On Humanities: Classical Greek Women Recast As Sexual Beings Dale Keiger ------------------------------ Special to The Gazette Classics professor Giulia Sissa, who studies the sexuality of the classical world, recently turned her attention to two prominent women of Greek literature, Medea and Penelope. The result is a paper, "Greek Women in Love," that argues for new interpretations of their characters. These were sexy women, Sissa argues, and they haven't been recognized as such. In her paper, which will be part of a forthcoming book, History of Sexuality in Antiquity and Early Christianity, Sissa produces this gem of understatement: "Medea is the type of woman who makes us reflect on marriage." And how. Medea, you will recall from Greek mythology, was the sorceress who fell in love with Jason. As recounted in the play by Euripides, she murders her brother and abandons her father to assist Jason's escape with the Golden Fleece. They marry and have two children. When he announces later that he is leaving her for a more socially prominent woman, she responds by murdering the children and ruining him. Sissa says that one prominent reading of Medea, that of French psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller (influenced by Jacques Lacan), regards Medea as a vivid personification of the feminine ability to define the self by casting away all possessions and social standing. According to this reading, men must define themselves by what they possess (wealth, women, status), but women define themselves by dispossession. Sissa, who is also the Classics Department chairwoman, sees Medea in a different light. From her reading of Euripides, she discerns a woman who acts out of extreme possessiveness. If she can't have everything--Jason, the children, the house, social status--she will destroy everything. "Medea is a woman who has a sense of what belongs to her," Sissa says. "She prefers to destroy instead of just giving up." In Sissa's view, Medea also defies the Homeric idea that love and desire are but temporary derangements produced by divine intervention. Her love for Jason is no derangement, Sissa says, but genuine sexual desire. Medea wants Jason in her bed, but he's dismissive of her passion. As Sissa puts it, "Medea says, 'I murdered my own brother. I abandoned my father. I left my city. I did all this for you. Now look what you do to me--you are abandoning me.' Jason responds, 'You are simply sick from Aphrodite's influence.' He is a dry and opportunistic man who doesn't recognize Medea's love. He doesn't give her any credit for her feelings." Bad move on his part. Sissa links Medea and Penelope, Ulysses' wife in The Odyssey, by their capacity for action in the name of erotic love. Scholars have tended to read Penelope as the passive, long-suffering faithful wife, beset by suitors eager to usurp the absent Ulysses and assume his power. Sissa disagrees. She says, "The suitors are the aristocrats of Ithaca. Socially, they have the same status as Ulysses. If they simply wanted to take his place [in Ithaca's power structure], they would kill Telemachus, his son. But they are sexually interested in Penelope." And contrary to the usual readings of The Odyssey, Penelope is sexually interested in them, Sissa says. She notes that Penelope never sends the suitors away, but holds them in suspense with her promise that she will select one as soon as she finishes weaving a shroud, which she unravels every night. She sends them personal messages. Traditionally, the suitors would prove their worthiness by the size of the gifts they could offer for Penelope's hand, and indeed her father favors the most generous of them, Eurymachus. But Penelope rewrites the rules by putting the suitors to a test not of financial resources, but of physical prowess: whoever is strong enough to fire an arrow from Ulysses' massive bow will win her hand. What Penelope is after, Sissa says, is someone who can replace Ulysses in bed. "I show how the text of The Odyssey insists that Penelope is interested sexually in these men," she says. "I'm trying to make Penelope sexy." This article is reprinted with permission from the February 1996 issue of the Johns Hopkins Magazine.
Go to Gazette Homepage