BMCR 2002.09.14

Among Women: from the homosocial to the homoerotic in the ancient world

, , Among women : from the homosocial to the homoerotic in the ancient world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xv, 389 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0292798164 $50.00.

This is a substantial and impressive book that offers an array of approaches with which to ask, and materials with which to answer, questions about women’s relationships with women in the ancient world. It brings together studies which range in historical period from the Late Bronze Age to fifth century CE Egypt and seeks to construct dialogues among diverse kinds of materials. Some of the essays convince less than others, but all are stimulating, and overall the collection makes a very valuable contribution to thinking through important issues about women, sexuality and desire.

Nancy Rabinowitz’s Introduction does an excellent job of dancing through what she rightly calls the ‘minefield’ of the critical terminology surrounding matters of gender and identity. Her skilful assemblage and analysis helpfully describe the various political and theoretical positions taken by feminism, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, and queer theory towards women’s attachments to each other. She is able simultaneously to distinguish, interrogate, and bring about a rapprochement among these different approaches, showing how they can be considered as ‘several partially overlapping and partially successful interpretive grids, each with advantages and disadvantages’ (18). The Introduction also includes a very detailed and useful account of the history of ideological scholarship in classics, both the aware and the unaware varieties. It is itself supremely self-aware about the various intellectual contexts that condition its desire to find the holes in patriarchy where women’s lives and subjectivities may be glimpsed and about the immense difficulty of the project.

Rabinowitz is careful to point out that the ‘from’ in the title does not imply any easy slippage between the homosocial and the homoerotic. The first term indicates merely that ancient societies were largely sex-segregated and that women thus spent much of their lives in the company of other women; the second seeks to convey the fact that actual sexual practice, and accompanying accounts of sexual identity, are likely to have been different in antiquity from what they are today, so that a term like ‘lesbianism’ would not be unquestionably appropriate. My major difficulty with some of the contributions to the collection is that they do indeed slip with excessive ease from the homosocial to the homoerotic, assuming that which remains to be argued for, and thereby forcing evidence which is already quite fascinating enough in itself. A second quarrel with the collection overall is that it nowhere addresses the issue of comparative evidence, even though studies of women’s homosocial environments in more recent societies do exist, such as the recent Virgins of Venice: Enclosed Lives and Broken Vows in the Renaissance Convent by Mary Laven. I realise that the whole question of comparativism is a theoretically vexed one, but to ignore that dimension completely seems to me to be an excessive reaction.

After Rabinowitz’s Introduction, with its attention to what cannot be known as well as to that which can be imagined, the placing of Paul Rehak’s essay ‘Imag(in)ing a women’s World in Bronze Age Greece’ is provocative. It discusses the frescoes from Xeste 3 at Akrotiri, Thera, which show a series of females in outdoor landscapes, with crocus flowers, doing various activities about which scholars find it hard to agree. Rehak sets out to show that the frescoes are organised to depict ‘female rites of passage at all stages of a woman’s life, centering around the medicinal use of saffron’ (35) and proceeds to discuss the various possible relations between the different women, the crocuses that they apparently gather, and the physical stages of maturation that are thus signalled. His account is immensely detailed and yet requires leaps of faith at various points, such as that a girl’s unusual costume and hairstyle, and her turning away from another girl who may be menstruating, suggests that she could be destined to become a virgin priestess (48). Most difficult for me (and admittedly I have no expertise in either the Late Bronze Age or the art of Thera) is the argument that the distinction between red or blue streaks at the corners of eyes in the frescoes gives us access to the understanding of an entire social structure. The red or blue streaks are caused, according to the argument, by sufficient or insufficient amounts of carotene in the diet, and since carotene can be supplied by saffron, and thus by crocuses, the different streaks point to the fact that the women of Thera, in their crocus-gathering activity, promoted the health of themselves and their children, and denied men access to important vitamins (50). The argument over red and blue stands even though it is also acknowledged (49) that realistic representation of skin colour is not a priority for the painters of the frescoes; women are white and men red, as is conventional in much Greek art. For me this argument was difficult to accept because it builds a theoretically ambitious edifice on very specific grounds. It also proceeds to make the leap with which I quarrelled earlier: ‘In this female homosocial world … it would be surprising indeed if these healthy women did not express their care and attention for each other erotically’ (50). That said, the essay is thought-provoking in its evocation of a female-centred version of preclassical times.

Marilyn Skinner’s ‘Aphrodite Garlanded: eros and poetic creativity in Sappho and Nossis’ was first published in 1991 and is the only republished article in this collection. It is embellished with a new introductory section and proceeds to explore the reasons for the ‘marked difference between classical and modern women writers in respect to one’s sense of authority to speak as an artist’ (61). She investigates a model of creativity which Sappho and Nossis seem to describe in their poetry, whereby the woman poet is inspired not so much by a separate, demanding Muse, exterior to the singer, as by the presence of the female audience. Inspiration proceeds from ‘intimate bonding’ (62) with the circle of auditors; imbricated with desire, inspiration may then be identified with Aphrodite. The dynamics of this relationship are pursued across several poems by Sappho and Nossis. The emphasis in the original article was, one feels, more on the importance of the female poetic tradition than on either homosociality or homoeroticism, which are here clearly relevant but understated. We might note, though, that this model of poetic composition in which ‘the composer and her receptive audience are bound together emotionally, immersed in thrilling desire – the same desire that … still radiates today from the written text to the empathetic reader’ (72) is questionable in its idealistic refusal to countenance any kind of communicative failure. This is, however, an extremely useful piece to set beside other recent work on Sappho’s creativity by e.g. Williamson and Stehle.

Ellen Greene’s ‘Subjects, Objects, and Erotic Symmetry in Sappho’s Fragments’ derives from a similar theoretical location for which the poetry of Sappho diverges from usual models of composition and promulgates unusual models of desire. For Greene, Sappho’s poems are most remarkable for their rejection of conventional subject positions. In the Sapphic account of desire there are only subjects, no objects, and thus there is no hierarchy of desire such as we have learnt to association with the accounts of male homoerotic or pederastic desire. The Sapphic poems are characterised instead by a reciprocal exchange of gazes that dissolves boundaries of person and place. Helen in Fr 16 is an important example because her story as told by Sappho inverts the usual categories so that Helen becomes the subject of her own desire rather than the object of others’. The test case is Fr 1, in which it is possible instead to argue, along with e.g. Page DuBois, that the beloved is eventually reduced as per normal to the object of the speaker’s desire, forced to ‘pursue’ and to ‘give’ whether she will or no. Greene argues instead that ‘the speaker is describing … the reciprocal movements of desire in which she and her beloved both participate in … a process that, according to the grammar or the poem, involves only subjects’ (89). This account of Sappho’s poetry is becoming more accepted, with work on similar lines by e.g. Eva Stehle, and it is very thought-provoking, but we might note also that homosociality and homoeroticism here are idealistically emptied of any dynamics of power.

With Rabinowitz’s ‘Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: the evidence from Attic vase painting’ we move away from poetry back to visual evidence, and we encounter predictable problems. Rabinowitz begins with a good account of the sorry state of present critical comment on Greek ceramics, but issues the caveat that given the difficulties of saying anything definite about the interpretation of this painted pottery, ‘the essay is more metacritical than interpretive’ (115). The essay proceeds to consider various representations of women with women, beginning with the innocent category of ‘In the Gynaeceum’ and ending with ‘When is a Dildo not a Dildo?’. Discussion here is more nuanced than in the essay of e.g. Rehak because Rabinowitz acknowledges that while the homosocial can be documented, the homoerotic is much more elusive, and yet if we require some kind of tangible proof of women’s desire for women, we may be consigning that desire to a homophobic silence. This essay is throughout very astute about the kinds of desire that drive scholarly enquiry, and the relationship of that enquiry to contemporary sexual politics.

John Younger’s essay on ‘Women in Relief: “double consciousness” in classical Attic tombstones’ remains with visual evidence but is upfront about the question that powers much of this collection: ‘Were women ever subjects?’ (167). The accompanying question, not explicitly formulated, is: If so, did women experience their subjectivity primarily in relations with women? His study responds to those of Skinner and Greene in that he is interested in reciprocity and the gaze, while the problems of interpretation that confront him are similar to those for Rehak and Rabinowitz. The essay first posits the Kerameikos as a homosocial environment for women, which seems eminently reasonable given the role of women as mourners and tenders of the grave, and also because of the prevalence of women represented on tombs, who outnumber men. It proceeds to identify certain women represented on gravestones as ‘friends’ of the female deceased, without familial relationship, and therefore remarkable for the implied acknowledgement of women’s homosocial environment. The intimacy of these friends is then extended to the hypothetical female viewer of the graves, who is ‘triangulated’ (185) into the relationship by the exchange of gazes among ‘friends’ and deceased women represented on the tombs, or by the mirrors held by the images of the dead. The next move is the leap to the jussive; the woman spectator ‘should be able to place herself intimately in that relationship, to gaze upon the primary [deceased] women with feelings, yearnings, and regrets similar to those depicted in the relief … even to the point of imagining the woman’s life cut short … and even the desire felt for her’ (186). ‘Somewhere in that cycle of women viewing should be desire … And within that desire should be a homoerotic desire between women’ (191). For me, the essay undercuts here its otherwise careful and fascinating account, which has already produced enough insights not to need this final stretch.

With Lisa Auanger’s ‘Glimpses through a Window: an approach to Roman female homoeroticism through art historical and literary evidence’ we move from Greeks to Romans, and it is a good point at which to restate, as Auanger helpfully does, the kinds of interpretive problems surrounding what we may call the evidence for women’s relations with other women and the recent advances that scholarship has made. The problems are not lessened by Auanger’s choice to investigate diverse materials from across a huge span of time, although this choice does mean that much more testimony can be brought into the discussion. Another issue is that much of the Roman material responds directly to Greek sources, e.g. Sappho. The essay examines the various representations of Sappho in Roman sources and moves on to figures associated with her such as the Muses and Aphrodite/Venus. It assumes that since ‘mortals could be presented in the guise of divinities and figures of myth … the divinities and mythical figures represented with homoerotic characteristics can be read as reflectors of Roman social reality’ (224). This strikes me as a position that needs more argument, but on the other hand, as Auanger reasonably asserts, not to see homoeroticism in the various texts and images she assembles may indeed be a form of homophobia (240).

Auanger’s essay is primarily interested in reconstructing possible behaviours, and not so much in possible subjectivities. In this it presents a useful counterpoint to some of the Greek essays. Diane Pintabone’s ‘Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe: when girls won’t be girls’ presents a different kind of contrast to some of the previous essays in its specificity and in its solid awareness that it has nothing to do with real life. It offers no new suggestions about women’s possible intimacies with each other but is instead an elegant and satisfying analysis of, among other things, the particularly Ovidian desire to have the cake and eat it (the cake) too. It begins with a survey of Roman attitudes to masculine women and goes on to show that, whatever those attitudes might be, they cannot simply be attributed to Ovid, or to the Metamorphoses. Instead, Ovid ‘manages to present both a positive and a negative portrait of woman-for-woman passion … by simultaneously overturning stereotypes and reinforcing them’ (259). Thus, Iphis is not a homoerotically desiring woman (even though she desires Ianthe) because she does not believe that sexual fulfilment is possible between females. Despite being raised as a boy, Pintabone shows, Iphis is in fact a very good girl, passive and conventional. That the marriage celebrated at the end of the story is one between a woman and a man, not between two women, confirms the necessity of the cosmic order that, as Pintabone suggests, constantly frames the poem’s concerns. The tale of Iphis appears to interrogate Roman gender norms but in fact affirms them: ‘within such a patriarchy … mutual and erotic love between women, while not absolutely condemned, has no place’ (281). Yet as Pintabone points out, we might query what kind of man Iphis, with her helpless lack of self-assertion, would make; we might answer, the kind of man Augustus needs? But by then we would be very far away from examining women’s homosociality.

Shelley Haley’s essay ‘Lucian’s “Leaena and Clonarium”; voyeurism or a challenge to assumptions?’ begins with a pointed theoretical discussion of identity politics that is a useful addition to the discussions already undertaken in the opening moves of several of the other essays. She is very good on the ways in which progressive theories such as those associated with gay and lesbian politics can nevertheless lead to forms of ‘regulation and coercion’ (287); newly sanctioned identities, such as that of the male homosexual, can still overlook yet more marginalized groups like the transgendered. She espouses the notion of ‘post modern sexuality’ or ‘pomosexuality’ (288) and proceeds to apply it to Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans 5. In this dialogue the hetaira Clonarium interrogates her friend Leaena about the latter’s recent sexual experience with Megilla, a woman from Lesbos who seems transgendered in that she self-identifies as a man. Leaena describes herself as confused by this assertion, especially since Megilla is happy not to have ‘that’: ‘I don’t need it at all; you’ll find I’ve a much pleasanter method of my own’ (296). Interestingly, Haley connects Megilla and her (usual) partner Demonassa to the butch-fem couples that characterised ‘the pre-1970s lesbian communities in parts of the United States’ (297), suggesting, in contradistinction to the Sappho essays here, an erotic dynamic of activity and passivity even between females.

The essay mounts useful discussions of Lucian’s ethnic background in Syria, his role in the Second Sophistic, and his possible bisexuality (involving desire for grown men rather than youths, contrary to the pederastic model), but is not to my mind completely successful in connecting these to the dialogue itself, in which Clonarium persists in asking ‘But what did you DO?’ and is teased, along with the audience, by Leaena’s refusal to tell. Even this extremely explicit dialogue declines to be clear where female homoeroticism is concerned. And as the essay concludes, it is not possible to tell whether Lucian’s exposition of the women’s activities is designed in sympathetic mode or for pornographic consumption by an audience of (heterosexual?) men.

The final essay, Terry Wilfong’s ‘ “Friendship and Physical Desire”: the discourse of female homoeroticism in fifth-century CE Egypt’ would probably be fascinating to ‘mainstream’ classicists in any context, offering as it does ‘evidence of a sort unparalleled for much of the ancient world’ (304). It considers a series of letters that describe the sanctions meted out by male administrators to female members of a monastic community, who have apparently been ‘running after’ one another in ‘friendship and physical desire’ (310). It thus has the privilege of definitely being about female homoeroticism and definitely being about real life. Except of course that the letters in question constitute a male-authored text and thus the women involved still do not get to tell us what, if anything, they do, let alone what their subjectivities feel like. The essay is very careful in its discussion of the monastic establishments and the epistolary discourse they generate and is particularly impressive in its analysis of ‘friendship’, a concept which is largely taken for granted by previous essays. It shows that the male heads of the monasteries were very aware of possible homoerotic attachments and activity among both men and women and did their utmost to condemn and exclude them; the essay also shows that the women of the monastic community, called upon to chastise the wrongdoers physically, sometimes failed to do so. This is intriguing, as is the fact that some of the women accused of homoeroticism are also accused of talking back to their religious instructors. Could this have been the ultimate exercise of ‘lesbian’ subjectivity?

This collection as a whole represents a timely attempt to probe our materials further for what they can yield about women’s intimate relations to each other. In its range of evidence, and in the theoretical resonances among different essays, it should be required reading for many different kinds of classicists.