Sunday, April 13, 2008

Why So Much Sex?

Léda ou La Louange des Bienheureuses Ténèbres by Louys
You may be thinking as you browse the various titles here, why so much sex? The seductive moonings of innocent young landowners 1, man-on-man lovin’2, slave-girl sex (consensual and not)3, cheating wives who murder their husbands and are subsequently killed by their sons (I guess that might be hot to somebody)4, ancient lingerie (eww)5, sex with castration and sex involving transgender participants6, man, I even talk about Earth sex7! Am I a sex-crazed maniac?
Um, not so much.

Actually, the whole field of gender and sexuality in ancient Greece and Rome is so valid that I actually took a class with that very title as an undergrad. And, though many of our founding mothers and fathers weren’t so keen on discussing it (they much preferred to read Thucydides apparently), sex happens a lot. And, with varying degrees of licentiousness, the Greeks tended to include that important facet of their lives in their stories.
Sure, sure, you might protest, but why do you have to spend so much time talking about it? Well, for one thing, because it’s so often misrepresented everywhere. I mean, people love the idea of coming a finding an Archetypal Goddess (don’t let me stop you, more power to you!), but rarely do they bother to look into why Athena, Artemis, and Hestia stay virgins (although the goddesses’ chastity is often cited by such people as proof of their righteous independence). And let’s not leave the blame with just the well-intentioned new-fans, think of movies like the movie 300 with it’s “Athenians? Boy lovers!” comment and, like, every other contemporary homophobic and/or misogynist reframing of the heroic masculine Classical myths.

The truth is, I am personally interested in gender and sexuality outside of the Classical context (in part because people remain as shockingly badly informed about these things in our own times and places just as much as about a culture we are still trying to piece together), so that is definitely part of why I keep bringing it up, too. And, because, hey! Prude or promiscuous, learning about other people’s sex lives is titillating! And finally, perhaps most importantly, there’s so much sex in ancient Greek myths that no collection, no matter how “kid-friendly”, can avoid the subject matter completely. What’s the best way to deal with this? Enjoy it!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Beautiful Butt

Aphrodite Kallipygos
It shouldn’t surprise you that vanity appears to have been around as we’ve had records. But what might surprise you is that, just as butts are part of the hotness requirements for women today, butts were also totally “big” back in the day! Breasts were a good thing, too (Phryne’s got her out of a charge of impiety, for example), but today I’m interested in the butt and nothing but. It was all inspired by this picture of Aphrodite on the right.

Have you taken the Quiz to find out which goddess you’re most like? I tend to score as Aphrodite unless I’m feeling really anti-social.

So anyway, that Aphrodite is called Kallipygos - literally, Beautifulbutt. And, although no wise mortal should doubt the attractiveness of the Goddess of Beauty’s derrière, this story comes from a less divine source. Two sisters were arguing in the random way that all sisters do, regardless of what millennium they inhabit, about who had the cuter bottom. To resolve the issue, they stopped their young and rich neighbor - the son of a wealthy landowner - and asked him to decide. Well, he chose for the eldest, but one look was not enough and he decided to go back and marry the girl. He brought his younger brother along to meet her sister and, sure enough, those two fell in love, too!

Well, the two girls (totally country, imagine Elly May from the Beverly Hillbillies) were so tickled that their fannies had brought them such good fortune, that they built a temple to Aphrodite Kallipygos in gratitude.

And, since we’re already on the subject, I adore the part in the Lysistrata when the women start making butt jokes - the implication is that the Spartan men are so into other dudes, that their favorite part about a woman is when she’s facing away from them and they can look at her gorgeous assets and imagine they belong to another gender. Awesome.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Lovers' Legends Unbound: A Book Review

Ganymede, by Coreggio
The author kindly shared a copy of this book (with accompanying CD performing a retelling of the myths included) with me for my review. It has taken a long time for me to find the appropriate space to do so.

In short, it is a book that retells the Greek myths that involve love between males - god and young man, etc. It does it quite well. It is an attractive book, though not full of pictures or anything like that. The performance on the CD is a great way to listen to myths, since so many of them would have been oral. The myths are totally accessible for beginning myth-heads.

In fact, I think a person not deeply versed in Greek myth already would be the ideal person to buy this since most academically inclined people will prefer the original versions. I imagine that the majority of people buying this book also happen to be gay men. However, I will say that I think people who are expanding their knowledge of myths by reading compilations and such should DEFINITELY get this, as it will emphasize an important aspect of Greek myth that is to easily “forgotten” in other compilations of Greek myths. If you’re open-minded, get it for your kids, too! I mean, it’s no more graphic and certainly no less “authentic” or important a story than any other! And getting an audio version is a wonderful way to learn the myths.

Of course, I feel it is necessary to add that this shouldn’t be the ONLY myth book on your shelf. Beginning or not, invest in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Classical Mythology. And although I haven’t come across a beginner’s compilation of women in Greek myths that I love yet, I definitely think Sue Blundell’s Women in Greek Myths and/or Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves should be read by anyone wanting a sense of what that world might have looked like for women. I know people will tell you to read Robert Graves (including me in a couple places on the main site), but now I say skip him and Hamilton and go straight to the far hipper and better cited Complete Idiot’s Guide.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Slave girls' Goddesses

So in the U.S. (and lots of other places), we really dig the low-born (and occasionally low-brow) hero. Titanic and Shrek are good examples. But the ancient Greeks had a very different class structure than we do, and you’re really not going to find any good heroes (outside of comedy) that weren’t born seriously aristocratic. The same thing tends to go for women. So when, rarely, we actually see a female slave in Greek myth, she tends to be secretly noble. Like Leucippe and Andromache. Even Briseis - the Achilles’ slave girl in the Iliad - was the daughter of the king of the Leleges at Pedasus.

We rarely see the world from a woman’s perspective, but a lower class woman’s perspective or that of a slave-woman (born a slave) virtually never. Slave-girls were considered to be available for sex pretty much whenever by pretty much whoever (with some exceptions). Whether they were kept concubines, flute-girls (mostly a euphemism), or just unlucky house slaves, sex was wholly outside of their control. Not only were they available to their masters, they were not permitted to form their own sexual relationships without their master’s consent. (27 Pomeroy)

Maybe I shouldn’t even be talking about them, since they are so absent from myth. But they must have grown up with many of the same stories. I wonder, which gods and goddesses they saw as sympathetic. Surely not the aristocratic Athena, but I’d be willing to bet that at least some became supplicants of Aphrodite.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Motherhood: The Syncroblog

A lot of the important points about motherhood in ancient Greek myth are already made in the posts On Being a Virgin and Ge, Gaia, Gaie: Earth, but to summarize all that quickly, I will quote from Sue Blundell’s Women in Ancient Greece:

There is a marked tendency in Greek mythological representations to divide powerful women up into the sexually active but hostile, and the virginal but helpful. … A child-bearing woman was supposed to come under male domination, and any female who tried to evade this social truth, and to take control of events, was clearly up to no good.

Greek mythology is full of fascinating mothers, but I’m gonna mix things up and talk about a mortal mother for this post. Let’s begin with Clytemnestra. Although she is generally perceived as “bad,” Clytemnestra is a woman - a mother - who is not difficult to understand. How many women would not want to kill the man who murdered their child? And, in fact, Aeschylus (the guy who wrote the plays that tell her story in detail) shows her judgment is not an easy decision.

The Murder of Agamemnon, by Pierre Narcisse Guerin
Clytemnestra says, “To give birth is a dreadful thing; despite suffering badly one cannot bring oneself to hate those she has born.”1 And then her children, Electra and Orestes plot and kill her to avenge Clytemnestra’s murder of their father, who in turn had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to get a better sailing wind for heading off to war. The betrayals and deaths ripped the family apart, of course, and Clytemnestra received the lion’s share of the blame for that disruption. But the question of primacy of motherhood vs. fatherhood was painfully drawn out in Aeschylus’ retelling of the story. In the end, the virgin Athena affirms that Clytemnestra’s son (Orestes) was correct in killing his mother to avenge his father, not because of any sort of proper justice, but because Athena has no mother and therefore is on the father’s side.2 In other words, it isn’t that women, or mothers, deserve less but that it just works out best for “everyone” if they are not treated equally.

The problem with sexually active women, and therefore with mothers, is that they have all of these emotions. And it makes them dangerous, as I noted initially, to the men who are supposed to keep them in check. It also makes them human.

A good wife, I think we can fairly imagine, would be distraught over the loss of her daughter but ultimately would bow to her husband’s decision. A good woman stays in the background, like Andromache.3 Passive like Alcestis, who agrees to die in her husband’s place, leaving her children with him despite his obvious inadequacies. A bad woman, a bad mother, a bad wife, overwhelmed with emotions, takes action. Medea said, “People say that we women lead a life of without danger inside our homes, while men fight in war; but they are wrong. I would rather serve three times in battle than give birth once.”4 And when confronted with her husband’s betrayal, she took her revenge on their most precious treasures: she murdered the children she had risked so much to bear.

Hekabe played by Redgrave
Although Clytemnestra is more defensible, it is ultimately not her right to do anything. Clytemnestra acts as a hunter, trapping her husband and murdering him in retribution for killing her daughter (and cheating on her). She acts, in short, like I imagine Artemis might, except that there’s a reason that Artemis is a virgin goddess. Can we anticipate what might have happened if Clytemnestra did not try to take the death-bringer role of Artemis, but instead tried on that of the mourning Demeter? Would people have paid attention or would she have gotten shafted like the Trojan women or the Theban women, who mostly just suffered when men ignored the wisdom of their warnings?

What I think is really fascinating is that as frustrating as the sexism is, it isn’t blind. Alcestis’ decision really sucks for lots of people, even though she’s lauded for making it. Andromache’s ideal behavior looks like it’ll win her a life of slavery. And monstrous though Medea’s infanticide is, you cannot help but empathize with the total helplessness and injustice of her situation. No ancient Greek could have failed to understand, if not wholly agree with, Clytemnestra’s actions. It’s as if the ancient Greeks are admitting that the fate of women is pretty unjust, even though it seems like the best thing to do, all things considered. It keeps civilization moving. It means that vengeance is not unending. But that doesn’t mean it’s fair.

Motherhood was a dangerous proposition for mortals, perhaps a 10-20% incidence of death in childbirth,5 and yet, it was generally considered a woman’s most important function. She took great risks to bring children into the world, but she was no walking womb. The myths of mortal mothers remind us not to reduce mothers to frighteningly unpredictable protectors nor long-suffering martyrs. Motherhood was divine, chthonic, incomprehensible, and only a part of what made up a woman.

1. Line 770 of Sophocles’ Elektra, my translation but click on the link to see Sir Richard Jebb’s on Perseus Project.
2.Moreover, Clytemnestra’s actions are associated with a more primal scary chthonic time and defended by the Furies, while Orestes is defended by the total Greek male Apollo. Whether her violence was justified becomes irrelevant, now it seems to be said that in order to maintain Order and Civilization, someone’s gotta get the fuzzy end of the lollipop and doesn’t it make sense that it would be a woman rather than a man?
3. In Euripides’ Trojan Women, Andromache describes her ideal behavior, including “I offered my husband a silent tongue and a calm appearance.” (line 655 or so) That’s the translation on page 11 of Maureen Fant and Mary Lefkowitz’s Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation.
4. Line 246 of Euripides’ Medea as translated in Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation by Maureen Fant and Mary Lefkowitz, page 10
5.Garland’s the Greek Way of Life cited on page 110 of Women in Ancient Greece

This is part of a synchroblog on Motherhood. Check out the other posts (* by the ones who have already posted):

The Aquila ka Hecate *

Symbolic Meanings *

Between Old and New Moons

Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism

Goddess in a Teapot

Full Circle* Earthwise News and Notes

And even though it couldn’t have been intentionally part of this sychroblog, there’s a great post on Mother and Daughter, Demeter and Persephone over at Mythphile.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Goddess Panties

Aphrodite as played by Alexandra Tydings
Inspired by a comment from Dan over at Xark, I decided that I should write an entry on underwear and ancient Greek myth. From time to time students ask me questions like, “What did Aphrodite wear?” I usually just refer them to vase paintings, but when I sat down and thought about it, I realized how little I know about ancient Greek garb. I am fairly confident that it didn’t look like what they dressed Alexandra Tydings in on Xena: Warrior Princess (even though I can’t resist posting that photo of her!), but was the idea of lingerie something an ancient Greek - perhaps an ancient Greek prostitute - would have understood?

What about your garden variety briefs? Sue Blundell says that ancient Greek women wore woolen rags when they were menstruating, but how would that have looked? What about underwear during pregnancy when incontinence might be an issue.

Ancient Roman women appear to have used leather bras and (wool?) briefs at least in some scenarios, but would the concept of clothes under clothes have been something the ancient Greeks understood? I think this is particularly interesting given that Greek women were not isolated or considered unclean while they were menstruating (unlike in many other parts of the Mediterranean and the world). In fact, as usual, our only discussion of menstruation comes from interested ancient Greek physicians who were drawing conclusions about women’s health. They don’t bother to identify whether their patients have to strip off something for examination.

I have reviewed my books - especially Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, Women in Ancient Greece, and Courtesans & Fishcakes - and found nothing (except that woollen rag thing I mentioned above). I have checked Diotima, Perseus Project, and even JSTOR with no luck either. Thankfully, I got some answers in Anahita-L. One person asserts there was no underwear, and they might be right, but my sense is that their opinion stems from a lack of evidence rather than evidence of its lack. But Caroline Tully (through Anahita-l) reports that there IS a book out there that I haven’t read called Women’s Dress in the Ancient Greek World that references G-strings, bras and briefs (also an erotic dancing costume ^.^)!

I leave the rest to your imagination.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Transgender Myths To Know

One of the best ways to put your finger on how ancient Greece thought about what it meant to be a woman is to look at the fascinating myths where characters transition from one gender to another. There are a couple of places on the web that mention myths with transgender characters, most of them to do much the same thing I hope to do, except around trans empowerment instead of just women. I’m not going to tell you that these myths are particularly empowering, or were evidence of a trans-friendly culture as I don’t believe the evidence supports that, but you are free to draw whatever conclusions you like!

1) My favorite is the myth of Iphis and Ianthe. Iphis, by the way, is a gender neutral name. Like Sam. This is relevant because when Iphis was born, her daddy said he would kill the baby if it wasn’t a boy. Mama Telethusa didn’t want Iphis dead, so she told the world she was a boy. Iphis grows up and falls in love with the girl next door. Dad arranges a marriage. And the crisis begins. It ends when mom helps Iphis pray to Isisand she is transformed to the gender she always felt herself to be.Attis, the boy-toy of Cybele and Agdistis

2) You should also get familiar with the myth of Agdistis. It’s a little convoluted, but also fascinating and full of drama - including sex with trees, self-castration, insanity, and a dominatrix of an chthonic goddess (that would be Cybele, by the way). In short, born a hermaphrodite but made feminine by the gods, fell in love with a boy, who went crazy and castrates himself. Agdistis and Cybele are so closely associated that they are often identified as one and the same. The whole thing about her priests castrating themselves (later Roman phenomena) is obviously related. Read the whole myth here.

3) You didn’t think I’d forgotten about Hermaphroditus, did you? You can read that story under Salmacis, but the gist is a besotted (aka, totally horny) nymph overwhelms a young man and forces him to submit to her and the gods help her magically fuse themselves into one being. Generally this means lighter skin and less muscle.

4 ) Caenis. Or Caeneus. The latter is the masculinization of the first that occurred when she claimed her recompense for a brutal rape by the sea god Poseidon. Her recompense, obviously, being that she was changed from a woman to a man “so she could not be raped again.” Since men can be raped, too, being “impenetrable” was thrown in as a bonus and thus Caeneus could not be defeated in battle.
Teiresias whacking a snake
5)Teiresias. Oddly enough, I haven’t managed to include him on my site. I say him because that’s how he was born and died and lived the majority of his life. The only time he didn’t is when goddesses (like Athena and Hera and Aphrodite) got mad at him and decided he needed a better appreciation for what it’s like to be a woman. He bore children from his (her) womb and had really beautiful hair whatnot but eventually was turned back. His main conclusion from his years as a woman? The sex is WAYYYY better for chicks.

6)Leucippus - that would be the name of the daughter of Galateia who’s story is literally exactly the same as Iphis’s above, except that Leto was the goddess responsible for her end transition in time to save the marriage. They had a festival in honor of the stripping of girly-clothes called the Ecdysia, which now is more or less the Greek word for a striptease.

What might the ancient Greeks have thought of this? and furthermore, What should we think of this today? Good questions that I try to address in response to thecomments.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ge, Gaia, Earth

We still talk about Mother Earth. She’s a mom in a lot of religious traditions, not just that of the ancient Greeks, and it is also true that there are plenty of earth-related mother-affiliated goddesses in the Classical and pre-Classical pantheon who weren’t the Earth’s personification. But when Mahud, of Between Old and New Moons, suggested doing a synchroblog on Landscapes and Mythology, Gaia seemed to be the appropriate goddess to discuss.

Gaia, Mother EarthA powerful Gaia does not seem to fit into the heady, patriarchal world embodied by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and ruled by male gods from their heavenly thrones on Mt. Olympus. As goddesses go, she was much less about the adventuring and talking, and much more about the Being. She was, literally, Earth. Her name, in its various grammatical forms, is the word Earth whether you are attempting to be religious or not. To put it another way: she doesn’t necessarily have a personality because it is more important that she IS the earth, than that she be an actor in stories.

In fact, the only stories in which Gaia plays a really active role are pre-human, namely the creation myths wherein the power of heaven is passed from father to son to grandson, all through the machinations of Gaia and her daughter Rhea. When the story begins, it is a powerful Gaia - a goddess with opinions and the ability to give birth without the aid of a male - who is determining the course of the world. Then her partner tries to stunt that power by stuffing their children back into her womb. She wasn’t having it, and Aphrodite is born from her erstwhile lover’s severed sexual bits. Then, when Rhea and Cronos were more in charge (put there by Gaia), Cronos tries to swallow all of their children. Again, the mother goddesses weren’t having it and they overthrew Cronos and passed the reins to Zeus. When he felt threatened by the same cycle - what with having children stronger than he by virtue of a hardcore mama - he not only swallowed the child, he swallowed the motherAthena, the product of that union, was very strong but her lack of mother kept her from challenging her father even when he transgressed against the mothers’ wishes (stuffing Gaia’s children back into Tartarus, for example). And Zeus was now doing what only Gaia could do when this started: having babies all by himself. And the cycle ended.

Outside of this creation myth, we rarely see Gaia enter stories, let alone take as active a role as castrater or King-maker. And that is because it is in this story that Zeus, as the leader of the Classical pantheon, usurps the power of reproduction, or fertility, and yes, even of the land itself.
Other participants in this synchroblog on mythology and the land include:
The Aquila ka Hecate (King and the Land are One)
Symbolic Landscapes of the Norse Mythology (A. Venefica’s Weblog)
Executive Pagan (Nature and Me)
Manzanita, Redwoods and Laurel (The Importance of Local Landscapes)
the dance of the elements (landscape and mythology)

Druid’s Apprentice (Landscape Synchroblogging)

Quaker Pagan Reflections (Gone Away)

Pitch313 (Transcendental Experience Out Of Doors Opens The Gateway To Magic )

Between Old and New Moons

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Greek Myths in the classroom, Pt 1

Greek mythology is taught in public primary and secondary schools across the country. Although, personally, I quite enjoyed teaching my peers what I had memorized out of D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths (our 6th grade text book for the subject), and loved the excuse to dress up and act out the role of Artemis, I have to admit that the purpose of the topic’s inclusion in our curriculum as determined by the powers that be has long escaped me.

Yale’s helpful publication on teaching Greek and Roman mythology lists the objectives as primarily and secondarily about standard school junk like vocabulary and reading skills, but the third objective involves the idea that, “In our rapidly changing world, the realization of some kind of continuity in the human race is very comforting and perhaps essential.”

Really? Is that why ancient Greek myths are so appealing?

More importantly, is reproducing the concept of an unbroken eternal symbolism that we can all comfortably and uniformly recognize really something we want to be teaching our youth? Isn’t it way more interesting that, like, these stories DON’T mean the same things to us now that they meant 2,000 years ago and yet we still think they’re cool? Isn’t it awesome how, even though only something like .4% of United Statesians self-identify as Greek, we still perceive ourselves as collectively descended from Greek greatness? And by awesome I mean, totally bizarre and fascinating.

I like to keep my entries short so I’ll stop here for now. But tell me, what do YOU think about the State perpetuating this mythical ancestry? Or do you think something completely different altogether?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Happy Theogamia!

Hera, by Richard Franklin
The Theogamia was this ancient Greek festival celebrating, literally, the gods’ marriage. All the rituals took place in the temple of Hera, and the whole thing appeared to be in honor of the goddess in her role as Protectress of Marriage. Now, when we talk about Hera these days, we tend to discuss her primarily as the shrewish cucquean who caused so much trouble for Zeus’s flings and for Heracles. But despite the common depiction of her as vindictive and vain and her marriage as a battleground, there are still myths in which she and Zeus are assumed to have a solid relationship.

Furthermore, she’s a goddess that women can identify with, she works hard, not just to get rid of the competition, but to make herself the best wife she can possibly be. She bathed once a year in a sacred spring to restore her virginity - that oh-so-important status for Greek women - and even borrowed Aphrodite’s divine girdle to make herself extra sexy for her man.

The Theogamia, says Mikalson in The Sacred and Civil Calendar of the Athenian Year, may have been celebrated exclusively by women. It seems possible that if ever having only myths written down by male authors would make a difference in the illustrating a particular goddess, it would make a difference in the imagining of Hera. What I wouldn’t give to be able to travel back and meet a woman celebrating this festival and ask her what myths the millenia have allowed to fade. The Theogamia was celebrated on the 27th of the month of Gamelia - the lunar month generally associated with January - and I think that would make the correct time to celebrate it right about now!

Monday, January 14, 2008

On Being a Virgin

We are talking about AthenaArtemis, and Hestia here, folks: the Three Virgin Goddesses. At the risk of presenting a depressingly simplistic argument, I’m gonna do my best to give you a starting point for thinking about these things. Remember, now, that ancient Greece was a pretty patriarchal collection of cultures.

Artemis, by Howard David Johnson
So the thing these ladies had in common was that they weren’t interested in having sex with men - but beyond that they were quite different. Athena was kinda butchy with her interest in war and adventure. The perfect daughter (at least for a patriarch) she owed all of her allegiance to Daddy and that would never change because no husband - or even a mama, in her case - would compete for her attention. As a virgin, she represented an ideal of daughter-hood.
Artemis, on the other hand, was super hot. Tomboy? Sure, but in a sexy sort of way. She ran around in her short little skirt hunting deer, she bathed naked in woodland streams and ponds, she was the sort of untouchable beauty you might “flay the flayed dog” to late at night. But just as virginal daughters were supposed to be attractive but off limits until the deal was sealed with a wedding, so too was Artemis off limits. This stage - tight-bodied virginal beauty - is perfectly represented by the goddess.

And finally, Hestia. Dear Hestia. She was a virgin, but only because the alternative seemed so darn complicated. She represents the perfect homemaker. The problem with women is that once they’re sexually active, you can’t tell WHO they’ve slept with. Also, who knows whether a mother’s allegiance will be to her children or her husband (dangerous for a patriarch - see Rhea). And what about her familial obligations to her father? Hestia circumvents all of these issues. She is literally the hearth, the center of the home, and her virginity is an example of the problematic role that women played in such a patriarchal culture.