Female intimacy in ancient Greece
Believe me, in the future
Someone will remember us...
The poet Sappho is said to have lived in the late seventh century BC in the town of Mytilene on the isle of Lesbos, a Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea.
By the third century BC she was known as an important writer of the Greco-Roman world, and nine volumes of her poetry were held at the famous library in Alexandria.
Sappho wrote love poems addressed to women. She was also surrounded by and taught younger women. These factors, added to the hostile view of Christian writers in the early centuries AD, have contributed to the belief that Sappho was a lesbian in the modern sense, as well as the original meaning of an inhabitant of Lesbos.
Regardless of her sexuality, she stands at an early period of recorded history as an example of a woman brilliant in her chosen work.
This coin dates from the second century AD - when Sappho was already as remote in time as Chaucer is from us today. The coin was issued in Mytilene, to celebrate its most famous daughter.
Terracotta lamp, made in Turkey
In ancient Greece, women lived
in all-female environments but in the Roman world
they were more visible and could use their power more
openly. There may have been female prostitutes for female and
Maori treasure box
Sexual practices between males were recorded throughout the Pacific region by early eighteenth century European explorers. In Melanesia such practices still occur between older males and young un-initiated novices.
In the Polynesian areas of the Pacific same-sex acts were tolerated only between a gender-crossing male and socially accepted man. Polynesian languages have terms such as Mahu and Fa’ faa’ fine that clearly define classes of males that fall in between the social roles of men and women.
This practice, also common in many areas of South-east Asia, has contributed to the idea of a three-gender system in which there are men, women and a third category of people between the two genders.
Christian missionaries strongly discouraged third-gender practices and Mahus and Fa’ faa’ fines kept their activities secret.
This Maori box from the late nineteenth century shows a same-sex embrace between two males. It testifies to the existence of same-sex practices among Polynesian peoples, which continued under the vigilant eyes of missionaries and colonial officials in the following century.
More information about the objects featured here: