The Name of a Thing that Isn't
Plato's Symposium gives us the only Classical Attic reference to female homosexuality. Dover explains it a bit:
Classical Attic literature refers once, and once only, to female homosexuality: 'Aristophanes' in Pl. Smp. 191e derives hetairistriai from that category of original double beings who were all female. The word is not attested elsewhere, any more than its masculine analogue hetairistēs...it clearly means a woman who stands in a relationship to another woman comparable to a male relationship of hetairēsis. (Dover 1978, 172)
Dover here is referring to the following story. I've chosen to summarize Plato's version, as it is a bit long, but it's well worth reading if you ever choose to grab a copy of Symposium. Which, obviously, ever Westerner in the world should do:
"In the beginning," so to speak, there were three genders. Male, female, and a combined gender. (Admittedly this still sounds like two, but bear with me.) Humans were actually round, with their backs and sides forming the outside of the circle, and with their genitals also on the outside. They had four hands, four legs, and two identical faces on a single head.
They were incredibly powerful, so much so that they were able to threaten the seat of the gods. Zeus and the other Olympian gods met in council and decided on a solution: Zeus would split every human into two parts, thereby weakening them, while simultaneously doubling the number of beings offering sacrifices to the gods. Win-win!!
And as he spoke, so he did. Zeus split all the humans into halves. He instructed Apollo to twist their faces 'round to the other side, so they could see the site of their woundedness, of their loss. Apollo also healed their wounds by pulling the skin together from the rest of their bodies, over onto what we call the stomach, much as a purse might be cinched up. He smoothed out most of their wrinkles, but left a few around the stomach and navel, to remind them of what had happened to them in the past.
But alas, each half missed its other half so much, they longed only to be re-unified. Their essence had been split. They embraced and proceeded to do absolutely nothing but grasp one another desperately. They began to starve to death. After all, the loss of one half of one's own self begs the question: what is left to live for in such a barren existence?
Humanity began to die out. But Zeus felt pity for the pathetic creatures, and came up with some solutions. First, he moved their genitals around to the front. Previously, procreation had been unrelated to sexual intercourse; their genitals were on the outside of their bodies, and they had intercourse with the ground in order to produce offspring. By moving the genitals and introducing intercourse, Zeus gave humans a pleasurable way to spend their time. When they embraced, sex would provide a temporary release of all their pent up longing for their other half. This would allow them to get back to work, and get back to those sacrifices of course.
And so this is where homosexual men and women came from, as well as heterosexuals. Men and women who are descended from the combined gender are heterosexual. Men who descend from the male gender are attracted to men; and women descended from the female gender are attracted to women.
And so here we are. Onto the second half of a series of posts I've been writing on homoerotic desire in Ancient Greece. The first half were on male homosexuality.* So now, of course, the second half will be on female homosexuality.
And yet, something felt off as I read and re-read the story. And unfortunately, my summary masks the details I think are important here.
In Plato's account, Aristophanes** explains the reasons for the relocation of the male genitalia in the m-m gender; describes some of the virtues and benefits of male homosexuality; and even develops an idea about the mechanism of male homosexual love and desire:
His reasons for doing this were to ensure that, when couples embraced, as well as male-female relationships leading to procreation and offspring, male-male relationships would at least involve sexual satisfaction, so that people would relax, get on with their work and take care of other aspects of life. (Symposium 191c)
And any men who are offcuts from the male gender go for boys...These boys are the ones who are outstanding in their childhood and youth, because they're inherently more manly than others. I know they sometimes get called immoral, but that's wrong: their actions aren't prompted by immorality, but by courage, manliness, and masculinity. They incline towards their own characteristics in others. There's good evidence for their quality: as adults, they're the only men who end up in government. (Symposium 191e-192a)No such explanation is given for female homosexuals. I want to first make the point that there seems to be little malice for such women; it could easily be argued that Aristophanes is describing one side of the story, and that it simply is obvious that the inverse is true for women.
But there is where I located my problem: women are the inverse of men. Because, in the manner of Jung's absurd Electra complex, the treatment lesbian desire is given amounts to something like, "Oh, um, yes. Women. Well, the women are, ah...just the reverse of the men." In fact, even my thinking in writing this series betrays a bit of the same drive towards symmetry. For that it what the lesbians in Aristophanes story are for: to keep the tale balanced. To keep it symmetrical.
Now, the parallels between lesbian desire and gay male desire are not lost upon me; it would be foolish to deny this. But there is one more detail to Aristophanes' story that makes me feel not quite friendly towards his description of women. From his description of the combined gender:
There was also a third [gender], which was a combination of both the other two. Its name has survived, but the gender itself has died out. In those days, there was a distinct type of androgynous person, not just the word, though like the word the gender too combined male and female; nowadays, however, only the word remains, and that counts as an insult. (Symposium 189e)The word androgyne "counts as an insult." Specifically, an androgyne was a man — the representative of a human, a person, a someone — who was effeminate, in a bad way. An androgyne was not someone who's biological sex and/or gender was ambiguous. It was an insult for cowardly — i.e., too-much-like-women — men.
This side comment of Aristophanes captures the entire story's slant perfectly: males are normal. Males are the norm. Male desire is the norm. Male bodies are the norm. Women are a kinda shitty variation on this.
I know I have mentioned Kenneth Dover's book Greek Homosexuality here. It is an excellent text, and the first place I would point someone interested in the subject. However, even Sir Dover is limited by the sheer lack of material:
That female homosexuality and the attitude of women to male homosexuality can both be discussed within one part of one chapter reflects the paucity of women writers and artists in the Greek world and the virtual silence of male writers on these topics. (Dover 1978, 171)And this, unfortunately, sums up the topic pretty well. There is simply very little to be said, because everything was being said by men, and they seem to have either ignored the psychological experience of being a lesbian, or to have downright despised them. Asclepiades mentions two Samian women who
are not willing to enter upon the (sc. practice?) of Aphrodite according to her rules, but desert to other things which are not seemly. Mistress Aphrodite, be an enemy to these fugitives from the couch in your domain!And this comes from a man who boasts of the strength of his desire for young men.
Another clue pointing to the vacuum comes from Aphrodite, Eros, and some of the terms for sex. Dover points out that in Hellenistic literature (remembering, of course, that this was much later than Attic Greece), there was a belief that Aphrodite inspired heterosexual passion, Eros inspired homosexual male passion, and....absolutely no one inspired homosexual female passion because, presumably, they don't have any. Or they don't exist. You can kind of take your pick here.
From Aphrodite's name we also have the word aphrodīsia, which denotes copulation. Paidika aphrodīsia being the term for homosexual male intercourse, and "child-begetting aphrodīsia being heterosexual intercourse. Again, there is nothing for lesbians.
For me, the saving factor in all of this is that little detail. It fascinates me, though, in a rather more poetic way. While the Ancient Greeks were careful to distinguish between men fucking men, and men fucking women — while they were enthusiastic about sex involving men, and ready to be disciplined in their moral and litigious structures for it — there is no word for lesbian sex. Which means that whenever it happened — and of course it happened — this was a thing happening as far outside of Plato's carefully analyzed and articulated world as can be imagined. It's almost like...two women having sex is like...I don't know, God or something. It's like it's so far outside of verbalized, conscious reality, it's a living void. I may be romanticizing it. I have a deeply held belief — which lesbians can choose to either chuckle at or be irritated by — that I would be a markedly better poet and philosopher if I were a lesbian. There is something about the radical outside-ness of female homosexuality that I've always suspected would give me a clarity and distinction of vision that I simply can't claim, being as interpolated as I am into heterosexual — and very-male-dominated — sexuality and desire.
Again, I know I may be romanticizing this. And certainly I would never suggest that just doing something sexually deviant would give you some kind of profound knowledge. It would probably teach you something; but whether that knowledge would prove to be helpful — to say nothing of being precious, which is the unreasonably high standard I try to hold my desired knowledge up to — seems dubious. But I do think that having an identity which sets someone outside of the norm gives them a unique angle from which to view life. Witness the contributions of Jewish, Black, and Queer philosophers over just the past 50-100 years.
I'm only going to put up one more entry in this series, and that, thankfully, will be almost entirely about Sappho. I have included virtually all I could glean from four books on the subject of female homosexuality in Ancient Greece in this one post, and anyway, we could all use a little more Sappho in our lives.
* Note that I have here moved to using the term "homosexuality," or "homosexual" as opposed to "homoeroticism" or "homoerotic". At the beginning of this series of posts, I explained why I was using "homoerotic". The reasons that actual homosexuality — i.e., something closer to "being gay" — are at play seems fairly obvious given Plato's account. The term genetic doesn't seem entirely appropriate when discussing the ancients; perhaps innate, native, or indwelling would be more appropriate. But the modern term would probably be genetic. Aristophanes is describing something like sexual orientation or identity.
** Not the playwright.
Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.