Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Churches of Lesbos

Dear theist (especially Christian theist),
I grew up in Việt Nam singing from Thánh Ca in church. When my Texan parents took my siblings and me "home" to America for visits, we'd sing from the Baptist Hymnal. Did we know anything of Sappho, of her influence on us?

Dear feminist,
I am still fascinated by adult human conversion. The most profound changes have come for me, and for our fathers, when we and they have deeply listened to the other openly with audacious hope. Have the newer hymns of the Church of Agia Paraskevi been forgotten?

So, my friends, can we hear stories, our stories of transformation?
What about hymns and Sappho?

Let's listen: Over Sappho, over Lesbos Greece, over the Christian Church, there's been a clash. It's a loveless gong and a clanging cymbal sounded above the songs directed to the sky. It's a burning and a burying. A silencing of histories and of identities, of persons, like you and me. Shall we remember and respect?


Sappho's poem is generally titled the "Hymn to Aphrodite," although it is occasionally listed in some texts as "Ode to Aphrodite." The hymn is a genre that expresses religious emotion and is most often designed to be sung. Sappho's poem almost certainly was performed in this manner. Later hymns, for example those created during the Middle Ages when the creation of hymns became an important expression of religious fervor, were the sole genre of Christian religious expression. In Sappho's time, the hymn was no less fervent. Greeks believed in their gods as fervently as do Christians, who believe in their god and church as an absolute power. Sappho's hymn is analogous to a prayer. She pleads with her goddess, Aphrodite, to intercede on her behalf. She opens the poem with a request for help, moves quickly into recalling past instances when the goddess has helped her, and concludes with an acknowledgement that she and her goddess are united as allies. A careful study of Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite" acknowledges its place as a forefather to the later hymns of the Christian church.


Sappho was a Greek poetess and teacher at a girls school on the Island of Lesbos during the 6th century B.C. The exact dates of her birth and death are unknown. Her lyric poetry was so exquisite that Plato called her the “tenth muse.” Much of her poetry was about both the ecstasy and pain of love, which was virtually unknown in poetry until that time. She also wrote hymns of praise to the Greek Goddesses, particularly Aphrodite.

Not much is known about Sappho’s life, and only a few of her works remain.

Early translators, disturbed that many of her passionate love poems were addressed to adolescent girls, simply changed their gender in translation to fit their world view.

Sappho’s books were burned by Christians in 380 A.D. at the insistance of Pope Gregory Nazianzen. The rest of her works may have been destroyed in 1073 A.D. when Pope Gregory VII ordered another book burning.

A Greek court has been asked to draw the line between the natives of the Aegean Sea island of Lesbos and the world’s gay women. . . . One of the plaintiffs said Wednesday that the name of the association, Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece, “insults the identity” of the people of Lesbos, who are also known as Lesbians.

“My sister can’t say she is a Lesbian,” said Dimitris Lambrou. “Our geographical designation has been usurped by certain ladies who have no connection whatsoever with Lesbos,” he said.


A hymn is a type of song, usually religious, specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration or prayer, and typically addressed to a deity/deities, a prominent figure or an epic tale. The word hymn derives from Greek ὕμνος hymnos "a song of praise". . .

Christian Hymnody. Originally modeled on the Psalms and other poetic passages (commonly referred to as "canticles") in the Scriptures, it is generally directed as praise and worship to God. Many refer to Jesus Christ either directly or indirectly.

Since the earliest times, Christianity has sung, "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs," both in private devotions and in corporate worship (Matthew 26:30; 1 Cor 14:26; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13; cf. Revelation 5:8-10; Revelation 14:1-5).



John Hobbins said...

Lots of prayers in Homer, too, that form part of the larger background to later Christian prayer.

It is often opined that Sappho cultivated romantic relationships with some of her students (perhaps half her age). If so, it was quite possibly in a context in which the girls went on to be subordinate wives to husbands who themselves had been passive partners for older men. Those were the prevailing norms of the time.

In light of this, it's easy to see why Christians struggled with Sappho's literary legacy. Today, in the same way, I can read some of W. H. Auden's love poetry in a Christian literary circle - this is a true story - and see how his love poetry speaks for many regardless of sexual orientation.

Some people, perhaps most people, are weirded out when they discover that Auden wrote the poetry with a male lover of his in mind.

There may not a remedy for this. It is plain hard to admit universals in human experience.

J. K. Gayle said...

Good points about Homer's influence, and about Christians’ sometimes unwritting appropriation of W. H. Auden’s homosexual love poetry as a mirror of the Divine.

I’m quite intrigued by your statement that “There may not be a remedy for this [. . . refusal] to admit universals in human experience.”

On such admission, the principal in a graduation ceremony for one of my children’s schools recently quoted Plato “from nearly three thousand years ago, with wisdom for us today.” She offered a translated paraphrase of a line from the Phaedrus: sage advice on sifting through and following one’s desires (of course, given by Plato's Socrates to the young student of Socrates he was in love and in lust with named Phaedrus). I was rather amused (wondering how many understood the homoerotic issues motivating such timeless wisdom).

Do you think those who read Sappho’s poetry as suggestive of same-sex romance with her students must read the Bible differently? I’m thinking now of how some read Naomi’s love relationship with Ruth. And of how some see David’s love relationship with Jonathan (as he sings about it, in 2 Samuel 1:26). Are “the prevailing norms of the time” the main hermeneutic? Or does that matter for exemplary scholars such as Mary Douglas, who says “My personal project in the study of the Bible is to bring anthropology to bear on the sources of our own civilization”?

John Hobbins said...

Lots of interesting topics here.

First of all, scruples of a sexual nature are codified in every culture and are culture-specific. Despite what some people say, there is no evidence that Christianity is without its own, sometimes counter-cultural standards in this sense. The same applies to Judaism.

The prevailing norms in ancient Greek culture with respect to homosexuality were not at all acceptable to either Jews or Christians. In recent times, society has been moving around the world toward a decriminalization of homosexual behavior, but hostility to said behavior is still strong, and for most of us, not without cause.

For example, as a parent of teenagers, I would not be happy if it became acceptable for boys or girls to pair up publicly in high school, or for it to become publicly acceptable for boys to experiment with boys sexually, and girls with girls, for them to kiss each other in the hallways, and so on.

In fact, I'm so old-fashioned that I think that blatant expressions of affection should be disallowed in the hallways and stairwells among heteros as well.

I think deep male-male and female-female friendships are honorable in the Bible. But to suggest that Ruth and Noemi or David and Jonathan were lovers is, so far as I can see, without foundation.

A fine way to explore these issues is by way of Peter Shaffer's Equus. It's an example of how love/worship can be a form of mental illness which nevertheless will appear to a therapist as more rich and meaningful than his pathetic health.

The beauty of things like worship and love are sometimes seen most clearly in extreme and/or unhealthy examples thereof. To be at peace with that fact and remain on guard against the unhealthy use of the temple of the Holy Spirit does not come easily. I don't see why it should.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks John. Shaffer's Equus as a way to think about our own cultural and individual resistances to mental and social health! Now that's good. It's a parable for us.

But are you so old-fashioned because of anything of Judaism or of Christianity? I'll agree that Jews and Christians from their earliest points in history have resisted the (ancient Greek) openness to homoeroticism. And there may be no story of same-sex relationships among heroes of the Bible that can compare with the homophilia, pedophilia, and mathephilia (teacher erotic love of student) in Greek literature. How has this become in you so clearly unacceptable and unallowable? I do admire your public candor and profound conviction! But are you distilling "universals" as you said in the earlier comment? And don't some of those come from the Greeks, from Plato even or from his "tenth muse," Sappho?

Isn't your 21st century Christianity a similar kind of selective appropriation of certain Jewish and Christian cultural and legal norms through the centuries? How do you decide? How do you decide between Salieri-style rules of God and Mozart's genius inspiration by God? You know I'm thinking now of Shaffer's Amadeus. Do we ever get around Plato's game of "ideals"? I think we must, but how do we? (I do hope these questions make sense. I suppose I'm equating Plato's ideals with what you may be calling universals).

John Hobbins said...

You ask:

How has this (homophilia, pedophilia, mathephilia) become in you so clearly unacceptable and unallowable?

All three are almost universally understood to be unacceptable and unallowable in religious traditions generally. The latter two are not permitted by law in most countries.

Given those facts, it might be appropriate for you to ask: on what grounds do you consider them compatible with Christian tradition, if you do?

For most people, the above prohibitions are on the same plane as the prohibition against incest and bestiality. We are talking about taboo systems. By definition, the systems are non-rational, though as Mary Douglas teaches, they nevertheless have profound rationales.

A movement is afoot to sanction homoeroticism between consenting adults - but not pedophilia or mathephilia. Within Jewish and Christian tradition, that would be within the confines of mutually stipulated commitment. Recent events within the Catholic Church make it very unlikely that homophilia, pedophilia, and mathephilia will be found acceptable among people of faith. I think the hierarchy over-reacted, but that is very easy to say from the outside. The reaction - disallowing men with a same-sex orientation to enter the ministry even if they have a proven track record of celibacy - cannot be too hard to understand given what happened over the last few decades.

J. K. Gayle said...

I think you've been very patient with my questions. But I haven't been so clear.

There are the facts as you outline them, no more--as our cultures recognize them in taboos and in law, pragmatic but human but spiritual stuff all. Yes, these things should be clear enough. And yet the practices of the "civilized" Romans and "civilized" Greeks were, in contrast to the best practices of humanity that the planet has seen, were quite despicable. It was egophilia if you ask me, not true love of the other. I could start naming the sins here, one by one.

But my question is rather about how we know. And if we don't know (i.e., because we're a Greek man caught up in egophilia and it's various manifestations, infestations), then how do we come to know and to change?

Are you a Jew or a Christian, a practicing one, because of the facts of your birth, and the culture you are born into? It is divine revelation (i.e., the Bible and /or traditions) that corroborate the universal taboos you accept? This is, you know, part of the question of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people these days, you know.

John, I do appreciate your patience here. I am not asking "What is right" and "What is sin." Rather, I'm asking about how one, anyone, moves (how do you move) to the place subjectively where they (or you) can be "countercultural" in the sense that you described it in your earlier comment?

And I'm also asking how do you take from Sappho, from Plato, from Moses, from Jesus, what is good in them? That question, of course, assumes there's something good in them and something good you can know.

REally, what prompted some of this for me was the approach of Mary Douglas. Why do we have to learn (Hebrew or) any given thing? And how do we go about that? If there's facts I'm asking you for it's the facts about how we get to the facts (especially when they're not what we're born into or when they're what we're socialized away from)? Sono le mie domande chiare?

John Hobbins said...

I think taboo systems were and still are, for most people, "package deals." If you are a Jew or a Christian or a Buddhist, you don't get to choose between the ones you like and the ones you don't, or if you do, you experience your anti-traditional choice as sin.

So how is cultural change possible? Perhaps that is your question. Here is a nice example. You may not like it, but I offer it as food for thought.

In the household codes in the New Testament, Christian content is poured into Aristotelian patriarchal molds (Aristotle, of course, systematized and tweaked the cultural system he inherited). If you are a slaveowner, okay, but treat your slaves with Christian love. If you are a slave, obey your master, but if freedom is procurable or offered, by all means, take it. The tension between Aristotle and Christ if you will is no more evident than in Paul's letter to Philemon. But despite the tension, the disparate cultural mandates are allowed to coexist even as they collide.

At some point, however, within a Christianized West, slavery takes on forms that make slavery as practiced among the Jews and the Greek seem almost philanthropic. The conscience of some is stirred, leading to the abolition of slavery.

But new problems emerge. In place of slavery, we have millions of black men and women incarcerated for long stretches of their lives. Their wardens are once again white.
Have we made progress?

The answer is clearly yes and no, though others might say, no and yes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I might use the comp-egal debate as another example, but if I did, we would be here all day and all night, wouldn't we? Another time.

J. K. Gayle said...

I do appreciate your comments. You've given us lots to think about (thought food), especially on religion and culture as system.

Feel free to comment again. I'm not trying to get the final word here.

But here's my opinion. No, it's not that I do "not like" your "nice example." It's just that your parenthetical note needs highlighting and reworking: "Aristotle, of course, systematized and wrecked the cultural system he inherited."

This is no legend, he invented his biology on Lesbos--misogynistic biology--as botched as he ironically claimed females are.

Cheryl Glenn notes how "Aristotle makes no provision for the intellectual woman, except for his nod to Sappho: 'Everyone honours the wise . . . . [T]he Mytilenaeans [the men of Lesbos honour] Sappho, though she was a woman' (Rhetoric 2.23.1389.b). Otherwise, Aristotle denied any philosophical or rhetorical contributions by women."

F. A. Wright says "In Aristotle's time, for reasons which this brief survey of Greek literature has, perhaps, made plain, the facts of women's nature were certainly not sufficiently comprehended. Euripides and Plato are almost the only [male] authors who show any true appreciation of a woman's real qualities, and to Euripides and Plato, Aristotle, by the whole trend of his prejudices, was opposed. His mistake was that he failed to realise the moral aspects of feminism. A nation that degrades its women will inevitably suffer degradation itself. Aristotle lent the weight of his name to a profound error, and helped to perpetuate the malady which had already been the chief cause of the destruction of Greece."

So if there were any "Aristotelian patriarchal molds" for Christians, they were the moldy ones of the Romans, who tried hard to take the ugliest parts of the Greeks and to make it worse (infanticide, abortion without the mother's consent, pure silencing of women in public, execution by hanging people naked on crosses, a reworking of the gods, public spectacles of human slaughter in collosiums for monotheists especially Christians, and all of the various erotic non-relationships called egophilic sex). Paul, the Roman citizen, is negotiating that. He tells the Greek women in Corinth, through the men in the church, to remain silent; he tells the half-Greek Timo-theos not to allow women to teach. Notice, because of the Roman legal code, he does not have to so instruct the women of Rome who are already silenced.

The Jews who had translated their Scriptures in Alexandria (i.e., the LXX) knew Aristotle. If you look closely at their translation choices, it is clear they are avoiding Eros and Rhetoric. After Paul, Christians are as suspicious. It's not until Augustine (and his On Christian Learning or De Doctrina Christiana) that Christians begin to theorize oratory, and then away from Aristotle.

Jesus, I think, stands in the middle of all of this. Literally and historically. The Jewish Scriptures point forward and Paul and others point backwards. To him. This Joshua is no Aristotle. He is humble, leaving to others his message to translate into Greek (vs. Aristotle's codification in his elite Greek, resisting any translation other than the ones commissioned by the Greek powerful elites).

This Joshua does make more than provision for women. He valorizes the would be intellectual woman. So Carolyn Custis James can rightly say that Mary of Bethany becomes the first woman theologian in Jesus's day. (Again, nothing like Aristotle.)

Yes, Aristotle is after a system. Logic is his baby, his philological coinage but his Western method, now ours. We could go on a bit more about slavery, then stirred conscience, then profound perpetual racism (both by Nazis and by others across the Atlantic, where the genocide of the natives here must also, tragically, be remembered).

Okay, I'm really not trying to say the final word. But here's one more opinion. The LXX translators rightly said of Abraham this:

καὶ ἐπίστευσεν Αβραμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην

If Aristotle ever read those words, it surely perplexed him (as it would have Alexander). It wrecks their system, their logic, their power. It takes their terminology and turns it on it's head. The epistemology is supposed to put belief after logic, and if rhetoric then as the body of the "enthymeme" a "rhetorical syllogism." But here "right-ness" is afforded a person when belief is more profound.

This is some where I was going with my questions about where and how we get to morals. Belief comes first. And where does that come from? Paul does have a good answer, so does John when he translates Jesus in the gospel.

But a clue as to whether a culture is right-eous (whether a religious or logic systematized culture or not) is how women are respected.

William Webb in his Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals gets to much of that. He would agree with you about David and Jonathan, about Naomi and Ruth. I'd say the goy Ruth is fairly well respected by Jews and by Christians--Carolyn Custis James calls that the Gospel of Ruth--and such respect is a very very good thing.

(Okay, let's save that compl. / egal. discussion for some other day. Sincerely, I appreciate your comments!)