Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.8.5

Brit Berggren and Nanno Marinatos (ed.), Greece and Gender. Bergen: Papers from the Norwegian Institute at Athens 2, 1995. Pp. 184. ISBN 82-91626-00-6.

Reviewed by Gunhild Vidén, Göteborg University,

This volume contains papers read at two interdisciplinary workshops at the Norwegian Institute for classics, archaeology and cultural history at Athens. The themes of the workshops were gender aspects of Greece past and present generally, and transgressions and ambiguities of gender within a Greek setting more specifically.

The aim of the workshops was, according to the introduction, to present "any aspect of gender associated with the past or present Greek culture" (p. 7). It is explicitly said that the workshops did not aim at developing theory, but "to present situations on which theoretical platforms could be considered" (ibid.). Thus, the majority of contributions are empirical studies. In the final chapter an attempt at theoretical analysis is made.

To judge from the various qualities of the papers included, all papers of the workshops have been printed. The result is a great variety of subjects, styles and quality. Most of the papers are competently written by scholars who are obviously competent within their respective fields, although with various degrees of knowledge of gender theory. One or two papers are excellent. One or two papers should, in my opinion, have been left out of the volume. The general impression one gets as a reader is that of being served a Swedish smorgasbord: a number of dishes with different content, some of them vaguely related to each other, others very different in aspect and taste. This is very often the case with congress volumes of different kinds and might be both an advantage and the opposite. In this case I would say that the attempt to tie the different contributions together in the last chapter is not fully convincing.

The book starts with an introduction, written by one of the editors, the ethnologist Brit Berggren. It includes a description of the role of ancient Greece in modern Western cultures as well as a discussion of the use of the word "gender", which is described as "to signal that any cultural expression has a meaning that differs from one sex to the other". Gender is further defined as "the performative aspect of sex, but also its manipulable aspect" (p. 8). The author points out that it was the ancient male world that was attractive to men in modern Western societies, and that e. g. warlike women, a phenomenon known both in ancient mythology and in the history of modern Greece, were not among the features adopted by the men who used antiquity as the basis for building a new society in modern times. This is a fact which, she implies, has had consequences for our present understanding of gender classification. The chapter raises many questions and is thought-provoking.

The main body of the book is divided into three different parts. Part one is called "Battle and harmony. Gender roles and gender inversion as affirmation of social order". It contains five contributions: two about women and gender roles in the Odyssey (Marinatos and Whittaker respectively), one about gender transgression in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazousai and Eklesiazousai (Høibye), one about gender in the Olympic games (des Bouvrie), and finally Berggren's paper on the celebration of "the midwife's day" in Monokklisiá in contemporary Greece. This division of subjects is characteristic of the volume as a whole: most contributions treat different aspects of Greece during antiquity or the early Christian era, while just a few deal with contemporary Greece and none with the period of time in between.

Nanno Marinatos' paper on women in the Odyssey is rather conventional in its interpretation of different types of women: the domestic woman as exemplified by Arete and Helen; the maiden Nausikaa, where Marinatos comments generally on the nature of maidenhood; the seductress, exemplified by Circe and Calypso. The most interesting part of the paper is her interpretation of Penelope, not as the traditional victim of her husband's absence and the suitors' greed, but as the stereotype widow who is a potential threat to the social order and who is capable of manipulation of the men around her. The concept of an ongoing battle between the sexes underlies all the descriptions of gender interaction in the Odyssey, Marinatos claims. She ends by explaining this battle in terms of socio-biological mechanisms of reproductive interests, but underlines that her approach should not be interpreted as deterministic.

Helen Whittaker goes the opposite way in her investigation of gender roles in the Odyssey: instead of looking at female archetypes she studies the way the different gender roles are connected with certain themes. Such themes are: war, the household, work, and religious rituals. Her general conclusion is not exactly breath-taking: she concludes that the Odyssey describes a divided world with separate spheres of activity for the two sexes, a division that pervades most areas of life (p. 40). Whittaker knows her material and has written a good empirical study, with one or two glimpses of the theoretical discussions of other scholars.

One paper that I find rather problematic is Anne-Britt Høibye's paper on male and female gender transgression in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazousai and Ekklesiazousai. Høibye operates with terms of her own coinage, with definitions that do not clarify her meaning very much. She describes e.g. the Thesmophoriazousai as "a joke with the inevitable", "the inevitable" being defined as the fact that every society must conform to certain basic ideas about right and wrong in order to be a society (p. 45). This is of course true, but I do not think that "the inevitable" is a good term to describe this phenomenon. "The inevitable" has a metaphysical ring to it, and is far too diffuse to be useful. She tries to further the understanding of comedy through the introduction of an explanatory model named "license in jokes" (p. 47). The function of comedy and of humour has been analyzed by many scholars since Bakhtin onwards. Ancient comedy has been studied extensively by David Konstan,1 and Høibye would certainly have been better off consulting his and others works rather than attempting home-made and not very elaborate definitions. Høibye's conclusion is that Aristophanes' joke is used as a means to emphasize the fact that female cults could be part of the public sphere, making women as sole participants of the cult temporarily superior to men. The joke would be the male rebellion against this fact. This is an interesting thought, but her method to reach that conclusion leaves the reader bewildered and unconvinced. Besides, the theme of gender transgression and cross-dressing in Aristophanes is far more complex than that.

The next paper is a big contrast. Synnøve des Bouvrie has written a paper on female athletics in Olympia, comparing the female Heraia with the male Olympia. She works within an anthropological framework, making extensive use of both archaeological and philological sources. After a presentation of what is known about the games as such, she proceeds to analyze the myths and rituals involved in the games. Her interpretation is that the games were a way of confirming the male task of being a warrior and the female task of bringing to life and nurturing new warriors, thus manifesting oneself as a "Hellene", male or female. This paper is excellently written, with a profound knowledge of sources and secondary literature and an intelligent use of method. It is accompanied by some very fine illustrations.

The final contribution in this part is Brit Berggren's ethnological study of the midwife's day celebrated on the 8th of January, especially in the small village of Monokklisiá. This is a tradition that has received attention in tourist publications and newspapers. Berggren's method is participating observation. She is able to clear away some of the misunderstandings of the festival spread by the popular press. Above all she points to the important fact that this tradition is still a living tradition which means that it is open to changes and improvisations as the participants find it suitable. Berggren gives no simple answers to the question of the character and function of the festival. There may be an ancient origin to the celebration, but it cannot be proved. She suggests that a number of ingredients are included, and even that new ingredients are added since the festival is now being organised by the Woman's Association, a political organisation. This is well in accordance with her observation that the festival is still a living tradition.

The second part of the volume is called "Fantasy: Hermaphrodites and Aphrodite in arms" and contains two articles on ancient art: one on hermaphrodites by Aileen Ajootian, and one on representations of Aphrodite in arms by Johan Flemberg. Both articles testify to the authors' thorough knowledge of the material. Ajootian follows the theme of the androgynous being both in Greece and Rome, and reaches the conclusion that the hermaphrodite was both a fertility deity and had an apotropaic function, similar to that of the priapic guardians of gardens. Flemberg presents different testimonies, both from art and literature, of the armed Aphrodite, and concludes that the earlier representations may have depicted goddesses influenced by Oriental divinities and had functions of city or ruler protectresses, whereas later representations symbolize the power of love over violence -- the warrior god Ares is conquered by his mistress Aphrodite. Flemberg suggests that Aphrodite represents one part of the Great Goddess, whose functions the Greeks split up in three parts (Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena) in order to avoid a mixing up of gender roles. I am not quite certain about this latter hypothesis. Both Artemis and Athena exhibit a mixture of roles in their different functions: suffice it to think of the armed Athena as the patroness of weaving or the huntress virgin Artemis who protects women giving birth. The interpretation of the sculptures of the armed Aphrodite as symbols of the triumph of love seems fully convincing.

The third part of the volume is headed "Cross dressing and gender confusion", with five different papers. The first two deal with related subjects: John C. B. Petropoulos analyses the figure of Thecla, with respect to dressing and cross-dressing, and Kari Vogt writes about the theme of the woman monk in Byzantine hagiography. In the third paper, Voula Lambropoulou compares rituals which include cross-dressing and change of sexual identity in ancient Greece and modern Venezuela. The fourth contribution is an anthropological study of the concept of transvestism, by M.-G. Lily Stylianoudi. The last paper is an observation on a contemporary feminist group in Athens and their concept of certain gender ideas.

Both Petropoulos and Vogt write inspiringly on their subjects. Petropoulos describes Thecla's androgynous development through an analysis of three different episodes with an emphasis on the theme of Thecla's dressing and/or undressing. Her transvestism is a central issue in the understanding of her role: through it she enters a kind of middle category between masculine and feminine, which de-sexualises her and brings her close to the state of angels (p. 127). Petropoulos points at the dependency of the Acts of Paul and Thecla on the ancient novel as regards literary form and content. He ends his paper with a couple of questions regarding the significance, or lack of such, of sexual difference in the early church, and leaves these questions to be answered by e.g. feminist theologians.

Kari Vogt compares two vitae of female monks: Hilaria and Marina. She places the theme of the female monk in a historical context and states that male costume may have been a necessary protection for the female ascetics who chose to live in the desert. The existence of eunuchs in monastic life may also have helped the women who wanted to dress and live as men. As for the ideology behind the transgression, she refers to the "putting on" of Christ which occurs as a metaphor for baptism in Gal. 3:27-28: the Christian who is going to be baptized gets rid of his/her old shape in order to be one with Christ. Thus the transvestism of female saints can be seen as a symbol of their sacred initiation (p. 147).

Neither Petropoulos nor Vogt discusses the opposition to male behaviour in women that existed within the early Church. Through virginity women could be de-sexualised, which strengthened their position as good christians; but someone like St. Jerome criticises women who behave like men.2

The paper by Voula Lambropoulou is the weakest contribution in this volume. She enumerates a number of rituals where men dress as women and vice versa, most of them from ancient Greece and one from contemporary Venezuela, the latter performed by Indians. No reason is given why this particular festival is chosen or why it should have special bearing on Greek traditions. Some superficial similarities are enumerated, without any attempt at scrutinizing common themes and archetypes in ritual generally. The final sentence seems to imply that ethnologists are as a rule drunk and ecstatic; I can only conclude that the language corrector made a momentary slip of the eye at this point. This paper should not have been printed in its present state.

The last two papers, Stylianidou on transvestism and Grødum on feminists and womanhood in contemporary Athens, are written by social anthropologists. Stylianidou starts by a definition of terms, which is clear and useful if not innovative. She goes on to discuss the phenomenon of Greek "travestis", concentrating on the symbolism of the body and putting the signification of transvestism in relation to the Greek concept of "disemia". She interprets the phenomenon of transvestism in terms of complementarity, of bringing together the inner and the outer self into a complete being where the disemia is manifested through the body's male genitalia and female breasts (most of the travestis choose not to undergo full sex reassignment surgery but acquire breasts through aesthetic surgery and hormone therapy, p. 161). The model that assumes a difference between the inner and the outer self helps to explain certain "anomalies" such as provocative clothing combined with a reserved behaviour.

A different group is studied by Marianne Grødum: a group of young, mostly unmarried feminists in Athens. Her method has been participant observation. She raises two issues: The womens' view on male violence, especially as manifested by verbal harassment in the streets, and their view on marriage. As feminists they attempt to change the dominant gender model in Greece through "negotiation of gender identity" (p. 176). They contest the traditional model of being a good woman, substituting it with a model of "being good at being a woman", which means basically that they take control of their own womanhood. This analysis tallies with the examples she has given; it is, however, hard to tell whether it is more generally valid.

The volume is ended by a synthesis chapter, written by the second editor Nanno Marinatos. She gives a resumé of the different contributions and tries to find the common denominators for the papers under the different headings. This does not quite hide the fact that the papers are rather heterogeneous. The conclusion that distinct roles for men and women existed in both ancient and modern Greece, and that the transgression of these gender roles signifies some kind of abnormality is not very startling. Nor is the second conclusion that a battle for dominance exists between the sexes since ancient times. I think we would have guessed as much even without this volume. What we have is a selection of research done by scholars within very different fields; there are many interesting results on specific points, but all attempts at general conclusions must of necessity be very broad.

A flaw of the book is that it is very poorly proof-read (if at all). Most of the errors are easily corrected, but in one case (des Bouvrie, p. 72) we are left with an unfinished sentence. The large number of misprints are irritating for the reader.

What, then, is the advantage of this book? Apart from the fact mentioned above, that the different papers offer interesting results on certain points, the main advantage is in my opinion its manifestation that gender perspective finally begins to permeate studies of all kinds. Gender is an important issue, whether we are studying Greece or anything else; this volume widens our horizon where both Greece and gender is concerned.


  • [1] Konstan, David, Roman Comedy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983. Idem, Greek comedy and ideology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • [2] Jerome. Ep. XXII, 27.