Gender identities in Ancient Greece as portrayed in literature

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By: Daša Stevović

Traditional Greek identity has been constructed through binary oppositions, primary ones being Greek/barbarian, then free/slave and male/female.  The categories into which a person could be classed, also determined their position in social hierarchy. Virility was by far the most important characteristic in a male, a free Greek, who was the normative individual in Greek culture as it was. He was in power and he had all the rights claimed to be available to all people in a democratic world. Women were under the control of their fathers, husbands, and even sons. Paradoxically, some women who abandoned idealized gender roles could rise to social prominence, acting in the same cultural environment as men. These were the hetaerae (literally “companions,” but in classical Greece a word signifying a social role somewhere between that of a mistress and a prostitute).

Gender identity, although seen as binary, sometimes allowed various fluid states (of gender) of a third gender. One of the first cases of non-binary being is the one of Plato’s androgynous characters, portrayed in his Symposium. Those creatures, constructed as literally double human beings (combined as male-male, male-female and female-female) were viewed as super-beings. So perfectly matched, they evoked the envy of gods, and thus were separated in human forms as we now know them.  On the other hand, the myth of Hermaphroditus shows a completely different status and (self-) perception of such a being. He was depicted as effeminate, even before he was transformed into a ‘creature of both sexes’. The way he perceives his new identity tells a lot of how the society saw femininity, as a curse, a punishment and an ontological degradation. What was in the case of androgynous a certain way of wholeness of a being, in this case is seen as a derogation. What is often forgotten in the story of Hermaphroditus is that he was transformed by a nymph as an act of vengeance through their blending into one form. Both androgynous before, as individuals, as one being they become what we today call hermaphrodite. Although, their physical integrity doesn’t remain the same within this new creature – while he was transformed, she vanished. In a single body where feminine and masculine collide, his identity gains a feature, but she completely dematerializes and is reduced to nothing but a feature of his.

In ancient literature, gender roles are often associated not with the person of a certain gender, but rather to the power positions. For example, femininity is not necessarily attributed to a female, but more often, to the person who is seen as submissive. The same logic is used also for masculinity, but it is attributed to the person in the dominant role.  Women who accept the ‘masculine’ modus of behavior and thinking, and that develop a certain ‘male gaze’ (in Lacanian sense), often end up losing their identities as females. Ancient Greek literature and mythology explores the field of gender identities through acts of rape, homoeroticism, androgyny and others. Although gender roles were strictly determined by society, literature has set a place for those to be deconstructed, re-imagined, and reestablished.

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