[I’m back. I’m sorry for the long absence. I had to pass about 15 exams with an average high enough to keep my scholarship. But I have more time now, so hopefully I’ll be able to post more frequently.]
I don’t usually write reviews of books, mostly because I have no idea what to say. But while I was reading Sexual Ambivalence, Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity by Luc Brisson, the review was starting to write itself. [I’ll bold the keywords in the text, so you can jump to whatever interests you most, since this book deals with several different topics.]
First of all, I have to say that I bought the book thinking it actually talks about androgyny in regards to gender. It doesn’t, it’s a book about having both sexes (the author calls it dual sexuality) – either at the same time, or one after the other. It was still quite interesting, despite the fact that it was not what I had expected.
It would also definitely benefit by a strict editor. I think it could be shortened by about a half without taking out any of the information. And I don’t think just irrelevant information – any information at all. The author has a tendency to repeat everything, sometimes several times. It’s very annoying after a while, especially when it’s supposed to be an analysis of the story preceding it, and it’s really just a re-telling.
It’s divided into 6 parts: Introduction, Monsters, Dual Sexuality and Homosexuality, Archetypes, Mediators and Conclusion.
The chapter about monsters talks about how hermaphroditic children went from being seen as bad omens to “errors of nature”.*
The chapter on dual sexuality and homosexuality is perhaps the most interesting one. It first talks about how in the antique societies, the roles of men and women were clearly defined. Men were warriors, women were wives and mothers. Hermaphrodites were seen as a threat to this clear division, which is why they were feared and usually killed.
Then it goes on to talk about the myth of Hermaphroditus and some known cases of dual sexuality (all of those people were killed, mostly ‘purified’ by water).
Lastly it deals with homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, which was the most interesting part for me. It talks especially of the difference between Greece and Rome, since passive male homosexuality was accepted and even a great honour in young boys in Greece, but was not allowed for any citizen in Rome (noncitizens were another matter). It also mentions female homosexuality, mostly to say that it was not tolerated.
The interesting part is that homosexuality was, while still condemned, somewhat tolerated when the person ‘suffered’ from sexual inversion (not a term that the author actually uses). That is, if a woman dressed and acted as a man and took on the active role, or a man dressed and acted as a woman and took on the passive role. What really bothered me is the fact that the author clearly isn’t quite sure what the difference between a transsexual and a transvestite is, since the women who take on this role of a man are referred to as transvestites. This could still be excusable, because we cannot actually know what those people actually thought or felt, but it is in particular reference to a person who said that she feels like a man (I use the female pronoun because that is what the original author of the story uses).
The next chapter, Archetypes, starts with using the term asexuality to refer to the beings (people, animals, gods) who are at the same time man and woman, but really neither. The author uses both “simultaneous dual sexuality” and “asexuality” to refer to this condition. It is never really expanded upon in the rest of the chapter, which talks about all sorts of different belief systems (Orphism, Gnosticism, several myths and so on). But I found it extremely interesting, since if we continue to apply “asexuality” to the people who are at the same time a man and a woman through the rest of the chapter, the way the author uses the term is actually a start towards the way it is used in the asexual community (feeling no sexual attraction).
The term refers to beings who have no need for another person, who do not partake in this looking-for-the-other-half, because they are in themselves complete. In antiquity, this yearning for a partner was explained with the story you all probably know. The one about how there are first three kinds of human beings: man-woman, man-man and woman-woman, who are then separated by Zeus for being too strong, and they are to spend the rest of their lives searching for their other half. When they find it, they yearn to be joined again, and they partake in sexual activity to relieve this yearning. Asexuality in this book refers to the condition where the person has both the female and the male part, and as such does not wish for sexual activity, since they are already complete. These would be mostly the human beings before the division, the early gods who are not yet described as either men or women, and the phoenix. I found it curious, though I suppose it isn’t very useful today.
The part about mediators is mostly completely boring. It talks about Tiresias and how he was successively a man and a woman. It’s really over-analyzed, and it has several digressions which have only minimal connection to the topic of dual sexuality.
The whole book really stresses the importance of opposites, and how dual sexuality connects with other contrasts and balance. Especially when it comes to Tiresias, who was both a man and a woman, lived an extremely long life, making the connection between youth and old age, and regained his memory when he died, thus being a living dead person (the connection between death and life). It talks about how people with dual sexuality are usually also people (or gods) who are a perfect balance of other opposites as well.
It was, in whole, an interesting read, but also a really frustrating one. Like I said before, it’s really repetitive. It’s also very loose in the treatment of its subject, and it has many digressions. The part about the different versions of the Greek pantheon (in the Archetypes chapter) is extremely confusing (at least it was for me, since I have almost no previous knowledge – it might be clearer for someone who knows their facts), and it is full of unnecessary information. The book is also very bad at stating the point of each chapter, it’s just this sprawling monstrosity of stories and their analysis (such as it is).
I did manage to get some useful information from it, and I’d suggest you read it if you are deeply interested in the subject. Otherwise, don’t bother.
*As bad omens they were given by their parents to the state, which then usually exposed them. They couldn’t kill them, because that would be risking revenge, but they also did not want to keep them on their territory. So they would expose them somewhere outside the boundaries of their state and leave them for the almost certain death. Later several writers challenged the belief that hermaphrodites were warnings, and eventually people saw them as a natural phenomenon. They were often shown off as such.