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From the ancient poet Sappho to tombois in contemporary Indonesia, women throughout history and around the globe have desired, loved, and had sex with other women. In beautiful prose, Sapphistries tells their stories, capturing the multitude of ways that diverse societies have shaped female same-sex sexuality across time and place.Leila J. Rupp reveals how, from the time of the very earliest societies, the possibility of love between women has been known, even when it is feared, ignored, or denied. We hear women in the sex-segregated spaces of convents and harems whispering words of love. We see women beginning to find each other on the streets of London and Amsterdam, in the aristocratic circles of Paris, in the factories of Shanghai. We find women’s desire and love for women meeting the light of day as Japanese schoolgirls fall in love, and lesbian bars and clubs spread from 1920s Berlin to 1950s Buffalo. And we encounter a world of difference in the twenty-first century, as transnational concepts and lesbian identities meet local understandings of how two women might love each other.Giving voice to words from the mouths and pens of women, and from men’s prohibitions, reports, literature, art, imaginings, pornography, and court cases, Rupp also creatively employs fiction to imagine possibilities when there is no historical evidence. Sapphistries combines lyrical narrative with meticulous historical research, providing an eminently readable and uniquely sweeping story of desire, love, and sex between women around the globe from the beginning of time to the present.
NYU Press
324 / 316
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:
Intersections: transdisciplinary perspectives on genders and sexualities
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A Global History of Love between Women

Leila J. Rupp

New York and London

New York and London
© 2009 by New York University
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rupp, Leila J., 1950–
Sapphistries : a global history of love between women / Leila J. Rupp.
p. cm. —
(Intersections: transdisciplinary perspectives on genders and sexualities)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978–0–8147–7592–9 (cl : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 0–8147–7592–6 (cl : alk. paper)
1. Lesbianism—History. 2. Lesbians—History. I. Title.
New York University Press books are printed on acid-free paper,
and their binding materials are chosen for strength and durability.
We strive to use environmentally responsible suppliers and materials
to the greatest extent possible in publishing our books.
Manufactured in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To Verta, again

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1 Introduction


2 In the Beginning (40,000–1200 BCE)


3 In Ancient Worlds (3500 BCE–800 CE)


4 In Unlikely Places (500 BCE–1600 CE)


5 In Plain Sight (1100–1900)


6 Finding Each Other (1600–1900)


7 What’s in a Name? (1890–1930)


8 In Public (1920–1980)


9 A World of Difference (1960–Present)


10 Conclusion








About the Author



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W H E N I H A V E told people, over the past couple of years, that I was writing a short, accessible, synthetic global history of love between women
from the beginning of time to the present, they often laughed or rolled
their eyes. I understand why—it is an insanely ambitious project. So I am
especially grateful for the confidence of Michael Kimmel and Suzanna
Walters, editors of the Intersections series, and Ilen; e Kalish, executive editor at New York University Press, that I could pull this off.
The idea for this book emerged from a course called “Sapphistries” that
I developed at the University of California, Santa Barbara—or maybe it
was the other way around. Having returned to my original academic home
in women’s studies, I decided to shift my focus from a comparative angle
on male and female same-sex sexuality to a concentration on desire, love,
and sex between women. It has been an adventure, and I am grateful for
the students in my “Sapphistries” classes for their enthusiasm for the subject, their perceptive questions, and helping me to think about things in
new ways. I am also thankful for the work of my colleagues in the Department of Feminist Studies—Jacqueline Bobo, Eileen Boris, Grace Chang,
Barbara Herr Harthorn, Ellie Hernández, Mireille Miller-Young, Laury
Oaks, and Barbara Tomlinson—all of whom, in vastly different ways,
have opened my eyes to new ways of looking at teaching and scholarship.
My chair and friend, Eileen Boris, has been particularly supportive. And
I could not have gone on without the wonderful work of our Feminist
Studies staff, Lou Anne Lockwood, Christina Toy, and Blanca Nuila. Lou
Anne, in particular, has shared lunches, coffees, heart-to-heart talks, and
dog-sitting for Phoebe.
Of course this book could not have been written without the amazing scholarship—far more than I thought when I set out to write—of so
many fine scholars. The notes and references track their contributions,
but I want to name a few here whose work I have used especially extensively: Evelyn Blackwood, Bernadette Brooten, Rudolf Dekker and Lotte
van de Pol, Lillian Faderman, Marti Lybeck, Jacqueline Murray, Gregory



Pflugfelder, Tze-lan Sang, Valerie Traub, Ruth Vanita, Martha Vicinus, and
Saskia Wieringa. Thank you for making this book possible. It goes without
saying that the mistakes—and how could there not be many in a project
of this scope—are mine alone.
I would also like to thank a number of scholars, students, and friends
who suggested books or articles, sent me unpublished or newly published
work, answered frantic queries, or just provided reassurance that I was
not entirely overlooking something important. These include Ken Andrien, April Bible, Kerstin Bronner, Elise Chenier, Laura Doan, Cameron
Duder, Stephanie Gilmore, Carrie Hamilton, Danielle Hidalgo, Marti Lybeck, Mark McLelland, José Ramos-Rebollo, Erika Rappaport, Jens Rydström, Birgitte Søland, Zeb Tortorici, Valerie Traub, and Martha Vicinus.
Lachelle Hannickel and Suzanne Braswell translated the caption for figure
14, for which I am very grateful.
In the midst of writing this book, I was heartened by the reception
of my talk at the Women’s History Workshop at Ohio State, my former
home. The enthusiasm and support of my former colleagues—and not
only my dear friends and women’s historians Susan Hartmann and Birgitte Søland—meant so much. I doubt that I ever would have attempted
to write a global history without having been part of the world history
group at Ohio State, so I thank them as well. I am also grateful for the
comments of Tom Laqueur and audience members at the session where
I talked about this project at the American Historical Association conference in 2009. Having finished the book, I had the pleasure of speaking at
the University of Connecticut, where I benefited from the questions and
comments of colleagues from history and sociology.
At New York University Press, Aiden Amos provided valuable advice
on the illustrations. Despina Papazoglou Gimbel managed the production process efficiently, and Andrew Katz did a careful job of copyediting.
My friend Kate Weigand, a scholar in her own right, produced a beautiful
I could not have completed this project without the financial support
of the UC Santa Barbara Academic Senate and the Division of Social Sciences and the incredible resources of the University of California libraries,
especially the interlibrary loan department. Melvin Oliver, Dean of Social
Sciences, provided research support, a job as Associate Dean to occupy
my free time, and the kind of encouragement, friendship, and laughter that
one does not always associate with the title “dean.” Lisa Leitz has been the
most astonishingly creative research assistant, working magic on a regular

Preface xi

basis. I don’t know how she does it, but I could not have survived without
her help.
I am also indebted to Lisa Duggan and Arlene Stein (the formerly
anonymous reviewers of the book proposal), Ruth Vanita and a stillanonymous reviewer of the manuscript, and other anonymous readers
who provided both criticism and support in the process of my final career review in the endlessly bureaucratic University of California system.
John D’Emilio, Estelle Freedman, Joanne Meyerowitz, and Joan W. Scott
read parts of the manuscript and wrote letters in support of a fellowship
proposal, for which I am very grateful, even though I didn’t get the fellowship. Later, Joanne, Birgitte Søland, and Verta Taylor read the whole
thing solely out of friendship (and more, in Verta’s case). All the comments and suggestions from these generous colleagues proved challenging
and helped greatly to improve the manuscript. There were many moments
when I wondered why I had taken on such a foolhardy project, and Birgitte especially buoyed me when I needed it most.
Phoebe was with me through almost every minute of work on this
book. She didn’t help at all, but her devotion goes a long way.
And then there is Verta, to whom I dedicate this book. For thirty years,
she has worked and played with me, inspired me with her brilliance, and
loved me through good times and bad. When we first met, we used to joke
about being sure to leave behind evidence of our relationship so no future
historian could say we were just good friends. In a way, that is what set me
on the path of writing Sapphistries. Verta, I can’t imagine my life without

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Sap·phis·tries \’saf-əs-trēs\ n : Histories and stories of female samesex desire, love, and sexuality, after Sappho, sixth century BCE poet of

T H E L E S B I A N P O E T Sappho, whatever her erotic history, bequeathed
both her name and her place of residence to the phenomenon of desire,
love, and sex between women. Her iconic image as a lover of women
has transcended the boundaries of history and geography, bestowing on
women who desire women the labels Sapphic and lesbian. Because the
term Sapphic has a longer and more widespread history than lesbian, I have
named this book Sapphistries, an invented word, although not an entirely
original one, to embrace all the diverse manifestations of women and “social males” with women’s bodies who desired, loved, made love to, formed
relationships with, and married other women.1 Sapphism is a name that
stuck through the centuries, and not only in the European tradition. An
eleventh-century poet in Muslim Spain earned the moniker “the Arab Sappho.”2 A Japanese loan word, saffuo, coined in the 1900s, refers to female
same-sex sexuality.3 A Chinese critic in 1925 translated one of Sappho’s
fragments into Chinese, pointing out that women’s same-sex love is called
“sapphism.”4 A conference in Melbourne, Australia, in 1995, organized by
lesbians from minority ethnic and racial backgrounds, took the title “Sappho Was a Wog Grrrl.”5 How impossible it is to disassociate Sappho from
her legacy is suggested by the fact that, in 2008, a Greek court dismissed
the request of three residents of Lesbos for a ban on the use of the word
lesbian for anyone other than inhabitants of the Aegean isle.6
The only term that has a broader historical reach, if not the same poetics, is tribadism, from the Greek and Latin words meaning “to rub,” in
its numerous linguistic variations. The Arabic terms sahq, sihâq, and
musâhaqa are all derived from the verbal root s-h-q, meaning “to pound,



bruise, efface, or render something soft,” sometimes translated as “rubbing.”7 In Hebrew, the term for women who have sex with other women
is měsallelet, meaning “to rub.”8 Female same-sex behavior in Chinese is
called mojingzi, “rubbing mirrors” or “mirror-grinding.”9 The word in Swahili for a lesbian is msagaji, which means “a grinder.”10 In Urdu and related
languages, the terms for female same-sex sexual activity—Chapat, Chapti,
and chapatbazi—are all related to flatness or flattening.11 Tortilleras is the
term used to refer to lesbians in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America.12 A
French dictionary from 1690 defined a tribade as “a shameless woman enamored of one of her own sex” and finished off the definition with the simple statement “Sappho was a tribade.”13 An English pamphlet from 1734
blamed Sappho for introducing “a new Sort of Sin, call’d the Flats.”14 So I
suppose my title might have more global reach if it were called “Tribadie”
or “Rubbing through Time,” but both lack, in my opinion, the elegance of
“Sapphistries.” In the interest of elegance, too, my subtitle (and sometimes
text) intends “love” to cover desire and sex as well, and “women” to include those with female bodies who might not have identified as women.
It is, I must admit, an audacious undertaking to tackle desire, love, and
sexuality across such vast expanses of time and space. On the one hand,
the enormous variety of ways that women have come together in societies ranging from ancient China, India, and the Mediterranean world to
contemporary Thailand, Mexico, and South Africa can only support the
social constructionist perspective on sexuality that insists on the impact
of societal structures and concepts in shaping the ways that people experience desire, have sex, form relationships, and think about themselves. On
the other hand, the very act of putting between two covers such a wide
range of ways that women have loved one another raises the danger that
we think of them all in one large category.
Some scholars, for political reasons, insist on that category being called
lesbian, even if that was not a term or concept embraced by a particular society.15 Adrienne Rich in 1981 famously introduced the concepts of lesbian
existence and the lesbian continuum to embrace a wide range of womanbonding behaviors characterized primarily by resistance to male domination.16 Since then, debates have raged on about what qualifies a woman as
a lesbian throughout history and across cultures.17 Taking off from Rich
and following her emphasis on autonomy from male control, medieval
historian Judith Bennett argues for the term lesbian-like, which she uses
to describe a range of medieval European women. She tells, for example,
of two different convents that housed women who fit her concept. One



was founded by a widow in Ferrara who put together her dowry with
contributions from other women to buy property and establish a community that she managed to keep out from under male Church authority
for almost twenty years. She and her companions lived together, devoting
themselves to religion and good works, and when she died, she named another woman her heir, with the obligation to maintain the community in
the same form. With the language of piety, she created a life independent
of the control of men, whether husbands or Church authorities. The other
convent was in Monpellier and housed former prostitutes who were old,
repentant, or moving away from prostitution to marriage. They were not
cloistered and had only minor religious duties. In neither case is there any
evidence of same-sex desire or sexual behavior, but that is precisely Bennett’s point: that, in the first case, the desire for independence from men
is “lesbian-like” and that, in the second, the long historical connection between prostitution and same-sex love is suggestive.18
I understand the appeal both of boldly claiming visibility where it
barely exists by embracing the term lesbian and of keeping the association while recognizing the differences between contemporary lesbians and
what Bennett would call “lesbian-like” women of the past. But I have chosen a different path. Too broad use of the term lesbian, I think, downplays
the differences among women, especially when the concept and identity
of lesbian is available and women choose not to embrace it, as occurs in
many parts of the world today where a transnationally available lesbian
identity is known but women who desire women have different ways to
think about themselves. So I choose to use a term that does not apply to
women themselves but to their histories and stories. And, unlike Bennett,
I am not willing to consider women who sought independence from men
and women who sought the privileges of men, if they did not also give
some hint of desire or love for women, as part of sapphistries.
The question of whether sex matters in determining who is part of “lesbian” or “lesbian-like” history has been much debated. This issue came to
the fore particularly in the context of romantic friendships, the passionate and socially acceptable ties between women in the nineteenth century
that first came to attention in Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s classic article
“The Female World of Love and Ritual.”19 Then Lillian Faderman, in her
pioneering book Surpassing the Love of Men, connected romantic friendship to contemporary lesbian feminism while arguing that most romantic
friends “probably did not have sexual relationships.”20 Whether or not romantic friends—or other women who expressed passionate love for each



other—engaged in sexual acts is a question that increasingly aroused fierce
debate in the context of the feminist “sex wars,” a struggle born in the
1980s over emphasizing the pleasure as opposed to the danger of sexuality. The most recent studies of romantic friendship, by Martha Vicinus and
Sharon Marcus, leave no doubt about the erotic and sexual aspects of at
least some of these relationships.21 In the ongoing debate about how much
sex matters, I come down firmly on the side of the centrality of sexual desire, erotic love, and/or sexual behavior in thinking about which women
in the past and present are part of this story.
But of course the difficult question is, what counts as desire, love, and
sex? Are expressions that sound to our modern ears like desire actually
that? Can we tell erotic love from nonerotic friendship? Is genital activity necessary to a sexual act? Is genital activity always a sexual act? These
latter questions are especially difficult. Having read about the caressing
of breasts between two African American women in the mid-nineteenth
century and European and U.S. romantic friends kissing and hugging and
lying with heads in laps, my students in one class, having been asked what
counts as sex, thought they knew where to draw the line: what they called
“tongue action” in kissing and “below the waist action” in caressing counts
as sex; anything else does not. But such a definition, though clearly making sense to twenty-first-century U.S. college students, cannot stand up to
the girls and women in Lesotho who French kiss, rub one another’s labias
to stretch and beautify them, and even engage in cunnilingus but who insist that it is not sexual because there is no penis. Nor can it stand up to
!Kung San girls, who likewise engage in sexual play but are not sure what
it means, asking, “Can two vaginas screw?”22 So what looks very much like
sexual activity to us may not be understood that way, and what may not
seem to cross whatever line we imagine divides foreplay from sex may in
fact very much count as sex to the women involved. And all the same uncertainty applies to what counts as desire and what counts as erotic love.
Then there is the problem of evidence. Given the long history at play
here and the extremely limited literacy of women, testimony from the
mouths or pens of women is very rare until modern times. So most of the
evidence we have through the centuries comes from men: their prohibitions, their reports, their literature, their art, their imaginings, their pornography, their court cases. Here and there the views of women themselves can be gleaned, and I have tried mightily to make use of the creative
research of scholars who have listened and heard the voices of women,
even if we need to acknowledge that the context and filtering of such



voices mean that they are in reality representations rather than some fundamental truth about experience. We also have to assume that the representations, both textual and visual, created by men tell us something about
the possibilities of love and sex between women in different societies.
But I recognize that any decision about where to draw the lines—who
is in and who is out in a history of love between women—is tricky. Perhaps most problematic is my inclusion of female-bodied individuals who
did not or do not consider themselves women, even if they did not or do
not consider themselves men. Judith Halberstam develops the concept of
“perverse presentism” to suggest that “what we do not know for sure today about the relationship between masculinity and lesbianism, we cannot
know for sure about historical relations between same-sex desire and female masculinities.”23 Because we often do not know what such individuals themselves thought about their gender and sexuality, and because the
act of female bodies having sex together was often what the authorities
saw as most important, I include them here, being careful not to assume
either that they were transgendered in a contemporary sense or that they
were like female-gendered women who desired or had sex with other female-gendered women.
Although most of my sources are conventional historical ones, I am also
taking liberties by using some literary texts not as historical sources but as
ways to help us imagine answers to questions that cannot be addressed with
existing evidence. These are texts that reflect their own time and place while
portraying another. So, for example, I use Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap: A Novel,
which reflects contemporary thinking about the fluidity of sexual identities,
to engage with the historical Sappho’s sexuality; a short story by Sara Maitland, “The Burning Times,” to think about the possibilities of witchcraft accusations and love between women; and, in the riskiest historical move of all,
Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, a novel about a contemporary British biracial transgendered musician, to imagine what the wives of women who secretly crossed
the gender line through past centuries might have thought. I am aware of the
conceptual risks posed by such a strategy, but I believe that the advantages
outweigh the danger of contributing to a vision of transhistorical sameness.24
And I am inspired by Monique Wittig, who wrote in Les Guérillères, “Make
an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent.”25 These literary texts, as imaginative interpretations, remind us that historical scholarship, too, although
based on evidence, is also an act of interpretation.
Sapphistries not only brings together extremely scattered and disconnected research on a wide range of phenomena but also, I hope,



contributes to ongoing discussions about the nature of sexuality across
time and place. Certainly the range of ways that women have come together makes clear that how women act on their desires, what kinds of acts
they engage in and with whom, what kinds of meanings they attribute to
those desires and acts, how they think about the relationship between love
and sexuality, whether they think of sexuality as having meaning for identities, whether they form communities with people with like desires—all
of these are shaped by the societies in which they live.
At the same time, however, we must confront the persistence of certain patterns in the history of female same-sex sexuality, particularly the
role of female masculinity and the eroticization of friendship. That is, we
find very different societies shaping erotic relationships between women
in quite similar ways. Here it is useful to remember that anthropologist
Carole Vance, in a classic article on social constructionism, pointed out
that recognizing ways that societies construct sexuality differently does
not mean that there are never similarities.26 Making a similar point, literary scholar Valerie Traub confronts the question of why certain ways that
women loved women in the past seem so familiar despite very different social contexts. She proposes a new way of thinking about the sense of “uncanny familiarity” that strikes us so often in thinking about women’s relationships with women in different times and places. To simplify a complex
argument, she suggests that there are certain overarching ways that desire,
sex, and love between women have been understood and enacted across
time and that those understandings and definitions appear, disappear, and
reappear at different points.27 What she calls “cycles of salience” account
for our sense that, for example, medieval nuns in love are like nineteenthcentury romantic friends. It is Traub’s hope that such a perspective will
make possible “a transnational history of lesbianism” across time; it is my
hope that Sapphistries makes a start in that direction, even though that is
not the description I would use.28
The ways that love between women has been understood, I suggest, include the following: that a woman who desires other women is masculine,
that her body marks her as different from other women, that she is wanton,
that she is deprived of access to men, and that she hates men. These understandings emerge in different conceptions across history and cultures, as
we shall see in encountering manly women, female husbands, butches,
and Thai toms, all embodying masculinity; hermaphrodites and women
with enlarged clitorises, whose bodies mark them; wanton women, including those from Lesbos, witches, prostitutes, and aristocratic tribades;



secluded women, nuns, and schoolgirls, all presumably deprived of men;
and man haters such as Amazons and lesbian feminists. At some points in
time, in some places, one or another conception holds sway. That is why
we can make transhistorical comparisons without assuming some essentialist “lesbian” that can be found everywhere.
But these are just the ways that women who love women have been understood from the outside. What about their own conceptions, their own
understandings of who they are? This is where the two persistent forms of
relationships come into play: masculine-feminine attraction, in which gender difference is eroticized, and eroticized friendship, in which sameness
shapes desire. As we move throughout time and around the globe, we find
these two patterns appearing and reappearing.
The existing works that have tried to encompass a global history of
same-sex sexuality, based mostly on the history of men, have constructed
three or four basic categories of relationships: those differentiated by age,
those differentiated by gender, sometimes those differentiated by class or
race, and those not differentiated in any of these ways. That last category
tends to be the most rare and the most modern.29 These categories have
less resonance in the history of female same-sex sexuality. Cross-generational relationships, though not entirely missing, are not as central, and
the eroticization of racial/ethnic and class difference that has been identified for men has little counterpart among women. Nondifferentiated relationships seem to be much more common.
David Halperin, in his provocative book How to Do the History of Homosexuality, suggests that it may be, because of male dominance and female subordination, that “the history of lesbianism exists in a different
relation to time . . . from the history of male homosexuality.”30 Much of
the history of male same-sex sexuality is shaped by elite men’s privilege
to penetrate social inferiors, including boys, women, slaves, servants, and
lower-class men, as long as they also fulfilled their familial responsibilities
to marry and beget heirs. We need to ask, how has women’s relative lack
of privilege and lack of access to public space shaped an entirely different
story? Likewise, the part men play in sexual acts, as inserters or what I
like to call enclosers, plays a central role in how they are perceived, with
those who wielded their penises privileged over those who enclosed those
penises. The story for women is different: whereas masculine women who
penetrated their lovers with penislike objects tended to arouse particular
horror in some places, sexual role is less important, as the persistent image of mutual rubbing attests. And the emphasis on transformation when



elite men could no longer penetrate any of their social inferiors without
consequences for their normality and masculinity has no counterpart in
the history of women. I hope to show, then, how the different trajectories
of female as compared to male same-sex love and desire transform our understanding of the history of sexualities.
Another major goal of this book is to undermine a Western-dominated
narrative of progress and to join the voices of scholars who have argued
for a complex understanding of the ways that local and global identities
interact in the contemporary world.31 The historical sources are much
more numerous for Europe and the United States and for modern history,
so there is no way to provide a balanced account with regard to coverage.
But I have worked hard to locate scholarship on every part of the world
and, more important, to avoid a narrative of triumphal progress based on
the Western tradition. This is not to deny how much the successes of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer movements, where they have
flourished, have changed the world for the better. But a global view makes
clear, for example, that emergence into public, so important in the story
of same-sex sexuality in the Western world, is not everywhere significant;
that desire and love between women can flourish within heterosexual social arrangements; and that the emergence of a lesbian identity—the focus
of so much of the scholarship on the history of female same-sex sexuality—is a minor part of the story of sapphistries. A global view also reveals
the persistent inclination to blame others—people from other countries
or class or racial others within a society—for sexual desires and behaviors
denounced as deviant.
Beginning with an imagined prehistory and moving around the globe,
this book provides a uniquely sweeping and global view of female samesex love and sexuality.32 Chapter 2 deals with mythical prehistories of
woman-only societies and theories of the origins of human societies,
as well as creation stories and myths from diverse cultural contexts that
engage with the possibilities of female same-sex love. Chapter 3 ranges
across Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Inca, and Aztec civilizations, providing context for the better-known histories of Greek and Roman cultures,
including Sappho of Lesbos. Then, in chapter 4, I move across a long
stretch of time, considering the traditions of the great world religions
and then exploring women’s relationships in sex-segregated spaces such
as monasteries and polygynous households, women mystics and witches,
and women caught in the act of having sex with other women. Chapter
5 turns to institutionalized cross-gender or third-gender phenomena in



Native American, Indian, and Balkan societies; “female husbands” who,
as social males, married women in some African societies; and women
who secretly crossed the gender line and married women in early modern European societies and later in the United States, Australia, and New
Zealand. Chapter 6 explores the emergence of nascent communities: the
beginnings of urban groups of women (the “roaring girls” of London, the
“randy women” of Amsterdam, women in brothels and prisons), aristocratic European women accused of tribadism, marriage resistance movements in China, portrayals of love between women in Urdu poetry, and
the emergence of romantic friendship among women across Europe and
the United States. In chapter 7, I explore, in the context of different words
applied to women who had sex with other women, the emergence of the
concept of the lesbian, its spread from the European sexologists to China
and Japan, and the complicated responses of women around the world,
who sometimes acknowledged and sometimes rejected and sometimes
ignored a potential new identity. Chapter 8 treats cultures and communities of women who, sometimes deliberately and sometimes not, made
love between women public. Beginning with communities of schoolgirls
in Europe, the United States, China, and Japan, I turn to feminist communities; the private-yet-public world of the Paris salon of Natalie Barney;
the lesbian commercial establishments that emerged in New York, Paris,
and Berlin in the 1920s and in other places in the 1950s; and the growth
and spread of lesbian publications and organizations from the 1920s on.
Chapter 9 considers the wide range of ways that women in the contemporary world have continued to love women, from finding one another
in sex-segregated spaces to falling in love with co-wives to marrying one
another legally to crossing the gender line to embracing masculine-feminine pairings to falling in love with their friends—in fact, every way that
women in the past found to express their desire and love. The conclusion
reviews this sprawling history and returns to the question of how a consideration of sapphistries revises our understanding of the global history
of same-sex sexuality.
So Sapphistries is the story of goddesses and Amazons, Sappho and the
Arab Sappho, nuns and witches, manly women and female husbands, roaring girls and aristocratic tribades, sworn sisters and sweet doganas, schoolgirls in love and Parisian salonnières, German girlfriends and butches and
fems, mummies and babies, toms and dees, tombois and mati. But let us
begin at the beginning by wondering whether sex between women might
have existed in the earliest human societies.

In the Beginning
(40,000–1200 BCE)

H E R E I S O N E imagined beginning, not of the world but of human
In the beginning of time, there were only women, bearers of two unbroken X chromosomes. They reproduced through parthenogenesis, a
process that occurs elsewhere in the natural world, in which females give
birth without contact with males. And human—that is, female—society
was a wonder to behold. Then some disease or bombardment of radiation
from the sun damaged one healthy X chromosome, chopping off the right
lower leg and creating a mutant, man. This was the beginning of the end
for a glorious lost civilization in which women were at first the only and
then the superior and dominant sex. For the mutation that brought men
into the world began a long process that culminated in the triumph of a
men’s revolution—and the beginning of recorded history. The revolution
was so complete that it wiped out almost all memory of the earlier great
civilization. But hints remain: myths of Atlantis and other lost worlds, the
complexity of ancient languages compared to modern ones, ancient maps
that depict parts of the world with inexplicable accuracy, and the earliest
origin stories in which the world is created by a goddess. The peaceful,
matriarchal, utopian world of the women—“the first sex”—gave way to
the brutality of the mutants, as women, who chose their sexual partners,
turned to meat-eating men, whose dietary habits increased both their
overall body size and the heft of their organs of reproduction. Thus, the
fall of woman came through the pull of a metaphorical, not literal, snake.
This is the tale spun by Elizabeth Gould Davis in a provocative—dare
I say outrageous?—book first published in 1971, in the context of the resurgence of U.S. feminism.1 It is a counternarrative to the biblical tale of
Adam and Eve, offering man-created-through-a-genetic-mutation-fromwoman as an alternative to woman-created-from-the-rib-of-man. Davis
says nary a word about sex between women, but her tale opens up the

In the Beginning


possibility of a sort of 1970s-style lesbian commune lost in the mists of
That possibility is taken up with gusto in another imaginative and
equally provocative account of the origins of human society. In Lesbian
Origins, lesbian feminist sociologist Susan Cavin boldly proclaims that,
since we cannot ever know what the earliest society was like, her theory
is as good any other foisted on us by what she calls “patriscientists” (defined in her glossary as “scientists who are apologists for patriarchy”).2
Based loosely on primate behavior, creation myths, and (in truth) wishful thinking, Cavin depicts a “gynosociety” composed of women and their
children, with males after adolescence fewer in number and consigned to
some unspecified place outside society proper. Sex between women is a
central part of gynosociety since it fosters cooperation, says Cavin. Heterosexuality is not unknown, so women do have sex with the extrasocietal
males, but it is neither exclusive nor preferred. Because of sex segregation
and the predominance of women, asexuality and what Cavin calls “bisex”
and “homosex” are prevalent.
What happens to this world? The patriarchal revolution that Davis envisages resulting from women’s poor selection of mates comes for Cavin when
the first woman relents and lets her son remain inside once he is grown and
then takes him as a lover, incest taboos not being in force in this world. With
that first misstep, the utopian world of gynosociety starts to come tumbling
down, with men eventually taking charge of women’s sexuality and reproductive abilities and creating the world that we know all too well. Cavin
thus reverses the judgment associated with nineteenth-century evolutionary theories that posited woman-dominated societies and unrestricted
sexual encounters at the beginning of human society and then triumphal
progress toward a patriarchal social structure.3 Her tale has echoes in the
Chicana feminist reinterpretation of the Aztec myth of Coyolxauhqui, the
moon goddess. Coyolxauhqui tries to kill her mother, who is pregnant with
Huitzilopotchli, the war god, but he bursts from his mother’s womb, dismembers his sister, and flings her head into the sky, where it becomes the
moon. In the feminist telling, Coyolxauhqui is not a murderous daughter
but, rather, is making a valiant attempt to save the world from war, slavery,
and imperialism—from the consequences of male domination.4
The newest addition to the genre of alternative creation myths comes
from novelist and Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, who tells a tale
prompted, she says, by a “scientific article” arguing that “the basic and
primal human stock was probably female,” with males “a kind of cosmic


In the Beginning

afterthought.”5 The story is framed by the ruminations of a male historian
in ancient Rome, who tells us, “In Rome now, a sect—the Christians—
insist that the first female was brought forth from the body of a male. Very
suspect stuff, I think. Some male invented that—the exact opposite of the
In Lessing’s imagined world, the first humans were the Clefts, females
who reproduced without males, “impregnated by a fertilizing wind, or a
wave that carried fertility in its substance.”7 As in Davis’s tale, there is no
sex between women here. They mutilate, kill, or abandon the occasional
malformed offspring, known as a Monster, born with a “clutch of protruding flesh there in front where they had smooth flesh, a neat slit, fringed
with soft hair.”8 But the abandoned Squirts, as they come to be called, do
not die, but are rescued by eagles and raised elsewhere. And in Lessing’s
tale, the Clefts and the Squirts find one another, as they seemingly are destined to do. The Squirts, who lack the knack of giving life, are “tormented
by the demands of their maleness” and “driven by powerful instincts,”
until they find Clefts who, seeing their hunger, have sex with them (and
clean their huts to boot).9 In Lessing’s telling, heterosexuality is inevitable.
Eventually the Clefts can no longer reproduce without encountering the
Squirts’ “tubes,” and the old ways die out. Again, the rest we know.
Admittedly this is all rather far-fetched, but why not imagine an alternative to heterosexual origins? Why not parthenogenesis or homosex?
Since we do not know anything about sexual behavior at the beginning
of human society, why should we assume that same-sex sexuality was taboo? Are there any hints that sex between women may have existed in the
The problem is, of course, that creation myths and other stories that explain the way the world is mirror the societies of their creators, just as the
tales I have just described are spun within particular political contexts. So
it is not surprising that most of them take a heterosexual shape, as in the
Adam and Eve version, with a god or some gods and a man and a woman
and eventually a child. Still, the fact that it is women who give birth to
children, and that the role of men and sexual intercourse in paternity was
not always understood, means that some stories give a starring role to a
female figure.
Take, for example, creation stories that feature a goddess in the beginning. There are scholars who argue that originally goddesses created
and ruled the world and that the emergence of god-centered religions
represented a kind of heavenly male revolution mirroring what went on

In the Beginning


in the material world. Thus, feminist scholar Merlin Stone, in her 1976
book When God Was a Woman, unearths goddess religions of the ancient
Mediterranean world and argues that the Bible represents a conspiracy to
rewrite history and slander the goddess, resulting as well in the increasing societal subordination of women.10 All that talk of honoring no other
gods referred, Stone argues, to the goddess, whose primary symbol, the
serpent, comes to play such a diabolical role in the biblical version of the
fall of man and woman.
More dispassionate scholars agree that the stature of goddesses declined over time, perhaps as men began to conquer rather than stand in
awe of the forces of nature. So what can we make of the history of goddess worship? At a time when the link between heterosexual intercourse
and the birth of children was unknown, it would not be surprising for
women to have been viewed as the creators of life. Mothers would also
have the only evident connection to the children they bore. In such societies, both goddess worship and matrilineal descent would make sense.
Whether such representations mean anything about the status of women,
much less the possibilities of female same-sex sexuality, is another question altogether. Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist who has written extensively about goddess worship, argues that the civilization of the goddess
was peaceful and egalitarian—in short, the kind of paradise that both
Elizabeth Gould Davis and Susan Cavin depict.11 Needless to say, such a
conclusion is controversial.12
Even advocates of the goddess as a victim of a patriarchal revolution
most often point to her heterosexuality, for she tends to take a young male
god, sometimes her son, as lover or husband, and that male figure (shades
of Susan Cavin’s account) takes over to become the primary deity. Still, it
is worth noting that myths do not all feature a heterosexual version of creation. In a Kamia (Native American) origin tale, White Woman bears many
children not conceived by a man.13 Another Native American creation
myth, from the Hopi, describes nothing but water and two goddesses, both
named Huruing Wuhti, in the beginning of the world. They lived in the
ocean, one in the east and one in the west, and they created land between
the seas. When the sun called attention to the fact that there were no living
things on the new land, they made a bird to fly over and view the land, then
all sorts of animals, and finally a woman (first) and then a man.14
Ancient Indian texts also include stories of births unconnected to heterosexuality. A common tale, according to scholars Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, involves a deity providing some kind of magic food or drink


In the Beginning

Figure 1. An image of the
“dual feminine.” Devikapuram (city of the Goddess),
Tamil Nadu, fifth to seventh
centuries CE. From Gita
Thadani, Sakhiyani: Lesbian
Desire in Ancient and Modern
India (London: Cassell,

that results in birth. In one case, King Saudyumni drank the water intended for his wife and gave birth from his thigh. In another, two women
split what was meant for one and gave birth to half a child each. Taking a
different form, a story about Aruna, god of dawn, has him assuming the
form of a woman to attend an all-female celebration where women danced
naked. In his female body, he sleeps with two women and gives birth to a
child by each.15 In a manner reminiscent of Merlin Stone, Indian feminist
scholar Gita Thadani reads the classic Sanskrit texts to argue that the existence of an older matriarchal society has been covered up, although hints
can be discerned of “dual feminine” deities in the Rig Ved (4000–1500
BCE). (See figure 1 for an example of this kind of representation.)
In contrast to the emphasis on gods and goddesses as consorts, dual
feminine deities could be lovers, mothers, or sisters. Images such as the

In the Beginning


following suggest the possibility of same-sex eroticism: “from the bosom
of the mountain, desirous and content, two mares, like two bright cows
as mothers licking, caressing and kissing.”16 In a Japanese tale, Ama no
Uzume (the Alarming Heavenly Female) makes sunlight return to the
Earth by coaxing the Sun Goddess Amaterasu out of her cave by revealing
her breasts and lifting her skirt to just below her genitals.17 What if such
stories reflect the existence of fluid sexualities? What if goddess-worshipping societies facilitated women’s love for other women? Can we glean any
hints of such a possibility?
One imaginative tale is spun by novelist Anita Diamant, who creates
from the Old Testament story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, in the Book
of Genesis, a fascinating tale of love and lust. In Diamant’s novel The Red
Tent, she seems to suggest a connection between goddess worship and indifference to men, if nothing more.18 Jacob, who worships the god who demands that all others be put aside, takes four sisters as wives. Zilpah, who
is devoted to the Queen of Heaven and sees herself as “the keeper of the
mysteries of the red tent,” where women gather once a month to bleed, is
the only one uninterested in sex with Jacob.19 She turns white when she
learns that she is to be given to him. She puts off going to his bed and tells
her niece Dinah that she considers it a duty and that she never expects to
enjoy it. She bears twin sons and never sleeps with Jacob again.
The story embroiders the argument of Merlin Stone, for the women
defend the old ways and “the great mother, who goes by many names, but
who is in danger of being forgotten.”20 In the red tent, women not only
bleed together at the time of the new moon; they also initiate girls in menstruating for the first time by opening their wombs with an image of the
goddess. The wives of Jacob contrast their ritual, which ensures that a girl’s
first blood “goes back to the womb of Inanna, to the dust that formed the
first man and the first woman,” to the fate of women who worship the jealous god, who “have set aside the Opening, which is the sacred business of
women, and permit men to display their daughters’ bloody sheets.”21 It is
only a story, of course.
Cavin sets great store in tales of all-female societies in different places
around the world. There are, of course, most famous of all, the Amazons.
They come down to us as a nation of women warriors, described by Aeschylus as “the warring Amazons, men-haters” who lived in the vicinity of
the Black Sea in what is now Turkey.22 What fascinated the Greeks about
them was their military prowess and the fact that they lived without men,
reportedly seeking out males in neighboring societies once a year in order


In the Beginning

to conceive children. If the Amazons bore sons, they either gave them to
the men who fathered them or, shades of the Clefts, mutilated or killed
them. Greek sources suggest that the Amazons thrived during the Bronze
Age (3000–1200 BCE). Homer, in the first text to report on them, calls
them “the equal of men.”23 Later texts mention a lost epic recounting the
story of the Amazon queen Penthesilea fighting with Achilles, who kills
her and then falls in love with (or in some versions has sex with) her
corpse. Hesiod describes Hercules defeating the Amazons, and Diodorus
of Sicily, writing in the first century BCE, has Hercules slaughtering almost
all the Amazons and then raping their commander, Melanippe, and giving
Antiope, a princess, to Theseus as a reward. Theseus took Antiope back to
Athens as his concubine, and when the remnants of the Amazon nation
attacked Athens to rescue her, Antiope fought against them. Diodorus
also tells of an Amazon named Thalestris, who approached Alexander the
Great with a proposal that they together conceive a girl child. They made
love and hunted lions for thirteen days, but Thalestris died without giving
birth to the superchild sure to emerge from such a union.
From the late seventh century BCE, the Amazons appear in Athenian
art (for an example of a Greek statue, see figure 2), and then Herodotus,
writing in the fifth century BCE, tells the most extensive tale about them.
According to Herodotus, the Greeks defeated the Amazons in battle and
sailed away with them as slaves. Somewhere in the Black Sea, the Amazons staged a successful revolt but, not knowing how to sail, ran the ships
aground. On land once again, the Amazons found horses, tamed them, and
began to fight the local population of Scythian men. The Scythians, amazed
to find that their enemies were women, decided to court rather than battle
them, and in this they succeeded.24 The Amazons settled down with the
Scythian men but clung to their traditions of riding, hunting, and fighting.
Later in the fifth century BCE, Pseudo-Hippocrates reported that the
Amazons cauterized the right breast of girls in infancy so that they would
be better archers and dislocated the joints of male children “so that the
male race might not conspire against the female race.”25 The Amazons rode
and fought and did not have sex until they had killed three enemies. A
slightly different story comes from the pen of a writer in the late third century CE, called Justin, who has the Amazons settling near the Black Sea
with their husbands, who were then killed off in battle. The women began
to seek out men for the sole purpose of conceiving, murdered their sons,
and burned off the right breasts of their daughters. Under their queens
Marpesia and Lampedo, they conquered much of Europe and Asia.

In the Beginning


Figure 2. Greek statue of an Amazon. From
Dietrich von Bothmer, Amazons in Greek Art
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957).

Stories about Amazons, according to Cavin, can be found from northern Africa to eastern Europe to central Asia to India, China, and Mongolia.26 Diodorus of Sicily claimed that, prior to the Amazons living around
the Black Sea, there were warlike North African women who were “greatly
admired for their manly vigor.”27 A society of women who burned off their
breasts and remained virgins while they fought and took on male roles
lived on an island and conquered the surrounding peoples. Under their
queen, Myrina, they founded cities, including Mitylene on Lesbos. These
are the women known as the “Libyan” or “Black” Amazons. One recent
study cites a slew of reports from around the world: Ibrahim Ibn Jaqûb,
an Arab writer in the tenth century CE, reported on a city of Amazons in


In the Beginning

central Europe; an Indian historian in the twelfth century told of an eighthcentury king encountering an Amazon society; Chinese chronicles located
Amazons near Tibet and on the east side of the Caspian Sea; and Marco
Polo spun tales of an island of women in the Indian Ocean, between India
and East Africa.28 European explorers in the sixteenth century and beyond
reported Amazons in Latin America and Africa, which suggests to Cavin
that female-dominated societies survived for a long time in some places.
A sixteenth-century Spanish text describes “an island called California,
very close to the Earthly Paradise, inhabited by Black women without a
single man among them.”29 A 1967 book tellingly titled Our Primitive Contemporaries describes “the far-famed Dahomean ‘Amazons’” as “the shock
troops of the army, the best disciplined and most redoubtable warriors.”30
The British explorer Richard Burton witnessed the women soldiers of Dahomey, who fought against the French in the colonial wars at the end of the
nineteenth century.31 The Amazon warriors were reportedly not allowed to
marry or have children but had courtesans available for sexual purposes.32
Stories reminiscent of those about the Amazons emerge in Tamil folk
tales still popular in rural India.33 Societies of women flourish in Alliyarasanimalai, a woman-centered ballad about the “kingdom of Alli,” the heroine of the tale. Although the story says nothing about sex between women
in this all-female land, it does make clear that women were strong, able to
fight, and uninterested in men. Arjuna, a prince and hero in other tales,
in this story falls hopelessly in love with Alli and sets out to force her to
marry him. She is, however, determined never to marry and is guarded
by women warriors and surrounded by women who administer the city,
advise her, and serve as priests, executioners, hunters, and friends. Even
her elephants are all female. Although Arjuna uses devious and magical
powers to rape, impregnate, capture, and finally marry Alli, she eventually
returns to her kingdom, where she teaches the son that she bears to take
revenge on his father. Sanskrit texts, too, refer to an Amazonian kingdom
known as Strirajya, a matriarchal country where, according to the Kamasutra, “dildos are much employed.”34
Note that in all these stories, stretched across centuries, the most important characteristic of the Amazons is their military prowess, which
links them to masculinity, a theme we shall encounter again and again. But
what about sexuality? Most of the tales emphasize the Amazons’ virginity in combination with their control of their own sexuality and their refusal to stick with one man: when they want to reproduce, they seek out
men and for the most part do not settle down with them. It is also worth

In the Beginning


noting that “virginity” can be assumed to refer to lack of sexual interaction
with men. Fear of female-controlled and unrestrained sexuality is the notvery-sub subtext, and the conquering or taming of the Amazons reassures
the men relating and absorbing the tales that all will be right in the end.
Is there evidence that Amazons, whether in history or myth, were lovers of women? The ancient sources seem to be silent on this question, despite the knowledge of such possibilities. A strange little book published
in 1972 that purports to pull together all the ancient sources on the Amazons in order to create a narrative of the rise and fall of the Libyan Amazons, followed by the fuller story of the Amazons of Asia Minor, speculates about their sexual practices. If, the author asserts, they did without
men most of the time, “we must confront as our sum an erotic practice
rarely if ever associated with them.” He goes on: “Since purity and celibacy are hardly to be credited to women so vitally conscious of their bodies, female homosexuality must be the explanation for the gratification of
their impulses and for the success of their military operations.”35 He has no
evidence but cannot picture successful warriors going without sex. So he
imagines: “Away from combat their concern would be with the suppleness
of their muscles and the shape of the legs of the companion with whom
they would bed that night.”36
Others, less focused on Amazonian appreciation of a beautiful leg, offer bits and pieces of evidence. A German author who argues, Cavin-like,
that Amazon societies were the remnants of original matriarchal societies trying their best to survive in an increasingly patriarchal world refers
to the existence of vulva-shaped monuments in likely Amazon locations.37
According to Cavin, a passage from a sixteenth-century explorer who traveled down the Amazon River observed, “There are some Indian women
who determined to remain chaste; these have no commerce with men in
any manner, nor would they consent to it even if refusal meant death . . . ;
each has a woman to serve her, to whom she says she is married and they
treat each other and speak with each other as man and wife.”38 Such an
account connects with the phenomenon of gender crossing that we shall
encounter later in Native American and other societies and ties it to samesex sexuality. The only other reference I have found comes from Richard
Burton, who says that the Amazons in Dahomey in the nineteenth century preferred “the peculiarities of the Tenth Muse,” a reference to Sappho
and her assumed proclivities.39 Why, then, have Amazons come to have
such an association with female same-sex love? Is it their sexual freedom
and independence from men?


In the Beginning

For a moment, let us turn to the wonderfully imaginative portrayal
of ancient Amazon society in novelist Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap.40 Sappho, about whom more later, meets up with the Amazons on the island of
Crete, one of the places associated with goddess worship and the prominence of women. Sappho, her loyal slave Praxinoa, and her trusted friend
Aesop (of the fables) begin to explore the island, only to look up at the
sound of horses’ hooves to see a one-breasted girl on horseback, wearing
silver chain mail. She is Penthesilea, named after the great queen, and she
and her companion warriors take the three prisoner. Aesop becomes their
stud—Penthesilea explains that they rescue female infants exposed on hilltops from throughout the Greek world but also capture men to give them
babies and that they have ways of giving birth only to girl babies. Sounding
like Elizabeth Gould Davis, or a 1970s lesbian feminist tract, Penthesilea
announces that men are a different species and that the Amazons have no
need for them. Praxinoa, who as a baby had herself been abandoned and
taken into slavery and who loved and had sex with Sappho, is enchanted
with the Amazons and chooses to stay among them.
When the Amazons discover Sappho’s identity, they rejoice, for their
goddess had promised that the great poet and singer would come to
them. Antiope, the Amazon queen, welcomes Sappho with a feast and announces that the goddess had brought them together so that the singer
from Lesbos could write a history of the Amazons that would counter
all the slanders that had been told about them. Sappho is distraught, not
knowing how to write on command and disgusted by the relentlessly rosy
history the Amazons begin to recount to her. While she struggles to write
what the queen has commanded, she finds that the young Amazons have
discovered the sailors from her ship and are experiencing forbidden love
and lust. When the maidens are taken prisoner by Antiope and sentenced
to death, Sappho forges ahead with her epic of goodness and beauty in
order to save the erring Amazon maidens.
Eventually Sappho succeeds in convincing the queen to let them all go,
and, saying a sad farewell to Praxinoa and setting to sea once again, she
learns from the refugee Amazons that their world was not all it seemed.
In reality, the Amazons kill or abandon male infants, just as other Greek
societies do away with girl babies. Sappho wonders if anywhere “peace
and justice could exist between the sexes.” She worries that everywhere
“men dominate women or women get even by dominating men” and that
“two sexes seem to be a recipe for grief and warfare.” Her Amazon informant, infatuated at the moment with an Egyptian sailor, replies, “Then

In the Beginning


we should invent more sexes—just to confuse everyone! That will solve
the problem! . . . Let’s have men with breasts and women with phalli!”41
In this way, Jong makes the story of the Amazons reverberate with contemporary queer worlds of gender and sexual fluidity. Later, when Sappho
pays a visit to Hades, she encounters the Amazon queen Antiope, who accuses her of corrupting the Amazons with her ideas of justice. “Now they
nurse their boys instead of throwing them to the wolves. They suckle their
own doom!” she says, sounding very much like Susan Cavin. “It will come
to no good. Their own sons will overthrow them!”42
Sappho’s Leap takes the ancient tales about the Amazons as a starting
point, and what Jong creates from a twenty-first-century perspective is a
world in which sexuality is fluid. The Amazons are lovers of women, but
the young maidens who run off with Sappho’s crew also delight in men. In
that sense, her depiction accords with what we know about the sensibilities of the ancient Mediterranean world. That the Amazons lived (mostly)
without men evoked images of independent sexuality and female power,
something that, as we shall see, did not sit well with Athenian men. Scholars have treated the Amazon stories alternatively as fact, as a reflection of
the older goddess-worshipping societies, and as a psychological projection of men’s need to separate from their mothers.43 Although there is no
historical evidence that the Amazons as an independent female society
existed, despite graves of women buried with their weapons, the stories
about them and the power of their image for women who loved women
throughout the centuries tell us something important about conceptions
of women and women’s sexuality.
This history of Amazon tales and creation stories from around the
world suggests that, notwithstanding the relative silence on the subject,
female same-sex love could have existed from the beginning. Think of the
possibilities of the Talmudic tale of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, a figure rehabilitated by Jewish feminists.44 A female demon of the night who poses a
threat to uncircumsized male infants and men sleeping alone in houses,
the figure of Lilith came into Hebrew tradition from Mesopotamia. Lilith
refused to lie beneath Adam during sex, insisting that they were equals
because both had been created by God from dust. Resisting Adam’s attempts to overpower her, Lilith speaks the name of God and flies out of
the Garden and through the air to the Red Sea, a place populated by lascivious demons. Although Lilith’s promiscuity there results in the birth of
demons, and she later comes back to seduce Adam, what if that was not
the only sexual misconduct in which she engaged?


In the Beginning

A less speculative possibility for the existence of female same-sex love
in ancient tales can be found in Plato’s telling of a myth that he attributed to Aristophanes in The Symposium.45 According to Aristophanes via
Plato, human beings originally had four arms, four legs, two faces, and
two sets of genitals: they were like two people glued back to back. Some
were male, some were female, and some were mixed, both male and female. At some point they annoyed Zeus, so he cut them in two to punish them. At first they clung to their lost halves, paying no attention to
eating, and when one half died, they sought out another of the same sex
as the dead half. So Zeus took pity and invented sexual intercourse to assuage their longings. As a result, men feel desire for either a lost male or
a lost female half, and likewise some women are attracted to men, some
to other women. Here, at last, is a tale that places love between women at
the beginning.
But of course by the time Plato told this story, we are well into recorded
history, and, as we shall see, the world in which he lived was well aware
of love between women as well as love between men. The goddesses of
Greek mythology are not traditional wives and mothers—Hera alone, the
wife of Zeus, is married, and she is hardly a model of contented domesticity.46 Artemis, the goddess worshipped by the Amazons, is a solitary hunter
who shuns contact with men. She is a virgin in the Amazonian sense of
owning her sexuality, for stories about her reveal her erotic attachments to
the nymphs who were her companions in the forest. Kallisto, a beautiful
nymph who was Artemis’s favorite, caught the eye of Zeus, who knew she
would not be interested in a man. So he disguised himself as Artemis, and
Kallisto responded to his advances until he gave himself away and had his
way with her. But that Kallisto had welcomed Artemis as a lover is telling.47 Aphrodite, too, the goddess of love (and of Sappho), celebrates lovemaking of whatever kind, as long as it brings mutual pleasure. So we can
see in Greek mythology the reflection of a society knowledgeable about
and open to diverse kinds of sexual desires.
But these are all stories: is there any evidence of how women might
have lived and loved before recorded history? One possibility comes
from Bronze Age frescoes preserved by a volcanic eruption in 1625 BCE
in a settlement called Akrotiri on an island in the Aegean Sea. Like other
representations from Minoan Crete, long known for the prominence of
women, the wall paintings give centrality to female figures, depicting
them in different age groups marked by size and costume and hairstyle.
Women are also associated in the paintings with the cultivation and use

In the Beginning


of saffron, which has important medicinal qualities, particularly for eyesight. The markings of the eyes seem to suggest that females and the
youngest boy child had clear eyesight, whereas the other male figures did
not. One scholar interprets these frescoes in a highly speculative way as
depicting a homosocial world in which women had high status, attended
to their bodies and those of the children, and engaged in initiatory practices that may have involved homoeroticism, although there is no depiction of anything we would call sexual.48 It is a vision of a world in which
women’s connection to plants and healing and their centrality in the community meant that they were valued rather than dominated, and in which
their communal rituals may have involved erotic elements so common in
A final way to think about the earliest societies is to look at societies
with subsistence economies, social structures based on kinship, and no
formal state structure, assuming that there may be some relationship between the form of such societies and attitudes about sexuality. What can
we learn about love between women in kinship-structured societies? Not
much, as it turns out. We know a great deal about male same-sex behavior
but precious little about that of females.
Anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood argues that sexual relations between
women in societies based on kinship groups are shaped by women’s economic contributions and social status. Among the Azande in Africa, for
example, wives controlled the produce from plots of land they received
from their husbands and sometimes after fulfilling their wifely responsibilities formed sexual relationships with other women, often co-wives.
They may even have partaken in a ritual that formed a permanent bond,
with domestic and trade consequences for the community as a whole. A
ritual practice known as bagburu marked intimate ties between married
women and could be followed by lovemaking.49 Relationships among cowives may have existed in other polygynous African societies, including
the Nupe, the Haussa, and the Nyakyusa.50
In other kinship-based societies, childhood and adolescent same-sex
sexuality was acceptable, sometimes as part of initiation rituals. In !Kung
San society in southern Africa, girls took part in sexual play with one another.51 In central Australia, Aranda girl cross-cousins who would, by the
customs of kinship, later become sisters-in-law had sex using an artificial
penis, and even when grown they might have sex by “tickling the clitoris
with the finger” and then engaging in tribadism.52 Initiation schools for adolescent girls in Dahomey taught exercises to thicken the genitals, which


In the Beginning

might lead to sexual activities that did not earn reproach.53 Where sexuality is valued, rather than repressed, sex play among children, whether heterosexual or same-sex, does not seem to be a problem.
What this scanty evidence suggests (aside from the fact that male anthropologists have tended not to be interested in or have access to women)
is that there is no good reason to assume that the earliest human societies would have forbidden or even had negative ideas about sex between
We can never know what really happened in the beginning, but what all
these stories—myths from early civilizations as well as contemporary
imaginings—tell us is that thinking about sexuality at the origins of human society is profoundly shaped by the social and political context of the
spinner of the tale. We shall see that goddesses and Amazons, like Sappho,
thread their way through the centuries of sapphistries, suggesting how important imagined beginnings have been.
And why not imagine alternatives to what Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality?”54 Here is a fanciful origin tale:
In the beginning, the great goddesses gave birth to everything living, all of
the flowers and trees and plants, all of the fish and birds and insects, all of the
animals that swim or fly or crawl or walk. To some they gave their most precious gift, the ability to give birth to beings like themselves. To others they gave
a supporting role. Each being they created had a special part to play in the
world, and none was meant to rule over all others. Among all the richness of
the world, they created people. Although they differed a bit from one another
in color and hair texture and size, and they came with various configurations
of body parts, their differences were less important than their similarities. They
lived on land and breathed air, they took a long time to reproduce and become
self-sufficient, and they had a great capacity for sexual pleasure, a gift the goddesses had bestowed on them. They found what they needed to eat to sustain
themselves in the world that the goddesses had created, and they honored the
goddesses by creating beautiful things and inventing fanciful tales and making
pleasure in diverse ways with their bodies. And every time they created beauty
or understanding or pleasure, of whatever kind, the goddesses smiled.
And that is where this myth will end, because we know too well what
happened, even if we do not know why. Why should sex between women
not have existed in the beginning? That is the question we need to ask,
even if we can never find evidence that it did. For asking opens up the
possibility of viewing differently what we do know about the past.

In Ancient Worlds
(3500 BCE–800 CE)

. . . If I meet
you suddenly, I can’t
speak—my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn’t far from me1

S O W R O T E S A P P H O , in the sixth century BCE, to an unnamed re-

cipient whose “enticing / laughter . . . makes my own / heart beat fast.”
It certainly sounds like an expression of desire for someone whose voice
is a “sweet murmur.” It is without doubt, I would argue, an expression of
desire for a woman.
It is from ancient worlds—from Sappho—that women who love
women have gotten our most persistent label. Why did Sappho’s legacy
have such lasting power? Why does she stand out so strikingly in our history? To attempt to answer those questions, we must turn to evidence
that has come down to us from the first civilizations that recorded their
histories. By “civilizations,” I mean the earliest societies that accumulated
surplus resources, created state structures, and left some kind of written


In Ancient Worlds

or artistic record. These societies emerged in Mesopotamia around 3500
BCE; in Egypt and along the Indus River in northwest India by 3000 BCE;
on the island of Crete, along the Huanghe or Yellow River in China, and
in Mesoamerica (the Olmec civilization) in the mid-second millennium
BCE. Between 1000 and 500 BCE, around the Mediterranean and in Asia,
the growth of empires and innovations in religion, philosophy, and culture
resulted in the rise of what we have come to call “classical civilizations.”
In the early civilizations and even in classical times, written records, not
surprisingly, tend to be silent about sexuality in general, much less about
female sexuality, much less still about female same-sex sexuality. But there
is fragmentary evidence—laws, visual representations, and cultural productions, almost entirely from the minds of men—that suggests that love
between women was not unknown.
The legal codes of Mesopotamia, for example, have some references to
male same-sex sexuality, but they say nothing about women having sex
with other women. Likewise, the Hebrew Bible does not mention female
same-sex sexuality, although it does condemn male same-sex anal intercourse.2 European missionaries in the sixteenth century reported that the
Mayans allowed sex between young men.3 In all these cases, women are
nowhere to be found.
What evidence we do have of female same-sex sexuality in diverse ancient societies is fragmentary. Pottery depicting same-sex sexual acts, including between women, from the Mochica (100–800s CE) and Chimu
(1100–1400s CE) civilizations that flourished before the advent of Inca
rule in what is now Peru suggests at least knowledge, and perhaps acceptance, of such relations. The document known as the Florentine Codex—
written in Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the Aztecs, shortly after
the Spanish conquest—suggests that preconquest Aztec attitudes toward
both male and female same-sex sexuality were not as harsh as those of the
conquistadors. For both men and women, it is the violation of gender expectations that is noted: “She is a woman who has a foreskin, she has a
penis. She is a possessor of arrows; an owner of darts . . . she has a manly
body . . . she often speaks in the fashion of a man, she often plays the role
of a man. She possesses facial hair.” But it is not just gender transgression
that marks the patlācheh. “She is a possessor of companions, one who
pairs off with women. . . . She has sexual relations with women, she makes
friends with women. She never wishes to be married.”4 The tone is one of
disapproval, but there is no call for punishment.

In Ancient Worlds


On the other side of the globe, ancient Chinese texts referred to tuishih, “eating each other,” to denote oral sex between women. A writer in
the second century CE, Ying Shao, commented, “When palace ladies act
towards each other as man and wife, it is called tui-shih.”5 Women married
to the same man and living in the same household had the opportunity to
have sexual relationships with one another, and such bonds could in fact
make for harmonious living. An ancient sex handbook described a complicated position in which a man could have sex with two women at the
same time while the women could also enjoy genital contact. The term
mojingzi (“rubbing mirrors”) described the possibility of tribadism.6 But
in general, ancient Chinese literature paid little attention to same-sex sexual encounters, because what was important was the exchange of essence
between men and women. Women in polygynous households having sex
with one another did not really matter as long as they gave their yin essence to the men who kept them.7
We know a bit more about female same-sex love in ancient India (ca.
1500 BCE to the eighth century CE). Medical, grammatical, and religious texts recognized a “third sex” and acknowledged male, female, and
third-sex desire as possibilities for anyone, regardless of the construction
of their physical bodies.8 A classic Sanskrit medical text described women
having sex: “When two women erotically aroused, getting pleasure in intercourse, exchange the shukra [white fluid], a boneless foetus is formed.”9
A commentary noted a condition in which a woman who, because her
mother was on top during intercourse when she was conceived, “although
feminine in form . . . mounts the woman like a man and rubs her own
vulva against that of the other.”10 Another commentary calls to mind the
Amazons in describing women who have sex with women as “man-hating” and “breastless.”11 Legal penalties existed for sex between women, but
they were less than those for sex between men, and both fines were low,
indicating that these were minor offenses.12 And the famous Kamasutra,
a text written in the fourth century CE and based on earlier erotic writings, describes women engaging in manual stimulation, using dildos, and
enjoying oral sex. Sex between women may occur occasionally or be preferred by some, and it may be between equals or between those differentiated by age or status. The text is not judgmental about the possibilities of
These scattered references indicate that female same-sex sexuality was
not unknown in a variety of ancient worlds. But the preponderance of


In Ancient Worlds

information about love and sex between women comes from the ancient
Greek world, so that is where we shall dwell for a moment.
We have already seen that the ancient Greeks told stories about goddesses and Amazons living in the distant past, what we call the Bronze
Age (3000–1200 BCE). It was not until the Archaic period of Greek history (800–500 BCE) that we begin to have written documents, including
the poetry of Sappho. What did the ancient Greeks have to say about their
own worlds? What can we learn about love between women?
The slim evidence comes from three different areas of the Greek world:
Sparta, Athens, and Lesbos. These societies developed very different social
structures and cultures that had a profoundly different impact on women’s
lives in general and the possibilities of love between women in particular.
In the seventh century BCE, Sparta developed a militaristic regime that
valued men as warriors and women as the bearers of warriors. Citizen
women, freed from traditional women’s work by the labor of slaves and
lower-class women, kept their bodies physically fit in order to bear healthy
children, and sexuality was not rigidly confined to marriage because what
was most important was that women bore children. The Spartans lived
communally but segregated by sex for the first three decades of life. Men
lived with their fellow warriors until the age of thirty, although they married at eighteen, and sex between men was common. In fact, when couples married, the brides dressed in men’s clothing and cut their hair in the
male style, presumably to lessen the unfamiliarity of the experience for
the husbands. From the Athenian perspective (and most of what we know
about Sparta comes from the hostile Athenians), Spartan women enjoyed
incredible freedom. According to Plutarch, the best Spartan women loved
girls.13 A philosopher reported that Spartan women had intercourse with
girls in an initiation rite before their marriage.14 The Spartan male poet
Alcman, writing in the seventh century BCE, composed a maiden song, a
hymn intended to be sung by unmarried girls, that names and praises the
girls in the choir. They sing that their leader, an older woman, “exhausts
me,” which one scholar has argued could refer to an emotional and sexual
Athens, in both the Archaic and Classical periods (500–323 BCE), was
an entirely different story. Adult citizen women lived in a sex-segregated
(but unlike Sparta, private rather than communal) world, in the women’s
quarters of their husband’s house. Religious festivals offered the main opportunity for citizen women’s public participation, although lower-class
and slave women went out in public in other contexts. Citizen women

In Ancient Worlds


married young, around fourteen, to men of around thirty. Men had access
to other men and to prostitutes or slaves for sex, and of course Athenian
culture celebrated homoerotic and sexual relations between older and
younger men.
And what about love and sex between women? In contexts where
women lived apart from men, as did upper-class women in ancient Athens
and elsewhere, sexual relations between women may have flourished away
from male eyes. Certainly the later Orientalist and salacious tales of sex in
the harems of the Middle East suggest that, when men stopped to think
about it at all, the possibility worried them. A few Athenian vase paintings depict women with dildos and female prostitutes seemingly engaged
in sexual acts with one another, but all these tell us for certain is that
Athenian men (the creators and probably audience for the vase paintings)
knew that women could pleasure themselves or one another.16 (See figure
3 for one of the existing examples of two women in a sexual pose.) Other
vase painting, some on items designed for use by women, show women in
domestic scenes, preparing brides for their weddings, singing and dancing, and bathing in ways that suggest homoeroticism.17
We know nothing at all about love between women from the perspective of women themselves, only from the writings (or artistic productions)
of men. Aristophanes, author of the play Lysistrata, produced in 411 BCE
in the midst of the endless war between Athens and Sparta, portrays as
lustful the women who agree to try to end the war by staging a sex strike
against their husbands, but they never think to turn to one another. Plato,
as we have seen, attributing the story to Aristophanes, imagined the origins of women who love and desire women. But the female beings searching for their lost halves are not in Plato’s eyes the equals of the male beings searching for their lost halves, and in his later work, Plato calls all
same-sex love unnatural.18 A writer in the third century BCE called on
Aphrodite to turn against two women who were engaged in “not beautiful” sexual relations, and an ancient commentator explained that he was
accusing them of being “tribades,” signifying a masculine or hypersexual
woman and seemingly suggesting penetration, either by an artificial penis
or a naturally enlarged clitoris.19
What else can we say about love between women in Athenian society? Lucian of Samosata, writing several centuries after Plato in the second century CE, in his Dialogues of Courtesans depicts two prostitutes,
Clonarium and Leaena, talking about Leaena’s lover, Megilla, a rich
woman from, tellingly enough, Lesbos. Megilla, revealing a shaved head


In Ancient Worlds

underneath her wig, seduces Leaena after a banquet, showing her that she
could satisfy her as well as a man and offering her gifts. Leaena is ashamed
because Megilla is “frightfully masculine” and loves her unnaturally, “like
a man.”20 Two things are significant in this depiction: the connection of
an aggressive woman from Lesbos with masculinity and the portrayal of
the seduced as a prostitute. Both masculinity and prostitution, as we shall
see, have a long history of association with female same-sex love. A lyric
poem by Anacreon, a lover of boys who was born about 570 BCE, tells
of a girl from Lesbos who, at a banquet, spurns him and instead lusts after
another woman, suggesting that the courtesans and dancers who would
have attended and been enveloped in the erotic atmosphere of a banquet

Figure 3. Athenian vase painting. From K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality
(New York: Vintage Books, 1978).

In Ancient Worlds


Figure 4. Sappho. Alinari/
Art Resource, NY. From
Jane McIntosh Snyder,
Sappho (New York: Chelsea House, 1995).

(where men may have been engaging in sexual acts and respectable citizen
women would not have been present) may have turned to one another.21
Again, we see the association of prostitutes with same-sex sexuality, a connection reinforced by the fact that the term hetairistria, which is related to
hetaira, meaning “courtesan,” was sometimes used to refer to women who
had sex with women.22
Given these sparse depictions, it is with relief that we turn from Athens
to Lesbos. Sappho was born in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos around
612 BCE. She was a poet and singer and seems to have been the head of a
kind of community of or school for girls who, before they married, learned
to sing and play instruments and dance, to become beautiful and graceful
and sensual, and to love.23 (See figure 4 for a Greek statue of Sappho as a
Sappho’s lyrics, like those that begin this chapter, speak of love and desire: “Love shook my heart like a wind falling on oaks on a mountain.”
“Once again limb-loosening Love makes me tremble, the bitter-sweet, irresistible creature.”24 Sappho’s relations with the girls about whom she wrote


In Ancient Worlds

has led some scholars to see her not as a lover of women but as a teacher
of sensuality, one who prepared girls for marriage.25 Of course, marriage
was the goal for women, even on Lesbos. But in the Greek world—and
perhaps especially in the world of Lesbos, known for its passionate sexuality—sexual desire did not confine itself to one sex or another. Athenian comedies used the words lesbiazein and lesbizein, meaning “to play
the Lesbian,” to refer to all sorts of loose sexual behavior.26 Women from
Lesbos gained their sexual reputation particularly from their reputed proclivity for (heterosexual) oral sex.27
Part of the mystery surrounding Sappho comes from the fact that we
have only fragments of her songs. Yet, despite attempts in later centuries
to deny the erotic elements of Sappho’s lyrics, their portrayal of love for
women shines through. For example, in her only complete song, preserved
for posterity in the hand of a later writer, Sappho addresses Aphrodite, the
goddess of love, asking for her help in winning the love of a woman. Aphrodite flies to her rescue, asking who has done her injustice and promising
to change the heart of Sappho’s beloved: “For if indeed she flees, soon will
she pursue, / and though she receives not your gifts, she will give them, /
and if she loves not now, soon she will love / even against her will.”28
One fragment of Sappho’s lyrics takes up the question of what is the
most beautiful thing on earth. Some people, Sappho tells us, say it is an
army of horsemen, but for her it is “what one loves.” To illustrate, she tells
of Helen of Troy, “who surpassed all mortals in beauty” but under the influence of Aphrodite left her husband and child and parents out of love for
Paris. (Here Sappho is negating Homer’s tale of Helen’s being abducted
by the Trojan prince Paris.) This reminds Sappho of Anaktoria, “who is
not here. / Her lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her face / I would
rather look upon than / all the Lydian chariots / and full-armed infantry.”
Yet another fragmentary song tells of a woman who has left Lesbos and
thinks back with desire of Atthis: “But she, roaming about far and wide, /
remembers gentle Atthis with desire.” This and other fragments suggest
that erotic relationships may have formed not only between Sappho and
the young women in her community but also among her students, although of course we cannot assume that the songs are autobiographical.29
And finally, a very fragmentary song tells of a woman weeping because
she must leave Sappho. In response, Sappho reminds her of the “beautiful
things that happened to us,” including (and these are all the words that
have come down to us in this stanza) “And on a soft bed / . . . tender . . . /
you satisfied your desire.”30

In Ancient Worlds


Perhaps Sappho’s songs are also about actual sexual encounters. Is it
possible that the following fragment is about the clitoris and men’s ignorance of its possibilities, as one scholar has argued? Sappho wrote, “like
the sweet-apple / that has reddened / at the top of a tree, / at the tip of
the topmost bough, / and the applepickers / missed it there—not, not
missed, so much / as could not touch.” Could such lines as “The groom
who’ll enter / is as big as Ares” depict the penetration of heterosexual intercourse in comparison to tender and gentle love between women, as in
“May you sleep then / on some tender / girl friend’s breast?”31 Or, more
subtly, could it be that the song about the “beautiful things that happened
to us” describes movement on the body from the head to the neck and
on down to end in satisfied desire? From a different translation of the
fragments: “With many garlands of violets and roses . . . together, and . . .
you put around yourself, at my side, and flowers wreathed around your
soft neck with rising fragrance, and . . . you stroked the oil distilled from
royal cherry blossoms and on tender bedding you reached the end of
It is because of the power of Sappho’s songs—not to mention her lonely
voice in the record of women desiring women in ancient worlds—that
she has played such a central part in the story of love between women.
Despite all the later attempts to destroy or reinterpret her work—as being addressed to men instead of women or designed to introduce young
women to heterosexual love or describing an anxiety attack rather than
desire—Sappho has come down to us as the emblematic lover of women,
the model for the possibility of same-sex desire and love. She had a Hellenistic imitator by the name of Nossis, who wrote epigrams in the third
century BCE acknowledging Sappho as her model and Aphrodite as her
goddess of choice. Although none of Nossis’s surviving words are directly
erotic, her connection to Sappho and her praise of desire and love are important because the voices of women are so rare:
Nothing is sweeter than desire. All other delights are second.
From my mouth I spit even honey.
Nossis says this. Whom Aphrodite does not love,
Knows not her flowers, what roses they are.33

Was Sappho a “lesbian” in any sense other than coming from Lesbos?
That is a more complicated question. The earliest reference to Sappho as a
lover of women comes from a papyrus written in the late second or early


In Ancient Worlds

third century CE that is based on a lost text about Sappho from the fourth
century BCE. “She has been accused by some people of being licentious
in her lifestyle and a woman lover,” the author notes, neither confirming
nor denying the accusation.34 The question is one taken up in Erica Jong’s
joyous portrayal of Sappho, which suggests some possible answers. Jong, it
should be said, catapulted into the world of contemporary literature with
her erotic heterosexual romp Fear of Flying, which gave the world the term
“zipless fuck” to describe the ideal of a sex act so perfect and instantaneous
that zippers need not be unzipped.35 So it is from a kind of contemporary
sexual-liberation perspective that she writes about the past.
Jong’s Sappho’s Leap takes the skeletal facts about Sappho’s life, the
body of Greek mythology, and what we know about the Mediterranean
world to fashion a Sappho who falls in love with Alcaeus (an actual male
poet from Lesbos about whom we know little except that he loved boys
and, according to legend, loved Sappho). But Sappho also loves and desires women, including her slave, Praxinoa, who joins the Amazons; Isis,
an Egyptian priestess; and the students she teaches the arts of song and
love. Sappho bears Alcaeus’s child, conceived before she is married off to
an old man and separated from the love of her life. Her mother, who married the tyrant ruling Lesbos after the death of Sappho’s father, snatches
Sappho’s daughter, Cleis, setting the bereft mother and lover off on a journey to find both Alcaeus and Cleis. Along the way, she meets Aesop, of
fable fame, who falls in love with her. They encounter one mythological
creature and place after another until Sappho is finally reunited with both
Alcaeus and Cleis. The novel begins and ends with a reimagining of one
of the stories that circulated about Sappho, clung to by those who longed
to deny her love of women. In this tale, Sappho leaps to her death for love
of a handsome ferryman named Phaon. In Jong’s retelling, Phaon is a creation of Zeus, who bets Aphrodite that Sappho can be humbled by a mortal man. Feeling abandoned by Aphrodite, not Phaon, Sappho climbs to
and then slips from the lovers’ leap but is pulled out of the sea by Alcaeus,
Praxinoa, and Aesop.
Jong’s Sappho is not a lover of women or men but a devotee of Aphrodite and a lover of love and passion. “Did I love women or men?” Jong has
Sappho ask in the prologue, knowing what history would wonder about
her. “Does love even have a sex? I doubt it. If you are lucky enough to love,
who cares what decorative flesh your lover sports? The divine delta, that
juicy fig, the powerful phallus, that scepter of state—each is only an aspect
of Aphrodite, after all. We are all hermaphrodites at heart—aren’t we?”36

In Ancient Worlds


So Jong makes of Sappho a Lesbian woman in the sense of her artistry,
her sexual freedom, and her birth on the island of Lesbos. And Jong’s
imagining that Alcaeus, a man, was the love of Sappho’s life does not undermine the notion of Sappho as the voice of the lover of women. Jong
represents both Sappho and her goddess and patron, Aphrodite, as feminists of a sort, championing the strength and independence of women.
And she represents the changes on Lesbos as a precursor of what was to
come. The cost of the long wars is that the people of Lesbos no longer
want songs of love but desire patriotic tales of victory in war, and Sappho’s
lyrics fall out of fashion and her love of girls becomes suspicious. What
Jong is suggesting fits, ironically, with the visions of Elizabeth Gould Davis and Susan Cavin: when war overtakes human society, women are devalued and love between women becomes anathema. Yet there is the fragmentary evidence about Sparta, a warlike society that valued women as
the mothers of warriors.
In any case, the prophetic end of Sappho’s Leap leads us into the Roman world, where we find further evidence of knowledge about the possibilities of love between women, but no Roman Sappho. With the development of the Roman Republic (509–27 BCE) and the rise of the Empire
(from 27 BCE), Roman women had more access to public life than Athenian women had, but they remained, at least in theory, firmly under the
control of men. And men found the idea of sex between women—despite
their own interest in sex with other men—a frightening and monstrous
thought.37 Although Sappho’s songs were much admired by ancient Roman authors, these writers increasingly seemed obsessed with—and disapproving of—her lyrics that celebrated love of women. Some insisted
that there must have been two Sapphos, one the poet and the other a
prostitute. A historian in the third or fourth century BCE claimed that it
was the prostitute who fell in love with Phaon. Ovid (first century BCE to
first century CE) embroidered the tale in his “Letter of Sappho to Phaon,”
which has had such a lasting effect through the centuries. Yet Jong was not
the first to retell Sappho’s leap into the sea, as we shall see.
The references to love between women in Latin literature consider it
unnatural and represent women who have sex with women as masculine.
The earliest example comes from a comedy written in the third or second
century BCE in which a female slave forces sex on her mistress, a courtesan.38 Seneca the Elder (ca. 55 BCE–40 CE) wrote of a man who killed his
wife when he found her in bed with another woman making use of a dildo.
Ovid told the story of a Cretan girl named Iphis who was raised as a boy


In Ancient Worlds

and fell in love with the girl she was supposed to marry. She bemoans the
fate of loving so unnaturally but is saved by Isis, who turns her into a boy.
Phaedrus, a poet who lived in the first century CE, attributed the origin of
tribades to a mistake of Prometheus, who, in a drunken state, slapped male
genitals on women. Also writing in the first century CE, Martial described
a woman as “tribas [the singular of tribades] of the very tribades” since she
engaged in masculine pursuits and “devours girls’ middles.”39 He also told
the story of admiring the chastity of a woman named Bassa until he found
out that she avoided men but that her “monstrous lust imitates a man.”40
Clearly the Romans knew of the possibility of sex between women.
The Roman attitude was consistent with the views of other peoples in
their Mediterranean world, including the Jews. One Jewish source, written in Greek, commands women not to “imitate the sexual role of men.”41
A rabbinical commentary associated marriage between two women with
Egyptian or Canaanite practices—an early example of blaming sexual
deviance on foreign influence. For the rabbi, female same-sex sexuality
stemmed from idolatry (harking back to associations between goddess
worship and love between women). Later Jewish texts refer to women
“rubbing” with one another and debate whether that constitutes harlotry.
Despite disagreement about the seriousness of the matter, the evidence
makes clear that female same-sex sexuality was not unknown, even if it
was viewed with distaste or worse.
Why this distaste? Were Roman and Jewish and, later, Christian authors
in fact responding to unsettling practices? Is there evidence that women in
this world really did fall in love with other women? That is the question
posed by Bernadette Brooten, who has written a groundbreaking and controversial book about female homoeroticism in the world in which Christianity was born.42 She argues, based on a thorough analysis of a wide
range of ancient sources, that disgust with women’s love for other women
was widespread and a reaction to knowledge, however downplayed, that
such love existed. She has uncovered a wide range of ancient sources that
add to what we already knew on the basis of elite literature alone.
What is controversial about Brooten’s book is her perspective, for although she insists on the need to analyze ancient sources in the context of
the worlds that created them, she at the same time sees the women who
emerge from those sources as “ancient lesbians.”43 One of the fiercest debates in the literature on Greek and Roman same-sex sexuality centers on
whether those societies had a category and concept for people who engaged in same-sex acts. The most famous proponent of the idea that they

In Ancient Worlds


did, and that there were recognizable “gay people,” was John Boswell, author of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.44 Brooten’s argument is much more nuanced (and no less erudite) than Boswell’s, but critics have nonetheless read her work as suggesting inappropriate elements
of transhistorical affinity. Yet it is possible to separate the notion of “ancient lesbians” from the evidence that she contextualizes so well.
One entrancing (pun intended) source that Brooten uses is erotic
spells that one woman commissioned to make another woman love her.
Following the pattern of heterosexual spells, these entreaties, prepared by
a professional, laid out the hopes of the client that a desired other will fall
in love with her. A few surviving papyrus fragments and lead tablets from
Upper Egypt, specifying the names of both parties and so identifiable
as same-sex spells, call on the deities to “inflame the heart, the liver, the
spirit” of another woman with love and affection, calling on the beloved
to “love her with passion, longing, unceasing love.”45 Although the spells
are formulaic and cannot tell us anything much about the parties involved,
they do represent a rare opportunity to listen to the voices, however filtered by the professionals who prepared the spells, of women who desired
women. And they indicate that such women were willing to proclaim their
desire for another woman, if not in public, then at least to another person.
Imagine the passion that would lead Sophia to commission this spell, with
its images of violence, as a snare for Gorgonia:
Constrain Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, to cast herself into the
bathhouse for the sake of Sophia, whom Isara bore, for her. Aye, lord,
king of the chthonic gods, burn, set on fire, inflame the soul, the heart,
the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, with love and
affection for Sophia, whom Isara bore; drive Gorgonia herself, torment her body night and day; force her to rush forth from every place
and every house, loving Sophia, whom Isara bore, she, Gorgonia surrendered like a slave.46

Astrological texts provide further evidence for the knowledge and existence of female same-sex love in the Roman world. Astrology was both
a science and an aspect of religion, and it spread from Babylonia throughout the Greek and Roman world. Handbooks, treatises, and poems laying out the principles of astrology contain numerous references to female
homoeroticism. The alignment of heavenly bodies at the time of birth or
conception could determine a person’s same-sex desire, but at the same


In Ancient Worlds

time, such desires, especially women’s love of women, could be deemed
unnatural. Same-sex desire also tended to be lumped together with other
kinds of sexual transgressions such as prostitution, promiscuity, and adultery. One astrologer, Dorotheos of Sidon, who lived in the first century
CE, described women “who do in women the act of men,” suggesting that
they were masculine. Likewise Manetho, probably a contemporary, mentions “tribades who perform male functions.”47 In the second century CE,
the famous Alexandrian Ptolemy continued the ancient Greek tradition
of associating femininity with passivity and masculinity with activity. He
specified degrees of the masculinization of women: some women take the
active role with women in secret, but others make their desires public and
even take women as their wives.
These same points reappear in other, later astrological texts, suggesting
continuity across the centuries. On the one hand, we can see a notion that
women who desired women were a category of person (made that way by
the stars): they were tribades. Yet this was not exactly a way of dividing
the world up into people who desired those of the same sex versus people
who desired those of the other sex, for the crucial distinction was between
people who take an active (that is, penetrating) role in sexual encounters versus those who take a passive (that is, enclosing) role, and women
could fall into both categories, although that was harder for the ancients
to imagine in the case of women than in the case of men. The women who
fall out of the picture entirely are those who are the partners of masculine
women. Unlike men who desire men but take the active role, they are not
given special consideration for their gender-appropriate sexual behavior.
They are not considered at all. At the end of the day, despite being made
that way by the stars, women who loved other women were licentious and
unnatural in the eyes of the astrologers. But they existed.
The same recognition of women who desire other women appears in
Roman medical texts, which also reflect the notion that such women are
masculine, in this case even physiologically, as in these writings the notion
emerges that a woman with an overly large clitoris could penetrate other
women. Soranos of Ephesos, a Roman physician in the second century
CE, considered tribades to suffer from mental illness that caused them to
“practice both kinds of love, rush to have sex with women more than with
men and pursue women with an almost masculine jealousy.” Soranos, in a
gynecological text, recommended clitoridecto