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.