This page addresses lesbian roles which I encountered during my research about eunuchs. The understanding of male and female exemplified by Aristotle's definitions did not necessarily distinguish lesbians as a separate category of women. As Aristotle stated, femaleness was defined as the capacity to reproduce within one's own body.1 Lesbians are just as able to do this as other women. Even if they are not excited by a man, a sexual encounter can still take place. Whether the intercourse is pleasurable, boring, or forced, it can lead to pregnancy.
This is in contrast to the case with gay men, who must obtain an erection and therefore must be aroused to some degree in order to fulfill the male role with respect to reproduction.
So lesbians would not be placed outside the female category on the basis of the definition related by Aristotle. The distinction between lesbians and other women, like that between gay men and other men, is one of desire. Lesbians do not desire men, like gay men do not desire women. Only in cases where women's desire is respected will a lesbian category be recognized. I believe that disregard of women's sexual drive is a major contributor to the invisibility of lesbians in history as well as in the present day.
Based on evidence from the Code of Hammurabi,
the Sumerian culture recognized a separate type of woman called a salzikrum.2
Salzikrum is a compound word literally meaning
"male woman." A salzikrum was entitled to
greater rights of inheritance than an ordinary woman. Like a priestess,
she could inherit a full share of her father's estate to use during her
lifetime, after which it reverted to her brothers' heirs, while an ordinary
woman was not entitled to a share in the paternal estate at all. If the
father made a written stipulation to her, a salzikrum
could also dispose of her inheritance in any way she wanted. This may create
the possibility for her to start a family of her own, with a wife or wives
of her own. By law, if a salzikrum she had
any children that she put up for adoption, she could not reclaim them,
and the children were punished if they sought out their real mother. Thus
I believe that she, like the eunuch, was generally expected to remain childless.
Perhaps she was also a temple servant or priestess like the other priestesses
and the eunuch.
The Babylonian flood myth of Atrahasis mentions nonprocreating women who were created after the flood in order to help keep the human population down.3 Overpopulation was the reason for the flood in this myth.
In Egyptian mythology, the goddess Nephthys and her twin brother Seth, may have been intended as the gay, nonprocreative counterparts to the straight Isis and Osiris. Nephthys is usually thought of in the company of Isis, and is generally childless,4 until she eventually has a child by Osiris. She exposes the child Anubis, but Isis finds him and raises him.5 Plutarch says Nephthys's pregnancy symbolizes the flowering of the dry desert whenever the Nile exceeds its normal flood limits.6
The Laws of Manu, Book VIII 364-370, has some strange provisions about sex with "willing" and "unwilling virgins." I believe that research into this "virgin" type would yield some good results. Nos. 369 and 370 are particularly suggestive (translation by Doniger):
If a virgin does it to another virgin, she should be fined two hundred
made to pay double (the girl's) bride price, and receive ten whip (lashes). But if a
(mature) woman does it to a virgin, her head should be shaved immediately or two
of her fingers should be cut off, and she should be made to ride on a donkey.
Rev. Nancy Wilson has already interpreted the "barren woman" in Isaiah 54 and the eunuchs in Isaiah 56 as "our gay, lesbian, and bisexual antecedents."7
I also found that in the Hebrew scriptures, a certain kind of unmarried woman or virgin ['almah] is mentioned which is distinguished from the ordinary virgin with an intact hymen [bethulah].8 The latter word for virgin occurs 50 times in the Bible, and bethulim for virginity occurs 10 more times, while 'almah is used only 7 times. The word exists in modern Hebrew in a masculine gender form 'elem, meaning a youth or a lad, but the feminine form is absent from my Hebrew English dictionary.9 The meaning of 'almah could be a "female lad" or what we call a tomboy. In any case, Proverbs 30:18-19 gives a riddle about the 'almah that may help to determine who she is:
There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I
The way of an eagle into the sky, the way of a snake into a rock, the way of a ship
into the heart of the sea, and the way of a man with an 'almah.
To my mind this riddle is very suggestive of a lesbian, or as the modern vernacular puts it, a dyke. For in each of the similes, the first item is unable to penetrate the second item -- the speaker says these "ways" lie outside his sphere of knowledge. An eagle can never pierce the sky, a snake can never penetrate a rock, and ship can never descend to the heart of the sea (perhaps as wreckage, but not as a ship), and a man cannot get inside of a lesbian.
In Psalms 68:25, 'almat
(the plural of 'almah) play timbrels in the
sanctuary. This recalls the Sumerian priests and priestesses who play instruments
in the temple.
In Song of Solomon 1:3, the love of the 'almat for Solomon is given as evidence of the exceptionally sweet flavor of his kisses and of his "ointments." Song of Solomon 6:8 says that, along with sixty queens and eighty concubines, Solomon's harem included "innumerable 'almat." This could be a hyperbolic praise of Solomon along the lines of "even the lesbians love him," or some such, or it may be a male sexual fantasy to be with lesbians.
The remaining three occurrences of the word 'almah include some of the Bible's most prominent women. Moses's paternal aunt was called an 'almah,10 who watched over him while he floated down the river as a baby, and arranged for Pharaoh's daughter to let Moses's mother nurse him. When Isaac went to find a wife, he predicted that when an 'almah came to fetch water from the well,11 and responded in a particular way to his request for water, she would be the woman he would marry. The woman who fulfilled his prediction was Rebekkah, who may have seemed tomboyish to Isaac. In a patriarchal culture in which men have rights over their wives, a lesbian might be the ideal wife -- the husband knows she won't go chasing other men!
The last, and perhaps most significant occurrence of 'almah in the Hebrew scriptures, is in Isaiah 7:14:
Behold, an 'almah shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Thus it is quite possible that the Messiah was to be born, not of a
virgin as the King James version translates it, but of a lesbian -- a woman
who is not turned on by sex with men.
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2 Code of Hammurabi § 172 and following, and § 184 and following.
3 See end of myth of Atrahasis, Tablet III 7, in Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, tr. by Stephanie Dalley, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 35.
4 Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 38. See translation in Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, edited with translation and commentary by J. Gwyn Griffiths, University of Wales Press, 1970.
5 Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 14.
6 Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 38.
7 Rev. Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.
8 This use of bethulah is found in Genesis 24:16.
9 The Meridian Hebrew-English/English-Hebrew Dictionary, edited by Dov Ben-Abba, New York: Meridian, 1994. Find 'elem on page 255, col. 2 of the Hebrew-English section.
10 Exodus 2:8.
11 Genesis 24:43.