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Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Greece

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Through exploring my chosen ancient source; ‘Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature’, I will draw upon and assess the implications of divine gender and sexuality in order to help better the understanding of the concepts of gender and sexuality, within the Ancient Greek world. The contemporary understanding of gender and sexuality in Ancient Greece is that of one which portrays the existence of these two matters in a very patriarchal society, even amongst the Gods.

However sources have presented evidence that suggests that it was in fact women (in some cases) who held more influence when gender and sexuality was concerned; I will present this through my chosen source.

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Marguerite Johnson and Terry Ryan in their ‘Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature’ infer the strength of women’s sway over man; immortal and mortal, through the powers of seduction. The chosen extract from this book that I have used details the exploit of Hera in which she plans to lure her husband and king of the Gods; Zeus, into a trap of deceptive sexual intimacy.

This alluring act has been created in order to veer Zeus’ attention away from the Trojan and Greek battle at Troy. How this explains the implications of gender and sexuality in Ancient Greece where divinity is concerned; is that it portrays the invisible dominance of the female immortals in the form of Eros. Consequently it represents the repercussion it could have on the rest of the world if women wished to undergo an unjust act. Hera’s actions portrayed that the thought process which exists within women can in some cases far surpass that of men.

This can be seen through her initial plans on how to distract Zeus and thus achieve her goal directed at the Trojan battle taking place. In order to get Zeus’ full attention, Hera requested the help of Aphrodite who is in herself; love and seduction personified. As it is listed in the Theognidea 1386-89 of this book: ‘You overwhelm the high-mindedness of mankind and there is no one in existence who has the strength or wisdom enough to elude you’. From this we see that Aphrodite alone is potentially more powerful than any man, even the immortal men.

On the other hand, women can be perceived as nothing more than the host of the destined child of a man. Apollo in the Eumenides whilst defending Aeschylus’ matricide further notes the usefulness of women as being only the vessel in which children are carried. According to Apollo they have no further use, even amongst the Gods. So it is arguable to say how much power Hera has over Zeus, who in fact uses her for his own personal gain as well. Ancient Greek marriages in Greece were vastly different to the marriages of today. This wasn’t subjective to only the obvious visual dynamics of the ancient marriages.

It was mainly the political/religious and social security factors that were involved with Ancient Greek marriages which are differ greatly to contemporary marriages. Gaining sufficient evidence on the abuse of women in terms of marriage in Ancient Greek times is difficult as there is a lack of female scholarship which in turn would help avoid a biased approach in sources. However there are some female sources which hold sufficient and reliable information in which it entails the hardships of women; during their times of growing up to the time of their marriage.

Such sources include the works of Sappho, and in one of her poems it is analysed that women are expected to lose everything they hold dear to them when they marry, least among the list of things they must lose is their own virginity. From this passage in Sappho’s poem: ‘Virginity, virginity, where have you gone? Have you abandoned me? I will never come to you again, I will never come again’. The utter desperation displayed by a woman before marriage at the inevitability of losing their virginity signifies the lack of control a woman has over their marriage life in Ancient Greece.

The personification of the virginity and thus the ‘Parthenia’ of the women displays how poignant the situation and evokes a large sense of drama in order to gain a sympathetic response from the reader. Virginity was seen as largely transient and temporary in Ancient Greece, with girls losing their virginity from as early as nine years of age. It indicates a strong sense of loss for the women who can forever no longer wait for their own preferred time to lose their virginity; if at all.

Additionally, the means of losing one’s virginity when unwanted could link in with the other issues of marriage, in consistence with the problems of the imposition of ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’. Homosexuality was rife within Ancient Greece however the difference between the days of Ancient Greece and that of the modern world is that homosexuality was kept a secret at all times. Marriage between men and women was vital for men, firstly due to social and political circumstances, and for women in many other important aspects.

Marriage in the beginning was not intended to be a good thing for man, with the creation of Pandora; Zeus had planned for her existence to be a punishment for man, and all women after her. Pandora was designed by Zeus and crafted by Hephaestus to be a parthenos, who would seduce man and thus consequently hinder his wealth and energy in the world. Therefore based on this evidence, it is women who hold the fundamental control over man, as initially planned by Zeus. Sources claim that Aspasia was highly esteemed by Pericles on account of her Political wisdom.

However this view on Aspasia goes against the entire balance of the social hierarchy that was once Ancient Greece. Respectable Greek women in Ancient Greece usually held no identity of their own, not even having their own names in public. If one referred to a Greek woman in public they would be named as “wife of…” as opposed to be called by their own name. Aspasia on the other hand had no such social discrepancy and was called by her name. Furthermore this suggests the contradictions as to whether Aspasia may be classified as a wife or a whore.

The concept of a ‘wife-whore’ opposition to scholars dictates that women in Ancient Greece were usually defined as two types. One type is the sexual function of women in which men can use them for their own lustful needs. The other type is the reproductive function in which men can use them to create heirs to their families. Aspasia however appears to be the exception to the case as if she was a normal respectable woman or hetaira, certain rights that she has wouldn’t exist. It is argued that women did have an involvement in Athenian citizenship, through the form of religious cult activity.

As such it has been argued whether or not Aspasia was in fact a priestess due to her irregular involvement with society. Kennedy on the other hand stated that Ancient women were defined by the men in their lives. In conjunction with the topic of Aspasia and her status as a woman, it is therefore suggested that it was due to Pericles’ influence on Aspasia which marked this reception of her. The ancient Greek world was allowed to see her as something unique to the perceived woman in ancient times. However the original perception of what a woman is has yet to be decided.

Second wave feminists long aspired to recovers women’s lives. However it is due to such things such as the scholarly tendencies to divide up women, according to their status, which make this such a problematic feat. When the ancient evidence is more nuanced, this is when scholars categorise women by the status and men in their lives, thus leaving no original meaning of women themselves. A possible original perception of women is to look at the amazons due to their desire to confront the patriarchal society. However it is due to the patriarchal society that amazons are the way that they are.

Moreover, this is why trying to gain an accurate definition of Aspasia’s status as a woman in society is so challenging to scholars of classical studies. However given the evident finesse that she holds as a woman and on the other hand her business with prostitutes, it is safe to say that Aspasia is somewhat of a hybrid of both a Hetaira and a respectable woman; or perhaps she is neither. Therefore it can be deemed trustworthy that Pericles’ account of Aspasia’s political wisdom could make her highly esteemed within sources.

Gender and sexuality brings further contention as the evidence on same sex relationships have always been an interesting, but yet quarrelsome debate between scholars of classical studies. The Dover- Foucault model reveals that Greek male same-sex relationships were something condonable. This is because Zeus himself loved Ganymede; a boy perceived so beautifully that he was made to seem almost divine looking. From this it can be inferred that since the all great and worshipped Zeus was allowed to have sexual relations with a boy, then the same indulgence must be right for the rest of the males to do.

Yet on the other hand the same cannot be said for females as the risk of same female sex relationship means too great a loss for man. Women loving women reduces power, lust, politics and social security. Female same sex relationships appear to be unacceptable by all means in ancient Greece. The inevitable demise of a female same sex relationship can be surmised in 96 of Johnson and Ryan’s book. From the fragments in works of Sappho we see the relationship with a girl named Atthis whom she loved when only a child.

The depictions in the fragments show that Atthis had been taken away from Sappho against her will, most likely reason behind that being that she was being taken away for marriage to a man. This is known as ‘compulsory hetero sexuality’. Similar situations, notably with Sappho have shown that she’d been romantically linked to women but would have to lose these women due to marriages that they were being forced into. This further notes the reasons for lack of evidence of female same sex relationships.

Sappho’s works demonstrate the limitations of the female same sex relationships and how they had to come to an end in the event of a man requesting marriage. This leaves a very sympathetic view as it portrays the unfairness in which man is allowed (even whilst married) to have same sex relationships. Yet for women they must give their own happiness up due to the slave like situation that they are in. However arguments from scholars such as Foucault argue that desire and sexuality were culturally constructed by various Greek institutions.

This goes in concurrence with the belief among the Greeks that sex went very hand in hand with the status of a person. For example, a male citizen at the top of the social hierarchy usually meant that his sexual tendencies were above all others too. This usually meant that he could have an overview of what or who he could sleep with. However this was the case for most men. On the other hand, women at the top of the hierarchy sometimes had sexual interactions with women too if they got the chance. Moreover, their sexual relations would be kept hidden at all times as they have not got the same right as man to be in same sex relationships.

An example of this is Aspasia as she had been consorting with female prostitutes to train them in the infamous business. Therefore it is subjective to say that she had perhaps sexual relations with these women, as being involved in such a sexually personal business can invoke a sense of lust even for the opposite sex. Sappho as previously stated is a female poet whose works give a limited but interesting account of the same sex relationships between women, her own relationships included. Born on the island of Lesbos, she flourished in the seventh century BC; eventually being highly regarded in antiquity as ‘10th Muse’.

Sappho is renowned for representing the cultural, social and political aspects of society. Her works give an unbiased, culturally and politically aware view on the situations of things in Ancient Greece. However since so little is known about Sappho, there is much debate amongst scholars of classical studies as to how likely it is that Sappho herself, was a female or not. Nearly every account of ancient Greek history was published by male authors, as is evident in the obvious male dominancy in their works.

Other sources such as Wightllich sanitize her as a school mistress or priestess of Apollo, since there is a ‘blank page’ used to represent the lack of information on Sappho. Very little survives of Sappho’s works. ‘Poem 1’ of Sappho survives not because of its particular representative of Sappho’s ability, but mainly out of good luck. A lot of her poetry deals with love between girls such as homoerotic poetry or same-sex relationships. Hymns of hers also had tendencies of a homoerotic nature. Little is also known about Sappho’s life, in particular her family life.

However her poems mention some of her family, inclusive of her brother, father and husband. Although little is known about Sappho to modern scholars, the same applied to the ancient Greeks too. There were various ancient biographies of Sappho, albeit later in antiquity than Archaic Greece. The problem with these biographies was that they contradicted each other with the information given. Thus this gave the assumption that the ancient Greeks also did not know much about Sappho. What has been found out about Sappho is that she did hold sexual desires for men, as she was deeply in love with a man known as Phaon.

Sappho was utterly besotted by him however he rejected her advances, apparently causing her to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff. The underlying significance of this is that Sappho, despite all her works and other works on Sappho being strictly a lesbian, did in fact have sexual desires for the male race. Therefore, although our contemporary interpretation of Sappho is that she was a lesbian, the ancient Greeks evidently regarded her differently. Sources have shown that Sappho had a circle of companions, all who were lesbians.

This circle of women would usually be sexually involved with one another, including Sappho, before they had to depart for marriage. This again is representative of the case of Sappho’s relationship with Atthis; who left her when she was a child, presumably for marriage. Another reason as to the seemingly accepted same sex relationships in which Sappho was involved with, could be due to the fact that she was one of the Elite from Lesbos. As an aristocrat, it is possible and likely that she had the option of choosing female lovers if she wished.

As it was usually the elite who were involved in same sex relationships, albeit mostly men only. In conclusion, it can be inferred that gender and sexuality in ancient Greece was something which played a key role in every- day life. Women were at the bottom end of the world with rights and independence being regarded as something they were not allowed to have. Essentially men controlled everything in life, inclusive of their lives and women’s lives. At the top of the ancient Greek hierarchy lies man in which he governs the rest of his own particular world, controlling everything in it.

However what has been tried to be presented in this essay is that beneath the glass surface of the ancient Greek world lay the surprising and domineering control of women. As presented in the divine realm, Zeus who appears to be all powerful and knowing, was easily led and persuaded by his apparently less powerful wife. Men’s most obvious and overpowering control comes in the form of marriage though, as previously mentioned, women had no control over being taken into marriage. However some accepted the situation and in fact revelled in it due to it being a woman’s purpose in life, as deemed by Hera.

Yet again this presents women’s cunning nature to achieve the goal they want. The epitome of female control came in the form of Aspasia, appearing to have none of the limitations and bindings that men usually have over women. Her status as a wife of Pericles and as a whore at the same truly shattered the foundations of which the patriarchy stood upon. Hence further noting the potential control and power women could have over man had they only had more courage to do so. Same sex relationships in ancient Greece gave a clear representation of the unfairness in the social column of the Greek world.

The fact that women would forever have to hide their identity as a lesbian and lose lovers they once had due to compulsory heterosexuality does show man’s claim over women; even with cunningness. Sappho on the other hand presented a means against that claim, with her aristocratic background and cunningness to love women; she made the life of female same sex relationships possible. However to go on Sappho’s sources as stated is not trustworthy due to the limitations of the information given on Sappho. Conclusively, gender and sexuality in ancient Greece represents an eternal struggle of control over male and female lives.

Cite this Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Greece

Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Greece. (2016, Oct 19). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/gender-and-sexuality-in-ancient-greece/

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