  Given this, in order to continue to argue that Achilles and Patroclus are lovers, we would probably have to argue that their homoerotic relationship was so culturally normative in the earlier time period — in Homer's time period — that no specific information about the relationship is needed; everyone just knew they were lovers, and it wasn't until later that Greek culture began to judge the behavior as immoral.  However, given the liberal way in which men describe the beauty and physical attractions of the women they rape, kidnap, and murder, it seems implausible to me that Homer would remain so silent on the subject of Patroclus' sexual attractiveness to Achilles, or vice versa, if homoerotic relationships were so normal.
            Another possible line to take is that Achilles and Patroclus are lovers, but the author needed to code their relationship very carefully for fear of censure.  But then, this still flies in the face of the common modern assumption that homosexual relationships were normative and enjoyed broad acceptance.  Also — and this is perhaps just a snobby, privileged lady talking here — I get a little tired of casual retroactive projection.  That is, pick someone you don't like.  Gay people, you say?  Oh, well, Hitler was totally gay.  Oh, wait, no; you like gay people??  Oh.  Whoops!  Hitler was super straight.  I meant Shakespeare.  Yeah!  Shakespeare was totally gay!  Anyone you don't like?  Liberals?  Oh, my friend, such a deal I have for you!  Fucking Stalin.  No, seriously.  He was a Socialist!  Like Obama!!  Obama is like Stalin's Muslim nephew or something!
            My larger point is that we can find absolutely anything we want if we look hard enough.  Sure, it can be fun.  And people can absolutely miss things because of the frame of reference from which they are reading a past culture.  But if Achilles and Patroclus are lovers that are carefully coded to protect the delicate ears of Ancient Greeks, I am next going to be asked to believe that The Iliad is also somehow anti-racist and anti-authoritarian.  Which is bullshit.

            Moving along chronologically, we have textual evidence from Plutarch that such relationships occurred around 735-730 BCE, but Plutarch lived several hundred years after the fact.  There is also a well-known figurine from Crete, a sketch of which you can see here; it depicts two ithyphallic hunters or warriors, and is dated to the seventh century BCE.  Again, the lack of evidence is not itself evidence for a lack of sexual activity.  But various ancient sources, such as Xenophon and Aristotle, attest that homoerotic relationships began to be a social custom sometime around the seventh century, as well; Aristotle specified that it was undertaken as part of an effort at population control, though of course we cannot be sure.  Which is all to say, some time in the Archaic Period.
            Setting aside questions of when exactly homoerotic relationships may or may not have first been approved of in Ancient Greece, we have unequivocal evidence for such relations in the Archaic Period.  Archilochus, who lived from approximately 680 to 645 BCE, conveniently gave us this little fragment, in case we needed it spelled out for us:'s nature is not the same,
But each man delights his heart in something different.
...cock pleases Melesander,
...pleases the shepherd Phalangius.
No prophet other than I tells this to you.
            (Archilochus, fragment 25.1-5 West)
And Theognis of Megara presents us with all kinds of good information.  First, from Hubbard's introduction:
[The Theognid collection] is considered by many critics not to be the work of a single poet, but to represent several generations of wisdom poetry gathered together at Megara and attributed to the name of "Theognis," who may or may not have been an actual poet of the sixth century.  What can be said about this corpus is that it presents a unified persona and set of attitudes, particularly in regard to the pederastic theme:  cynical, quarrelsome, resentful, ever ready to accuse, but nevertheless helplessly devoted.  Most of th poems in the corpus are not specifically amatory, but are social, political, or ethical precepts transmitted to Cyrnus as part of his formation into an adult Megarian aristocrat in Theognis' own image.  Theognis' ever-gnawing suspicion of Cyrnus' promiscuous flirtations with less worthy men may function as an allegory for his anxiety that the Megarian body politic has deserted aristocrats like himself in favor of an endless succession of "new men," whose wealth is based on trade and commerce.  The pederastic, pedagogical, and political levels are all mutually imbricated in this collection.  (Hubbard 2003, 23)
There is so much here!  For starters, "imbricated."  When do you get to use that word?!  I know, right?  Imbricated.  Just lovely.
            Oh, right.  Theognis.  Dates for Theognis' life are very sketchy, but he is placed anywhere between the seventh to fifth centuries BCE.*  Also, Megara could very well refer to a city on the mainland of the Greek peninsula, or it could refer to at least one other city, but now I'm just getting distracted:
            Theognis 1243-44
"Let's love long."  Then go be with others.
You are a trickster, fidelity's antitype. 
            Theognis 1245-46
Water and fire will never mix.  And we shall never be
True to each other and kind. 
            Theognis 1249-52
Boy, you're like a horse.  Just now sated with seed,
You've come back to my stable,
Yearning for a good rider, fine meadow,
An icy spring, shady groves. 
            Theognis 1259-62
Boy, you were born good-looking, but your head
Is crowned with stupidity.
In your brain is lodged the character of a kite, always veering,
Bending to the words of other men. 
            Theognis 1279-82
I won't mistreat you even if the deathless gods
Would treat me better, pretty boy.
And I don't sit in judgment on petty errors.
Pretty boys get away with doing wrong.  (Hubbard 2003, 40-43)
Taking Theognis, along with many, many other writers, we can say with assurance that homoerotic relationships were normative enough in the Archaic Period for an aristocrat to be writing so openly about them.
            The point I want to drive home at this point is that we have ample evidence that attitudes shifted over time.  Because of the sloppiness I mentioned early — lumping everything from Homer to Strato under the term Ancient Greece — and because of all those — *ahem* — vases:

That a lot of dudes with hard-ons.**  Which is to say, I think we can safely assume that homoerotic relationships were normalized enough if they made it into popular media.
            Hubbard summarizes the historical shift in the evidence for institutionalized homosexual practices:
Ancient texts variously credit the Spartans or Cretans with a special role as early practitioners, particularly in what may be initiatory contexts.  Some lyric texts and the Thera graffiti may support an initiatory interpretation.  The earliest artistic evidence*** is Cretan and suggests a partnership of younger and older warriors.  Aristotle connects the introduction of the practice with overpopulation and the desire for a lower birthrate, possibly through delayed marriage.  Our earliest textual evidence is from the early seventh century, although Plutarch relates an incident that, if historical, must have occurred around 735-730 BCE.  There is no clear evidence for homosexuality in the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, which could support a thesis of seventh-century origins, possibly in response to population issues.  (Hubbard 2003, 14-15)
Again, this is specifically in reference to institutionalized practices.  In the next post I'll talk about what exactly pedagogical pederasty was, but it should be noted that, as in our own time, it was only specific practices which Ancient Greek society tolerated.  As we shall see later, even something as simple as being a man old enough to grow a beard, who enjoyed being penetrated by a man the same age, could set one up for ridicule at the least, and political trouble in other cases.  Homoerotic desire was by no means given free rein, and perhaps just as importantly, hierarchy — or a word I'm now toying with, kyriarchy — shaped all of the underlying structures of longing and terror, just the same as it does today.

            Next up will be something along the lines of a discussion of pedagogical pederasty, and the relationship between said institution and democracy in Athens.  Which will segue nicely into discussing further the relationships between desire and power.

* A note on tossing around terms like "seventh century BCE."  Such a phrase certainly sounds like it should mean things like "751 BCE," and "789 BCE was a great year!"  It all seems perfectly logical, until you think about counting centuries from zero.  So here I mean that Theognis could have lived anywhere from the 600s to the early 400s.  And of course, "early 400s" means things like "490" and "480."  It's awful, I know, but there you are.

** Full disclosure on the dating of these vases, though:  I couldn't find them on any reputable sites — in other words, they weren't on museum pages with the estimated dates neatly printed below.  They were all on overly-simplistic pro-gay websites, or puritanical, anti-gay sites, with no mention of where they were from or what time period.  My apologies for not being savvy enough to track them down, because I'm sure it must be do-able.  All the more trustworthy sources I can find attribute all of these kinds of vases to either the Archaic or the Classical Period.

*** This is the same figurine I referenced above.  In case you didn't get to see it...

      Waterfield, Robin.  Introduction.  Symposium.  By Plato.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1994.  Print.

      Archilochus.  Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a Sourcebook of Basic Documents.  Ed. Thomas K. Hubbard.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2003.  Print.
      Theognis.  ibid.