Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 25 1996

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.    

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