Image of a sculpture in the Louvre, 'Psyche revived by cupid's kiss'

Anthropology: Sexual Orientation in Greece from Ancient History to Modern Times

“Desire is a complex process, constituted by many parameters- the body and its pleasures, the socio-cultural context and what it allows, and the discursive context according to which sexual acts are represented”.

~Venetia Kantsa, 2008

In a small provincial town just outside of Athens in Greece, there exists a phenomenal and enigmatic community of women called the ‘parea’. The group define themselves largely as a support network; a sisterhood of sorts, who support each other both emotionally and financially. Social anthropologist Elisabeth Kirtsoglou details their lives in her fascinating ethnography, For the Love of Women’. She describes how they engage in ambiguously defined homoerotic relationships with each other, whilst cloaking their relations as ‘intimate friendships’. Their ambiguity and secrecy is heavily influenced by perceptions of sexual orientation in Greece from ancient history to modern times to avoid being discriminated against and repressed.

Image of a picturesque street in Athens, Greece
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

An unclassifiable identity

The women of the parea strongly reject labels of homosexuality. Rather than classifying themselves as lesbians, they instead focus their sexual identities on fluidity and desire; of pleasure and passion. For them, to follow your desires and have the freedom to do so, is a far more important focus than the prescribed attitudes of traditional sex and gender norms. For many people, labels of homosexuality and categorisation are a core aspect of their identity and can strengthen a sense of belonging for many individuals. However, the Greek parea women prefer to maintain a certain mystic secrecy to their lives and sexual identities, which are sensual, fervent, yet unable to be defined. They manipulate this ambiguity as a way to preserve their community in the face of oppression from the public. The parea work hard to integrate into the social life of the town, whilst also concealing their sexual identities.

Homosexuality as an identity category

Homosexuality as an identity category exists as a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact it does not appear before the 19th century. in historical texts and literature. Before this time, romantic friendships between women were seen as socially legitimate and were often considered as training for marriage and for heterosexual relationships. Arguably, without categorisation of sexual orientation, there was more room for fluidity, allowing for people to constantly reinvent themselves. Kirtsoglou demonstrates why the parea women prefer to remain undefinable in their sexuality in her ethnography. She expresses how identity categories can promote a ‘fixed and unified model of the self’, when in reality, ‘homosexualities are constantly reinvented’. The terminology ‘queer’ can be seen as allowing for this flexibility. By remaining unclassifiable, the parea promote passion and desire over a constrained, legislatable identity.

Image of a sculpture in the Louvre, 'Psyche revived by cupid's kiss'
Image by Sara Darcaj on Unsplash

The Greek Context to sexual orientation

Evidence of homosexual love, particularly between men, can be found in ancient Greek literary texts and artwork. This is not to say, however, that it was largely approved of by the public. In fact, there was great variability throughout history in how homosexuality was perceived in Greece. For the most part, it was associated with the elites.

The most common form of same-sex love was the socially acknowledged relationship know as ‘pederasty’. This was a type of love which happened between an older man (the erastes, who would be over the age of 20) and a young man (the eromenos) prior to marriage. This relationship would not only concern sexual relations but the older man had the responsibility for educating the young man about politics and society. There is no evidence that these relationships were viewed as the older man exploiting the younger man. It was actually the reverse: pederasty was seen as masculinising and instructional in many ways.

Varieties of ancient Greek homosexuality

There were four other varieties of same-sex relations in ancient Greece. These included relations between male youths of about the same age, although this was not that common. Homosexual relations between fully adult men also occurred but were generally treated with little respect by the public. Female homoeroticism followed different rules to that of males. Relations between women of two different ages would take place, but they are much less commonly shown in vase paintings than pederasty and on the whole, are far less explicit when they are depicted.

Finally, the fifth variety of homosexual relations was between adult females. It is more than likely that a small percentage of women spent their whole lives in homosexual relationships, as did men. However, Greek men knew very little regarding these relations and so remains fairly invisible in historical texts and artwork, as it was mostly men who wrote the texts that have survived to present day.

Lesbianism in ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks didn’t use the labels ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ in the same way as we use them today. Throughout Greek history to contemporary day, homosexual women have been barely visible. There is limited evidence of lesbianism in the ancient Greek world, despite many accounts portraying ancient Greece as something of a gay utopia and of having a culture heavily influenced by Sappho’s poetry and her evocations of lesbian desire. Intimacy between girls often goes unnoticed, and is rarely seen as having explicit sexual connotations. This is how the parea women are able to disguise their relationships as friendships.

A painting of Sappho, as part of Rapahel's Parnassus
Sappho from Raphael’s Parnassus (Wikimedia Commons)

Why lesbianism is invisible

The invisibility of lesbianism can be partly explained through the Greek focus on motherhood, in which the destiny of women is to have lots of children. Greek attitudes are also influenced by the heteronormative ‘honour and shame’ framework. Women in this perspective are meant to preserve the men’s honour through cultivating a sense of shame. Anthropologist Jill Dubisch wrote that Greek women in the honour and shame perspective must instinctively be repulsed by sexual activity. The parea women aim to flip this idea on its head; they actively reject the ideal of the passive and subordinate woman that the honour and shame framework produces. The rural community where the parea live (given the pseudonym Kallipolis by Kirtsoglou) views lesbians as ‘men-like women’ and ‘abnormal’. It’s therefore easy to see why the parea women prefer to keep their homoerotic relations hidden from the outside world.

Cyprus and sexuality

Similar to the Greek context, in Cyprus homosexuality, particularly lesbianism, has been largely ignored. The negotiation of sexual orientation and identity there has become something of a national and social conflict. This is partly because women are perceived as ‘fertile symbols’ and representations of the nation itself, reflecting the pervasive cultural importance of motherhood. Because women’s biologically determined role in Greece and Cyprus is predominantly to be a mother, lesbians are lie outside these traditional prescribed gender roles, so largely remain invisible.

The influence of the Bible

The influence on bias, stigma and discrimination of homosexuality is generally thought to stem from the bible. Through interpretation of certain passages, for many Christians, it is clear that same-sex relations are against God’s will. This view of homosexuality is also influenced by the importance placed on marriage and procreation in the bible. However, many biblical texts that appear to be condemn homosexuality are actually more concerned with prostitution. In the English translation of the bible, the term ‘homosexuality’ did not even turn up until 1946. Furthermore, the apparent condemnation of homosexuality can actually be seen as criticising sexual violence, violation of men’s honour and sexual exploitation of young men by older men.

Image of an open bible
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Socializing, entertainment and recruitment

Dancing

The Harama is a bar in Kallipolis where the parea women go to drink copiously, flirt skillfully and hang out. More importantly, it’s where the dancing takes place. Dance conveys sexual desire to other members of the parea, whilst concealing their homoerotic intentions to the public. The ‘Tsifteteli’ dance has a female rhythm and can be seen as the embodiment of gender. A sensuous dance used to flirt, the ‘Tsifteteli’ is a way to enact femininity and desire. Another dance often performed at the Harama is the ‘Zeimbekiko’, a solo dance that has rich masculine connotations, but can be performed by women.

Drinking

Drinking, initiations and flirting are used as a way to enact conventionally masculine qualities. Commensal drinking in particular is at the core of cultivating solidarity in the group. However, there are specific rules concerning consuming alcohol. Importantly, one must stay in control and not become too intoxicated, as this can lead to an unsocial and poor performance. Different types of alcohol have different meanings. For example, tequila is the drink of passion and vodka is the symbol of an emotional partnership. By reclaiming the traditionally masculine activities such as drinking, the women of the parea are constantly subverting gender and sexuality norms and standards to achieve a unique expression of sexual orientation.

Initiations

Picture depicts ancient Greek drawings of 6 women in various poses, dancing the 'Tsifteteli'.
Photo by ipistudio

Because of the clandestine nature of the parea, initiations are held to ensure that new members of the group will respect the community’s secrecy. They must also ensure that the solidarity of the group will be maintained. The parea are like a family; they support each other financially and sustain long-lasting emotional alliances, so for them it is essential to select the right people to join the group. Initiations involve cruel tests of physical and emotional suffering. For example, initiates are forced to consume excessive amounts of alcohol and are humiliated by members of the group using various tactics. What’s interesting is how the initiated are hetero-oriented, and can be completely unaware of the homosexual nature of the group until they’re fully initiated. The women of the parea do not initiate every girl that they flirt with, but every initiation is a process of flirting.

Friendships

Friendships in the parea function differently to normal friendships. They often will fulfill the role of biological family, as the members’ families are often unsupportive of their homoerotic lifestyles and choices. Once a person is initiated into the group, one of the women will become her best friend, who is usually randomly selected. The friendship is incredibly close, stable and reciprocal, and they behave as if they were family to each other. They provide all the emotional and practical support required, but also on occasion, will have sex with each other. These close friendships do not stand in opposition to the romantic partnerships that form, but rather work alongside them. The parea girls imbue friendship with rich meanings and connotations.

Confluent love

Sociologist Anthony Giddens has defined the concept of ‘confluent love’ as a situation which is appreciated for it’s own sake, which is maintained for as long as it remains satisfying to both parties involved. The parea demonstrate this kind of love as their relationships last somewhere between one month and three years. Beyond this period of time, the relationship would begin to reflect stability, but the parea women are thoroughly disengaged from any sense of being secure and stable. Therefore, they tend to end their relationships after around three years, before then moving on to another group member or new initiate. In replacement of stability, they prefer to focus their relations on raw desire, sexual expression and pleasure.

Living an alternative existence

Sexual orientation in Greece is complex. The parea demonstrate an alternative way of existing outside the Greek traditional attitudes towards gender and sexuality. The parea illuminate an example of escape from the dichotomous framework of thinking and classifying that we so often use when discussing gender and sexuality. The group’s impassioned friendships, ambiguous homoerotic relations and extensive emotional alliances subvert and resist classification and discrimination. Instead, above all else, they prioritise passion and desire.

The important role of the ethnographer

Kirtsolglou uses rich ethnographic description to explore the secret lives of the parea. The women asked that Kirtsoglou behave like one of them and not as a passive observer. This meant she became fully part of the group, drinking, dancing and getting to know them as friends. Without the intimate experience of becoming a woman of the parea, she would not have been able to gather information and reflect on sexuality in the extraordinary way she does.

Ethnography opens up a whole new world into homosexuality in Greece and is so important considering history is written through the eyes of the heterosexual male. It is important to continue using anthropology to illuminate the existence of alternative ways of living, outside the traditional conceptions of the ancient and modern worlds.

Image of the front cover of the ethnography, 'For the love of women' by Elisabeth Kirtsoglou'.
Photo by Perlego

References:

Dubisch, J., 1995. ‘Women, Performance and Pilgrimage’ In a Different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender, and Politics at a Greek Island Shrine. Princeton University Press.

Kirtsoglou, E (2004) ‘For the Love of Women: Gender, Identity and Same-Sex Relations in a Greek Provincial Town’/ Elisabeth Kirtsoglou. London: Routledge.

Kantsa, V. (2009) ‘Vizibility’: Women, Same-Sex Sexualities and the Subversion of Gender. Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 18(2), pp.213-240.

Onoufriou, A. (2009). ‘Falling in love with someone from your own sex is like going against Cyprus itself …’ – discourses towards heterosexual and female-to-female subjectivities at the University of Cyprus. Journal of gender studies, 18(1), pp.13–23.

https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-myth-of-the-ancient-greek-gay-utopia-88397

https://www.hrc.org/resources/what-does-the-bible-say-about-homosexuality

https://medium.com/@adamnicholasphillips/the-bible-does-not-condemn-homosexuality-seriously-it-doesn-t-13ae949d6619

https://oxfordre.com/politics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-1242

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/homosexuality/

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