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Tuesday, January 18, 2022 - 08:00

An interesting article that tackles the association of Sappho, Lesbos, and female homosexuality from a different angle.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Gilhuly, Kate. 2015. “Lesbians are Not from Lesbos” in Blondell, Ruby & Kirk Ormand (eds). Ancient Sex: New Essays. The Ohio State University Press, Columbus. ISBN 978-0-8142-1283-7

Publication summary: 

A collection of essays on sex and gender in classical Greece and Rome that looks through a post-Foucaultian lens. The introduction focuses almost exclusively on the subject of men, though the editors justifiably argue that the collection is “remarkable for the attention it pays to female sexuality” in that three of the seven papers concern women. (I’ll be covering only two of those three papers, as the third makes up a chapter of Boehringer 2021 and has been covered previously.)

Gilhuly, Kate “Lesbians are Not from Lesbos”

This paper looks at the evolution of how the word “lesbian”, originally simply a geographic/ethnic identifier meaning “person from the island of Lesbos” came to pick up a separate meaning of “female homosexual.”

Gilhuly begins with a (very brief) discussion of the abstract uses of locational and geographic language, how geographic signifiers very often acquire secondary meanings rooted in some association with the place (e.g., “Spartan accommodations”), and how classical Greek writers were highly prone to developing these sorts of metonymic geographic shorthands.

The common modern assumption is that the geographic and sexual semantics of “lesbian” are linked via Lesbos’s most famous resident, the poet Sappho, whose poetry expressing eros between women was well-known in antiquity. A close look at the chronology of the sexual sense begins to cast doubt on this as the primary causal link. Evidence for the depiction of Sappho as “a specific kind of woman who loved women” does not appear until centuries after her lifetime. And in the earliest known reference to an association of Lesbos with women who love women, in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, there is no reference to Sappho as an example. But if not through Sappho, how did this association arise?

Gilhuly maps out a long, gradual development of sexual associations for people from Lesbos that eventually gave rise to “the lesbian” in the modern sense of the word, but passed through a number of rather different associations before that point. I’ll hit the highlights of this tour. Gilhuly particularly notes that influence of Athenian depictions of “New Music” and how it was personified in comic drama, as well as the general use of sexual language to represent and manipulate social power dynamics, rather than referring to actual sexual practices. It was this, in combination with the evolving pop culture image of Sappho that gave rise to the association of Lesbos with a specific sexual orientation. Within this, the image of the courtesan, though not directly linked to Sappho or to female homosexuality, becomes a locus for exploring and articulating “non-wifely” activities.

Greek sources, beginning as early as Homer, frame Lesbos as being represented by its female resources and by the beauty of its women. [Note: I’d want to dig deeper into the Homer example, because the context is offering a gift of women enslaved during war. What other geographic-associated gifts are being given? Is Lesbos unique in providing women as opposed to something else? How are other gifts of enslaved women presented and described?]

It was common in Athenian comic theater to identify character types by their geographic origin, including particular sexual specialties. It was in this context that the “erotic reputation” of Lesbos in Greek literature was created. Turning a geographic name into a verb indicating some activity relating to sex was common and must be understood as the context for Lesbos to be treated in this way. Thus “to Corinthize” meant to traffic in prostitutes, “to Phoenicize” means to perform cunnilingus, to “Sybarize” is to be a volupturary. Not all such verbs were sexual. “To act like an Egyptian” is to do criminal acts, “to act like a Cretan” is to lie. [Note: Thus the logical paradox attributed to the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, when he proclaimed “All Cretans are liars,” but being one himself, must therefore be lying.]

Such “ethnic verbs” would have multiple meanings all associated with the culture in question. For example, “to Spartanize” could mean to be a pederast, to break promises, or to love money. The verb “to Lesbianize” is defined by one author as meaning “to do shameful things” while other sources are interpreted as identifying those things specifically as performing fellatio. (This interpretation becomes explicit in post-classical times.)

There is a detailed discussion of the various texts that are interpreted in this fashion. They involve innuendo and word-play, especially alliteration with other words beginning in “L” including various those relating to lapping and licking. [Note: This sort of sound-symbolism can be cross-linguistic. The association of the mouth-part used to form an L (the tongue) with other things done with that part occurs in multiple unrelated languages, similarly the sound N and concepts related to the nose or to smelling.] But the classical sources don’t clearly support a conclusion that “to Lesbianize” only meant fellatio. Other contexts suggest a sense of sexual initiative, behavior that was considered shameless, and an association with the mouth. Many of the examples have a heterosexual context.

But there is also a non-sexual use of “to Lesbianize” in classical Greek, which means “to make music according to the style of Lesbos” suggesting the Aeolic style associated with poets such as Alcaeus and Sappho. In 5th century Athenian drama, this musical style was adapted into an innovative “New Music” which provoked politicized reactions, as when Plato critized it as frenzied, chaotic, and lawless intended to provoke pleasure in the listener, and prone to inspiring the average person to think he could judge good versus bad performance. [Note: I’m definitely getting a “Kids these days! Their music is just noise!” sort of vibe.] Greek musical theory classified certain modes as “masculine” or “feminine”, and criticism of the New Music included accusations that it was effeminate and self-indulgent. Thus the association of New Music, and the musical sense of “to Lesbianize”, with the criticism of New Music as feminine and lacking control all contributed to the pop culture stereotype of “the Lesbian”.

This group of associations appears in the plays of Aristophanes, where the musical styles are associated with luring a man into a sybaritic life that includes hanging out at symposia, composing drinking songs in the style of Alcaeus and Sappho, among other things. When the man takes off from the symposium with a female flute player (auletris), he tells her he has rescued her from having to “lesbianize the symposiasts”. This is the sort of ambiguous, multi-layered wordplay that both suggests a sexual meaning and indicates that it is not the only meaning: “lesbianize” could mean either to play music in the (disapproved) Lesbian mode for the drinkers, or to provide them with (oral?) sexual services.

Other similar examples of “lesbianize” in more specifically musical contexts are discussed. But this is only one of the multiple strands that construct a sexual “identity” for Lesbians (geographic) in antiquity.

Both in Aristophanes The Frogs and in a more obscure work, Cherion by Pherecrates, “Music” is personified as a sexualized and abused woman, in order to critique what the author depicts as the degradation and decline of musical and poetic standards. The personified Mousike complains of an array of geographically personified abusers who “stuffed me full of wiggles…and undresses me and loosens me up with his eleven notes.” These abusers of music are all identified as belonging to the Athenian and East Greek (explicitly including Lesbos) musical innovators. The character of Mousike, in addition to her status as an allegorical figure, is framed as a courtesan-like woman, thus again bringing together the motifs of courtesans, music, and geography and the idea of the debasement of musical traditions—the same motifs expressed in the musical sense of the verb “lesbianize.” This intersection was created and developed on the Athenian (comic) stage and merged with the sexual sense of “lesbianize” but in a heterosexual context. Although the musical meaning of “lesbianize” does connect, in part, to the poet Sappho, the sexual sense—at this point in the development of the meaning-cluster—does not. Yet we now have a loosely heterogeneous cluster of concepts focused around the geographic idea of Lesbos and embodied in the idea of the courtesan that includes innovative (and allegedly debased) musical styles, and assertive/transgressive female sexuality (that may also be associated with debased acts such as performing oral sex). Within this context an association is created that links Sappho as muse and Sappho as courtesan.

In the early sources that mention Sappho, Gilhuly argues that she is not linked personally with homoeroticism, despite the homerotic themes in her poetry. (In a footnote, Gilhuly notes that her analysis is concerned only with literary representations, and that there are Sappho-related images on ceramics in a similar era that suggest an association with a female pederastic image and a tradition of women-only symposia among courtesans (heteirai) which may reflect a part of the tradition that was not included in literature.) She is also set up in contrast and opposition to the image of the heteira, as in a passage by Herodotus concerning Sappho’s brother and his relationship with a famous hetaira Rhodopis, where Sappho mocks her brother in verse for his devotion. It is in contexts such as this that “Sappho as lyric poet in a community of women” becomes “Sappho as adjunct to heterosexual relations of men with courtesans” with a resulting “contamination” of her reputation. This context then drives the development of “Sappho as fetishized object of male desire, depicted as promiscuous and courtesan-adjacent.” This version was so in conflict with Sappho-the-poet that some traditions felt the need to spit the historic Sappho into two different people in order to accommodate it.

Gihuly introduces the self-mocking poem by Anacreon, introduced in the text as sometimes being thought to have Sappho as its subject, in which the poet-persona is struck by Eros to love a girl “from well-built Lesbos” who scorns him because his hair is white and “gapes after another” instead, where “another is grammatically feminine and ambiguous between “another [head of hair]” or “another [person who is female].” Gilhuly downplays the homoerotic reading, feeling that it requires a conceptual leap to attributing a homoerotic reputation to all residents of Lesbos at an era when this is not otherwise in evidence. [Note: But if the commentary by Athenaeus is correct that Anacreon was visualizing Sappho as the girl in his poem, then there is no need for this leap, only an acceptance that Sappho herself was understood as having homoerotic potential.] The style of the poem clearly evokes Sappho’s style and imagery. But if Sappho is indeed the girl in the poem, then the text and the commentary surrounding it that comments on other poets who “loved Sappho” frames her as the object of male erotic desire, regardless of her own feelings. This, in turn, contributed to the motif of Sappho as icon of insatiable (heterosexual) desire with multiple (male) partners, culminating in the legend of Phaon and the leap off the Leucadian rock. (Though some version of this story attribute it to the “other” Sappho, the courtesan.) Gilhuly sees this as an understandable resolution of the difficulty ancient male scholars had in envisioning a female poet, associated with erotic discourse, as being an active subject unless she could be assimilated to heteronormativity by making her a courtesan.

Roman literature carried over some of these images of Sappho and Lesbos while introducing new ones. Gilhuly catalogs them without introducing an overall framework.

Catullus and other poets such as Horace acknowledged Sappho as a poetic predecessor but seem to have difficulty with her femaleness, either assimilating her to their poetic love object (as with Catullus’s Lesbia) or framing her as necessarily masculine (because only men can be great poets) as in Horace’s “mascula Sappho.” Gilhuly connects Horace’s epithet with a Roman image of female homosexuals as “masculine women linked to a Greek past” (as per Hallett 1989). [Note: But see Boehringer 2021 who argues against this supposed “masculine tribade” concept in Roman texts.]

On the sexual side, as in Ovid’s Heroides, the homoerotic content of Sappho’s poetry is acknowledged but over-written by a heterosexual conversion (Phaon). Ovid’s transformation of Sappho’s image was derived from themes in Greek comedy, but integrated the various motifs into a rejection of same-sex love between women.

Overall these Roman interpretations are not coherent with each other, but treat Sappho (her identity, not her work) as source material that can be reinterpreted imaginatively. [Note: Ovid, in particular, had a massive effect on how Sappho’s personal life was envisioned in later centuries.]

As a summary, Gilhuly posits that the image of the courtesan provides the bridge between the evolving representations of Sappho and the evolving image of “lesbian” as a sexual category. Although, in the context of the courtesan, that “lesbian” category is homosexual.

Both as a real social category and as a literary character, the courtesan could do and say things that a “respectable” woman could not. In particular, it was socially acceptable to depict her both as the object and subject of erotic desire, as well as depicting her as given to excess both in behavior and dress. (Within a cultural context where virtue was equated with moderation and self-control.) Gilhuly hypothesizes that this behavioral freedom was an essential context for the “invention” of female homosexuality, particularly her freedom to be a sexual initiator. But this invention/association did not occur within the cultural context when the courtesan/hetaira was a living tradition, but only later when she had become a symbolic subject.

As a fixture of the symposium, the courtesan was solidly associated with the world of poetry and philosophy. She could participate in male-coded activities within the symposium and was associated with erotic discussions. These associations are seen in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans (although these are rhetorical exercises, not an attempt to represent the actual lives and concerns of courtesans). Dialogue 5 (the one concerning Megilla/Megillus) is, of course, the focus of this part of the article. In this dialogue, the courtesan and the woman from Lesbos are distinct characters. The courtesan Leaina relates her experiences with a rich woman from Lesbos who is “terribly manly,” who has a female partner she calls her wife, and who initiates an erotic encounter with Leaina. Leaina’s conversation partner, another courtesan, suggests that Megilla might be a hetairistria (see Plato’s Symposium). The dialogue is littered with philosophical allusions, evoking the overlapping worlds of the courtesan and philosopher, even when the overt topic is a sexual encounter. One particular sexual reputation of Lesbos is directly commented on: that there are “man-faced” women there who avoid sex with men and prefer women.

Although Sappho is not an overt topic of the dialogue, Gilhuly sees her reflected presence in the work, not only in the geographic origin of Megilla/Megillus, but in traditions linking Sappho to courtesans. [Note: I find this particular point a bit weak. As evidence regarding part of the sexual reputation of Lesbos, yes, but whether it connects directly to Sappho within this specific context? Less clear.]

Gilhuly’s final point is that she believes we’re asking the wrong question in seeking what the literary evidence can tell us about the historic Sappho and about erotic practices on the island of Lesbos. And that we should instead be asking how that literary evidence created the popular image of Sappho as homosexual, and the idea of “lesbian” as a sexual category.

[Note: I think there’s a significant point made here. The historic label/category of “lesbian” as referring to erotic relations between women is a clear and solid reality, regardless of what women may or may not have been doing on Lesbos in the 5th century BCE. And the association of Sappho with female homosexuality is also a clear historic fact. Neither of those facts is undermined or erased by picking apart the exact historic path by which those meanings evolved.]

Time period: 
Sunday, January 16, 2022 - 21:07

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 220 – John Lyly’s Gallathea - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/01/16 - listen here)

The topic of this month’s show was inspired by my youngest brother and the amateur Commedia dell’Arte troupe, the Golden Stag Players, that he performs with. Every winter they adapt a play to perform, and this year they chose John Lyly’s Gallathea, first performed on New Year’s Day in 1588 before Queen Elizabeth I of England and her court. This play is very near and dear to my heart, for reasons that will become obvious.

One of the reasons the Golden Stag Players chose it (*cough* on my recommendation *cough*) is the predominance of female characters, somewhat unusually for an Elizabethan play, but desirable for a modern acting troupe that skews heavily female. This casting challenge played out somewhat differently among that all-male theater companies of the Elizabethan era, and one always wonders how much of the gender-play on stage at the time was influenced by the tangled layers of sexual identities and roles that performances required. Gender disguise and its consequences are the very heart of Gallathea.

So, next week I’ll be part of a select, pandemic-constrained studio audience for the Golden Stag Players performance of Gallathea and in the mean time we can tour through the plot and the unexpected treatment of same-sex love within it. When a video of the performance is available, I’ll link it in the transcript notes.

John Lyly’s play Gallathea is one of the many adaptations of the tale of Iphis and Ianthe, first known from the writings of Ovid in the 1st century CE. In Ovid’s tale, Iphis’s mother conceals her gender at birth and raises her as a boy to avoid her father’s threat of infanticide. Iphis and her childhood companion Ianthe fall in love and the two families are delighted to look forward to their marriage, except for Iphis’s mother, who knows that marriage would reveal her ruse, and except for Iphis, who believes that love between two women (by which we understand sex and marriage) is an impossibility. Ovid’s work is dominated by Iphis’s philosophical and emotional inner monologue over her dilemma. In the end Iphis and her mother appeal to the goddess Isis for assistance. Isis magically changes Iphis into a boy and all live happily ever after.

Every adaptation after that has put its own spin onto the tale, emphasizing some parts, downplaying others, adding in new elements. If you want a survey of those variants, check out my podcast on the topic.Lyly kept the central gender-disguise element, but gave it a different motivation, involving a looming human sacrifice of a beautiful maiden, and then doubled the gender disguise giving us two women, both masquerading as men, each falling in love with the other. There are several subplots as well. The most relevant one is an ongoing feud between, on the one side, Cupid and the followers of the goddess Venus, who are all about romantic love, and on the other side, the followers of the goddess Diana, who reject romantic love. There’s also a comic side plot involving three journeymen exploring new careers who periodically meet to compare experiences. The comic plot only intersects the main story at a couple of points and I’ve left it out of today’s show. (The Golden Stag Players have left it out for similar reasons, but also because it somewhat doubles the playing time of the show.)

There are a lot of nuances of meaning embedded in the play. If you like, you can follow up on some of them in the books and articles blogged for our website, linked in the show notes. I’ll mostly be focusing today on a plot summary and a dramatization of some of the more interesting scenes. We start off introducing the setting and back-story. The father of Gallathea—one of our protagonists—brings her to a tree dedicated to the god Neptune and tells her the history of a particular religious festival. There had been a great marble temple there, but the inhabitants dismantled the temple, angering the god. Neptune caused the seas to threaten to overwhelm the land and when the people begged him to relent, he imposed a harsh condition. As Gallathea’s father explains,

The condition was this, that at every five years day, the fairest and chastest virgin in all the Country, should be brought unto this Tree, & here being bound, (whom neither parentage shall excuse for honor, nor virtue for integrity) is left for a peace offering unto Neptune. he sendeth a Monster called the Agar, against whose coming the waters roar, the fowls fly away, and the Cattle in the field for terror, shun the banks. …Whether she be devoured of him, or conveyed to Neptune, or drowned between both, it is not permitted to know, and incurreth danger to conjecture; Now Gallathea here endeth my tale, & beginneth thy tragedy.

But why, Gallathea asks, is this a tragedy for her? Because, of course, he believes her to be the fairest and chastest virgin in all the land. And rather than lose his daughter, he plans to save her with a trick. Gallathea is far more noble than her father and protests,

Destiny may be deferred, not prevented; and therefore it were better to offer my self in triumph, then to be drawn to it with dishonor. Hath nature (as you say) made me so faire above all, and shall not virtue make me as famous as others? Doe you not know, (or doth over carefulness make you forget) that an honorable death is to be preferred before an infamous life. I am but a child, and have not lived long, and yet not so childish, as I desire to live ever: virtues I mean to carry to my grave, not gray hairs. I would I were as sure that destiny would light on me, as I am resolved it could not fear me. Nature hath given me beauty, Virtue courage, Nature must yield me death, Virtue honor. Suffer me therefore to die, for which I was borne, or let me curse that I was borne, sith I may not die for it.

But his response is that she’s too young to know what she’s talking about and should follow his advice and disguise herself to escape her fate.

In the second scene, the gods come on stage in the form of Cupid and a follower of Diana, goddess of the hunt and of virginity. Cupid teases her, asking if there are any among the followers of Diana who know the sweetness of love. But Cupid’s description of love doesn’t make it sound very appealing.

A heat full of coldness, a sweet full of bitterness, a pain full of pleasantness, which maketh thoughts have eyes, and hearts ears, bred by desire, nursed by delight, weaned by jealousy, killed by dissembling, buried by ingratitude, and this is love, fair Lady will you any?

Diana’s nymph rejects Cupid’s version of love, with a speech that makes a number of puns between the word “heart” meaning the seat of love, and “hart” meaning a stag to be hunted, as well as word-play contrasting following the “chase” and also being “chaste.”

I have neither will nor leisure, but I will follow Diana in the Chase, whose virgins are all chaste, delighting in the bow that wounds the swift Hart in the Forrest, not fearing the bow that strikes the soft hart in the Chamber. This difference is between my Mistress Diana, and your Mother (as I guess) Venus, that all her Nymphs are amiable and wise in their kind, the other amorous and too kind for their sex; and so farewell little god.

Cupid gets his nose out of joint at being so dismissed and vows,

Diana, and thou, and all thine, shall know that Cupid is a great god, I will practice a while in these woods, and play such pranks with these Nymphs, that while they aim to hit others with their Arrows, they shall be wounded themselves with their own eyes.

Cupid’s arrows, of course, cause people to fall in love. If Diana’s followers reject love, he’ll force them to experience it.

In the next scene we meet the second protagonist, Phillida. She, too, is being instructed by her father to avoid being chosen as the sacrifice to Neptune by disguising herself.

Come Phillida, faire Phillida, and I fear me too faire being my Phillida, thou knowest the custom of this Country, & I the greatness of thy beauty, we both the fierceness of the monster Agar. Every one thinketh his own childe faire, but I know that which I most desire, and would least have, that thou art fairest. Thou shalt therefore disguise thy self in attire, least I should disguise my self in affection, in suffering thee to perish by a fond desire, whom I may preserve by a sure deceit.

When Phillida asks for details, we come to a crux of the internal conflicts that both Gallathea and Phillida will experience. They don’t want to disguise themselves as men. The thought embarrasses them. And further, they are doubtful of their ability to pass convincingly. Here Phillida protests in vain.

Phil. - Deere father, Nature could not make me so faire as she hath made you kind, nor you more kind then me dutiful. Whatsoever you command I will not refuse, because you command nothing but my safety, and your happiness. But how shall I be disguised?

Mele. - In mans apparel.

Phil.  - It will neither become my body, nor my mind.

Mele. - Why Phillida?

Philli. - For then I must keep company with boys, and commit follies unseemly for my sex, or keep company with girls, and be thought more wanton then becommeth me. Besides, I shall be ashamed of my long hose and short coat, and so unwarily blab out something by blushing at every thing.

Mele. - Fear not Phillida, use will make it easy, fear must make it necessary.

Philli. - I agree, since my father will have it so, and fortune must.

Gallathea and Phillida, now both disguised as men, are wandering in the forest—the same forest where Cupid and Diana’s followers are roaming. Here the two women meet, in a conversation that involves more private asides than dialogue meant for the other to hear.

Gallathea tells herself - Blush Gallathea that must frame thy affection fit for thy habit, and therefore be thought immodest, because thou art unfortunate. Thy tender years cannot dissemble this deceit: nor thy sex bear it. O would the gods had made me as I seem to be, or that I might safely be what I seem not. Thy Father doteth Gallathea, whose blind love corrupteth his fond judgment, and jealous of thy death, seemeth to dote on thy beauty, whose fond care carrieth his partial eye as far from truth, as his hart is from falsehood. But why dost thou blame him or blab what thou art, when thou shouldest only counterfeit what thou art not. But whist, here commeth a lad: I will learn of him how to behave my self.

Phillida enters and mutters to herself, I neither like my gate, nor my garments, the one untoward, the other unfit, both unseemly. O Phillida, but yonder stayeth one, and therefore say nothing. But O, Phillida.

Gallathea, overhearing this, notes, I perceive that boys are in as great disliking of themselves as maids, therefore though I wear the apparel, I am glad I am not the person.

Phillida spots her and immediately notes Gallathea’s gender ambiguity but, assuming she is a man, thinks to learn from her how to behave as one. - It is a pretty boy and a faire, he might well have been a woman, but because he is not, I am glad I am, for now under the color of my coat, I shall decipher the follies of their kind.

Again, Gallathea: I would salute him, but I fear I should make a curtsy in steed of a leg.

Neither of them is directly addressing the other yet. Phillida thinks, If I durst trust my face as well as I doe my habit, I would spend some time to make pastime, for say what they will of a mans wit, it is no second thing to be a woman.

And Gallathea thinks something very odd. All the blood in my body would be in my face, if he should ask me (as the question among men is common) are you a maid?

Do men really ask each other this? How odd. Just as it seems they must finally speak to each other, they are interrupted by the appearance of Diana and two of her followers, as Phillida notes, Why stand I still, boys should be bold, but here commeth a brave train that will spill all our talk.

Diana addresses Gallathea as “fair boy” which she denies but then scrambles to explain that she rejects the “fair” part, not the “boy” part. There is more word-play when the nymphs ask after the deer they were following, meaning the animal, but Gallathea says, I saw none but mine own Dear. Meaning “beloved,” which feels a bit ahead of the game as she hasn’t fallen in love with Phillida quite yet.

When the nymphs address Phillida as “shepherd lad,” she too protests and then backpedals, explaining, My mother said I could be no lad till I was twenty year old, nor keep sheep till I could tell them; and therefore Lady neither lad nor shepherd is here.

Both women are refusing to accept the incorrect gender identity, but use word-play to avoid acknowledging their preferred gender. Diana demands that they accompany the hunt, and Phillida agrees, saying to herself, I am willing to go, not for these Ladies company, because my self am a virgin, but for that fair boys favor, who I think be a God.

There are two interesting things to note here. Normally, Diana’s band is restricted to women. Does her acceptance of the disguised Gallathea and Phillida mean that she sees through their disguises? But I also wonder if Phillida’s comment on Gallathea “who I think be a God” is a deliberate echo of Sappho’s poem 31. Sappho’s work—either in the original Greek or in Latin translation—was being republished by Lyly’s time, and English poets were re-working bits of her themes, although an English translation of the poems themselves was yet to be published. So it’s certainly a possibility.

Diana and the group exit, then Cupid takes the stage, disguised as a nymph of Diana and proclaims his bwa-ha-ha style villain speech, speaking of himself in the third person and once again having fun with puns on harts and the chaste. Cupid will cause the nymphs to fall in love—but very specifically, he’ll force them to fall in love with “their own sex,” believing this to be a double revenge as they will desire “impossibilities.”

Now Cupid, under the shape of a silly girl show the power of a mighty God. Let Diana and all her coy Nymphs know, that there is no hart so chaste but thy bow can wound, nor eyes so modest, but thy brands can kindle, nor thoughts so staid, but thy shafts can make wavering, weak and wanton: Cupid though he be a child, is no baby. I will make their pains my pastimes, & so confound their loves in their own sex, that they shall dote in their desires, delight in their affections, and practice only impossibilities. Whilst I truant from my mother, I will use some tyranny in these woods, and so shall their exercise in foolish love, be my excuse for running away. I will see whither faire faces be always chaste, or Dianna’s virgins only modest, else will I spend both my shafts and shifts, and then Ladies if you see these dainty Dames entrapped in love, say softly to your selves, wee may all love.

Oh, and by the way, Neptune is overhearing all this and lets on that he’s quite aware that Gallathea and Phillida are women disguised as men in order to trick him out of his sacrifice. But he plans to wait and watch and have the last word in the end.

We return to our heroines, each of whom wanders across the stage explaining that she has been falling in love with the other and bemoaning that they can’t do anything about it due to being in disguise as a man. I should note at this point that Phillida is using the male name “Melebeus” and Gallathea the name “Tyterus”. First Gallathea.

How now Gallathea? miserable Gallathea, that having put on the apparel of a boy, thou canst also put on the mind. O faire Melebeus, I too faire, and therefore I fear, too proud. Had it not been better for thee to have been a sacrifice to Neptune, then a slave to Cupid? to die for thy Country, then to live I thy fancy? to be a sacrifice, then a lover? O would when I hunted his eye with my hart, he might have seen my hart with his eyes. Why did Nature to him a boy give a face so faire, or to me a virgin a fortune so hard? I will now use for the distaff the bow, and play at quoits abroad, that was wont to sew in my Sampler at home. It may be Gallathea, foolish Gallathea, what may be? nothing. Let me follow him into the Woods, and thou sweet Venus be my guide.

Then Phillida.

Poor Phillida, curse the time of thy birth and rareness of thy beauty, the unaptness of thy apparel, and the untamedness of thy affections. Art thou no sooner in the habit of a boy, but thou must be enamored of a boy, what shalt thou doe when what best liketh thee, most discontenteth thee? Go into the Woods, watch the good times, his best moods, and transgress in love a little of thy modesty, I will, I dare not, thou must, I cannot. Then pine in thine own peevishness. I will not, I will. Ah Phillida doe something, nay any thing rather then live thus. Well, what I will doe, my self knows not, but what I ought I know too well, and so I go resolute, either to betray my love, or suffer shame.

In the mean time, Cupid has done his work. The nymph Telusa has been struck by Cupid’s arrow and fallen in love with the disguised Phillida, as Melebeus. There’s a double game going on here, because we know from Cupid’s speech that he knows Phillida-Melebeus’s female gender and that’s part of his spite. But Telusa thinks she’s fallen in love with a man, where both the experience of love and the target of her affection are forbidden to a follower of Diana.

How now? what new conceits, what strange contraries breed in thy mind? is thy Diana become a Venus, thy chaste thoughts turned to wanton looks, thy conquering modesty to a captive imagination? Beginnest thou with Piralis to die in the air and live in the fire, to leave the sweet delight of hunting, and to follow the hot desire of love? O Telusa, these words are unfit for thy sex being a virgin, but apt for thy affections being a lover. And can there in years so young, in education so precise, in vows so holy, and in a hart so chaste, enter either a strong desire, or a wish, or a wavering thought of love? Can Cupids brands quench Vesta’s flames, and his feeble shafts headed with feathers, pierce deeper than Diana’s arrows headed with steel? Break thy bow Telusa that seekest to break thy vow, and let those hands that aimed to hit the wild Hart, scratch out those eyes that have wounded thy tame hart. O vain and only naked name of Chastity, that is made eternal, and perish by time: holy, and is infected by fancy: divine, and is made mortal by folly. Virgins harts I perceive are not unlike Cotton trees, whose fruit is so hard in the bud, that it soundeth like steel, and being ripe, poureth forth nothing but wool, and their thoughts like the leaves of Lunary, which the further they grow from the Sun, the sooner they are scorched with his beams. O Melebeus, because thou art fair, must I be fickle, and false my vow because I see thy virtue? Fond girl that I am to think of love, nay vain profession that I follow to disdain love, but here commeth Eurota, I must now put on a red mask and blush, least she perceive my pale face and laugh.

Her fellow nymph Eurota shows up, who has similarly been induced to fall in love with Gallathea, in disguise as the man Tyterus. The two end up comparing notes on their dilemma.

Eurota acknowledges: I confess that I am in love, and yet swear that I know not what it is. I feel my thoughts unknit, mine eyes unstayed, my hart I know not how affected, or infected, my sleeps broken and full of dreams, my wakeness sad and full of sighs, my self in all things unlike my self. If this be love, I would it had never been devised.

Telusa counters: Thou hast told what I am in uttering what thy self is: these are my passions Eurota my unbridled passions, my intolerable passions, which I were as good acknowledge and crave counsel, as to deny and endure peril.

Eurota: How did it take you first Telusa?

Telusa: By the eyes, my wanton eyes which conceived the picture of his face, and hanged it on the very strings of my hart. O faire Melebeus, o fond Telusa, but how did it take you Eurota?

Eurota: By the ears, whose sweet words sunk so deep into my head, that the remembrance of his wit, hath bereaved me of my wisdom, o eloquent Tyterus, o credulous Eurota. But soft here commeth Ramia, but let her not hear us talk, wee will withdraw our selves, and hear her talk.

Ramia, another nymph, relates how all the rest of Diana’s followers are similarly stricken with love for the disguised women.

If my self felt only this infection, I would then take upon me the definition, but being incident to so many, I dare not my self describe it, but we will all talk of that in the Woods. Diana stormeth that sending one to seek another, she loseth all. Servia of all the Nymphs the coyest, loveth deadly, and exclaimeth claimeth against Diana, honoureth Venus, detesteth Vesta, and maketh a common scorn of virtue. Clymene, whose stately looks seemed to amaze the greatest Lords, stoopeth, yieldeth, and fawneth on the strange boy in the Woods. My self (with blushing I speak it) am thrall to that boy, that faire boy, that beautiful boy.

They bemoan “would I were no woman, would Tyterus were no boy,” which, of course, he actually isn’t.

But now Phillida and Gallathea are confessing their love for each other, dancing around the problem that each of them believes the other a man but dare not confess that she is a woman. Let’s follow the conversation, first Phillida then Gallathea, distinguished in voice since you have only myself on the stage.

Phil. - It is pity that Nature framed you not a woman having a face so faire, so lovely a countenance, so modest a behavior.

Galla. - There is a Tree in Tylos, whose nuts have shells like fire, and being cracked, the kernel is but water.

Phil. - What a toy is it to tell me of that tree, being nothing to the purpose: I say it is pity you are not a woman.

Galla. - I would not wish to be a woman, unless it were because thou art a man.

Phil. - Nay I doe not wish to be woman, for then I should not love thee, for I have sworn never to love a woman.

Galla. - A strange humor in so pretty a youth, and according to mine, for my self will never love a woman.

Philli. - It were a shame if a maiden should be a suitor, (a thing hated in that sex) that thou shouldest deny to be her servant.

Galla. - If it be a shame in me, it can be no commendation in you, for your self is of that mind.

Philli.  - Suppose I were a virgin (I blush in supposing my self one) and that under the habit of a boy were the person of a maid, if I should utter my affection with sighs, manifest my sweet love by my salt tears, and prove my loyalty unspotted, and my griefs intolerable, would not then that faire face, pity this true hart?

Galla. - Admit that I were, as you would have me suppose that you are, and that I should with entreaties, prayers, oaths, bribes, and what ever can be invented in love, desire your favor, would you not yield?

Philli. - Tush you come in with admit.

Galla. - And you with suppose.

Philli. - What doubtful speeches be these? I fear me he is as I am, a maiden.

Galla. - What dread riseth in my mind, I fear the boy to be as I am a maiden.

Philli. - Tush it cannot be, his voice shows the contrary.

Galla. - Yet I doe not think it, for he would then have blushed.

Phill. - Have you ever a Sister?

Galla. - If I had but one my brother must needs have two, but I pray have you ever a one?

Philli. - My Father had but one daughter, and therefore I could have no sister.

Galla. - Aye me, he is as I am, for his speeches be as mine are.

Philli. - What shall I doe, either he is subtle or my sex simple.

Galla. - I have known divers of Diana’s Nymphs enamored of him, yet hath he rejected all, either as too proud to disdain, or too childish not to understand, or for that he knoweth himself to be a Virgin.

Phill. - I am in a quandary, Diana’s Nymphs have followed him, and he despised them, either knowing too well the beauty of his own face, or that himself is of the same mould. I will once again try him. You promised me in the woods, that you would love me before all Diana’s Nymphs.

Galla. - I, so you would love me before all Diana’s Nymphs.

Philli. - Can you prefer a fond boy as I am, before so faire Ladies as they are.

Galla. - Why should not I as well as you?

Phillida - Come let us into the Grove, and make much one of another, that cannot tell what to think one of another.

And then they exit, presumably to go “make much of one another” offstage.

Meanwhile Diana has discovered the to-do among her nymphs and instantly suspects the strange nymph—that is, Cupid—who has been seen wandering the woods.

What news have we here Ladies, are all in love? Are Diana’s Nymphs become Venus wantons? Is it a shame to be chaste, because you be amiable? Or must you needs be amorous, because you are faire? O Venus, if this be thy spite, I will require it with more then hate, well shalt thou know what it is to drib thine arrows up and down Diana’s leies. There is an unknown Nymph that straggleth up and down these woods, which I suspect hath been the weaver of these woes, I saw her slumbering by the brook side, go search her & bring her, if you find upon her shoulder a burn, it is Cupid: if any print on her back like a leaf, it is Medea: if any picture on her left breast like a bird, it is Calypso; who ever it be, bring her hither, and speedily bring her hither.

She scolds her ladies for abandoning chastity and honor for the court of Venus. And when Cupid is captured and brought before her, Diana takes her revenge on him.

And thou shalt see Cupid that I will show my self to be Diana, that is, Conqueror of thy loose & untamed appetites. Did thy mother Venus under the color of a Nymph, send thee hither to wound my Nymphs? Doth she add craft to her malice, and mistrusting her deity, practice deceit: is there no place but my Groves, no persons but my Nymphs? Cruel and unkind Venus, that spiteth only chastity, thou shalt see that Diana’s power shall revenge thy policy, and tame this pride. As for thee Cupid, I will break thy bow, and burn thine arrows, bind thy hands, clip thy wings, and fetter thy feet. Thou that fattest others with hopes, shalt be fed thy self with wishes, & thou that bindest others with golden thoughts, shalt be bound thy self with golden fetters. Venus rods are made of Roses, Diana’s of Briars. Let Venus that great Goddess, ransom Cupid that little God. These Ladies here whom thou hast infected with foolish love, shall both tread on thee and triumph over thee. Thine own arrow shall be shot into thine own bosom, and thou shalt be enamored, not on Psyches, but on Circes. I will teach thee what it is to displease Diana, distress her Nymphs, or disturb her Game.

Now we return to the problem of the sacrifice to Neptune. The fathers of Gallathea and Phillida point fingers at each other. You boasted of having a fair and chaste daughter, each says to the other, where is she now? And each answers, alas, my daughter died long ago. Meanwhile, Neptune is biding his time to see how far they’ll go.

Gallathea and Phillida resume their verbal jousting, this time regarding which of them would have been the appropriate sacrifice, had they been a maiden.

Phill. - I marvel what virgin the people will present, it is happy you are none, for then it would have fallen to your lot because you are so faire.

Galla. - If you had been a Maiden too I need not to have feared, because you are fairer.

Phill. - I pray thee sweet boy flatter not me, speak truth of thy self, for in mine eye of all the world thou art fairest.

Galla. - These be faire words, but far from thy true thoughts, I know mine own face in a true Glass, and desire not to see it in a flattering mouth.

Phill. - O would I did flatter thee, and that fortune would not flatter me. I love thee as a brother, but love not me so.

Galla. - No I will not, but love thee better, because I cannot love as a brother.

Phill. - Seeing we are both boys, and both lovers, that our affection may have some show, and seem as it were love, let me call thee Mistress.

Galla. - I accept that name, for divers before have called me Mistress.

Phill. - For what cause?

Galla. - Nay there lie the Mistress.

Philli. - Will not you be at the sacrifice?

Galla. - No.

Philli. - Why?

Galla. - Because I dreamt that if I were there, I should be turned to a virgin, and then being so faire (as thou sayest I am) I should be offered as thou knowest one must. But will not you be there.

Phill. - Not unless I were sure that a boy might be sacrificed, and not a maiden.

Galla. - Why then you are in danger.

Phill. - But I would escape it by deceit, but seeing we are resolved to be both absent, let us wander into these Groves, till the hour be past.

Galla. - I am agreed, for then my fear will be past.

Phill. - Why, what dost thou fear?

Galla. - Nothing but that you love me not.

With that, Gallathea exits, leaving Phillida to worry over her growing certainty that she has fallen in love with a woman in disguise.

Poor Phillida, what shouldest thou think of thy self, that lovest one that I fear me, is as thy self is; and may it not be, that her Father practiced the same deceit with her, that my Father hath with me, and knowing her to be fair, feared she should be unfortunate, if it be so, Phillida how desperate is thy case? if it be not, how doubtful? For if she be a Maiden there is no hope of my love, if a boy, a hazard: I will after him or her, and lead a melancholy life, that look for a miserable death.

The people have found a maiden to sacrifice, who rages against the practice of sacrificing someone in the promise of youth, while also noting that she knows she is not the fairest in the land and it’s totally unfair that she has to be sacrificed. And then on top of that, the monster that’s supposed to carry off the sacrifice doesn’t show up because she’s not good enough. She is rejected and humiliated. Gallathea and Phillida encounter her as she flees and worry about what’s going on. They hear the assembled gods approaching and hide to overhear.

Neptune rages that since the humans refuse to offer their chaste daughters, he’ll slaughter all the maidens in the land and make it a shame to be a virgin. Diana shows up all: Hey, let’s not get too hasty. Why should my followers be punished for being virtuous and chaste? Then Venus steps in saying, You go get ‘em Neptune. Let’s go after those coy bitches who are torturing my poor innocent boy Cupid. You make Diana give him back! The goddesses argue, Diana calling Venus unruly and the causer of quarrels, Venus calling Diana a hater. And Neptune going all: whoa, I don’t want to be in the middle of this! So he offers to rescind his vengeance against chaste virgins if Diana releases Cupid back to his mother. Deal! Says Diana.

Now the fathers of our two heroines show up to apologize to Neptune and admit the deception. Where are your daughters? He asks. Why, there they are, coming now. Here’s my daughter Phillida, one says; and here my daughter Gallathea says the other. The two women face each other, their secret fears confirmed.

Galla. - Unfortunate Gallathea if this be Phillida.

Phill. - Accursed Phillida if that be Gallathea.

Galla. - And wast thou all this while enamored of Phillida, that sweet Phillida?

Phill. - And couldest thou dote upon the face of a Maiden, thy self being one, on the face of fair Gallathea?

The answer, of course, being “Yes, duh!” Neptune asks, Doe you both being Maidens love one another?

They answer again in the affirmative. Diana, not being attuned to the power of love, tells them, Now things falling out as they doe, you must leave these fond affections, nature will have it so, necessity must.

Gallathea protests, I will never love any but Phillida, her love is engraven in my hart, with her eyes.

And Phillida, Nor I any but Gallathea, whose faith is imprinted in my thoughts by her words.

This is the moment that makes John Lyly’s play a marvel for its age. Two female characters, knowing each other to be women, declare their romantic love for each other in public and swear they will never love anyone else. Neptune can’t quite get his brain around how this is possible, but Venus is totally on their side.

I like well and allow it, they shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that Nature or Fortune shall overthrow love, and Faith. Is your loves unspotted, begun with truth, continued with constancy, and not to bee altered till death?

Gallathea vows, Die Gallathea if thy love be not so.

Similarly Phillida, Accursed bee thou Phillida if thy love be not so.

Uh, so now what? Diana asks. Well, says Venus, I can turn one of them into a man.

What is to love or the Mistress of love unpossible? Was it not Venus that did the like to Iphis and Ianthe; how say ye, are ye agreed, one to bee a boy presently?

Phillida answers, I am content, so I may embrace Gallathea.

Gallathea agrees, I wish it, so I may enjoy Phillida.

In the original tale of Iphis and Ianthe, which Venus just referenced, the two were differentiated by gender performance: Iphis having been raised all her life as a boy, and Ianthe always identifying as a girl. But Gallathea breaks with this source material and offers a different scenario. Both Gallathea and Phillida consistently identify as women. They express either interest in or acceptance of a male identity only as the means of having their relationship made possible and acceptable. And even when gender change is offered, neither has a preference to be the one who becomes a man.

Their fathers, on the other hand, immediately start quarreling over which one of them gets to continue having a daughter. Because it’s all about them, right? But in the end, all agree to leave the choice in the hands of Venus. Then let us depart, neither of them shall know whose lot it shall be till they come to the Church door. One shall be, doth it suffice?

Gallathea gets the final speech, urging all women to yield to love and allow their hearts to be conquered. This is an ambiguous message, since her heart was conquered by love for a woman. At the final curtain, the transformation is yet to come. In that eternal moment, Gallathea and Phillida remain women in love with women. And so they will always be for me.

Show Notes

In this episode we take a tour through John Lyly’s late 16th century play Gallathea which includes an unexpected depiction of same-sex love.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Sunday, January 2, 2022 - 14:04

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 219 - On the Shelf for January 2022 – Transcript

(Originally aired 2022/01/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2022.

I hope all of you listening have at least one thing from 2021 that you can look back on and take joy in, and at least one thing in 2022 that you’re looking forward to in hopeful expectation. The change of the calendar is an arbitrary line, but without arbitrary points for reflection, time all runs together, doesn’t it? History derives meaning from the arbitrary lines we draw to split it up into chunks that we can understand in isolation. Lives are often the same.

I don’t usually do New Year’s Resolutions. Sometimes I do what I call “irresolutions” which are mostly just brainstorming rather than commitment. But one irresolution I’d like to make for the podcast is to get back to doing author interviews. I had a number of contacts for potential interviews, and then somehow back in May I got what I call “calendar claustrophobia” where it feels like I have too many pending commitments and something has to give. And doing the work of scheduling interviews was what gave. The actual work of editing the interviews is  no big deal, but the process of actually getting the interviewee and me onto the same zoom call to talk trips over several of my personal disfunctions. Don’t get me wrong. I love doing interviews! And I love that it gives me a chance to interact with other authors in this very lonely profession. But it’s substantial emotional work for me—more than it might be for someone with a different personality—and that’s why I let it slip when I was feeling overwhelmed. So I’m going to try to get back on that horse and take the jumps again, because I think the interviews add a lot of value to this show.

Given that it’s January, it also means that submissions are open for the 2022 fiction series. I hope that if you’re written something—or are still thinking about writing something—that meets our criteria, that you’ll send it in for consideration. As the saying goes: don’t self-reject. Every year I hope that the submissions will be more numerous and more gripping. My goal is for the decision process to get harder and harder every year. Please help make my dream come true! At the beginning of submissions month I’m usually terrified that I won’t receive any stories. That terror has lessened over the years. And this year I feel like I’ve leveled-up a bit as a fiction market, because I’ve started receiving the equivalent of spam submissions: stories that completely ignore all the requirements, including timing, format, and content. I have arrived! I can join the other editors in their secret invitation-only gripe sessions! Just kidding. I’m so proud of the material I was able to publish in the last year and have confidence that I’ll be able to present you with the same high quality in 2022. If you’ve loved the stories we were able to share with you, I hope you reached out to let the authors know on social media.

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project Blog has finally finished the coverage of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. I don’t usually spend quite so much time on a single book—I think the only book I’ve covered in quite so much detail was Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men. One reason I took the time to do so was that I’m a methodology nerd. I love books that go so deeply into the questions of how to study history and how to understand cultures of the past in their own terms and not in terms of their relationship to contemporary ideas. Another more selfish reason for reading the book so closely is that I have a book project set during the 1st century in the Roman Empire that has been languishing for a couple decades waiting for me to feel up to doing the complete rewrite it requires. I feel like I just might be in a place where I could tackle that again, as well as working on the chapter on classical Greece and Rome for my super-secret project that I mention on occasion. But the third reason I think Boehringer’s book is worth the time is that a study of gender and sexuality in classical cultures may be the most accessible way for those of us rooted in Western history to grasp a radically different cultural approach to those concepts. More recent cultures can be too superficially similar to our own to be able to have the necessary distance. And Westerners sometimes need a bit of practice in stretching our understanding into unfamiliar shapes before we can approach non-Western concepts of gender and sexuality on their own terms.

I haven’t picked a topic for the blog to tackle next. I feel like I need something a bit less intense, time-wise. I think I have a couple collections of articles that might fit the bill.

Book Shopping!

No new acquisitions for the blog this month. I did pick up some historical reference books, but related to things like clothing. And the one book I thought was going to come in had its publication date rescheduled. That one will be fun because it’s an academic study of lesbian historical fiction and I hope to have an interview with the author on the show.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

But we can talk about new and recent fiction, though the listings are a bit thin this month: one December book that I was saving until I’d had a chance to learn more about it, and three January releases. I’ve decided to go back to my old practice of reading the cover copy, rather than trying to summarize the book in my own words. It can be a bit hard to guess what’s going on when I haven’t actually read the book, and at least the author’s own words provide what they want you to know about it.

The December book is The Many Woes of Dolly Danbridge, self-published by Lauren Thorn. The book is tagged with keywords for lesbian fiction, so I’m relying on that, although the cover copy is rather vague.

Dolly Danbridge is poor, awkward, and plain. She is also completely spoiled. At 16 years old, she has spent her whole life dreaming of wealth and high society. These dreams are dashed when she is uprooted from her home in Boston and placed in the humble town of Gaylord, Ohio. Here, she will struggle to hold onto her high-status ambitions— and decide if they are really worth pursuing after all. Set in 1830’s America, this novel wittily dissects the social norms of times past and presents an alternative to the typical Victorian love story.

The first January book is The Raven and the Banshee by Carolyn Elizabeth from Bella Books. There was a short story set in the same world released a couple months ago, in case you want a sample before committing to the novel. I continue to be amused that “lesbian pirates of the Caribbean” is its very own sub-genre, and some day I really will do a special episode on the topic.

Early eighteenth-century Charlestown, South Carolina, finds sixteen-year-old Julia Farrow, spirited daughter of a wealthy owner of a shipping company, living and loving on her own terms. With her sharp mind and sharper tongue, she constantly defies family and society expectations without regard for the consequences. Branna Kelly, the only child of an Irish immigrant sailor, is hopelessly in love with her employer’s daughter, imagining their life together as captains of their own fate. Broken-hearted after Julia’s shockingly cruel rejection, she embarks with her family to chart a new shipping route to the Caribbean. Before Julia has a chance to make things right, tragedy strikes and the Kelly’s ship is overrun by merciless pirates. All hands are presumed lost. Fifteen years later, Julia is now running Farrow Company and sailing with the crew on her newest ship. An ill-fated encounter with those same pirates leaves Julia the lone survivor, left alive to be rescued by the infamous Raven, hard-hearted captain of the mercenary ship, Banshee. What follows is a passionate tale of vengeance, forgiveness, second chance love and redemption in a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.

Wildflower Words by Sam Ledel from Bold Strokes Books looks like something of a slice-of-life story set in the American frontier.

Hazel Thompson prides herself on being a beacon of earnest goodwill in Cedar Springs, Utah, where she works alongside her mother as a cook in a raucous restaurant and dance hall. But lately, Hazel wonders if she hasn’t clipped her own wings by always putting her family and neighbors first, leaving no time for her own wants. Lida Jones, the daughter of roving Eastern European immigrants, treks West with her father in search of a better life on the rapidly developing American frontier. To help make money, Lida takes a job in the Pack Horse Library and gets to know the rowdy, tough residents of Cedar Springs. Getting close to anyone is a waste of time, though. She won’t be here long. Hazel and Lida can’t help but get to know one another as Lida travels through on her route. When Lida’s father begins to struggle at work, Lida fears she’ll have to leave Cedar Springs―and Hazel―behind. But how can she when, finally, she’s found a place, and a person, to call home?

Just as a side-bar: Ledel isn’t the only author who has been inspired by the real-life Pack Horse Library women of the 1930s, which began as a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression. If the topic inspires you, you might also check out Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted which re-imagines the program in a near-future dystopia. And for a contemporary real-life version of a woman combining horses and books to spread literacy, take a look at the work of Caitlin Gooch who tweets as @theblackcowgirl and runs a non-profit program called “Saddle Up and Read” to spread the love of both books and horses to children in North Carolina. I don’t usually go off on tangents like this based on the new book listings, but sometimes I just get inspired to share the fantastic web of connections in our world.

The final January book is All of You Every Single One by Beatrice Hitchman from The Overlook Press. This is a literary novel set across several decades of the early 20th century in Vienna.

Julia Lindqvist, a woman unhappily married to a famous Swedish playwright, leaves her husband to begin a passionate affair with a female tailor named Eve. The pair run away together and settle in the more liberal haven of Vienna, where they fall in love, navigate the challenges of their newfound independence, and find community in the city’s Jewish quarter. But Julia’s yearning for a child throws their fragile happiness into chaos and threatens to destroy her life and the lives of those closest to her. Ada Bauer’s wealthy industrialist family have sent her to Dr. Freud in the hope that he can cure her mutism—and do so without a scandal. But help will soon come for Ada from an unexpected place, changing many lives irrevocably. Through the lives of her queer characters, and against the changing backdrop of one of the greatest cities of the age, Hitchman asks what it’s like to live through oppression, how personal decisions become political, and how far one will go to protect the ones they love. Moving across Europe and through decades, Hitchman’s sophomore novel is an intensely poignant portrait of life and love on the fringes of history.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading in the last month? Being on vacation for three weeks gave me time to finish the year with several more titles under my belt. I listened to the audiobook of Darcie Littlebadger’s contemporary fantasy Elatsoe, a Young Adult novel with a Lipan Apache protagonist who can talk to ghosts. At Worldcon I was on a panel with the author about writing asexual characters, so I decided to read something from a fellow panelist.

A few months ago I really enjoyed the holiday novella Meg Mardol put out last year, so I prioritized her new holiday offering A Highland Hogmanay which is a delightful romance of mistaken identity and found family.

And I’ve been continuing my belated tour through KJ Charles’ back catalog of gay male historical romance, with a short piece from the Society of Gentlemen series and two books from the Charm of Magpies series: The Magpie Lord and Jackdaw, which I seem to have read out of order by accident.

I’ve once more started a sapphic Regency romance that doesn’t seem to be hitting the spot for me. Erica Ridley’s The Perks of Loving a Wallflower is full of madcap adventure and banter between the cast of characters that forms the continuing thread of the Wild Wynchesters series. (I think this is the only title in the series with a female couple.) But the writing style doesn’t really capture the historic setting in a way that hits my sweet spot and I’m struggling a bit to get invested in the characters. Is it possible that I’m more picky about subgenres that I really really love? I’m not sure. I know there are lesbian Regencies that I’ve enjoyed so I keep trying them to find more.

The Annual State of the Field Report


As has become my custom—and because I’m the sort of person who likes to geek out over numbers and trends—I’ve taken a look at the state of the field of sapphic historical fiction in 2021, through the lens of the books included in the new releases listings in this podcast. As usual, my list isn’t likely to be an exhaustive data set. And much depends on exactly how one defines the parameters. But to the extent that I’m being consistent in what I include and how I identify the data, this analysis should be useful for comparison purposes.

The total number of books remains remarkably consistent. I included 107 publications from 2021, which keeps the annual numbers consistently with 100 titles, plus/minus 7. This means that if you can read a story every 3 days, you have hopes of being able to read all the sapphic historical fiction that comes out in the year.

The proportion of books that are published under a named imprint has also been remarkably consistent, around 75%. (Demonstrating that the lower proportion for 2019 seems to have been an outlier.) Keep in mind that “named imprint” includes self-published books where the author has created an imprint name for their output. It would take a lot of work to determine which imprint names are single-author houses so I haven’t tried to sort that out at this time.

In 2021, there were 59 named imprints represented in the data, 31 of which haven’t appeared before. That’s roughly half of the total. The total number of publishers represented each year has also remained remarkably consistent, falling somewhere in the 50s. But there’s a lot of churn. In the 4 years I’ve been tracking this data, only 5 publishers had at least one book in every year: 4 small queer presses - Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, Sapphire Books, Supposed Crimes; and the SFF online imprint Tor-dot-com.

Out of the 59 imprints in 2021, 48 of them only released a single title that meets my criteria. That’s about 80%, and that also has been remarkably consistent across the years. Imprints releasing only 2 titles, and those releasing 3 or more also have similar numbers to last year, continuing the slight increase in the multi-title presses at the expense of the 2-title presses. The 5 publishers that put out 3 or more sapphic historicals in 2021 are: Bold Strokes Books, which continues in the lead with 7 titles; Kalikoi, a brand new press that shot into second place with 4 titles, though several of them are quite short; and with 3 titles each, Bywater Books, Sapphire Books, and Past and Prologue Press (which is a single-author imprint).

Some publishers that have had significant contributions in the past but were thin on the ground this year include Bella Books with only one title (and I’m being a bit generous on that one because the historic connection involves modern historic re-enactment), and the mainstream publishers Little Brown, and Harper Collins, neither of which put out any sapphic historicals that I was able to identify this year. The number of identifiable mainstream presses in the data continues to increase gradually. While I can’t always guarantee that I recognize all the minor imprints of mainstream publishers, I found 8 different imprints in this year’s data, compared to 7 last year and 6 each the two previous years. Only Tor-dot-com has been present all 4 years, but 2 others (Harper Collins and William Morrow) have had titles in 3 of the 4 years.

Looking back over recent years, there are also some shifts in the more prominent queer publishers with regard to historicals. Eleven queer presses have published relevant books in at least 3 of the last 10 years. Only 2 presses show up every year: Bold Strokes Books and Bella Books. Three continue to be steady producers, though not every year: Bywater Books, Sapphire Books, and Supposed Crimes. Five of the publishers have had regular output in the past, but nothing in the last 2 years or more. That would be Affinity Rainbow Publishing, Bedazzled Ink, Regal Crest Enterprises, Shadoe Publishing, and Ylva. If it were only a matter of 2020 and 2021, we might chalk that up to the world being on fire, but a few seem to have simply lost interest in historicals. In contrast, publishers with a fairly recent but promisingly strong presence include NineStar Press and I’ll add in Kalikoi (who made an amazing showing for only entering the field in the past year).

Overall, the shape of the publishing field seems remarkably stable, even if the specific players move on and off stage regularly.

Times and Places

But let’s move on to the fun part of the analysis: where and when the stories are set. I group the settings by time period, using longer periods in earlier eras and splitting them more finely in the 19th and 20th centuries. Overall the distribution between pre-19th century and more recent settings has been relatively consistent with about a fifth of the stories set before the 19th century (though 2020 was an outlier with about 30% in the earlier set). Within the pre-19th century group, there’s some shifting of numbers. In 2021, the 17th century was almost overlooked, while the 16th century was stronger than usual. But there’s some representation in each of the categories I measure.

In the last 2 centuries, the relative distribution has been consistent over all four years, with increasing representation in more recent eras. (This doesn’t apply to the later 20th century, in part because it can be hard to decide whether to classify a fairly recent setting as “historical”.) As usual, stories set in the first half of the 19th century are mostly classifiable as “Regency romances” set in England, while American settings increase significantly in the latter half of the century, and in the first half of the 20th century American settings predominate. One interesting shift is that we seem to see fewer war-time stories, rather than having many titles cluster around the American Civil War and the two World Wars. And of the early 20th century stories, there are a larger number focused on the period between the two World Wars, with Jazz Age settings.

In terms of geography, we once again see consistency across the last 4 years. The top two locations for settings are North America (which mostly means the USA) and the British Isles (mostly England, but with Scotland and Ireland regularly appearing). In general, the two groups are roughly equal in frequency, representing a little over a third of the total each. This year, the British Isles took the lead slightly, but not enough to suggest a trend. Continental European settings are the next biggest regional group, together representing one-fifth of the total. The specific countries represented are highly variable, but this year France is the leader as usual, followed by Greece (which, as usual, shows up primarily with classical or mythic stories). Settings in Asia have been gradually increasing, particularly in China, but still represent only 5% of the total this year. The rest of the world covers the final 5%. The only consistently appearing setting in this miscellaneous category is the Caribbean, due to the popularity of pirate stories.

For the US-set stories, 12 different states are represented (based on the cover copy), only 4 of which appear more than once. New York remains the runaway most popular state, and this may be the first year when Chicago doesn’t appear at all.

In terms of genre, we once again see consistency across the years, with fantastic elements appearing in about a third of the titles (though this is affected by my judgment calls about which fantasy books count as historical). Books that have romance as the primary or a significant component made up 2/3 of the total this year, based on my best estimation from the cover copy. This has probably been fairly consistent, but my confidence in doing the evaluation has been variable. I didn’t have the time this year to try to tag books for tropes and themes, so I won’t try to do an assessment of that angle. Anecdotally, there may have been fewer stories that clustered around iconic events, such as World War II, or the French Revolution, but we still see certain cultures being viewed through fixed settings, such as mythic Greece or Viking-era Scandinavia or the Caribbean of the age of Piracy.

What’s my take-away from this year’s survey? It’s the phrase that keeps popping up in this summary: consistency. There’s a certain overall shape to the field of sapphic historicals, for good or ill. The market is neither growing nor shrinking. Self-published titles are neither taking over nor disappearing. The field continues to be highly distributed across a large number of imprints, with no publisher specializing in the genre. The distribution of stories in time and space are uneven, but consistently so, with the centers of gravity being Anglophone cultures and recent centuries. We have yet to see whether the writing and publishing disruptions of the pandemic have affected the field in measurable ways. Only time will tell.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Saturday, January 1, 2022 - 09:31

Just a reminder that submissions for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast's 2022 fiction series will be accepted for the entire month of January. I'm looking forward to having just as hard a time picking just four as I did last year!

Submission Guidelines

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Sunday, December 26, 2021 - 07:32

This brings to a close my summary of Boehringer's Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. The book was everything I hoped it would be. (Well, ok, I fantasized that it might include data that I'd never encountered before, but I'm not surprised it didn't.) This book makes a good pairing with Williams' Roman Homosexuality, which primarily focuses on the male side of the equation. Read Williams to get a grounding in the dominant structures of the Roman sexual system, and then forget everything he says about f/f sex and read Boehringer. (Not that Williams is wildly wrong, but only that he doesn't have space for the same scope of investigation.)

I'm feeling semi-inspired to write the "classical world" chapter of my secret project (a practical guide to writing f/f historical fiction in various eras) while all this is still fresh in my memory.

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Full citation: 

Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2

Chapter 5: Conclusions

I rather like the conclusions chapter—neither a rote summary of the analysis nor an unrelated philosophical excursion. Boehringer starts by noting that there’s an inherent anachronism in defining the scope of the book in terms of modern categories. Whether you consider that scope to be “female homosexuality” or even the narrower “love and sex between women”, the definition assumes the existence of a category that the research has yet to demonstrated existed in classical Greece and Rome. Her second point is that, in studying a data set that is largely cultural representations of the topic, rather than direct records of it in everyday life, we are still looking at “reality.” Texts such as the Satyricon are just as much a part of Roman reality as the real-life dinner parties that we can appreciate only through a filtered lens, in the same way that the characters and stories appearing in contemporary advertising or television shows are “part of our reality”. They are not the whole story, but are an integral part of it and provide useful data.

The largest part of Boehringer’s conclusions involve recognizing the asymmetry and non-binary nature of classical Greek and Roman systems of gender and sex. With regard to gender, the societies under study did not revolve around a gender binary of male/female, but rather a central reference point of “dominant, virile, male citizen” with all other social categories operating in contrast. There were no “natural categories” defined solely by biological sex that people identified with, and that affected their experience of the world. Given that “male human being” was not a cultural category, it follows that “male homosexual” cannot be a cultural category, particularly in light of the expectations and judgments that shaped how sexual pairings were evaluated.

But the asymmetry of all categories being defined and understood in relation to a central model that is (among other things) biologically male means that love/sex between women will always fall outside the frameworks and structures that are defined in relation to that model. A m/m pairing will always be evaluated with respect to whether it follows the hierarchical rules regarding “male virtue/honor”. Those rules by definition will be irrelevant to a f/f pairing. F/f pairings are not legible within the existing system. One obvious effect of that illegibility is the dearth of surviving documentation regarding them, as they simply weren’t culturally important. Another effect is that when they are discussed (by elite male authors), there will generally be a sense of incoherence—an absence of inherent meaning as an independent concept.

But, that said, it is still possible to extract themes and motifs relevant to love/sex between women. They are not universal or consistent, but are recurring across time.

  • There is an “amorous and erotic tension without a consummated physical relation.” Obviously this is not universal! But it is one repeating motif, seen in the works of Sappho but also in text such as Iphis where the supposed inability to “consummate” the relationship (via sex as defined for m/f pairings) is a feature.
  • There is “social illegibility tied to the lack of differentiation between partners.” M/f and m/m pairings always involve the assignment of differentiated and contrasting roles, and the adherence to or divergence from those roles creates social meaning. A consistent them in imagining f/f pairings is a lack of differentiation, an equality and similarity between the partners and how they are understood.
  • There is “a gender shift that is not systematized or articulated in terms of the active/passive binary.” That is, when f/f pairings are described in terms of “acting like a man” it is inconsistently applied and does not align systematically with expectations of sexual behavior.
  • There is “physical excess that is not socially inscribed as erotic.” Women who engage in f/f sex may be depicted as acting “immoderately” in other ways, but those extreme behaviors are not seen as being part of their erotic life. (Perhaps, rather, their erotic life is simply one more example of their immoderation.)
  • There is “an essentially discursive imaginary, not figured in images or embodied by real people.” What Boehringer seems to mean by this is that the information we have about f/f sex comes from the fictional stories people tell about it, but where it is not (or rarely) a subject of visual art or represented by relating the experiences and relationships of actual historical people (even when we may assume that actual historical people participated in f/f sex).

Individually and in isolation, these themes have given rise to conclusions about classical female homosexuality that Boehringer considers to be inaccurate, such as the archetype of the hypersexual, macro-clitoral, masculine tribade (which certainly appears as a motif in much later ages), or the image of a sentimental non-erotic love between equals (similar to the ideals of 19th century romantic friendship). But even when such conceptual connections can validly be traced, the elaborations and social forms found in other ages should not be projected back onto classical societies in their later forms. Social categories have meaning only within the cultural systems that developed them. But (Boehringer emphasizes) one of the modern cultural systems that cannot be projected onto classical societies is the assumption of symmetry between “male pre-homosexual” concepts and “female pre-homosexual” concepts. The evidence and arguments that scholars such as David Halperin bring to bear on the question of “male homosexuality” in pre-modern times are not necessarily relevant to the question of “female homosexuality”. And, to a certain extent, Boehringer does think that a concept roughly identifiable as “female homosexuality” existed in classical Greek and Roman society (assuming I have not drastically misunderstood her), even though it cannot be equated with modern sexual orientation concepts.

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Misc tags: 
Saturday, December 25, 2021 - 16:15

I have some thoughts about the structure of the book, in how the examination of the Dialogues of the Courtesans is placed apart from the main presentation, as if it were a different type of evidence. As the most complex and extensive presentation of sex between women in the classical era, I can see how it makes sense to sort out the simpler texts first and then use that analysis to interpret the dialogues. And given that it's an adaptation of an independent article, Boehringer may have had structural reasons for separating it from the overall outline. But in a way it feels like the reader is being guided to treat it as a different type of evidence than all the other material, which me. I may need to think about this a bit more. (And maybe some of my questions will be answered in the book's conclusion section, which I haven't read yet--a hazard of blogging as I go!) In any event, there's one more post on this book and then maybe a brief break before starting whatever I tackle next.

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Full citation: 

Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2

Chapter 4: Epilogue - Lucian’s Dialogues

Those familiar with the corpus of classical references to sex between women may have noticed a gap in the material covered up to this point. In a chapter labeled “Epilogue: Lucian and the saturation of signs” Boehringer tackles Lucian’s Dialogue 5 from Dialogues of the Courtesans, in which the narrator describes her sexual interactions with a female** couple who present themselves as “married”.

[**Note: Some discussions and analyses of this dialogue consider Megilla/Megillos through a transgender lens, which makes a great deal of sense when studying the fictional character in isolation. Boehringer discusses the masculine elements in the character’s depiction, but on the whole evaluates Megilla as representing a woman. This makes sense in context, as the question is “what does dialogue 5 tell us about Roman attitudes toward sex between women?” not “what are the possible ways of interpreting the identity and presentation of this fictional character?” Given this, within this post I will follow Boehringer’s approach of using the name Megilla and female pronouns.]

The discussion begins, as usual, with a review of how the text has been interpreted in the past, and the larger context of the Dialogues. Lucian wrote his Dialogues in Greek in the mid 2nd century CE, following a tradition of dialogues created as rhetorical exercises, but using content more related to drama of the New Comedy tradition. As the overt framework of the work is the world of courtesans, it is unsurprisingly populated with the stock figures and plots of that world: prostitutes of all ages and backgrounds, clients ranging from the pleasant to the jealous to the abusive. While many of the individual dialogues can be traced to existing comedic works and themes, the fifth dialogue has no known parallel. Lucian’s fictional setting was Golden Age Athens, but they cannot be understood as representing actual everyday experiences of courtesans either in their setting or in the time they were written.

Furthermore, the fifth dialogue in particular is distanced from “reality” by several layers: Lucian creates a fictional text in which a (fictional) courtesan is relating an off-stage encounter with a third party to a colleague. In addition to Lucian’s own purposes in how he presents the material, there is the question of how reliable the character of Leaina is in descrbing her experience to her friend Klonarion, even aside from the parts that Leaina explicitly states she declines to report. On top of that, there’s the motif of how Megilla reports and frames her own part of the event in talking to Leaina. So even if the text were representing actual people and events at their heart, we would need to sort through the layers of interpretation. Once again, we must understand that this is a fictional depiction and can only convey the author’s view of the world and the elements he chose to present to his audience.

The chapter presents a translation of the dialogue in its entirety, with key vocabulary given in the original Greek. [Note: For a different translation of the text to use as a reference, see my podcast on classical material. I recommend reviewing it to have context.] Boehringer then proceeds to identify the “facts” that can be extracted from the scenario-as-presented and how they support or contradict existing scholarly interpretations.

The dialogue involves four women: the courtesans Leaina and Klonarion, and the clients Megilla and Demonassa. The courtesans are friends, with a certain expectation of honest communication between them. Klonarion has been hearing gossip circulating about Leaina’s ongoing relationship with one of the named clients and wants to know more. They both have Attic names and therefore represent the native courtesan community of Athens.

The clients are identified as “foreigners”, both by the given names they bear and by explicit identification of their origins. Megilla is from Lesbos and Demonassa is from Corinth. In this genre of text, cultural origin is typically used to indicate stock character types, although the characteristics may change over time. At an earlier period, identifying a woman as from Lesbos might have alluded to the island’s reputation for general lustfulness and debauchery. But in this text a specific connection is made to sex between women. “…she is a hetairistria. For they say there are such women in Lesbos, masculine-looking, not willing to have it done to them by men, but preferring to associate with women as men do.” This appears to be the earliest known context in which the island of Lesbos was used to indicate sexual desire between women.

It is less clear what Demonassa’s Corinthian origin is meant to signify. Corinth is sometimes associated with prostitution, but there is no indication in this text that either Megilla or Demonassa is a sex worker. Both women are described as wealthy. They are a couple (Megilla says they’ve been married for some time). They are the ones hosting the drinking party at which Leaina was hired to entertain.

After the party, when Leaina is alone with Megilla and Demonassa, and in the middle of the three of them engaging in sex (about which more in a moment), Megilla takes off her wig, revealing a shaved head “like a manly-seeming athlete,” she suggests that Leaina consider her a “handsome youth” and gives her name in the masculine form Megillos. In response to Leaina’s questioning, Megilla indicates that she doesn’t have male physiology or ambiguous physiology, but has the “mind and desire” of a man. Boehringer notes that Leaina’s narration doesn’t indicate that Megilla had an obviously masculine presentation before this episode. I.e., that during the party and any earlier negotiations, Megilla presumably presented as female in an unremarkable way, such that the later conversation was unexpected. This undermines the interpretation that Megilla represents a “masculine tribade” archetype.

The post-party encounter between the three women is unambiguously sexual. The women kiss with open mouths including some biting, both Megilla and Demonassa embrace Leaina and caress her breasts. And after the gender talk, Leaina “gives herself” to Megilla who “enjoyed herself incredibly”. Leaina is then given the sort of gifts that a client typically gives to a courtesan. Boehringer notes that, contrary to framing Megilla and Demonassa as an active/passive pair, both women are described as taking an “active” role in sexual activity with Leaina, whatever they may do when alone together. Boehringer notes that this is the only one of the dialogues in which pleasure is the outcome of sexual encounters. The framing conversation with Klonarion indicates that Leaina’s professional association with Megilla has continued since then and that Megilla loves her (using a form of eros, not philia) “as if she were a man.” So here’s another item that is presented as imaginable: that a courtesan could be in an ongoing professional relationship with a wealthy female client, and that the relationship would be public knowledge and believed to be sexual.

Leaina the courtesan is curious about her client’s sexual behavior, is amenable to providing the sexual services her client(s) request, and expects to be paid for that by means of valuable gifts. But Megilla is harder to classify. In some aspects she performs a feminine social role (her initial presentation, organizing an all-women party), in other aspects she takes on a male social role (her hidden hair style, claiming a masculine form of her name, calling Demonassa her wife). And Megilla + Demonassa as a couple present an otherwise unparalleled social form: a long-term female couple, whose relationship is overtly sexual, and who as far as we can tell are not married to men or in any sort of sexual relationship to men. They represent the “unimaginable” thing that other authors have danced around or made invisible.

Boehringer concludes by talking about how the dialogue is about the act of story-telling, where Leaina in some way stands in for the author—shaping what parts of the narrative will be revealed or concealed—and Klonarion stands in for the audience. The motifs that Leaina narrates about Megilla represent standard tropes about women who loved women that were in circulation at the time, but only addressed obliquely in other texts. These motifs include: framing f/f sex as shameful, describing f/f sex as new or paradoxical, a context of drunkenness and debauchery, describing f/f sex with the language of m/f sex, the absence of distinctly separate sexual roles, and the assignment of same-sex desire to “foreign” women. But within these motifs, none of them is universal to all the characters in the dialogue. There is no consistent, coherent archetype of the woman who loves women, and therefore the concept once again fails to be legible within the Roman sexual system.

[Note: Despite the discussion of these motifs, I feel that there isn’t quite enough consideration of how the Dialogue does support (or at least introduce) certain stereotypes that Boehringer otherwise concludes were not part of classical Roman understandings of f/f sex. There is a motif of at least one partner being masculinized. And that does at least imply a possible differentiation of roles between partners. I feel that her overall arguments against a concept of f/f sex that involves gendered, differentiated roles are sound. One can see the Dialogue as an outlier from a generally undifferentiated model, as opposed to representing the primary understanding that should be assumed when reading other texts. But this is somewhat glossed over.]

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Friday, December 24, 2021 - 11:00

Several years ago, I did a podcast on f/f sexuality in classical Rome, based on everything I had read up to that point. Obviously, I might discuss certain details differently with the addition of Boehringer's analysis. That's only to be expected and entirely unsurprising. If I weren't learning new things all the time, I might as well close down the Project. And conversely, if I waited to post any summaries or analysis until I had perfect and complete knowledge about a topic, I'd never post anything at all.

One of the reasons I love Boehringer's approach to this material is exactly because she make me think in new ways, and points out places where I've accepted the interpretations of authors whose understanding was shaped by conflating disparate time periods, or back-projecting later assumptions and interpretations. And neither do I take Boehringer entirely uncritically. I think there are a few places where she prioritizes her overall conclusions (that classical understandings of f/f sexuality included no aspect of role differentiation or gender-crossing) over multiple possible readings of the available texts.

And that's the way things ought to be. We learn, we analyze, we challenge, and we accept that at no point do we have a perfect understanding of the past.

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Full citation: 

Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2

Chapter 3i: The Roman Period - Scientific Texts

[Note: calling these texts “scientific” is stretching things a bit, but I’ll allow that the people writing them considered them to be scientific, in a sense.] This section of the chapter covers a handful of texts that fall generally in the category of non-fiction, as understood by their authors. A secondary theme to this section is “motifs that classical Roman texts do not support,” specifically with respect to physiology and gender role topics.

Macro-clitoral Motifs

Boehringer takes a fairly strong position that no texts of the period under consideration support the idea that Greek or Roman cultures associated f/f sex with a specific physiology, in particular with clitoral hypertrophy. The interpretation of various of the Roman sources as supporting the “tribade with an enlarged clitoris” is, she asserts (and I’d go so far as to say, demonstrates) a back-projection based on later material in which that theme is clearly present. Boehringer reviews a number of authors who have interpreted the classical Roman use of tribas as indicating sexual acts involving a macro-clitoris (or at least, as indicating that this was a standard cultural motif at the time). She points out that texts that speak of women “penetrating” someone during sex are referring to f/m sex, not f/f sex. Medical manuals do cover the topic of women with a macro-clitoris, but do not associate it with sexual desire for women or with sex between women. (This also holds for Greek texts.) She specifically notes that the texts that come the closest to suggesting this motif do not hold up (or at least offer no concrete support), including the fable by Phaedrus of Prometheus attaching the “wrong” sexual organs (resulting in same-sex desire) and the epigrams by Martial that refer to a woman as a “fucker” of women. Boehringer reminds the reader that she has similarly previously addressed the topic of the olisbos (dildo) as a marker of f/f sex, and similarly discounted this as an ahistorical projection from later eras. That is, there are references to the use of an olisbos by women for sexual gratification, but not to the use of it by pairs of women for sexual activity. [Note: I’d be interested to see a specific analysis of the line in Lucian about women making love to each other “harnessed to this object built in the shape of licentious parts,” because that strikes me as highly suggestive.]

Dream Symbolism

Manuals of dream interpretation (oneiromancy) include the meanings assigned to a variety of dreams about sexual activity. Although the dreamer is mostly assumed to be male, there are a few interpretations where the dreamer is female and dreaming about sex with another women. Two key points are crucial in trying to use dream interpretations as social commentary on sexual activity. Pairings that are clearly socially disapproved (such as incestuous pairings, or pairings where the male dreamer takes a passive role) are not associated with negative meanings. The interpretation of the dream (positive or negative) comes from other elements of the scenario and don’t systematically correspond to how the scenarios would be evaluated in real life. And with respect to male dreams about sex, there is no “natural category” of interpretations relating to the sex of the partner. Sexual motifs in dreams are categorized as those that “conform to morals,” those “against morals,” and those “against nature.” Incest and oral sex are “against morals,” while the category “against nature” includes sex with oneself, with a deity, with a corpse, with an animal, or a female dreamer having sex with a woman (the only scenario among the sexual dreams in which a female dreamer is mentioned at all). From this it can be seen that “against nature” isn’t by definition “bad” but perhaps more along the lines of “unimaginable, impossible.” All of the sexual scenarios in dreams are divided into those in which the dreamer penetrates the other participant and those in which the dreamer is penetrated by the other participant, with differing interpretations (but, as noted, not ones in which one group is entirely positive and the other negative). Dreams involving two women follow this pattern, specifying different meanings for the dreamer penetrating or being penetrated, however given the unreal nature of the context, it isn’t clear who what extent this indicates distinct sex acts. It’s entirely possible that the rhetorical listing of penetrating/penetrated simply follows the structure set up for the default case (the male dreamer) without consideration for the logistics of the act. [Note: compare, for example, to medieval punishments for sodomy in which women, in parallel with men, are sometimes sentenced to have the “offending member” amputated, without regard for actual anatomy.] Boehringer’s overall conclusion is that the key feature one can draw from the symbolic structure of dream interpretation regarding f/f sex is that such scenarios were entirely outside the sphere of what could be categorized coherently. Unlike m/m sex dreams that could be further sorted into types of acts and participants, f/f sex imagery involved only one relevant feature by which it was classified: the sexes of the participants. And that feature placed it into the category of impossible/unimaginable scenarios that.


Physiognomy was the system of attributing tendencies toward certain behaviors or desires based on anatomical features such as body configuration, facial features, color of eyes and hair, etc. While later manuals of physiognomy discussed features that were associated with f/f desire, Boehringer identifies no texts from prior to the 4th century CE that do so. Neither a propensity for f/f sex nor a “masculine” personality in a woman are included in earlier texts, although features that indicate an effeminate man are present. The earliest inclusion of f/f topics is in an anonymous 4th century CE text and is an addition to the base text it is drawn from which refers only to m/m desire. The male-related text discusses how certain anti-virile features are associated with a man who desires women, in contrast to the more exaggeratedly virile features of a man who “seeks men.” Following this, the 4th century author adds, “It is the same for women: the feminine type (species muliebris) bed down with women, but the virile type (virile speciem) are more likely to seek men.” Note that these correspondences are the opposite of the image of an effeminate man desiring men and a masculine woman desiring women. Rather, in both sexes, the gendered physiognomy “seeks its like” in a partner.


Medical texts from Antiquity do not make any connection with atypical anatomy and same-sex desire in women. Indeed, up to the 5th century CD, this genre doesn’t cover sex between women at all. The earliest known medical text that mentions sex between women (Caelius Aurelianus) covers both male and female same-sex desire as a moral sickness rather than a medical condition (reflecting the dominance of Christian attitudes by that time). The passage is difficult due to corruption of the various manuscript versions that survive, but refers to tribades as practicing “the two forms of love” who “come together with women rather than with men” and who “pursue the women in question with a jealousy almost worthy of men”. Boehringer interprets “the two forms” as indicating alternating or symmetrical roles in sex (as contrasted with an active/passive distinction in roles). She notes that the passage deserves more analysis that she gives it, but that it falls outside the scope of her study.


The final part of this section catalogs various motifs that recur across multiple genres discussing sex between women. A common theme is treating sex between women as something “new” or “never before seen/discussed”. Another is treating it as a paradox—as something inherently contradictory (as in “adultery without a man present”). A third theme is seeing f/f sex as something “prodigious” in the sense of surprising, mysterious, or “monstrous” (with the caveat that “monstrous” can also apply to miracles in this context). It is a spectacle causing surprise and fascination in the audience. A fourth theme is association with the supernatural or the practice of magic (though Boehringer offers only the example of Martial’s female couple engaging in sex alone at night under the moon, a context associated with magic). A fifth theme is association with gender ambiguity—of confusion or playing with images of gender-crossing or existing between gender categories. A sixth theme is that of love/desire that falls outside “natural” categories, associating f/f desire with inter-species love (as in Ovid). In general these discursive themes work to remove f/f sex from the realm of the “real” and into the realm of the fictional, the contradictory, and the purely hypothetical.

The chapter ends with a summary of topics that Classical Roman attitudes toward f/f sex do not include: a masculine appearance, an atypical genital physiology, the use of a dildo, a distinction into active and passive sex roles or maculine/feminine gender roles.  Overall, what defines “women who have sex with women” as a single identifiable category is, in part, that such relations fall entirely outside the system of socially defined categories relevant to sexual relations and the illegibility of f/f relations within those categories.

Time period: 
Thursday, December 23, 2021 - 08:46

In the texts discussed in this section, it is particularly important to keep in mind that these are fictional depictions, created for specific rhetorical purposes. While the women and their sexual activities in these texts need to make sense to the audience (to say nothing of needing to be imaginable by the author), these are not neutral, documentary descriptions of random real-life women. We have a complete absence of neutral documentation of real-life Roman women who engaged in sex with women. That doesn't mean that we can't envision such lives based on biased and polemical texts of this sort, but it does mean that we will be adding our own (modern and biased) layers, whether we're filtering out the misogyny baked into Roman literature or trying to imagine the interior lives of the women these authors are holding up for ridicule. In such exercises, I think it can be useful to consider other historic contexts where the "official" literature is uniformly hostile and misogynystic, but where we do have glimpses into the interior lives of women who loved women. We can't know the specifics of Roman women's lives, but we have sound basis for expecting them to be unaligned with what men said about them.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2

Chapter 3h: The Roman Period - Fictional Women

Petronius’ Satyricon

The Satyricon of Petronius includes a fleeting episode in which two women kiss and embrace each other during the “feast of Trimalchio”. Once again, a full understanding of the context of this literary passage is necessary to determine how this scene reflects Roman realities. Trimalchio’s feast is only one episode in the larger work that is the Satyricon and both it and the work as a whole require a lot of background which cannot be summarized here. But in brief, the fictional Trimalchio is a very rich freedman who is showing off his wealth and status by giving an over-the-top banquet. Boehringer notes two important themes. Everything in the Satyricon is a sort of reversal or inversion of ideals. And in particular, the banquet can be viewed as a distorted reflection of Plato’s Symposium, conveying the message that the characters are reaching cluelessly for the values and experiences of that earlier era, but failing to achieve them at every point. Within this context, the episode of the embrace between the women can be seen as motivated by / referring back to the myth of love between two-bodied creatures, but as having no other significant motivation for its specific inclusion.

The two women, Fortunata and Scintilla, are the wives of the two wealthy men present at the banquet, the host Trimalchio and his rival Habinnas. The two women initially serve as proxies for their husbands’ one-up-manship, where they show off the expensive jewelry their husbands have given them, and the husbands make a point of commenting on the cost and value of the objects. The women serve as placeholders for the necessary parts of a high-status life, but without a qualitative function. They are not described as beautiful, they have not provided sons, and their conversation makes clear that their husbands do not feel romantic love for them or treat them with the respect due to a wife.

After the display of jewelry, the two women fall to talking together, laughing and exchanging drunken kisses. They have expressed pleasure and eagerness at seeing each other and are in the middle of embracing each other when Habinnas, the husband of Scintilla, assaults Fortunata by seizing her feet and tipping her backwards over the couch so her garment hikes up above her knees. Fortunata protests, settles herself with her tunic in place again, and “takes refuge in Scintilla’s arms” hiding her embarrassment under a cloth.

Boehringer interprets this incident as a proxy for the two men’s rivalry, with Habinnas treating the women’s actions as if it were a form of adultery, for which a husband has the right to take action. But here he is at fault for a husband only has the right to take action within his own home, not by assaulting the “offender” in their home. The specific form of the assault is a type of symbolic rape (Boehringer goes into the details of the actions and language that support this). But in assaulting Fortunata, he is actually challenging Trimalchio.

The acts of affection between the two women have no social significance or meaning on their own—the characters themselves exist only as display of their husbands’ wealth. And the interruption of their affection gives social meaning to the act only by reframing it as a power struggle between the men.

[Note: Boehringer’s point is primarily that this episode cannot be taken as evidence regarding actual social attitudes toward women—including married women—engaging in sex-adjacent activities, whether at a public banquet or in any other context. However it should still be noted that the author has created a scenario in which two women, wives of indifferent husbands, indulge in erotic activity together, to all appearances as a way of satisfying their unfulfilled desires. Whatever symbolic meaning Petronius intended to give the women’s encounter, this was a scenario that he could envision and that he expected to make sense to his readers.]

Martial’s Bassa

As previously discussed, Martial’s epigrams should be understood as witty and satirical commentary on “character types” that illustrate some facet of Roman in/out-group psychology, and not as documentation of specific actual people. The epigram on Bassa follows the typical “set-up, punchline” format.

In the initial part, Bassa is described as a paragon of virtue—a second Lucretia! (Lucretia was a historic figure considered the epitome of female virtue and modesty.) Bassa hasn’t had a succession of husbands, there are no rumors of her having any (male) lover.  In alignment with the expectations for a modest woman, she socializes only with women.

The second part reinterprets the same set of facts, beginning with an accusation of scandal. Bassa’s all-female company is no longer innocent as she is their fucker (fututor). But in despite of the use of this word that normally is defined as vaginal penetration, Bassa’s activities are elaborated on as “uniting twin cunts” with man-like lust. The epigram ends with a “Theban riddle” (making reference to the riddles of the Sphinx): adultery with no man involved.

As with many of Martial’s epigrams, the imagery is deliberately crude and shocking. But, also as usual, the point isn’t to present a neutral description of Roman experiences and attitudes, but to present an absurdity or conundrum for humorous purposes. Clearly he doesn’t mean to suggest that all women who engage in superficially modest and virtuous behavior should be suspected of secret vices. Another take-away is that the term fututor, when applied to women, can’t be assumed to indicate penetrative sex. (It implies sex, but perhaps may simply be the most “neutral” term available, unless a less normative act is specifically implied.) Another point is that—as we saw in the hypothetical legal case previously discussed—the application of the term “adultery” to sex between women was not a legal fact. Applying it here via language (adulterium), and in the Satyricon by means of the framework of action-and-reaction, shows that the authors saw a parallel but not that it had the same official status.

[Note: So in terms of envisioning Roman realities, what can this text suggest? Firstly, that Romans could imagine that women could have same-sex encounters within the context of an otherwise respectable life. Secondly, that male authors would consider such encounters to be improper and outside the norm. Thirdly, that sex between women could be imagined to intrude on male proprietary rights (adultery) at a symbolic level, even if not at a legal level. Fourthly, we have a specific sexual technique implied that adds to the repertoire that can be extracted from other texts.]

Juvenal’s Satires

Juvenal’s satires are very far from an objective record of the society he lived in. Basically (and this is my phrasing, certainly not Boehringer’s) he was yelling at clouds and shit-posting and get-off-my-lawning and kids-these-days-ing to the utmost of his talents. Juvenal’s satires rage at all the vices and degeneracy he feels are destroying Traditional Roman Values™, including debauchery, greed, corruption, and the growing presence of foreigners. [Note: I’m quite certain that if Juvenal had been alive today in the US, he would have been a Fox News commentator.] Unlike Martial, Juvenal often does have specific people in mind as the targets of his pen, though he dodges lawsuits by using partial names. Nor do Juvenal’s satires present a consistent and coherent picture. The claims he makes in one may be completely contradicted by his assertions in another. All of this must be kept in mind when evaluating the truth value of specific claims and statements.

The second satire (after one which lays out his basic arguments) is aimed at pathici (men who take a passive role in sex with other men or have other “unmanly” habits and practices), including a passage written in the voice of a female character, Laronia. Boehringer discusses two laws relating to female and male sexual behavior that are referenced in the passage, particularly concerning stuprum, a concept relating to shameful or degrading sexual behaviors. The passage in the Laronia text referring to sex between women is framed in the negative in order to criticize men more strongly, Roman women, she claims do not lick each other (using fairly tame language to indicate oral sex), while men allow themselves to be penetrated by other men. [Note: the verb in this passage is lambere “lick” rather than the more crude lingere, which comes down to us in the compound cunnilingus. While both have similar denotations, it is the context of usage that tells us that one is more polite than the other.] Women do not claim male social prerogatives by arguing law or wrestling in the gymnasium, but men take up feminine activities such as spinning wool. [Note: it’s unclear here whether the accusation is that men are literally engaging in fiber production or whether “spinning wool” stands in metonymically for female-coded activities in general.]

Setting aside, for the moment, the judgement implied about sex between women, Boehringer points out several understandings that can be extracted from this passage. Criticism of pathici is predicated on an assumption of differentiated roles within m/m sex, and that certain roles are more shameful than others. Indeed, the man who alternates between active and passive roles appears to be more condemned than the man who prefers a passive role. But the description of f/f activity makes no distinction of roles or status. “Media does not lick Cluvia, nor Flora, Catulla.” But there is not the linguistic apparatus for distinguishing licker and lickee as separate roles to be evaluated individually, as we regularly see for sexual activity involving men. The women are not distinguished by age or status, but treated as a single undifferentiated category. From the context of the discussion, the hypothetical women can be presumed to be “respectable” married women rather than prostitutes or courtesans, as the legal context of this discussion involves forms of adultery, which would not apply to prostitutes.

Boehringer’s interpretation is that this passage is not intended specifically to provide an opinion on sex between women in the abstract, but rather to use an accepted view that f/f oral sex is strongly negatively evaluated in order to imply that the behavior of men in the same discussion is even worse than that.

The fictional Laronia’s defense of Roman women is shown to be a rhetorical tactic rather than a claim about actual practice by the appearance in Juvenal’s 6th satire of a long litany of accusations of women’s sexual debauchery. The framing story of this satire is that of a man trying to convince his friend never to marry, by listing all the ways in which women are unworthy of his love. This catalog specifically targets the hypocrisy of wives of citizens, not the behavior of more marginal women, and covers a very wide range of behaviors, not only sexual ones.

But among this catalog is one dramatized scenario in which two women, returning together from a drunken party, literally piss on the altar of Chastity. Following this, they take turns to straddle/ride (equitant) each other, “writhing together beneath the gaze of the Moon.” In context, this is clearly intended to indicate sexual behavior. Even more so than the licking passage, the language indicates the absence of role differentiation and a mutual activity. The two women are of equal status, likely of equal age being described as “milk sisters” (i.e., nursed by the same wet-nurse), and to the extent that the sexual activity is asymmetric, each takes turns at each activity. There is no implication of masculine role-playing or of penetrative activity. (While Juvenal also condemns women who engage in male-coded activities such as athletics, this is done in separate scenarios not related to f/f sex.) Much of Boehringer’s further commentary speaks to the multiple ways in which this scenario violates the expected behavior of modest citizen wives.


Overall, these fictional depictions by Petronius, Martial, and Juvenal present a relatively consistent picture. These are free women of various social ranks, the wives of citizens and freedmen. They are not described as tribades or fricatrixes (although sexual activities implied by those labels are described). There is no parallelism between the way f/f sex and m/m sex is treated. The judgement of m/m sex hinges on an assumption of asymmetry and differentiated roles, while f/f sex does not involve different judgements based on distinctive roles within the sex act. Rather, the negative judgment of f/f sex hinges on the fact that no man is involved. The category of tribas is not a parallel for the category of cinaedus, in the sense of envisioning an overarching category of “people who engage in same-sex sexual activity.” The contrasting categories applied to men who have sex with men are irrelevant to women who have sex with women because they are entirely outside the system of masculine virtue that allows some roles and disallows others. This pattern continues in the next section which looks at “scientific” discourse around sexuality.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2021 - 06:50

It remains frustrating that essentially all of the surviving source material on female homosexuality in classical Greek and Roman contexts comes not simply through male voices, but through elite male voices who tended to view women as a whole as standing outside the concept of "virtuous, acceptable, praiseworthy behavior." It becomes impossible to filter out the authors' attitudes towards women, and towards relations between the sexes, from any possible evidence about how the women (hypothetically) involved in such relationships might have felt. How did Roman women in general feel about the male-centered rules and structures by which their lives were evaluated? How did any marginalized group in Roman society feel about their own lives? A friend of mine has been summarizing read-throughs of academic texts on the experiences of enslaved people in Roman society and many of the same questions arise, often with fractionally more direct evidence (but only fractionally). Since the end product of the LHMP is to provide information that can help us create fictional scenarios that are compatible with (even if not supported by) the existing data, if seems reasonable to bring in such tangential considerations. Some day I will try to write a "guide to writing f/f fiction in classical contexts" like I've been working on for some other eras. It may be very scanty. But I'm starting to feel a bit more up to the task.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2

Chapter 3g: The Roman Period - Tribades - Philaenis

One particular woman’s name crops up in relation to several references to tribades, creating a confusing implication that a specific tribade named Philaenis was part of Roman history. In this section, Boehringer dissects out the origins, traditions, and contexts that connect the name Philaenis to sex between women (as well as other sexual contexts). This is a long, complicated discussion and I will skim over some parts.

Classical literature makes reference to a number of treatises on love and sex, although very few survive. (Ovid’s The Art of Love operates within this genre, and a number of literary works have characters comment on, or quote excerpts from, sex manuals.) Even the nature of the referenced works is not entirely clear. They may have been serious compilations of sexual advice, or parodies of technical manuals on other topics, or satirical works. Some later catalogs of books (often our only source for material that is now lost) discuss books that describe various sexual positions. A number of authors for this type of literature are named or referenced in multiple unrelated sources, indicating the likelihood of a genuine original. Of these, the name Philaenis is the most common, and came eventually to stand in for the entire genre of sex manual.

It was not uncommon for sex manuals to be attributed to female authorship, although in some cases this may be a pseudonym used by a male author, with a nod to the belief that women were more interested in sex (or at least, less restrained). Boehringer sets aside the question of whether there was a real author named Philaenis (and whether that author was in fact female) and focuses on the “authorial persona” that went by that name.

Many references to Philaenis’ work suggest that it was a catalog of sexual positions, but the discovery of three papyrus fragments that reference Philaenis as author show a somewhat broader coverage—more of an “art of love” discussing many aspects of behavior on topics such as seduction and kissing.

In addition to this limited direct material, the appearance of the name Philaenis in connection with sexual manuals suggest that the authorial persona was known from the late 4th or early 3rd century BCE. Two epigrams of the 3rd century BCE state, in the voice of Philaenis, that she was not a debauched woman or prostitute, though she had been slandered as such. These are literary exercises, written about her legacy and reputation, not about the woman herself (and certainly not by her). By the 1st century CE, a humorous reference in an inscription written for a statue of Priapus (a clearly sexual context) references a woman demanding “all the positions described by Philaenis” from her (male) lover. In the 2nd century CE, Lucian uses “the tablets of Philaenis” as an example of filthy language. Eventually the author’s name became metonymic for the work itself and “a Philaenis” simply meant a sex manual.

Although various sources argue over or refute that Philaenis was a courtesan or prostitute—perhaps a natural conclusion given the subject of the text—there is no evidence that supports either conclusion. Boehringer argues against some scholarly opinion that the name came to stand in for a generic courtesan or prostitute. (Part of the difficulty comes from the limited contexts in Latin literature in which ordinary women are mentioned by name at all, and the very limited number of “respectable” women so named.) Thus the interpretation of references to the literary Philaenis has been confounded by scholarly assumptions that any woman with that name could automatically be interpreted as a prostitute. But conversely, it is reasonable to interpret any mention of the name as raising sexual associations in the minds of the classical readers/hearers, even when there is no overt indication of sex work.

This association with sex, but not specifically with prostitution, is evident in the three contexts of most relevance to the present work, in which a character named Philaenis appears as a tribade: two epigrams by Martial and a passage in Lucian’s Erotes. Here again we run into confusion created by more recent scholars who projected a post-Classical connection between prostitution and female homosexuality onto the Classical material. But a study of the specific contexts in which tribas appears, make it clear that the Romans did not conflate the two. In looking at those contexts, it’s key to understand that to the Romans “Philaenis” did not mean “a prostitute or courtesan” but rather “a woman who has a deep theoretical knowledge about sexual matters and writes on this topic.”

A total of nine epigrams by Martial involve a character with the name Philaenis. Two specifically associate the subject with sex between women (though not necessarily exclusively) while the other seven do not. It should not be assumed that all the epigrams are intended to be understood as referring to the same specific woman (or even to an actual woman at all). Martial’s epigrams, in general, address concrete everyday subjects in a vivid and exaggerated way, and only rarely can be associated with actual historic people. The humor is often crude and there is an over-arching theme of mocking or demonizing behaviors that the poet disapproved of. In general, Martial is targeting character types, not specific individuals.

Boehringer provides an extended analysis of the themes and topics that Romans considered obscene or repulsive (and which therefore were the sorts of themes Martial addressed). This is too complex a topic to get into in this summary, but key features are disapproval of immoderate and excessive behavior, and an attitude that oral sex pollutes the mouth and is therefore degrading to the one who performs it.

Thus we set up the interpretation of a fairly lengthy epigram describing the behavior of “the tribade Philaenis” who engages in a series of activities to an immoderate degree that she believes to show her “manliness”. But as the punchline twist, “when she’s horny, she doesn’t give blowjobs—that would be unmanly—but greedily eats out girls cunts.” The force of the satire is to show how Philaenis is so misled as to how to “perform masculinity” that she does the least manly thing of all: perform oral sex on women. The full explanation of the symbolism and reasoning behind this text is very detailed and necessary to understand the epigram, as the point of the text is not to accuse a specific actual woman of being a tribade and to associate the performance of masculinity with that status, but rather to mock the idea of excess (both sexual and non-sexual) as being a virtue, using a “clueless woman” as the butt of the joke. This is important, as a superficial reading would suggest that all the activities Philaenis engages in (including fucking boys, fondling girls, exercising in the gymnasium, and excessive dining and drinking) are part of a Roman stereotype of female homosexuality. Boehringer argues (similarly to other recent studies) that Philaenis’s sexual activities are not part of a coherent “type” and do not represent a sort of “proto-butch” stereotype. But rather that they are only one element in a catalog of activities related only by standing outside the ideal of behavior.

The second of Martial’s epigrams is much shorter: “Philaenis, tribade of tribades, you are right to name the one you fuck (futuis) your mistress (amicam).” The punchline here—if briefer—is similar in presenting an apparent absurdity: a woman “fucking” someone (using a word that is defined as performing insertive sex in a vagina), and the wordplay of amica meaning both literally “female friend” and specifically “mistress, female lover”, when Roman society made little allowance for the category “female lover of a woman” to exist.

There is also a discussion of the other contexts in which Martial uses the name Philaenis, which he generally applies to an “anti-erotic” woman, one whom no man would care to fuck. Within this context, the tribade Philaenis is simply one more type of unfuckable woman.

The reference to Philaenis in Lucian’s Erotes comes within a rhetorical exercise in which four characters debate whether a (male) preference for boys or for women as sexual partners is preferable. In addition to the gender issue, the debate also concerns the appropriate place of phyical pleasure with respect to love. This is not a debate about heterosexuality versus homosexuality (as it is sometimes presented) but about the appropriate purpose and experience of love. In particular, the characters universally reject love between two adult men, and the spectre of love between two women is raised as the ultimate sexual bogeyman that can negate any position to which it can be compared. As with Martial, the detailed explanation of the context for interpreting this is essential and too long to summarize here.

A potential f/f scenario is not part of the central debate—there is no point at which the characters evaluate it in the same way they are evaluating other relationships. Rather, it is presented as a reductio ad absurdum: if relations between (adult? this isn't entirely clear) men are simply a matter of individual taste, then one might as well accept desire between women. The text spins an ever more elaborate vision of this scenario, envisioning women “harnessed to this object built in the shape of licentious parts” performing acts identified by “this word, that we hardly ever hear, and that I even feel shame pronouncing, I mean tribadistic lust”, where women’s bedrooms are “each a Philaenis outraging decency with her androgynous loves.” The speaker is arguing on behalf of the primacy of m/f love and this vision of f/f love being a natural conclusion of supporting m/m love is intended to nail down his position as unassailable. But at the same time, the text as a whole—as a philosophical exercise—is not meant to argue against the validity of men loving boys. Only the specific character does so.

Boehringer then discusses this genre of philosophical argument and how it is normally structured, to provide more context for understanding this episode. Skipping ahead to her conclusions, Philaenis—as a figure of female sexual knowledge—becomes a spectre of all types of sexual activity outside the acceptable, of which the tribade is simply an extreme case. Lucian’s Philaenis is not specifically and exclusively a tribade, but she opens the door to “tribadistic” possibilities.

But though the Classical Roman references to Philaenis cannot be construed to interpret the author-persona as a tribade (just as they can’t be taken to construe her as a prostitute), two later commentaries from the 10th century did make this leap, specifically identifying the author-persona Philaenis as “a hetairistria and tribade” who “described the different types of sexual relations between women.” And these later interpretations are part of what has led modern scholars to make the same connection, even though the 10th century commentaries are shaped significantly by later Byzantine opinions about same-sex relations.

In sum: Philaenis the putative author of a manual on love and sex (whoever the real-life author may have been) was gradually turned into a stock character representing a sexually knowledgeable woman, and then in turn into a tribade in some examples. But the texts referencing this stock character must be interpreted in the context of the evolution and not as indicating a fixed, enduring meaning. She became, in some ways, an “anti-Sappho.” Sappho was connected to love, Philaenis to sex. Not until the 3rd century CE does any surviving text apply the term tribade to Sappho, even when discussing Sappho’s relations with women. In addition, Philaenis represents the “public tribade”, the woman whose activities are done openly and about which everyone knows. But in contrast to the later use of f/f imagery for male titillation, Philaenis and her fellow tribades are never represented as attractive for the male gaze. They stand outside the realm of the erotic (from a male point of view).

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Monday, December 20, 2021 - 05:46

Just a quick intro this time, as it's the morning after Worldcon and I'm in that "mentallyexhausted in a good way" state. The convention had a LOT of challenges, both leading up to this week and in the execution, and while it was far from perfect it was also quite good. I did a lateral-flow Covid test last night and came up negative, so I'll continue keeping my fingers crossed that the strict safety requirements the convention had in place have been successful. I have an actual "vacation vacation" for the next week and a half, part of which will be used to finish the read-through of Boehringer. Which I hope you are enjoying as much as I do!

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2

Chapter 3f: The Roman Period - Tribades - Astrology

Following Seneca’s quote of the use of “tribade,” in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, uses of the term in Latin are closely connected with astrological literature, and appear in very similar formulas (some clearly deriving from each other or from a common original), such that we can derive additional context from similar formulas that use other language, as well as context from Greek astrological literature that uses the Greek form of the word. Boehringer provides a chronology of the exact sources, with their dates and the word forms used in them. In addition to Greek and Latin forms of “tribas,” parallel astrological references introduce the term “fric(a)trix,” which derives from a similar meaning (to rub).

The astrological texts have the general purpose of explaining a wide variety of types of behavior in terms of the person’s astrological influences. In all cases, the behaviors in question deviate from the norm. The general formula for tribades/fricatrices is that some star or planet is located under a “masculine sign” and therefore causes women to be sexually attracted to women, sometimes using the word tribade. The more specific explanation of why and how this influence acts is various, and additional understanding can be found in how the same or parallel configurations affect men. For example, in certain examples the configuration causes women to be tribades and men to be excessively attracted to women (i.e., it influences both sexes to have increased attraction to women). In other conjunctions women become tribades but men are impotent or eunuchs (i.e., it causes each sex to become more like the other sex). In yet another version, a “masculine” conjunction causes women to be tribades while the parallel “feminine” conjunction causes men to be effeminate or sterile. Women who are influenced to be tribades may also behave in a “virile” fashion in other aspects of their lives.

The same type of explanation may appear without using a specific term for the women, describing them as desiring sex with women. And rather than the word tribade, the text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus describes a conjunction giving rise to the fricatrix who “is loved by women who are fricatrices” in which both partners are given the label, with the implication that there is no distinction of active and passive.

Within this period, the other instance of Frictrix, in Tertullian, is ambiguous in meaning. Tertullian is listing types of people associated with extreme “oral pollution” (which didn’t necessarily derive from sexual activity). While some have interpreted Tertullian’s use as generally meaning “prostitute”, the context suggests that this reading would be redundant, since the women in question have already been described as prostitutes, to which is added, “and who are, themselves, fricatrices too.” This leaves open the possibility that, as in the other example of fricatrix from astrological sources, Tertullian’s text is refering to women who have sex with women. [Note: Possibly with the implication that oral sex is involved.]

Boehringer discusses the social context of astrological literature in general and emphasizes that it concerns itself with characteristics outside the norm (since the norm doesn’t need to be explained) The texts discussed here uniformly describe women’s same-sex unions as outside the norm and immoral. But they do not construct a category of “homosexual orientation” that encompasses both sexes, nor do they consistently construct an understanding of tribades as male-acting. Although a “masculine” astrological influence is common among them, the effects on women are sometimes to make them more “virile” and sometimes to create desire between two “feminine” women.

The references in astrological literature as not describing actual, specific individuals, but rather personality “types”. Boehringer concludes from this that during the 1st and 2nd centuries the “tribade” was a literary construction that can be disregarded. [Note: I may be misunderstanding the text. It seems to me that a literary trope of this type would make no sense unless there were actual real-life behavior that people wanted an explanation for. But it remains that this evidence operates on a theoretical plane, not a concrete one.]


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