Exploring Gender and Sexuality in Antiquity: The Trial and Consciousness of Callon

[Editorial note: We are happy to have this guest post by Cassie Garison who reached out to us after our recent reposting of intersex stories from ancient Greece and Rome. Cassie brings us a story we did not know and a fine discussion of ancient representations of the relationship between biological gender and the social performance of sex].

A note on translation: “sex-change” today is not a politically correct term to refer to people who choose to get gender affirmation surgery. However, I will use this language as it is a quite literal translation and a literal description of what is happening. In both cases that I will describe there was not agency or intent on behalf of those in reference, and they bear little similarity to those modern instances where there is.  There are also inconsistencies in the language of the translated excerpts, for instance when Tiresias or Callon are labelled men or women. However, gender and sex are not the synonymous, and when referring to anatomical features of the body (albeit even these are not binary in any shape or form) I will use the terms male and female. The language that the translators use to describe gender and sexuality are outdated.

Callon, a figure written into the ancient histories of Diodorus Siculus, demonstrates a unique and at times awkward telling, one that defies historical precedents and does not fit neatly into any known ancient systems. This account is critical to consider even in a contemporary context as it enlightens the way humans are prone and accustomed to projecting their anachronistic understanding of gender and sexuality on the queer body. It demonstrates both the limits of language and the influence of groups in power on history and written accounts. The closest figure to Callon comes in the more well-known in the mythological account of the well-known figure of Tiresias.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tiresias struck two mating snakes with his stick, separating them. Spectacularly, Tiresias’s body changed, in this moment, from male to female. He[1] lived as female for seven years, until the eighth year when he stumbled upon the same pair of copulating snakes and, again, struck them with his stick with the hope that he would again change sex. He transforms, and “from man was turned to woman”(Ovid Met. 3.326). This mythological story is invoked and revisited by numerous ancient and modern authors alike, appearing on Sophocles, Homer, Petronius, Lord Alfred Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf,[2] and many more. Each time this story is iterated it is interpreted through a different lens, each time speaking differently to how Tiresias’s gender and sex cohere and flex.

Although Tiresias existed within only one body and consciousness, he possessed, at separate points, what are considered opposing binary sexual features. Despite his movement between binaries, Tiresias demonstrated an overarching understanding of what it is to live within the body of both male and female. When Jove and Saturn called upon Tiresias to tell them who—male or female—experienced more sexual pleasure, Tiresias responded that the female does, taking the side of Jove. Thus, Juno responded by taking away Tiresias’ physical sight, and Jove, disagreeing with this reaction, gave Tiresias the power to see the future (Ov. Met. 3.335-339). Thus one form of sight was taken away, and another was given, and Tiresias is redirected into both a mythological or oracular paradigm.

Similarly, in a story told by Diodorus Siculus[3], a figure name Callon[4] demonstrates a parallel depiction as a result of an unintentional and unpredictable change of defining sexual features[5]. Although this is a historical account—opposed to Tiresias’s literary mythology—the two are comparable in that both stories were passed down through oral history, then arrived on the page within the narrative bias ancient authors. They both highlight ideals and perceptions of gender, sex, and social construct within Ancient society through the author’s portrayal of events.

The story begins in Book 32 of The Bibliotheca Historica when a tumor appears on the genitals of Callo (their name before[6] the change of sex), described as a married woman from Epidaurus. This tumor causes excruciating pain, and no physician wanted to risk treating it. Then an apothecary stepped up to the task, facilitating the alteration (this translation is from Lacius Curtius):

He cut into the swollen area, whereupon a man’s privates were protruded, namely testicles and an imperforate penis. While all the others stood amazed at the extraordinary event, the apothecary took steps to remedy the remaining deficiencies. First of all, cutting into the glans he made a passage into the urethra, and inserting a silver catheter drew off the liquid residues. Then, by scarifying the perforated area, he brought the parts together.

τοῖς λειπομένοις μέρεσι τῆς πηρώσεως. τὸ μὲν οὖν πρῶτον τὸ αἰδοῖον ἄκρον ἐπιτεμὼν συνέτρησεν εἰς τὸν οὐρητῆρα, καὶ καθεὶς ἀργυροῦν καυλίσκον ταύτῃ τὰ περιττώματα τῶν ὑγρῶν ἐξεκόμιζε, τὸν δὲ σεσυριγγωμένον τόπον ἑλκώσας συνέφυσε.

Following this moment, Callon instantly must adjust and adopt a new social role in response to their newly-emerged male genitalia (Diodorus Siculus, 32.11):

After achieving a cure in this manner he demanded double fees, saying that he had  received a female invalid and made her into a healthy young man. Callo laid aside her loom-shuttles and all other instruments of woman’s work, and taking in their stead the garb and status of a man changed her name (by adding a single letter, N, at the end) to Callon.

καὶ τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον ὑγιοποιήσας διπλοῦν ἀπῄτει τὸν μισθόν· ἔφη γὰρ αὑτὸν παρειληφέναι γυναῖκα νοσοῦσαν, καθεστακέναι δὲ νεανίσκον ὑγιαίνοντα. ἡ δὲ Καλλὼ τὰς μὲν ἐκ τῶν ἱστῶν κερκίδας καὶ τὴν ἄλλην τῶν γυναικῶν ταλασιουργίαν ἀπέθετο, μεταλαβοῦσα δὲ ἀνδρὸς ἐσθῆτα καὶ τὴν ἄλλην διάθεσιν μετωνομάσθη Κάλλων, ἑνὸς στοιχείου ἐπὶ τῷ τέλει τοῦ Ν προστεθέντος.

This shift parallels the way that Tiresias’s physical sex-change redirects his social projection and performance, establishing mental and social expectations in direct response to genitalia. Female appearing genitalia are aligned with the actions of womanhood, and male actions are aligned with the performance of manhood, with little room for fluctuation of that binary principle. This is a principle that still governs much of today’s understandings of gender and sexuality.

Callon, before this physical and social shift, was a priestess of Demeter, and after this moment of alteration, “because she had witnessed things not to be seen by men she was brought to trial for impiety.” (Diodorus.Siculus 22.11)  Just as Tiresias has his sight taken away for possessing the knowledge and sight of what it is to live within both the body of male and female, Callon is brought to trial for impiety for having seen sacred rituals exclusive to females when they are no longer socially labelled as female, but still never truly was able to fulfill the proscribed role of an Ancient Greek male.

The physical descriptors of Callon’s body explain the effect and complications of Callon’s portrayal as portentous and prosecuted. Callon’s sight and experience are implicitly more than either male or female, even if they are only regarded as one or the other at any given time. They possess a double consciousness in result of the ambiguous genitalia and unstable body, rooted in the very fact that their body calls to question, multiple times, how tethered gendered performance is to sex.

This instability forces them to exist outside any normative variations of male and female projectiles within Ancient Greece, even the most extreme variations[7]. The manner of physical change—unprompted and unexplainable other than to attribute to divine agency— undoubtedly plays a large role in Callon’s mythic classification, in tandem with their inability to fit neatly within any gendered projectile, their fluctuating societal perception, and the Diodorus Siculus’s inability to find language that properly tethers Callon to a position in society.

Diodorus Siculus inducts the story as mythic separately from the actual telling of Callon. He situates the text directly after the sex-change of Herais (Diodorus.Siculus.XXXII.9), a change with similar anomalous conditions yet varying social implications.[8] Following these two stories, Diodorus Siculus injects his own lens for a reader to interpret the previous recordings (Diodorus, Siculus. 32.11):

Likewise in Naples and a good many other places sudden changes of this sort are said to have occurred. Not that the male and female natures have been united to form a truly bisexual type, for that is impossible, but that Nature, to mankind’s consternation and mystification, has through the bodily parts falsely given this impression. And this is the reason why we have considered these shifts of sex worthy of record, not for the entertainment, but for the improvement most our readers. For many men, thinking such things to be portents, fall into superstition, and not merely isolated individuals, but even nations and cities.

῾Ομοίως δ’ ἐν τῇ Νεαπόλει καὶ κατ’ ἄλλους τόπους πλείονας ἱστοροῦνται γεγονέναι τοιαῦται περιπέτειαι, οὐκ ἄρρενος καὶ θηλείας φύσεως εἰς δίμορφον τύπον δημιουργηθείσης, ἀδύνατον γὰρ τοῦτο, ἀλλὰ τῆς φύσεως διὰ τῶν τοῦ σώματος μερῶν ψευδογραφούσης εἰς ἔκπληξιν καὶ ἀπάτην τῶν ἀνθρώπων. διόπερ καὶ ἡμεῖς τὰς περιπετείας ταύτας ἀναγραφῆς ἠξιώσαμεν, οὐ ψυχαγωγίας ἀλλ’ ὠφελείας ἕνεκα τῶν ἀναγινωσκόντων. πολλοὶ γὰρ τέρατα τὰ τοιαῦτα νομίζοντες εἶναι δεισιδαιμονοῦσιν, οὐκ ἰδιῶται μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ ἔθνη καὶ πόλεις.

Diodorus Siculus invokes a deep mythological history, particularly by referencing the trope of the δίμορφον τύπον,  the “bisexual type.” This strings the events he has recorded into a chain of mythological dual-sexed beings. Some of these instances include the mythological narratives such as Hermaphroditus, the child of Polycritus, and the sleeping herms.[9] He poses these sex-changes as not isolated instances, but as a part of a larger theme of sexual ambiguity and transitivity. Nature, Diodorus Siculus believes, is this cause of these abnormalities, and therefore they must be regarded as indicative of something larger than just the instance, thus transcending their own context and the details of their existence.

The language used to describe Callon’s physical features provides critical clues to how Callon lived into adulthood and had to uphold binary roles for a sex and gender which their genitalia most closely resembled. Those functioning outside the gender and sexual binary were present within mythological accounts frequently, yet in historical accounts babies born with “ambiguous genitalia” were frequently exposed.[10]  This made it even more remarkable and incidental that Callon survived to adulthood, qualifying that Callon’s genitalia would have not been regarded as hindering their ability to marry and function domestically. The complication arises, however, in that the primary function of marriage and the oikos, or household, in Ancient Greek society was the product of a lineage for the male side of the family.[11]

Ancient Greek society, similarly to our contemporary society, was organized primarily by a system of opposing binaries that extended toward governing the gender and sex system. There was The Good and The Bad, citizen and non-citizen, male and female, among many others, all of which repelled and aligned accordingly.[12] However, there was room for transgression of these seemingly rigid binaries under certain circumstances if there was a pre-established system for these deviations For instance, the mythological idea of the demigod transgressed the binary of mortal and immortal. Within the medical realm, there were liminalities of this kind as well. Illness was considered neither to fall under good or bad, but to form a sort of triangulation in relation to the two, essentially because they had the potential to be balanced or remedied.[13] These liminalities reverberate into the description of Callon’s body, and permeate particularly the manner in which Callon has to participate in sexual intercourse. Before the change of sex, Callon’s genitals were described as such     (Diodorus Siculus, 32.11):

Now the orifice with which women are provided had in her case no opening, but beside the so‑called pecten she had from birth a perforation through which she  excreted the liquid residues.

αὕτη τὸν ἐπὶ τῆς φύσεως ἀποδεδειγμένον ταῖς γυναιξὶ πόρον ἄτρητον εἶχεν, παρὰ δὲ τὸν καλούμενον κτένα συριγγωθέντος τόπου ἐκ γενετῆς τὰς περιττώσεις τῶν ὑγρῶν ἐξέκρινεν.

Due to this, Siculus finds it necessary to describe how they engaged in sexual intercourse (Diodorus Siculus. 32.11):

On reaching maturity she became the wife of a fellow citizen. For two years she lived with him, and since she was incapable of intercourse as a woman, was obliged to submit to unnatural embraces.

εἰς δὲ τὴν ἀκμὴν τῆς ἡλικίας παραγενομένη συνῳκίσθη τινὶ τῶν πολιτῶν. διετῆ μὲν οὖν χρόνον συνεβίωσε τἀνδρί, τὴν μὲν γυναικείαν ἐπιπλοκὴν οὐκ ἐπιδεχομένη, τὴν δὲ παρὰ φύσιν ὁμιλίαν ὑπομένειν ἀναγκαζομένη.

There were power dynamics linked to Ancient Greek sexual encounters, and projected upon those engaging in certain behaviors. Due to Callon’s inability to engage in vaginal intercourse as they were expected to, they would have been forced to engage in anal intercourse, a practice of sex considered to be dirty, shameful, and deficient.[14]  They were able only to engage in intercourse in the fashion typical to a passive homosexual male, one that was not conducive to reproduction.[15] Although, oddly enough, aside from this inability to perform as a sexually normative female, Callon was still able to marry a man and fulfill that social and domestic facet of female-tethered performance,[16] albeit their inability to reproduce due to the implications of their ambiguous genitalia.

Even after the change of sex, Callon would have existed outside the normative gender-associated sexual performance of a male. Callon additionally cannot be assimilated into any previously established systems of sexual deviance, for instance, Eunuchs, the Orphean system of pederasty, homosexual behavior among the elite.[17] This speaks to both the importance of sexual activity to gender performance and to how Callon would have been perceived. Here the instance deviates from Tiresias, who was described as being able to enjoy sex as a man and woman—Callon, can have sex neither as a traditional and expected man or woman but as a passive role of the system, limited to a certain number of deviations outside of reproductive purpose.[19]

The physical and biological differences that the Ancient Greeks drew between male and female bodies bled inevitably into how the constructs of man and women formed and were expected to function. In classic description, males/men are portrayed as the agents of their own body, and in Greek and Roman thought were the considered “qualitative essence of a person,” capable of logical thought and possessing a sort of bodily hardness and structure. [20]

Females/women, on the other hand, are portrayed as the antithesis of this. They lack control over their own bodies. In tales such as the paradigmatic image of Pandora, female bodies are seen as possessing a “lovely exterior” which serves as a “deceptive disguise to conceal a corrupt and destructive interior.”[21] Callon is expected to uphold both of these roles at different periods of time, strung between two repellent binaries. Callon, however, would have been rendered outside of the binary in that they were neither male or female, good or evil, but instead as a neutral alternative in a system of binaries.

Diodorus Siculus narrates that Callon was expected immediately to shift from upholding the standards of one binary to that of another, without any sort of previous conditioning or socializing, as contemporary theory would define it. Callon puts down their weaving equipment—a symbolic facet of woman’s work that exemplifies the idea of a woman being domestic, loyal, and occupied in a controlled and moderated setting.[22]

Thus, taking up the garb and title of a man is undoubtedly an immediate thrust from one end of the binary to the other, with no social opportunity for in between. Callon’s body is deemed as defining the conditions of what is around them, and albeit they never exactly have the physicality of either a male or a female, they are forced to assume to social roles and labels of both and neither, consecutively and concurrently.

Central to this experience is Callon’s trial for impiety, which punishes them for existing outside of the established binary by no fault of their own. Callon fits much better into a mythological system of δίμορφον τύπον (Diodorus Siculus. 32.12), hence their experience, downfall, and mystification, which developed parallel to that of Tiresias. They actually fit quite neatly into mythological tradition, and are denoted by Diodorus Siculus to have been thought to have served as a portent in the sense that their existence indicated more than itself, and served as a greater predictor of fate. Other instances of the δίμορφον τύπον that Callon can be strung with include the mythological figures Hermaphroditus and Iffus.[23] There was no way to attain a medical explanation for the instance of Callon, and the only dominant paradigms for ambiguous genitalia in adults existed within mythological-literary models.

Thus, even Diodorus Siculus, struggles to handle Callon’s narration within the text. Diodorus Siculus does not demonstrate the pronoun usage to deal with the sex-change that he is describing, consistently using the Ancient Greek female pronoun, to address Callon throughout the passage, both before and after the sex-change. This is unusual considering that within the passage Diodorus Siculus conveys the name change, garb change, and performance change of Callon in response to their body, affirming them in other ways. Yet Diodorus Siculus does not present them with masculine pronouns when depicting them at any point, remaining partial to the feminine, even when Callon was put on trial for being a male who had seen events exclusive to females. Foxhall notes that “gender was constantly performed but almost never critically articulated,”[24] in ways retrospectively providing a reason for Diodorus Siculus’s lack of ability to handle this case with both gendered nuance and accuracy, exacting the binds and customs of his own era and understanding of the instance.

Applying contemporary gender theory to the ancient world is both a dangerous and powerful tool. It is dangerous in that one must constantly be wary of overwriting instances of history with our own connotations, denotations, stigmas and associations. It is powerful because as time passes we continue to let new and fresh understandings of the world and human complications live within anachronistic functions of language and time.

But on either side, they are tools to speculate about the lives of those before us and our own deep lineages and histories, especially in a society that is so prone to erase those unlike them. Above all, this research calls highlights the role that ancient authors and their social contexts have in preserving some experiences and voices and not others.

 

Cassie Garison lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and is a poet and a classicist. Cassie’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in River Styx, The Penny Dreadful, Nimrod International, Hobart, and others. Cassie’s classics related research and writing focuses on Gender & Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome.

 

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Diogenes’ Advice for Self-Care

Dio recounts how the philosopher proposed dealing with, um, animal urges.

Dio Chrysostom, The Sixth Oration: On Diogenes or Tyranny (16-20)

“On behalf of that very thing which men make the most effort and waste the most money—through which many cities have been overturned and for whose sake many people have perished pitiably—for [Diogenes] this was the easiest and cheapest thing. For he didn’t have to go anywhere for sexual satisfaction, since, as he used to joke, Aphrodite was near him everywhere, and for free. He used to say that the poets slandered the goddess because of their own lack of control when they called her “all golden”. Since many did not believe this, he proved it out in the open while everyone was watching. And he used to say that if people did this, then Troy would not have fallen, nor would have Priam, the Phrygian king of the line of Zeus, bled out on Zeus’ altar.

He added that the Achaeans were so witless as to imagine that even corpses needed women and so slaughtered Polyxena on the tomb of Achilles. So he used to explain that fish proved themselves to be almost more prudent than men—for whenever they needed to expel their seed, the went out and rubbed up against something with friction. Diogenes was amazed at the unwillingness of men to spend money to have their foot, hand, or any other part of the body rubbed, and how the very rich would not waste even a drachma on this. But they [all] lavished many a talent on that single member often and that some even still endangered their lives too.

He used to joke that this kind of intercourse was Pan’s discovery: when he was lusting after Echo but couldn’t overtake her, he was wondering in the mountains night and day until that point when Hermes taught him how to do this, because he pitied his helplessness and he was his son. And, after he learned this, he got a break from his great suffering. Apparently, shepherds learned this from him.”

ὑπὲρ οὗ δὲ πλεῖστα μὲν πράγματα ἔχουσιν ἄνθρωποι πλεῖστα δὲ χρήματα ἀναλίσκουσι, πολλαὶ δὲ ἀνάστατοι πόλεις διὰ ταῦτα γεγόνασι, πολλὰ δὲ ἔθνη τούτων ἕνεκεν οἰκτρῶς ἀπόλωλεν, ἁπάντων ἐκείνῳ χρημάτων ἀπονώτατον ἦν καὶ ἀδαπανώτατον. οὐ γὰρ ἔδει αὐτὸν οὐδαμόσε ἐλθεῖν ἀφροδισίων ἕνεκεν, ἀλλὰ παίζων ἔλεγεν ἁπανταχοῦ παρεῖναι αὐτῷ τὴν Ἀφροδίτην προῖκα· τοὺς δὲ ποιητὰς καταψεύδεσθαι τῆς θεοῦ διὰ τὴν αὑτῶν ἀκρασίαν, πολύχρυσον καλοῦντας. ἐπεὶ δὲ πολλοὶ τοῦτο ἠπίστουν, ἐν τῷ φανερῷ ἐχρῆτο καὶ πάντων ὁρώντων· καὶ ἔλεγεν ὡς εἴπερ οἱ ἄνθρωποι οὕτως εἶχον, οὐκ ἂν ἑάλω ποτὲ ἡ Τροία, οὐδ᾿ ἂν ὁ Πρίαμος ὁ Φρυγῶν βασιλεύς, ἀπὸ Διὸς γεγονώς, ἐπὶ τῷ βωμῷ τοῦ Διὸς ἐσφάγη. τοὺς δὲ Ἀχαιοὺς οὕτως εἶναι ἄφρονας ὥστε καὶ τοὺς νεκροὺς νομίζειν προσδεῖσθαι γυναικῶν καὶ τὴν Πολυξένην σφάττειν ἐπὶ τῷ τάφῳ τοῦ Ἀχιλλέως. ἔφη δὲ τοὺς ἰχθύας σχεδόν τι φρονιμωτέρους φαίνεσθαι τῶν ἀνθρώπων· ὅταν γὰρ δέωνται τὸ σπέρμα ἀποβαλεῖν, ἰόντας ἔξω προσκνᾶσθαι πρός τι τραχύ. θαυμάζειν δὲ τῶν ἀνθρώπων τὸ τὸν μὲν πόδα μὴ θέλειν ἀργυρίου κνᾶσθαι μηδὲ τὴν χεῖρα μηδὲ ἄλλο μηδὲν τοῦ σώματος, μηδὲ τοὺς πάνυ πλουσίους ἀναλῶσαι ἂν μηδεμίαν ὑπὲρ τούτου δραχμήν· ἓν δὲ ἐκεῖνο τὸ μέρος πολλάκις πολλῶν ταλάντων, τοὺς δέ τινας ἤδη καὶ τὴν ψυχὴν παραβαλλομένους. ἔλεγε δὲ παίζων τὴν συνουσίαν ταύτην εὕρεμα εἶναι τοῦ Πανός, ὅτε τῆς Ἠχοῦς ἐρασθεὶς οὐκ ἐδύνατο λαβεῖν, ἀλλ᾿ ἐπλανᾶτο ἐν τοῖς ὄρεσι νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν, τότε οὖν τὸν Ἑρμῆν διδάξαι αὐτόν, οἰκτείραντα τῆς ἀπορίας, ἅτε υἱὸν αὐτοῦ. καὶ τόν, ἐπεὶ ἔμαθε, παύσασθαι τῆς πολλῆς ταλαιπωρίας· ἀπ᾿ ἐκείνου δὲ τοὺς ποιμένας χρῆσθαι μαθόντας.

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Here’s another post on masturbation in Ancient Greek.

“His Heart Barked”: Sex, Slaves, and Transgression in the Odyssey

Earlier I posted a passage from the Odyssey where the narrator tells us that Penelope raised the slave Melanthô and gave her toys. This detail is paired with the slave woman’s sexual behavior—she is now a bad slave because she is having sex with one of the suitors.

Odyssey, 18.321–5

“Then fine-cheeked Melanthô reproached him shamefully. Dolios fathered her and Penelope raised her, she treated her like her own child and used to give her delights for her heart. But she did not have grief in her thoughts for Penelope. Instead she was having sex with and feeling affection for Eurymakhos.”

τὸν δ’ αἰσχρῶς ἐνένιπε Μελανθὼ καλλιπάρῃος,
τὴν Δολίος μὲν ἔτικτε, κόμισσε δὲ Πηνελόπεια,
παῖδα δὲ ὣς ἀτίταλλε, δίδου δ’ ἄρ’ ἀθύρματα θυμῷ·
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἔχε πένθος ἐνὶ φρεσὶ Πηνελοπείης,
ἀλλ’ ἥ γ’ Εὐρυμάχῳ μισγέσκετο καὶ φιλέεσκεν.

The meaning of this behavior might not be clear to modern audiences. Ancient audiences might have needed clarification too. The epic shows Odysseus witnessing this later.

20.5–24

“Odysseus was lying there, still awake, devising evils in his heart
For the suitors. And the women went from the hall
The ones who were having sex with the suitors before
Greeting one another with a welcome and a laugh.
And Odysseus’ heart rose in his dear chest.
He debated much in his thoughts and through his heart
Whether after leaping up he should deal out death to each woman
Or he should allow them to have sex with the arrogant suitors
a last and final time. The heart inside his chest barked.
And as a mother dog who stands over her young pups
When she sees an unknown man barks and waits to fight,
So his heart growled within him as he was enraged at the evil deeds.
Then he struck his chest and reproached the heart inside him.
Endure this my heart, you endured a more harrowing thing on that day
When the savage Cyclops, insanely daring, ate
My strong companions. You were enduring this and your intelligence
Led you from that cave even though you thought you were going to die.”

ἔνθ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς μνηστῆρσι κακὰ φρονέων ἐνὶ θυμῷ
κεῖτ’ ἐγρηγορόων· ταὶ δ’ ἐκ μεγάροιο γυναῖκες
ἤϊσαν, αἳ μνηστῆρσιν ἐμισγέσκοντο πάρος περ,
ἀλλήλῃσι γέλω τε καὶ εὐφροσύνην παρέχουσαι.
τοῦ δ’ ὠρίνετο θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι φίλοισι·
πολλὰ δὲ μερμήριζε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν,
ἠὲ μεταΐξας θάνατον τεύξειεν ἑκάστῃ,
ἦ ἔτ’ ἐῷ μνηστῆρσιν ὑπερφιάλοισι μιγῆναι
ὕστατα καὶ πύματα· κραδίη δέ οἱ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει.
ὡς δὲ κύων ἀμαλῇσι περὶ σκυλάκεσσι βεβῶσα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγνοιήσασ’ ὑλάει μέμονέν τε μάχεσθαι,
ὥς ῥα τοῦ ἔνδον ὑλάκτει ἀγαιομένου κακὰ ἔργα.
στῆθος δὲ πλήξας κραδίην ἠνίπαπε μύθῳ·
“τέτλαθι δή, κραδίη· καὶ κύντερον ἄλλο ποτ’ ἔτλης,
ἤματι τῷ, ὅτε μοι μένος ἄσχετος ἤσθιε Κύκλωψ
ἰφθίμους ἑτάρους· σὺ δ’ ἐτόλμας, ὄφρα σε μῆτις
ἐξάγαγ’ ἐξ ἄντροιο ὀϊόμενον θανέεσθαι.”

Beyond whether or not the liaison was a good wooing strategy for Eurymachus, these closely paired statements show that despite being integrated into the family structure, Melantho has not internalized her position and has instead exercised agency in pursuing sexuality. (Or, perhaps more accurately, exercising control over her own body to choose a different master.) When the epic returns to the issue, it takes pains to depict the women as in control and to ensure that Odysseus witnesses it. When he reveals himself to the suitors in book 22, he accuses them of forcefully sleeping with the women.

22.35-38

“Dogs, you were expecting that out of the way I would not come
home from the land of the Trojans and you ruined my home,
Took the slave women in my house to bed by force
And wooed the wife of a man who was still alive…”

“ὦ κύνες, οὔ μ’ ἔτ’ ἐφάσκεθ’ ὑπότροπον οἴκαδε νεῖσθαι
δήμου ἄπο Τρώων, ὅτι μοι κατεκείρετε οἶκον
δμῳῇσίν τε γυναιξὶ παρευνάζεσθε βιαίως
αὐτοῦ τε ζώοντος ὑπεμνάασθε γυναῖκα…

The difference in tone is in part due to the level of narrative—in the first two scenes mentioned above, the sexual acts are observed through the narrator. When Odysseus talks about it, he characterizes the acts differently because he sees the sexual acts as transgressing his control of the household. If the women—who are animate objects, not people—have sex, then they are the sexual objects of aggressors against Odysseus’ control. This transgressive behavior on their part helps to explain why Odysseus decides to slaughter them.

Who should have sex with the slave women is implied by a narrative passage from the beginning of the epic (1.428–33)

“And with him Eurykleia carried the burning torches. She knew proper things, the daughter of Ops, the son of Peisênor whom Laertes bought to be among his possessions when she was just a girl and he paid a price worth 20 oxen. And he used to honor her equal to his dear wife in his home but he never had sex with her and he was avoiding his wife’s anger.”

τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ἅμ’ αἰθομένας δαΐδας φέρε κεδνὰ ἰδυῖα
Εὐρύκλει’, ῏Ωπος θυγάτηρ Πεισηνορίδαο,
τήν ποτε Λαέρτης πρίατο κτεάτεσσιν ἑοῖσι,
πρωθήβην ἔτ’ ἐοῦσαν, ἐεικοσάβοια δ’ ἔδωκεν,
ἶσα δέ μιν κεδνῇ ἀλόχῳ τίεν ἐν μεγάροισιν,
εὐνῇ δ’ οὔ ποτ’ ἔμικτο, χόλον δ’ ἀλέεινε γυναικός·

It is exceptional here that Laertes does not have sex with Eurykleia. This indicates an economy of sexual slavery in which the slave women are the objects to be used by those who own them. If they are used without permission or act on their own, they represent perversions.

See:

Doherty, Lillian. 2001. “The Snares of the Odyssey: A Feminist Narratological Reading.” 117-133.
Thalmann, William G. 1998. “Female Slaves in the Odyssey.” 22–34

Related image
Red-figure Kylix, c. 490 BCE

 

Diogenes Can Get Satisfaction (And So Can You!)

Dio recounts how the philosopher proposed dealing with, um, animal urges.

Dio Chrysostom, The Sixth Oration: On Diogenes or Tyranny (16-20)

“On behalf of that very thing which men make the most effort and waste the most money—through which many cities have been overturned and for whose sake many people have perished pitiably—for [Diogenes] this was the easiest and cheapest thing. For he didn’t have to go anywhere for sexual satisfaction, since, as he used to joke, Aphrodite was near him everywhere, and for free. He used to say that the poets slandered the goddess because of their own lack of control when they called her “all golden”. Since many did not believe this, he proved it out in the open while everyone was watching. And he used to say that if people did this, then Troy would not have fallen, nor would have Priam, the Phrygian king of the line of Zeus, bled out on Zeus’ altar.

He added that the Achaeans were so witless as to imagine that even corpses needed women and so slaughtered Polyxena on the tomb of Achilles. So he used to explain that fish proved themselves to be almost more prudent than men—for whenever they needed to expel their seed, the went out and rubbed up against something with friction. Diogenes was amazed at the unwillingness of men to spend money to have their foot, hand, or any other part of the body rubbed, and how the very rich would not waste even a drachma on this. But they [all] lavished many a talent on that single member often and that some even still endangered their lives too. He used to joke that this kind of intercourse was Pan’s discovery: when he was lusting after Echo but couldn’t overtake her, he was wondering in the mountains night and day until that point when Hermes taught him how to do this, because he pitied his helplessness and he was his son. And, after he learned this, he got a break from his great suffering. Apparently, shepherds learned this from him.”

ὑπὲρ οὗ δὲ πλεῖστα μὲν πράγματα ἔχουσιν ἄνθρωποι πλεῖστα δὲ χρήματα ἀναλίσκουσι, πολλαὶ δὲ ἀνάστατοι πόλεις διὰ ταῦτα γεγόνασι, πολλὰ δὲ ἔθνη τούτων ἕνεκεν οἰκτρῶς ἀπόλωλεν, ἁπάντων ἐκείνῳ χρημάτων ἀπονώτατον ἦν καὶ ἀδαπανώτατον. οὐ γὰρ ἔδει αὐτὸν οὐδαμόσε ἐλθεῖν ἀφροδισίων ἕνεκεν, ἀλλὰ παίζων ἔλεγεν ἁπανταχοῦ παρεῖναι αὐτῷ τὴν Ἀφροδίτην προῖκα· τοὺς δὲ ποιητὰς καταψεύδεσθαι τῆς θεοῦ διὰ τὴν αὑτῶν ἀκρασίαν, πολύχρυσον καλοῦντας. ἐπεὶ δὲ πολλοὶ τοῦτο ἠπίστουν, ἐν τῷ φανερῷ ἐχρῆτο καὶ πάντων ὁρώντων· καὶ ἔλεγεν ὡς εἴπερ οἱ ἄνθρωποι οὕτως εἶχον, οὐκ ἂν ἑάλω ποτὲ ἡ Τροία, οὐδ᾿ ἂν ὁ Πρίαμος ὁ Φρυγῶν βασιλεύς, ἀπὸ Διὸς γεγονώς, ἐπὶ τῷ βωμῷ τοῦ Διὸς ἐσφάγη. τοὺς δὲ Ἀχαιοὺς οὕτως εἶναι ἄφρονας ὥστε καὶ τοὺς νεκροὺς νομίζειν προσδεῖσθαι γυναικῶν καὶ τὴν Πολυξένην σφάττειν ἐπὶ τῷ τάφῳ τοῦ Ἀχιλλέως. ἔφη δὲ τοὺς ἰχθύας σχεδόν τι φρονιμωτέρους φαίνεσθαι τῶν ἀνθρώπων· ὅταν γὰρ δέωνται τὸ σπέρμα ἀποβαλεῖν, ἰόντας ἔξω προσκνᾶσθαι πρός τι τραχύ. θαυμάζειν δὲ τῶν ἀνθρώπων τὸ τὸν μὲν πόδα μὴ θέλειν ἀργυρίου κνᾶσθαι μηδὲ τὴν χεῖρα μηδὲ ἄλλο μηδὲν τοῦ σώματος, μηδὲ τοὺς πάνυ πλουσίους ἀναλῶσαι ἂν μηδεμίαν ὑπὲρ τούτου δραχμήν· ἓν δὲ ἐκεῖνο τὸ μέρος πολλάκις πολλῶν ταλάντων, τοὺς δέ τινας ἤδη καὶ τὴν ψυχὴν παραβαλλομένους. ἔλεγε δὲ παίζων τὴν συνουσίαν ταύτην εὕρεμα εἶναι τοῦ Πανός, ὅτε τῆς Ἠχοῦς ἐρασθεὶς οὐκ ἐδύνατο λαβεῖν, ἀλλ᾿ ἐπλανᾶτο ἐν τοῖς ὄρεσι νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν, τότε οὖν τὸν Ἑρμῆν διδάξαι αὐτόν, οἰκτείραντα τῆς ἀπορίας, ἅτε υἱὸν αὐτοῦ. καὶ τόν, ἐπεὶ ἔμαθε, παύσασθαι τῆς πολλῆς ταλαιπωρίας· ἀπ᾿ ἐκείνου δὲ τοὺς ποιμένας χρῆσθαι μαθόντας.

Image result for Ancient Greek Diogenes

Here’s another post on masturbation in Ancient Greek.

Helen’s Serving Girl Wrote the First Greek Sex Manual

 

I received the first passage this morning as a gift from one of my students. I am so very proud.

From the Suda

Astuanassa: A handmaid of Helen, Menelaos’ wife. She first discovered positions for intercourse and wrote On Sexual Positions. Philainis and Elephantinê rivaled her in this later—they were women who danced out these sorts of wanton acts.

Ἀστυάνασσα, Ἑλένης τῆς Μενελάου θεράπαινα: ἥτις πρώτη τὰς ἐν τῇ συνουσίᾳ κατακλίσεις εὗρε καὶ ἔγραψε περὶ σχημάτων συνουσιαστικῶν: ἣν ὕστερον παρεζήλωσαν Φιλαινὶς καὶ Ἐλεφαντίνη, αἱ τὰ τοιαῦτα ἐξορχησάμεναι ἀσελγήματα.

Photius Bibl. 190.149a 27-30

We have learned about this embroidered girdle, that Hera took it from Aphrodite and gave it to Helen. Her handmaid Astuanassa stole it but Aphrodite took it back from her again.

Περὶ τοῦ κεστοῦ ἱμάντος ὡς λάβοιμὲν αὐτὸν ῞Ηρα παρὰ ᾿Αφροδίτης, δοίη δ’ ῾Ελένῃ, κλέψοι δ’ αὐτὸν ἡ ῾Ελένης θεράπαινα ᾿Αστυάνασσα, ἀφέλοι δ’ αὐτὸν ἐξ αὐτῆς πάλιν ᾿Αφροδίτη.

Hesychius, sv. Astuanassa

Astuanassa: A handmaiden of Helen and the first to discover Aphrodite and her licentious positions.

᾿Αστυάνασσα· ῾Ελένης θεράπαινα ἥτις πρώτη ἐξεῦρεν ᾿Αφροδίτην καὶ ἀκόλαστα σχήματα

Image result for Ancient Greek Helen vase

As is largely unsurprising from the perspective of Greek misogyny, excessive interest in sexual behavior is projected a female quality. Expertise beyond interest is made the province of female ‘professionals’ (slaves) who may act as scapegoats and marginal figures for the corruption of both men and women. There is a combination of such interest with an excessive emphasis on eating (and eating really well) in Athenaeus where the pleasures of the body are combined.

Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 8.335c

“Dear men, even though I have great admiration for Chrysippus as the leader of the Stoa, I praise him even more because he ranks Arkhestratos, well-known for his Science of Cooking along with Philainis who is credited with a licentious screed about sexual matters—even though the iambic poet of Samos, Aiskhriôn, claims that Polycrates the sophist started this slander of her when she was really quite chaste. The lines go like this:

“I, Philainis, circulated among men
Lie here thanks to great old age.
Don’t laugh, foolish sailor, as your trace the cape
Nor make me a target of mockery or insult
For, by Zeus and his sons in Hell
I was never a slut with men nor a public whore.
Polykrates, Athenian by birth,
A bit clever with words and with a nasty tongue,
Wrote what he wrote. I don’t know anything about it.”

But the most amazing Chrysippus combines in the fifth book of his On Goodness and Pleasure that both “the books of Philianis and the Gastronomiai of Arkhestratos and forces of erotic and sexual nature, and in the same way slave-girls who are expert at these kinds of movements and positions and who are engaged in their practice.” He adds that they learn this type of material completely and then thoroughly possess what has been written on these topics by Philainis and Arkhestratos and those who have written on similar topics. Similarly, in his seventh book, he says ‘As you cannot wholly learn the works of Philianis and Arkhestratos’ Gastronomia because they do have something to offer for living better.’ “

Χρύσιππον δ᾿, ἄνδρες φίλοι, τὸν τῆς στοᾶς ἡγεμόνα κατὰ πολλὰ θαυμάζων ἔτι μᾶλλον ἐπαινῶ τὸν πολυθρύλητον ἐπὶ τῇ Ὀψολογίᾳ Ἀρχέστρατον αἰεί ποτε μετὰ Φιλαινίδος κατατάττοντα, εἰς ἣν ἀναφέρεται τὸ περὶ ἀφροδισίων ἀκόλαστον cσύγγραμμα, ὅπερ φησὶ | ποιῆσαι Αἰσχρίων ὁ Σάμιος ἰαμβοποιὸς Πολυκράτη τὸν σοφιστὴν ἐπὶ διαβολῇ τῆς ἀνθρώπου σωφρονεστάτης γενομένης. ἔχει δὲ οὕτως τὰ ἰαμβεῖα·

ἐγὼ Φιλαινὶς ἡ ᾿πίβωτος ἀνθρώποις
ἐνταῦθα γήρᾳ τῷ μακρῷ κεκοίμημαι.
μή μ᾿, ὦ μάταιε ναῦτα, τὴν ἄκραν κάμπτων
χλεύην τε ποιεῦ καὶ γέλωτα καὶ λάσθην.
ὐ γὰρ μὰ τὸν Ζῆν᾿, οὐ μὰ τοὺς κάτω κούρους, |
dοὐκ ἦν ἐς ἄνδρας μάχλος οὐδὲ δημώδης.
Πολυκράτης δὲ τὴν γενὴν Ἀθηναῖος,
λόγων τι παιπάλημα καὶ κακὴ γλῶσσα,
ἔγραψεν οἷ᾿ ἔγραψ᾿· ἐγὼ γὰρ οὐκ οἶδα.

ἀλλ᾿ οὖν ὅ γε θαυμασιώτατος Χρύσιππος ἐν τῷ πέμπτῳ Περὶ τοῦ Καλοῦ καὶ τῆς Ἡδονῆς φησι· καὶ βιβλία τά τε Φιλαινίδος καὶ τὴν τοῦ Ἀρχεστράτου Γαστρονομίαν καὶ δυνάμεις ἐρωτικὰς καὶ συνουσιαστικάς, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ τὰς θεραπαίνας ἐμπείρους τοιῶνδε κινήσεών τε καὶ σχημάτων καὶ περὶ τὴν eτούτων μελέτην γινομένας. καὶ πάλιν· ἐκμανθάνειν | τ᾿ αὐτοὺς τὰ τοιαῦτα καὶ κτᾶσθαι τὰ περὶ τούτων γεγραμμένα Φιλαινίδι καὶ Ἀρχεστράτῳ καὶ τοῖς τὰ ὅμοια γράψασιν. κἀν τῷ ἑβδόμῳ δέ φησι· καθάπερ γὰρ οὐκ ἐκμανθάνειν τὰ Φιλαινίδος καὶ τὴν Ἀρχεστράτου Γαστρονομίαν ἔστιν ὡς φέροντά τι πρὸς τὸ ζῆν ἄμεινον.

Masturbating in Ancient Greek

Just in case the picture of a man’s final moment at Pompeii has inspired people this morning, Ancient Greek for (male) masturbation:

Aristophanes, Peace 290-292

“Now comes the time of for Datis’ song
The one he sang once at midday as he masturbated
“How I am pleased and I enjoy this and I am finding delight!”

ΤΡ.                Νῦν, τοῦτ’ ἐκεῖν’, ἥκει τὸ Δάτιδος μέλος.
δεφόμενός ποτ’ ᾖδε τῆς μεσημβρίας·
«῾Ως ἥδομαι καὶ χαίρομαι κεὐφραίνομαι.»

The small LSJ defines δέφω as “to soften by working by the hand, to make supple, to tan hides.” The 1902 LSJ uses Latin to explain: “sensu obscoeno, v. Lat. Masturbari.”

The Suda (delta 297) cuts to the chase on this one with “dephein: grabbing someone by the genitals. Also, “rubbing” (Dephomenos) instead of “flogging your genitals.” (Δέφειν: τὸ τοῦ αἰδοίου τινὰ ἅπτεσθαι. καὶ Δεφόμενος, ἀντὶ τοῦ ἀποδέρων τὸ αἰδοῖον). So, the active vs. middle voice is an important distinction (echoing something I have emphasized in teaching Greek: active voice is something you do to someone else, middle is what you do to yourself…).

Here’s a nice passage that shows the difference in active and passive voice:

Artemidorus, Dream Interpretation 1.78: 74-80

“I know of a certain slave who dreamed that he was masturbating his master—and he then became the teacher and nurse of his children. For he was holding his master’s genitals in his hands which was a symbol of his children. And again, I know of another who dreamed he was being jerked off by his master, and, later he was bound to a pillar and then he received many blows…”

οἶδα δέ τινα δοῦλον, ὃς ἔδοξε τὸν δεσπότην αὐτοῦ δέφειν, καὶ ἐγένετο τῶν παίδων αὐτοῦ παιδαγωγὸς καὶ τροφός· ἔσχε γὰρ ἐν ταῖς χερσὶ τὸ τοῦ δεσπότου αἰδοῖον ὂν τῶν ἐκείνου τέκνων σημαντικόν. καὶ πάλιν αὖ οἶδά <τινα> ὃς ἔδοξεν ὑπὸ τοῦ δεσπότου δέφεσθαι, καὶ προσδεθεὶς κίονι πολλὰς ἔλαβε πληγάς….

Most of the extant uses of this verb appear in comedy. And, not surprisingly, this means Aristophanes:

Aristophanes, Knights 23-24

ΟΙ. Β′                                               Πάνυ καλῶς.
῞Ωσπερ δεφόμενός νυν ἀτρέμα πρῶτον λέγε
τὸ μολωμεν, εἶτα δ’ αὐτο, κᾆτ’ ἐπάγων πυκνόν.

“Excellent.
Just as if you were masturbating, say it first now gently
“let us hurry” and then again pushing on, quickly.”

[Here’s a link to the whole play. Soon, one of the interlocutors stops “because the skin is irritated by masturbation.” (῾Οτιὴ τὸ δέρμα δεφομένων ἀπέρχεται, 29)]

The verb is not common, to say the least, so later commentators found it necessary to gloss it and explain Aristophanes’ joke. Through the explanations of the joke, it immediately becomes less funny, and the language used in the commentaries.

Scholia in Knights:

[1] “ ‘Just like dephomenos’: instead of “flogging your genitals” (apodérôn to aidoion). For, when men touch their genitals they don’t complete as they began, but they move more eagerly towards the secretion of semen. This plays on that, he means start small at first but then go continuously.

[2]dephomenos’: “having intercourse’. Flogging genitals.

[3]dephomenos’: They mean handling the penis. For, when men take hold of their penises they don’t move towards ejaculation the way they began, but more eagerly over time, as they are inflamed by the continuity of movement.”

 ὥσπερ δεφόμενος: ἀντὶ τοῦ ἀποδέρων τὸ αἰδοῖον. οἱ γὰρ ἁπτόμενοι τῶν αἰδοίων οὐχ ὡς ἤρξαντο, ἀλλὰ σπουδαιότερον κινοῦσι πρὸς τῇ τῆς γονῆς ἐκκρίσει. τοῦτο οὖν λέγει, ὅτι πρῶτον κατὰ μικρόν, εἶτα συνεχῶς λέγε. RVEΓ2M

δεφόμενος] ξυνουσιάζων, ἀποδέρων τὸ αἰδοῖον. M

δεφόμενος] ἤγουν τοῦ μορίου ἁπτόμενος. οἱ γὰρ ἁπτόμενοι τοῦ μορίου
πρὸς ἔκκρισιν τῆς γονῆς οὐχ ὡς ἤρξαντο κινοῦσιν ἀλλὰ σπουδαιότερον, ἐκπυρούμενοι τῇ συνεχείᾳ τῆς κινήσεως. VatLh

Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 705–709

“It is decreed that the ugly and the wretched
Get to fuck first.
Take your pleasure on the porch in the meantime
Handling your fig-leaves in the courtyard”

τοῖς γὰρ σιμοῖς καὶ τοῖς αἰσχροῖς
ἐψήφισται προτέροις βινεῖν,
ὑμᾶς δὲ τέως θρῖα λαβόντας
διφόρου συκῆς
ἐν τοῖς προθύροισι δέφεσθαι.

The Suda interprets this passage as meaning that someone is masturbating with a fig leaf. Henderson ( The Maculate Muse. New Haven 1975) explains that the “fig-leaves” are the foreskin and the “courtyard” means outside of a vagina.

Image result for ancient Greek Masturbating vase

And just in case one might worry about moral dimensions of masturbation, ancient philosophers have already tackled the question:

From Sextus Empiricus Pyrrhonian Hypotyposes, 3.206-207

“Similarly, this seems shameful to one of the sages but not to another. For us it is wrong to marry your own mother or sister. But the Persians, especially those of them who seem to pursue wisdom, the Magi, marry their mothers just as the Egyptians marry their sisters. The poet also says: “Zeus addressed Hera, his wife and sister…”

Zeno of Citium even says that it is not strange to rub your mother’s genitals with your own, just as no one would claim it is wrong to rub any other part of her body with your hand. Chrysippus approves in his Republic of a father getting children from his daughter, a mother from her son, and a brother from his sister. Plato insisted generally that wives should be held in common. Zeno also does not disapprove of masturbation, which is shameful in our culture. We have also learned that others practice this wicked habit as if it were a good thing.”

οὕτω καὶ τῶν σοφῶν ᾧ μὲν οὐκ αἰσχρόν, ᾧ δὲ αἰσχρὸν ἐδόκει τοῦτο εἶναι. ἄθεσμον τέ ἐστι παρ’ ἡμῖν μητέρα ἢ ἀδελφὴν ἰδίαν γαμεῖν· Πέρσαι δέ, καὶ μάλιστα αὐτῶν οἱ σοφίαν ἀσκεῖν δοκοῦντες, οἱ Μάγοι, γαμοῦσι τὰς μητέρας, καὶ Αἰγύπτιοι τὰς ἀδελφὰς ἄγονται πρὸς γάμον, καὶ ὡς ὁ ποιητής φησιν,

Ζεὺς ῞Ηρην προσέειπε κασιγνήτην ἄλοχόν τε.

ἀλλὰ καὶ ὁ Κιτιεὺς Ζήνων φησὶ μὴ ἄτοπον εἶναι τὸ μόριον τῆς μητρὸς τῷ ἑαυτοῦ μορίῳ τρῖψαι, καθάπερ οὐδὲ ἄλλο τι μέρος τοῦ σώματος αὐτῆς τῇ χειρὶ τρῖψαι φαῦλον ἂν εἴποι τις εἶναι. καὶ ὁ Χρύσιππος δὲ ἐν τῇ πολιτείᾳ δογματίζει τόν τε πατέρα ἐκ τῆς θυγατρὸς παιδοποιεῖσθαι καὶ τὴν μητέρα ἐκ τοῦ παιδὸς καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν ἐκ τῆς ἀδελφῆς. Πλάτων δὲ καὶ καθολικώτερον κοινὰς εἶναι τὰς γυναῖκας δεῖν ἀπεφήνατο. τό τε αἰσχρουργεῖν ἐπάρατον ὂν παρ’ ἡμῖν ὁ Ζήνων οὐκ ἀποδοκιμάζει· καὶ ἄλλους δὲ ὡς ἀγαθῷ τινι τούτῳ χρῆσθαι τῷ κακῷ πυνθανόμεθα.

Teiresias the Trans-Prophet: Origins of Prophecy and A Long-life, Not Requested

Book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses offers a delightful tale about Teiresias’ blindness and power of prophecy. The Theban was born as a man but changed into a woman when he saw two snakes copulating in the forest. Years later—after getting married and having at least one child—she happened to be walking in the forest and witnessed the same thing. Wham! Teiresias was a man again.

Sometime after that, Teiresias was summoned to Olympus to adjudicate a marital dispute between Zeus and Hera who had been arguing about whether sex was better for males or females. Teiresias gave an enigmatic answer (1 part enjoyment far a man to 10 for women) and Hera blinded him in rage. Zeus compensated for this by giving him the power of prophecy.

What most people don’t know is that this tale is not at all an Ovidian innovation. A few fragments attributed to Hesiod preserve the answer and Teiresias’ reaction to Zeus’ “gift”.

The first few lines present Hesiod’s answer (Fr. 275):

[Teiresias described how]

“A man delights only in one portion of ten
While a woman delights her thoughts filling out the other ten.”

οἴην μὲν μοῖραν δέκα μοιρέων τέρπεται ἀνήρ,
τὰς δὲ δέκ’ ἐμπίπλησι γυνὴ τέρπουσα νόημα.
Another fragment appears to have Teiresias addressing Zeus (fr. 276):

“Zeus father I wish that you would give me a shorter life
And grant that I might know only the things equal to the thoughts
Of mortal men. Now you have not honored me at all,
You who have made my lifetime so long,
That I will live on through seven generations of mortal men.”

Ζεῦ πάτερ, εἴθε μοι †εἴθ’ ἥσσω μ’† αἰῶνα βίοιο
ὤφελλες δοῦναι καὶ ἴσα φρεσὶ μήδεα ἴδμεν
θνητοῖς ἀνθρώποις· νῦν δ’ οὐδέ με τυτθὸν ἔτισας,
ὃς μακρόν γέ μ’ ἔθηκας ἔχειν αἰῶνα βίοιο
ἑπτά τ’ ἐπὶ ζώειν γενεὰς μερόπων ἀνθρώπων

Tiresias_striking_the_snakes

Teiresias is right to lament. As he probably knows from his recent power of prophecy, he will witness Dionysus’ return to Thebes (and subsequent bloodshed); the exposure of Oedipus and his parricidal, incestuous return; the deaths of Oedipus’ sons Eteokles and Polyneices at each other’s hands; and the sack of Thebes in the next generation. And even then his story isn’t over: Odysseus will wake up his tired ghost in the Odyssey for one more prophecy.

As for Teiresias’ answer to Zeus and Hera? When I teach this story I joke that he’s more afraid of Zeus than his wife. But his answer is part of a general Greek misogyny that justifies the cloistering of woman by characterizing them as libidinous by nature. The number 10 seems significant here: there may be an irony in the use of “enjoy”. In the Greek world, babies are born after 10 lunar months. If I had to give an answer to why “10:1” to save my life, that would be all I would have.

Fortunately, no Olympian beings will be seeking my advice…