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Pilgrimages to Lesbos: Reflections of Sappho and Female Homoeroticism in Three Greek Novels of the late 1920s

Christopher L Jotischky

Brown University

Literary homosexuality in Greece has long been coded through an elaborate web of references to the classical past. The apparent cultural acceptance of homosexual behaviour in antiquity provided a framework for many twentieth-century Greek writers, such as Cavafy, Kazantzákis, and Rítsos, to discuss the existence of non-heterosexual male identities within their own works, along with proof that such desire was quintessentially ‘Greek’ [Ekdawi 1996]. Female homoeroticism, however, has operated within a narrower literary sphere, both because of the comparative invisibility of women’s sexualities in twentieth-century Greek literature, and because there are few classical templates for writers to adopt. Sappho, long employed as a code for sexual desire between women in North America and Western Europe [Leontis 2019, 1-40], began to feature as a shorthand for lesbianism in Greek fiction in the second half of the 1920s, notably in the novels Λεμονόδασος (The Lemon Grove, Kosmás Polítis), Έξι νύχτες στην Ακρόπολη (Six Nights on the Acropolis, Yiórgos Seféris), and Η ερωμένη της (Her Lover, Dóra Rozétti).

All three works include storylines of sexual attraction between women, and there is considerable evidence that the authors were influenced by each other in other respects, for example in their contemporaneous construction of ‘diary-novels’ [Kallinis 1997, Vayenas 1988]. That they represent the first novel, the only completed novel, and the only known work of their respective authors further suggests that this turn towards the ‘Sapphic’ portrayal of female homoeroticism should be seen as a new departure within Greek fiction, in which the intersection of the characters’ homosexual behaviour with their identity as women exposes them to prejudice just as it serves to shroud that behaviour in invisibility.

In this paper, I consider how ‘Sappho’ is deployed by Polítis, Seféris, and Rozétti to depict romantic relationships between women in conjunction with a potent nexus of references to other ancient authors (such as Homer, Hesiod, and Plato) sites (the Athenian Acropolis, Delphi, Eleusis) and artifacts. I discuss the effect of a direct reception of the text of the Sapphic fragments as opposed to ‘fuzzy’ [Hardwick 2011] references to ‘Sappho’ as an historical figure, while investigating how historical circumstances, such as the revived Delphic Festivals of this period, influenced these authors’ perceptions of female homoeroticism and its connection with antiquity. I argue that, despite each novel’s distinct literary agenda, the sexual legacy of antiquity represents for each author a way to conceptualize female homoerotic desire: this, in turn, demonstrates the fertility of the classical legacy as affirming a ‘Greek’ identity for non-heterosexual individuals or those portraying them, but also how the (queer and female) ‘Sappho’ can be used to entrap literary characters who are queer and female in a double bind of oppression. The lesbians of these novels, tied to a stereotyped ‘classical’ signifier for ‘lesbian’, are thus, like ‘Modern Greece’ itself, condemned to be branded with an ‘antique’ identity at the expense of developing a dynamic, modern mode of existence.

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