Did ancient cultures have a better grip on gender than modern right-wingers?

Art | Gregory Beatty

Sleeping Hermaphrodite – replica of the original from the Louvre, Paris (Museum of Antiquity)

Not Set In Stone
Museum of Antiquities (U of S)
Until Dec. 22

The dogma coming from the Christian Right these days on gender and sexuality essentially reduces people to computers. In byte terms, we’re either a one or zero, i.e. a heterosexual woman or man. There’s no other possibility — at least, that isn’t sinful and hate-inducing.

The binary is portrayed as a universal truth — never mind that many cultures around the world, including Indigenous cultures on Turtle Island, have a nuanced and benign view of gender and sexuality.

And if we dip back into antiquity, we find more evidence the CR’s dogma on gender and sexuality is hopelessly misguided and bigoted.

That’s a message that comes through loud and clear in Not Set In Stone, which the Museum of Antiquities has up at University of Saskatchewan until Dec. 22.

Subtitled An Exploration of Gender and Sexuality in Greek and Roman Art, the exhibit was curated to mark 2SLGBTQIA+ History Month in October. It consists of 17 replica artifacts (sculptures, busts, reliefs, frescos) grouped into three themes: Hyper-Masculinity & Femininity, Gender Non-Conformity and Same-Sex Relationships.

Athena, Achilles & More

Looking through the lens of patriarchy, archaeologists once conceived of Paleolithic hunter/gatherer societies in gendered terms — men being the hunters, women the gatherers. But recent research paints a more fluid picture of gender roles related to hunting and gathering.

Now, archaeologists point to the shift to agriculture in the Neolithic era (c. 8000 BCE) as the possible point where gender roles began to firm up, with men working the land (and accruing wealth) while women tended to the home and raised a growing brood of children.

Ancient Greece, which dates back to c.850 BCE, was firmly patriarchal. But ancient Greeks didn’t view gender and sexuality the way we do today. Within Greek society, same-sex relationships and gender fluidity were more than topics of polite conversation — philosophers and historians, including Plato and Herodotus, pondered their mystery and morality, great myths were spun, poetry, drama, visual arts and crafts, all contributed to a rich discourse.

Later Roman society was broadly similar. But where ancient Greeks and Romans did draw a sex/gender-style distinction was whether a person was the more “active” or passive partner in the relationship, with the former being viewed as dominant.

Class distinction was also a factor, with servants and slaves often serving as partners for higher status citizens.

The text panels the museum prepared for the exhibition do a good job of defining the three themes, then discussing how each work fits within the theme. Most of the pieces reference figures and stories from Greek and Roman mythology. But some are inspired by real-life figures and events from Greek and Roman history.

One highlight in the Hyper-Masculinity & Femininity group is a decidedly non-real-life figure (outside of the porn world, maybe): the Greek God of animal and vegetable fertility, Priapus. In this fresco (Roman, 1st century CE), Priapus is depicted as a somewhat debauched, bearded man dressed in a shortish yellow and blue toga with his prodigious member hanging semi-erect.

On the Hyperfemininity front, there’s the relief Three Graces (Roman, 2nd century CE). Renowned for their connection to the Goddess of Love Aphrodite, the three sisters are depicted nude, two facing forward, while the third in the middle has her backside turned.

An eroticized vision of femininity like that, or the sculptural torso Aphrodite of Cnidos (Classical Greek, 364 BCE), probably aren’t surprising. But there’s also the relief Maenad Rending Her Prey (Hellenistic Greek, 1st century BCE/CE) — the prey being a deer, which the woman is shown ripping in half in a frenzy.

The Maenad, the text panel says, were female cult worshippers of the Greek God Dionysus, and would enter the woods to engage in drunken bacchanals in his honour (Bacchus being the Roman version of Dionysus).

Achilles on the Island of Skyros (Roman fresco, 1st century CE) is one highlight in the Gender Non-Conformity group. To avoid the Trojan War, Achilles’ mother dressed the young Greek warrior as a woman and hid him among the women of Skyros — all while the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus himself, searched for him.

Flipping the gender myth, Pensive Athena (Classical Greek, 465 BCE) pays homage to the fearless Goddess of War. Daughter of Zeus Athena was born into the world fully armoured, which is how she is depicted in this relief, with a hefty spear in her left hand.

That myth finds a real-life equivalent, to a degree, in the bust Livia (Roman, c. 11 BCE)which depicts the third wife of Roman Emperor Augustus who was a valued and forceful member of her husband’s Imperial court.

A similar mythical/real-life pairing anchors the Same-Sex Relationships group. The mythical one is a fresco: Cupid Leading Zeus’s Eagle to Ganymede (Roman, 1st century CE). King of the Greek gods, Zeus got up to all sorts of sexual shenanigans with humans. Here, he desires the young and beautiful Ganymede, and is shown taking the form of an eagle to snatch him away to be his cupbearer.*

The real-life equivalent is a bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (Roman, 125–130 BCE). Probably best known for the wall he built across northern England to keep the Celtic hordes at bay, Hadrian had a passionate affair with a young man named Antinous, who tragically drowned on a trip to Egypt in the Nile River. Grief-stricken, Hadrian declared Antinous a God, and venerated him in countless statues — some of which survive into present day.

Fauns, satyrs, nymphs are other familiar figures of myth that populate some of these stories. There’s even a life-size sculpture titled Sleeping Hermaphrodite (Roman copy of Greek original, 100–150 BCE). Source of the modern word hermaphrodite, Hermaphrodite was the child of Hermes and Aphrodite, and is depicted here as nominally female — but actually has both female and male sexual anatomy.

Intersex is a term that’s used to describe that situation today. It’s not common by any means, but sometimes people, to borrow a phrase from Gaga, are “born this way”. So even at a base anatomical level, a binary model doesn’t cut it. Factor in all the physiological, psychological and socio-cultural factors that shape gender and sexuality, and it implodes.

Did ancient Greeks and Romans have a better grip on gender reality than a lot of people today? See the show. You decide. ■

*   The Roman equivalent of Zeus is Jupiter — a name that does double duty as our solar system’s largest planet. When astronomers were naming the four major moons Galileo discovered with his telescope in 1610, they named Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede. Awww…