The Case of “Lesbian” Cleansing
A Greek court Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit accusing an LGBT rights group of demeaning the people of the Aegean island of Lesbos by purloining the word Lesbian, a term islanders have used to name themselves for centuries. …
Dimitris Lambrou, one of the litigants in the case, said Sappho was not gay.
–From Lavender Liberal
Some lesbians aren’t quite as moved by the “win”:
While lesbians in more than 80 countries are still denied their basic equal rights and more than 50 per cent of Britain’s lesbian youth are bullied, poor old Lambrou and his sister are upset that use of the word violates the human rights of the islanders and disgraces them around the world. Clearly, Hellenics hath no fury like a lesbian scorned.
But beneath my own tut-tutting lies an irony that might solve his and some of our own privileged contemporary concerns. Lambrou may not know it, but some lesbians wish that they could scratch the L word. Often used pejoratively, the term shares an unfortunate phonetic similarity to “less than”, “loser” and, some say, an exotic venereal disease. When I asked a friend whether she liked being called a lesbian, she said: “No, I like being called Barbara.” When the writer Diana Souhami was asked by a reporter if she was a lesbian, she replied: “Yes, but not at the moment. It’s 9.30 in the morning and I’m thirsty.”
I’m more interested in the historical trend of the whole situation. As far as I’m concerned, Dimitris Lambrou, proud Lesbian and leader of this inane court case, can just get in a long line of folks who have longed to rid the Isle of Lesbos of its pro-woman sentiment and history, mostly through efforts to “cleanse” Sappho’s verse, as noted here:
Attempts to Heterosexualize Sappho
Despite the strong evidence to the contrary, serious attempts have been made to heterosexualize Sappho. In antiquity, a legend was created that, in the end, Sappho renounced the love of women and fell in love with the ferryman, Phaeon. Too ugly to get her man, she leapt off of the Leucadian Cliff to her death.
This legend is so incongruous with the authorial voice in Sappho’s verse that the ancient biographers themselves were confused: They list two Sapphos of Lesbos. The second Sappho is described as either a lyre-player or courtesan, but specifically not the poetess. It is this second Sappho who committed suicide for love of Phaeon.
Ovid, in his Epistles, conflates the two Sapphos: It is the great poet Sappho who renounces girls and longs for Phaeon. It is this Sappho that writers, artists, and composers have focused on ever after.
Sappho’s Marriage as Proof of her Heterosexuality
Some commentators cite as proof of Sappho’s heterosexuality the fact that she was married and had a daughter. Curiously, her husband is cited as Kerkylas from Andros. The name Kerkylas is based on the word for “penis.” Andros comes from the word for “men.” If we translate, then, we find that the most famous lesbian of all was married to Penis of the city of Men.
Too good to be true? In any event, it is likely that she was married, but this has no bearing on her sexual orientation. Greek society was very different from our own: Marriage was seen as a civic responsibility and familial obligation. It was not designed–nor expected–to fulfill one’s erotic or romantic needs. For that, men looked elsewhere. And marriage did not interfere with their homosexual affairs.
Marital relations were known as a ponos or “labor,” ergon “work,” or kamnos, “toil.” In contrast, erotic affairs were called paidia or “play.” Men were so unenthusiastic about participating in sexual intercourse with their wives that they had to be reminded.
Plutarch in his life of Solon suggests that a man should make love to his wife three times a month in order to ease marital tensions. Foreplay was actively discouraged: Too much pleasure might give a woman power over her husband and, thus, undermine his authority.
Clearly, women could not expect sexual fulfillment within marriage. But for a woman to remain unmarried in this society was unthinkable. According to Eva Cantarella in her book Pandora’s Daughters, girls were betrothed as young as five years old and, by thirteen or fourteen, they were subjected to arranged marriages to men who were aged thirty or older.
Before and after marriage, women were completely segregated in the internal part of the house to which men had no access. Women did not come into contact with men outside their immediate family except occasionally at public festivals and funerals.
On Lesbos, aristocratic women like Sappho got an education, albeit a “female” one emphasizing music, singing, and dancing. But as Cantarella points out, at least this education helped form their individual personalities and offered them a means to express it.
If we take Sappho as a model teacher, it would appear that an appreciation of sensual expression, including lesbian affairs, was part of a girl’s education. When a girl moved from maiden to married woman (at about fourteen), her time for play was over. She would have only memories of what must have been the happiest time of her life. It is no wonder that she wept on graduation.
Women were segregated with other women, and socialized and trained by them. What would be more natural than for romantic attractions and rivalries to occur among them, as occurred among their menfolk? Who is to say if Greek women had homosexual affairs of their own?
Sappho does, but, unfortunately, she is our only direct source for love between women; as Cantarella states, “Unlike male homosexuality, female homosexuality was not an instrument for the training of citizens. It therefore by definition interested only women.”
The Debate over Sappho’s Sexual Identity
In the face of her erotic poetry, it is hard to believe that scholars continue to argue that Sappho was not a lesbian in the modern sense of the word. From the first extant comments on Sappho’s erotic relations with young women in the Hellenistic period to the present day, critics (predominantly male), appalled at the thought of women engaging in lesbian sexual activity, have tried to deny Sappho’s homosexuality.
Their attempts range from deliberately mistranslating words that indicate that the beloved is female to forcing a heterosexual context on poems depicting lesbian desire.
For example, the famous Fragment 31 has been described as a marriage-song in which Sappho relates the girl’s desirability for the groom’s benefit. Her feelings in the poem continue to be hotly disputed. They have been described as anything ranging from jealousy, love, fear, wonder, and terror to an anxiety attack brought on by penis-envy.
Had this poem been written by a man, there would be little dispute. Nor has there been in the many translations penned by men. Of course, the gender dynamics of the poem are significantly altered when it becomes a male voice describing his response to a woman. Such translations are an insidious (if unintentional) way of heterosexualizing Sappho.
In the poem, Sappho watches a man’s reaction to her beloved and marvels at his composure, so different from her own response. To anyone who has ever been a lover, the symptoms of infatuation are unmistakable:
To me, he seems like a God, that man,
Who can sit at ease in your presence
Who can hear your melodic voice
Strumming close in his ear,
Your provocative laughter:
Ample cause for cardiac arrest.
You spied, I swallow all voice
And my tongue lies crippled.
A lyric fire sweeps my flesh
And my eyes stare blindly.
Rhombs crash close in my ear,
A chilling sweat fingers my spine,
Trembling invades my every part
And I am greener than grass.
To myself, I seem like a corpse, or near….
There is a whole tradition of “defenders” of Sappho. David Robinson is typical: “Villainous stories arose about her and gathered vileness till they reached a climax in the licentious Latin of Ovid.”
The most famous of Sappho’s “defenders” was the German Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff who in his classic Sappho und Simonides depicted Sappho as a chaste Hausfrau, a virtuous pillar of the community and moral instructor of young girls. As Page describes it, Wilamowitz “gave new and lasting dignity to the old theory that Sappho was a paragon of moral and social virtues and that her poetry was grossly misunderstood in antiquity.”
Wilamovitz explained Sappho’s relationship with her charges by depicting her as a cult priestess in the service of an “honest” (that is, nonsexual) Aphrodite. As Page points out, there is absolutely no evidence for this theory. Nevertheless, much scholarly ink has been spilled trying to prove that despite her professed love of women, despite her poetic genius, Sappho was still a “good” woman.
–Continued at GLBTQ
Dimitris, time to purge yourself of your lesbian-envy. Embrace your lovely island and be glad so many beautiful women visit regularly. Oh, and enjoy your fifteen minutes. Case closed.
Civil Rights Education Feminism Gay Lesbian Life Love Media Poetics Poetry Sexy Women Women's Rights Dimitris Lambrou Fragment Gay Greece Historical Misogyny Isle of Lesbos Lawsuit Lesbian LGBT Rights Poetry Sappho Verse Women
AMY KING View All →
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.
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