Lesbianism in Ancient Greece


Women in Ancient Greece were sequestered with each other, and men with men. In this homosocial environment erotic and sexual relationships between males were common and recorded in literature, art, and philosophy. Hardly anything is recorded about homosexual activity between women. Nevertheless, there is some speculation that similar relationships existed between women and girls.

Aphrodite on a swan. Tondo from an Attic white...

Aphrodite on a swan, in Kameiros, Rhodes.

Much of the daily lives of women in ancient Greece is unknown, specifically their expressions of sexuality. Although men participated in pederastic relationships outside of marriage, there is no clear evidence that women were allowed or encouraged to have same-sex relationships before or during marriage as long as their marital obligations were met.

Women who appear on Greek pottery are depicted with affection, and in instances where women appear only with other women, their images are eroticized: bathing, touching one another, with dildos placed in and around such scenes, and sometimes with imagery also seen in depictions of heterosexual marriage or pederastic seduction. Whether this eroticism represents an accurate representation of life in ancient Greece is unknown.

There are a few sources available to us however, here is an excerpt of a play by the poet Lucian of Samosata (CE 125 – after CE 180) which illustrates a view on lesbianism in ancient Greece:

Leaena
I love you as much as I love any woman, but she’s terribly like a man.

Clonarium
I don’t understand what you mean, unless she’s a sort of woman for the ladies. They say there are women like that in Lesbos, with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women, as though they themselves were men.

Leaena
It’s something like that.

Clonarium
Well, tell me all about it; tell me how she made her first advances to you. How you were persuaded, and what followed?

Leaena
She herself and another rich woman, with the same accomplishments, Demonassa from Corinth were organising a drinking party, and had taken me along to provide them with music. But, when I had finished playing, and it was late and time to turn inand they were drunk, Megilla said, “Come along Leaena, it’s high time we were in bed; you sleep here between us.”

Clonarium
And did you? What happened after that?

Leaena
At first they kissed me like men, not simply bringing their lips to mine, but opening their mouths a little, embracing me, and squeezing my breasts. Demonassa even bit me as she kissed, and I didn’t know what to make of it. […] “And do you find these desires enough?” said I. “If you don’t believe me Leaena,” said she, ” just give me a chance, and you’ll find I’m as good as any man; I have a substitute of my own. Only give me a chance, and you’ll see.”

Well I did, my dear, because she begged so hard and presented me with a costly necklace, and a very fine linen dress. Then I threw my arms around her as though she were a man, and she went to work, kissing me, and panting, and apparently enjoying herself immensely.

Clonarium
What did she do? How? That’s what I’m most interested to hear.

Leaena
Don’t enquire too closely into the details; they’re not very nice; so, by Aphrodite in heaven, I won’t tell you!

– Lucian of Samosata, Dialogues of the Courtesans (Section 5; Leaena and Clonarium)

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The idea highlights three levels of scripting:

  1. the cultural/historical,
  2. the social/interactive
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Sexual scripts can be seen as providing guideline for appropriate sexual behaviour and sexual encounters as sexual behaviour and encounters are learned through culture and others in interactions. It can be linked to theories of sexual desire but is critical of their tendency to stress the purely biological aspects of desire.

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Red chalk and silverpoint on rose-colored prep...

da Vinci’s Madonna

According to Freudian psychology, this complex often develops when the sufferer is raised by a cold and distant mother. Such a man will often court women with qualities of his mother in adulthood, hoping to fulfil a need for intimacy unmet in childhood. Often, the wife of the sufferer is seen as mother to the husband – a ‘Madonna’ figure – and thus not a possible object of sexual attraction.

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