Friday 31 July 2015

Finding your Other Half from Homer to St Petersburg

Dionysus/Conchita Wurst at the Almeida
Having been left oddly unaffected by a technically near-flawless production of Euripides’ Bacchae at the Almeida Theatre last night, ten minutes into Reggie Yates’ searing encounters with oppressed young gay Russian couples on BBC 3’s Extreme Russia and the tragic effect took hold.
Extreme Bravery of Russian Gay Couples

I have been thinking about Love this week since Melvyn Bragg’s History of Ideas series on Radio 4 allowed me to retell (TWICE) the best ever Myth of Human Origins, delivered by the comedy writer Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. It offers a far better charter tale for us than the creation of Pandora out of clay or Eve out of Adam’s rib.
A Symposium in Full Swing at Paestum

Once we were all eight-limbed spherical creatures with two faces—either wholly female, wholly male, or half-in-half. We gambolled and twirled our way acrobatically across the planet, in a state of perfect Love and grace. So happy were we that we thought we were invincible. Zeus took revenge by having Apollo slice us all in half and turn us into lonely, depleted mere halves of our former selves.

If we are lucky enough to find our ‘other half’ and be reunited in a lifelong embrace, we cooperate on projects like children or books or new ideas. But most people never find their other half, and so the human race is emotionally deprived and fails to fulfil its creative potential.

This story is breathtakingly modern in its celebration of same-sex love stories equally with heterosexual. I wish the same applied to ancient history and myth. There are many examples of heterosexual soul mates—Pericles and Aspasia, Penelope and Odysseus. There is no shortage of gay male romances—Hadrian and Antinous, Apollo and Hyacinthus. But despite the exquisite homoerotic songs Sappho composed for several lovers, I can find no ancient historical Lesbian couple.

JaLissa and Janel of Washington, DC
Myth is not much more fertile. Ovid relates the story of Iphis, a girl brought up as a boy, and Ianthe. Iphis and Ianthe loved each other passionately and did get married. But this was only after Isis turned Iphis physically into a man.

Myrmex Myrmex
Even less satisfactory is Athena’s relationship with the beautiful Myrmex. The course of true love did not run smooth. When Athena, as technology she-god, invented the plough, her human girl-friend claimed responsibility and boasted that she was herself the inventor. Athena, furious, turned Myrmex into an ant, doomed to plough across extended surfaces for all time.

This does not compare well with the numerous Lesbian love affairs I am told pervade Hawaiian myth. But it also makes Aristophanes’ account even more revealing. It would not give such recognition and status to woman-woman love stories if Plato’s audience had not known of them in reality. The precious text thus allows us a window onto (the often silenced world of) ancient women unique in cultural history.

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