Sunday, March 8, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part 2

Dear Interwebs:
      I finished this post almost a month ago, but recent events in my life have disrupted my interest in writing in an online environment.  I'm still planning on finishing this series, and I will probably write at least one blog post giving some explanation if I do decide to take an actual break.  But for now, here is part two of Phalli, Vulvae, Thought.


Attitudes Over Time

Pedagogical Pederasty and δημοκρατία

            The most commonly discussed homoerotic relational structure in Archaic Greece is that of pedagogical pederasty.  Waterfield's introduction to Symposium provides a basic outline of the pederastic relationship:
Typically, the objects of male homoerotic desires were young boys in their teens, between the ages of puberty and growth of a proper beard.  A good-looking boy could expect to have a number of older erastai (lovers, or literally men feeling erōs for him). They would each pursue him, and try to persuade him to consummate a sexual affair, while he was expected to be coy and to resist their blandishments.  The boy might, of course, eventually be won over by one of his lovers, but even then there was no equality of desire.  He was expected to be merely passive, to let the man have his way, to 'gratify' the lover (as the Greeks tended rather delicately to put it):  the lover would achieve the enjoyment at least of conquest and of sexual release, while the boy might at the most reciprocate with philia (loyal affection or friendship), which would be due for the lover's patronage (for future political advancement, perhaps), rather than for his sexual attentions.  That is why only the older man is a 'lover', while the boy is merely an erōmenos — an object of the lover's erōs.  (Waterfield 1994, xvi)
Waterfield's explanation doesn't get at the pedagogical aspect of the relationship, however, and it should not be minimized.  Many scholars locate the origin of pederastic relationships in initiatory rituals, which implies that they were seen as conducive to the maturation of the young men who would one day be leading and defending their various city states.  The social and political introductions and connections the erastai  provided could prove vitally important; they may have even, in some instances, lasted well into the future, long after the sexual aspects of the relationship had (probably) ended.
            It should be noted that Waterfield has based his explanation on the work of Sir Kenneth Dover.  Dover's book Greek Homosexuality is considered one of the essential scholarly works on the topic, and one of the first to attempt an objective study.  However, there is still no scholarly consensus on exactly what form homoerotic relationships took.  While Dover and Waterfield emphasize the older man/erastai-pubescent boy/erōmenos structure, Hubbard points out that we have a good deal of literary and artistic evidence for other expressions of (male) desire:
It is often assumed that same-gender relationships followed a stereotypical pattern and set of protocols in ancient society:  in classical Greece this would take the form of pedagogical pederasty associating a man (usually before the age of marriage) and a freeborn boy... The texts, however, reveal a much wider diversity of relationships in terms of both age and status.  While these "non-normative" relationships are sometimes attacked in the texts as eccentric or inappropriate, even the "normative" forms of same-gender involvement are treated with hostility by certain sources.  What the evidence establishes is that a variety of behaviors occurred with sufficient frequency to be worthy of notice, even if disapprobatory.
Green homosexual activity, despite popular misconceptions, was not restricted to man-boy pairs.  Vase-painting shows numerous scenes where there is little or no apparent difference in age between the young wooer and his object of well as graphic scenes of sexual experimentation between youths.  Early poets such as Theognis and Pindar make it clear that youths were attracted to and slept with other youths of the same age... 
The youths named as men's favorites in Athenian oratory are all meirakia, a term generally used of those in the eighteen to twenty-one age-group.  Philosophers, in fact, preferred older youths, who were capable of a higher level of intellectual engagement; the early Stoics thought that a suitable beloved could be as old as twenty-eight.  Aristotle claims that relationships based on love of character often continued after the loss of the beloved's youthful beauty.  Xenophon reports that Menon, a Thessalian general, had a bearded beloved; similarly, Philostratus praises his beloved's beard.  (Hubbard 2003, 4-5)
            So we do see some diversity in the types of homoerotic pairings in Archaic and Classical Greece.  One factor, however, appears to remain consistent:  the social sanctioning of any same-gender relationships was a feature of the aristocracy.  In the Classical period, in particular, we have Aristophanes to give voice to the popular opinion of homosexuality.  It is not a positive one, to say the least.
            But why?
            This leads me to one of the details that caught me off guard in my research:  because homoerotic relationships of any kind were almost exclusively associated with the upper classes, the more democracy took hold, the less sanctioned were same-gender sexual pairings.  Vase paintings depicting pederastic courtship scenes and sexual experimentation remain common until about 460 BCE, which parallels the celebration of pederastic relationships in poetry.  After this time, the vase paintings and poetry become much more sedate.
            Which brings me to my awful little timeline.  Let us pause a moment before we officially move on to Awful Little Timeline.  This fucker took me a long time to figure out.  I would apologize for it, except I can't imagine how long it would take to do a better job creating digitally (this is digital, right?) something that is so fucking easy to do by hand.  I particularly like how the guestimate of Homer's life (spanning roughly 250 years) gets only one notch on the whole line.  And needless to say, Ephialtes and Socrates should overlap, as should Solon and Sappho, but I have no idea how to make that happen.  Everything is equidistant below, so try to imagine spacing things out more appropriately:

Solon (beginnings of democracy in Athens)
1100 BCE - 850 BCE
640 BCE - 560 BCE
470 BCE - 400 BCE
730 BCE - 650 BCE
630 BCE - 570 BCE
460 BCE 
First textual evidence for homoeroticism
Ephialtes severely curtails Areopagus

            I think I have been guilty of this as well, but it is a misnomer to think that there was a heroic revolution in Ancient Athens, followed by a peaceful, egalitarian epoch of self-governance.  Democracy (δημοκρατία) — much like, I believe, all political changes that stick — took time to develop.  Important moments in the development of democracy in Athens include:

  • Solon opened the position of Archon to all citizens of Athens, with property ownership restrictions, and sets up the 400 member Boule as a counterweight to the Areopagus (which was entirely aristocratic) in the early 6th century
  • In the mid-6th century, Peisistratos seizes power three separate times, overthrowing the still young democracy
  • In 508 BCE Cleisthenes abolishes the traditional four tribe system by which the Athenians were divided for government purposes, and replaces it with the 10 "tribe" system, based on demes, or geographical divisions of the city
  • Around 462/1, Ephialtes reduces the powers of the Areopagus; around the same time, the membership was extended to the lowest levels of propertied citizens
I'm not going to go further into the historical details, but the Wikipedia page on the subject offers a decent summary.  (And just FYI, I really am someday going to talk about women in Ancient Greece, which is why Sappho is on there.)
            So why was it that as democracy took more and more of a hold of Athenian society, pederasty — and homoerotic relationships in general — become less and less popular?  It seems to have been predominantly an issue of association.  Because pederastic relationships were associated with the upper classes of Athenian aristocracy, they smacked too much of privilege for the rest of the Athenian populace to continue tolerating them.  Hubbard also makes the argument that only the upper classes had the time and energy for such dalliances, but I find that difficult to believe.  It honestly doesn't take that much time to have sex, and I for one don't buy that homoerotic desire never arose in any lower class Athenian individuals or communities.  Still, in terms of visibility, any kind of homoerotic relationships existed only amongst the aristocracy.*  It was, as it sometimes still is, perceived as a vice of the wealthy and leisured classes and as such, an aspirational Athenian democrat could only hope that its existence would be stamped out.  Also, given that homosexual relations do not produce children — and given that it does appear that copulation and procreation are at the very least strongly linked — labeling homoerotic desire as "unnatural" was as common and easy a way of demonizing it as it often is today, and popular playwrights like Aristophanes exploited this to the fullest extent.  Hubbard offers a summary of a scene from Clouds:
One of the denizens of Socrates' Thinkery, named "Better Argument," describes at length the archaic ideal of modest, orderly, muscular, athletic boys who defer to their elders.  "Worse Argument" counters him by justifying a life of dissolution and adultery; even if one should be punished, as adulterers sometimes were, by having radishes or other foreign objects rammed up one's anus, one would be none the worse for it, since most of Athens' intellectual and political elite are already "wide-assed" due to having engaged in pederastic relations as boys.  Better Argument admits defeat in the debate, as he too belongs among this group.  The implication is that having been penetrated as a boy changes one's anatomy (and character) for life, and that even active pederasts like Better Argument have never really ceased being "wide-assed" passives.  (Hubbard 2003, 87)
The term "passives," of course, is one created by humans who like penetrating things with their penises for those humans who like being penetrated with penises.  I myself have never found the activity to be all that "passive," but perhaps I am verging off point.
            The question of penetration is vitally important to the Ancient Greeks.  While it was awful to be a young man who quietly submitted to penetration by an older lover, it was downright perverted for an adult man to continue to play the, as Hubbard puts it, "passive role."  Even the pederast, or as Dover calls it, the erastai, receives censure because it could be assumed that he would have submitted to penetration in his youth.  This is a point that I will come back to somewhat in my next post, so it is simply worth noting here that the disgust accrues to the partner being penetrated, not even to the act of penetrating another man anally, or even of enjoying the pederastic role.  Presumably, some adult men might continue to enjoy anal penetration well past their youth, and this, to the Ancient Greeks, was disgusting and demeaning.
            All the details of pedagogical pederasty — the pederastic courtship rituals; the association between pederasty and the gymnasium (an upper class venue); the gift-giving and lavish banquets thrown by an erastai for his erōmenos; even the pedagogical aspect, which was obviously only a real option and help to the aristocracy — everything contributed to an overall rejection by the lower classes of pederastic relationships.  With every step of ground gained by the new democracy, homosexuality came in for more and more ridicule and moral judgment.
            In my next post I am going to (I think) mostly focus on the questions that all of this raises for me, specifically in relation to the development of Western philosophy generally and even of historiography.  For now, I will close with a brief interpretation of an important story in Athenian mythology, that of Aristogeiton and Harmodius, or the Tyrannicides, as they became known.  If you're unfamiliar with the story, the Wikipedia article provides a basic outline:
One common story pattern is of pederastic couples whose love and desire to impress one another led them to sacrifice themselves courageously in assassinating, or attempting to assassinate, a tyrant.  The paradigm here, of course, is the Athenian story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, whose actions were popularly supposed to have resulted in the overthrow of the Peisistratid tyrants in the late sixth century.  However, Thucydides and Aristotle...both offer consciously demythologizing accounts of the incident that demonstrate its relative unimportance in the ultimate overthrow of the tyranny; as Thucydides notes, the tyrant Hippias' cruelty actually grew worse after the assassination of his brother.  What is significant, therefore, is not the incident itself, but the fact that it was interpreted so widely to have a greater significance than it did:  one can perhaps see an attempt by mainly upper-class enthusiasts of pederasty (whose sympathies might otherwise be suspected of being undemocratic) to contextualize their practices as integral with Athens' developing democratic constitution by granting pederasty a prominent place in the democracy's foundational mythology.  (Hubbard 2003, 56)

* This should not be taken to ignore the widespread sexual exploitation of disenfranchised, young male slaves.  While such practices were also widespread, I would not constitute such exploitation as a relationship.  I am here primarily dealing with (at least ostensibly) voluntary relationships entered into by two individuals who could do otherwise without risk to their material needs and survival.

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

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