Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite[1]

Published in Goddesses in Myth, History and Culture
Edited by Mary Ann Beavis and Helen Hye-Sook Hwang. Mago Books. 2018.

In 1976, I travelled to Greece. I was a young feminist and had read Helen Diner's Mothers and Amazons and while in Greece I read up on the Greek Myths. Travelling to Crete really turned my head and upon returning to Australia I decided to learn Greek. Initially it was Modern Greek but after a year of so I decided to learn Ancient Greek as my passion for mythic stories exploded. In 1981, I wrote a 10,000 word thesis entitled 'Women and Power: A Feminist Reading of the Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite and Demeter'. This work has sat in my drawers for all these decades because at the time there was nowhere to put out such a work. This essay comprises about half of the original and I have altered it only slightly to improve it, but I have not changed the argument in any major way. The original essay used untranslated Greek and for the purpose of publication I use Thelma Sargent's The Homeric Hymns: A Verse Translation published in 1975 as the source of the poetic text that I quote. It is an analysis of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and in it I argue that the hymn demonstrates the historical shift of power that occurred from matrifocal societies in which women – and goddesses as symbolic representations of women – held more power than they did once patriarchy became firmly established.
            The Hymn to Aphrodite is 293 lines and is among the longer Homeric Hymns. While the name Homer prefaces these hymns, none has been attributed to Homer rather they are named because the style of the hymns resembles the Iliad and Odyssey and the meter of the hymns is dactylic hexameter. They are generally dated from the 7th or 8th century BCE and several in the following centuries. This analysis focuses on the relation of power between female and male characters (in the hymn).

The pattern of the poem runs roughly as follows: Aphrodite[2] starts as all-powerful. With the exception of three virgin goddesses, she has power over all living creatures – immortals, mortals, animals – specifically power of and consequently over life. Zeus causes her to ‘fall in love’. As a result she goes down to Anchises[3] and claims mortality. She tells him a fictitious story of being carried off by a god (Hermes) (which is an indication of her powerlessness). We are told that Anchises has power of death over animals. After lying with Anchises, Aphrodite reveals herself as immortal. Anchises fears impotence, weakness/castration (which indicates his fear of powerlessness). Anchises gains power through association, via his descendants (a form of immortality) who will govern Troy (an indication of his indirect power over mortals). Aphrodite is humiliated by the association – she loses power especially in the immortal realm, but also, as a woman, in relation to Anchises. She has to resort to threatening that Zeus will punish him if he ever reveals to mortals the identity of Aeneas’ mother (for then, presumably, she would lose her power over mortals too). So she must rely on his good will and/or fear of punishment to retain that power. To be thus beholden to any mortal is to be subject to him, and therefore to be powerless in relation to him.
The relations between females and males in both hymns are primarily played out between immortals. So, although they are not directly concerned with human experience the relation between females and males as expressed in the divine realm is symbolic of the experience of humans who are responsible for the expression of the values in the poems.
By symbolic I mean the drawing together of many diverse elements into a single element which allows for a holistic apprehension of the elements contained within the symbol. A symbol may thus be seen as a synthesis, and it is used in religious and mythic texts as a way of comprehending in a single gaze the complexities of a story.
            The single element concerned here is power. Although it is not explicitly stated, the notion of power is the single thread around which the other elements of the hymns are woven. By grasping the significance of this relation, many aspects previously missed move into the foreground – such as the importance of the stories told by Aphrodite and Demeter in their mortal disguises. In both instances they speak of abduction and the helplessness they experienced as a result of this. This brings out the importance of the balance, or rather imbalance, of power between females and males as the prime area of conflict or difference expressed by the poem. To my knowledge this analysis has not been attempted previously with this hymn.
            By examining it symbolically I hope to elucidate the ways in which poetry is able to carry hidden histories; and by taking power as the central theme I hope to make clear the complex relationship between the different realms in which the action takes place. The poetic expression of these relationships makes this a difficult task since poetry is concerned with the juxtaposition of otherwise unconnected phenomena. The hymn works on several levels simultaneously and events do not always occur in the logical sequence of everyday reality (as we normally perceive it). This dislocation of reality is further accentuated by the divine nature of the main characters in the hymns. Although the mortal/immortal distinction is important, the primary symbolic relationship expressed is the relation between women and men. Specifically it is the relation that is frequently fraught with conflict and therefore the one most likely to be represented poetically. The poem is concerned with the shift in the balance of power between the three major characters, namely Aphrodite, Anchises and Zeus. The conflict expressed is that of the female/male conflict, there is no conflict between mortals and immortals outside of this.
At the beginning of the poem we have a celebration of the powers of Aphrodite.[4] We are told she has power over all three forms of life – animals, mortals and immortals – with only three exceptions – namely the three virgin goddesses Athena, Artemis, and Hestia.
Virgins seem to play a role suggesting immunity from the forces around them. In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite they are untouched by the forces of love wielded by Aphrodite and thus are not subject to the humiliation that Aphrodite suffers later in the hymn. The virgins suggest an existence that is carefree and innocent, but also independent and not at the mercy of changes in moods, or even of the tribulations of others. In neither case do they play any further part in the action of the hymn. They embody the lack of sympathy that goes with inexperience and no previous encounters with suffering. Nevertheless they are independent and so provide a stable contrast to the fluctuating fortunes of the goddesses around whom the hymns are built.

Muse, speak to me of the deeds of the Cyprian
Aphrodite the golden, who stirs up sweet longing
In gods and subdues the tribes of mortal mankind
And birds that fly in the air and all wild beasts
Of the many kinds the dry land supports and the sea.[5] (11 1–5)

The power she wields over all these forms is the power of desire and the forces concerned with perpetuation of life. In lines 36–40 we are told how even Zeus succumbs to her power:

Even Zeus who delights in loud thunder she leads into folly–
He who is greatest and has for his share the greatest of honors–
Even that wise heart she deceives at her pleasure
And lightly mates him with women of mortal mankind[6]

In lines 69–74 we are shown the extent of her powers over wild beasts:
Gray wolves, fawning upon her, went with her; fierce lions too,
And bears, and quick leopards, their hunger for roe deer ever unsated.
Aphrodite rejoiced in her soul at the sight,
And into the heart of each beast cast love and desire,
And all, two by two, lay down together among the dim shadows.

This is a prelude to her meeting with Anchises and her over-powering him with desire. However, her meeting with Anchises differs from the others because this time she herself has been swept off her feet with desire for him. This occurs because Zeus, in retribution, is showing the extent of his power. Hitherto Aphrodite has had power over all the gods and had made them succumb to lying with mortals. She herself had never being drawn to a mortal before. Zeus here is beating her at her own game, showing Aphrodite that even in her own special area he can overpower her. This is clearly a question of who has the power. Zeus asserts his own supreme power at Aphrodite’s expense. It is not possible for her to get away with having power over all the gods even in a single area.  It is possible that this is a story that refers to Aphrodite’s introduction into the Olympian pantheon, resulting in the taming or subduing of a once powerful goddess, and forcing her to confine herself to a severe limitation on the exercise of her powers, and, further, that she should be subject to the will of Zeus.
Deborah Dickmann Boedecker examines the possible origins of Aphrodite.[7] While Boedecker suggests two origins, the one she traces to Middle Eastern Pre-Indo-European origin is the stronger contender, rather than that she derives from the goddess of Dawn, Eos in the Greek context. Aphrodite shows many similarities to Middle Eastern goddesses such as Astarte and Ishtar especially in her aspect Aphrodite Ourania, the Heavenly (compare this to Astarte, Queen of Heaven, and Ishtar, daughter of Anu the Mesopotamian Sky-god) and it has even been suggested that Aphrodite is a Greek mispronunciation of Phoencian divine name Aŝtoret.[8] This suggested origin is further supported by the fact that Aphrodite shares a number of attributes with Astarte namely the dove, tortoise, ram and possibly the turret crown. This has been accepted with a few reservations by a number of scholars.
If this suggested origin is correct then it appears that prior to the time of entry into the Olympian pantheon she wielded more power than she does in this hymn. It is likely that as a Pre-Indo-European goddess there was nothing unusual about a powerful goddess, indeed it was standard in these societies. This provides us with an explanation of why power is such a crucial force in the hymn; and further, why Zeus appears to be so determined to diminish her status and power.
            As proof that Aphrodite is subordinate to Zeus at the end of the poem (11 284–90) is the fact that Aphrodite threatens that should Anchises reveal the truth of Aeneas’ parentage, then he, Anchises will be smitten with a bolt of lightning by Zeus.[9] Nevertheless Aphrodite, the immortal, is unable to punish a mortal man. This does of course relate to her functions, but it is also indicative of her powerlessness as a female deity. Throughout the hymn Zeus encroaches more and more into her domains and her power dwindles steadily in relation to him. This is not so surprising given the hierarchical structure of Olympus with which we are familiar. What is more surprising is that within the poem her power also declines in relation to Anchises, a mortal man.
In contrast to the life producing power that Aphrodite has over the wild beasts at lines 4–5 and 69–74, at lines 158–160 we are shown how Anchises too has power over the wild beasts. His power however is the power of death.

Earlier spread for the hero's repose with soft coverings,
Over them thrown the skins of bears and loud-roaring lions
Slain by Anchises himself in the towering mountains (11 158–160)

Aphrodite and Anchises wield power in similar realms. Aphrodite’s is more widespread because she has power over immortals with regard to himeros or desire. Anchises can also claim to have indirect power over some mortals but he is dependent upon Aphrodite in this. Aphrodite tells him:

A son as dear, who will rule over the Trojans
And from whom will descend a line of children forever. (11 196–197)

Although Anchises’ power over mortals is limited in the direct sense, he is assured that Aeneas will have great power over many mortals. Through his son he achieves considerable power and honour and even a kind of immortality. The immortality is achieved in two ways – first of all via his descendants, (1 197) who will found a new nation, and secondly through fame, as the father of Aeneas and ironically as the subject of this hymn.[10] The shift to counting descent through the male line is significant here and is an indicator of the transition to patriarchy and male right from the previous state of mother right and female descent.
Aeneas is to be brought up by nymphs (another indicator of the older system of matrifocal society), who are halfway between mortals and immortals, and therefore a suitable choice for one born of a union between a mortal and an immortal. A mortal woman could not suckle him for she would not be able to provide milk suitably nourishing for one such as he; nor could he be suckled by Aphrodite. There are two reasons for this: firstly, he would become immortal if he were to be raised on milk from a goddess; secondly, this would transform Aphrodite into a mother goddess figure. Aphrodite is the eternal bride, unencumbered by the responsibilities of child rearing; she refuses to acknowledge publicly that she is the mother of Aeneas. Although she must bear him, she will not rear him, that part can be taken over by the mountain nymphs.
To publicly acknowledge Aeneas as her son would further deepen her sense of shame. The first indication we are given in the poem of Aphrodite’s eventual shame is when Zeus causes her to desire Anchises.

But into the heart of Aphrodite herself
Zeus cast sweet longing to lie in love with a man,
That not even she should escape the marriage bed of a mortal,
Lest at some time Aphrodite, lover of smiles,
Laughing sweetly in triumph, should boast that among all the gods
She had joined gods together with women of mortal mankind,
Who bore mortal sons to immortals, and mated with goddesses men. (11 45–52)

This is an example of attrahent power[11] and results when one individual wants to be like or to be liked by another, or in a stronger form, when an individual is devoted to, or loves another. Because Aphrodite is so attracted to Anchises she allows herself to be led by him to his bed.

            he took her hand, and the lover of smiles, Aphrodite,
Turning aside her face, her beautiful eyes cast down,
Hesitant, followed him to the comfortable bed. (11 155–157)

In doing so she seems to be singularly unaware of the implications of her actions and not until afterwards does she display any awareness of the shame she will incur. Aphrodite has been led into this situation because she posed a threat to Zeus’ authority, since she was able to fill him with the desire to lie with mortals without desiring to do so herself. Zeus therefore decided to restore his claims to authority.
Thus when Anchises and Aphrodite first meet she is already in a relatively less powerful position because of her attraction to him and because she is prepared to go down to Anchises and disclaim her powers as a goddess in order to lie with him. Admittedly Anchises displays his attraction to Aphrodite and in his first comments upon her beauty he offers to worship her (by building an altar on the peak of the mountain) and asks that she grant him certain favours such as honour, potency, and a long and happy life. This is the expected relationship between a mortal and an immortal.

Welcome, queen, whoever of the blessed you are who come to this house– (1 92)

"I will build you an altar high on the peak of the mountain
In view of the country around, and in all seasons bring you rich offerings.
And be well disposed yourself toward me in your heart.
Grant that I be a man high in honor among the Trojans,
The father hereafter of vigorous children, and for myself
Grant that I live long and well, seeing the light of the sun,
Happy among my people, and prosperous, up to the threshold of age." (11 100–106)

Aphrodite disclaims her immortality and instead insists upon her mortality, even providing herself with a genealogy, and a reason for speaking the Trojan language, since she claims to have once had a Trojan nurse.
In 11 17–42 Aphrodite relates to Anchises an interesting story of her powerlessness as a mortal woman. She claims to have been snatched up by Hermes and carried to the mountains from Artemis’ choral dance, specifically so that she might marry Anchises.
The use of language in this section is particularly interesting in light of the power theme. For instance at lines 117 and 121 respectively the words anērpaze  ἀνήρπάζε and hapaze ἁρπάζε are used. The first part anēr is a word that means man, husband and mortal human being. The second part both of which come from the verb harpázō means to snatch up, drag by force, treat with violence and ravish, overpower,[12] and from which the English word rape is derived.[13] After having ‘snatched her away’ Hermes then led her (past tense of γω) (1 122) over the land to where Anchises lived. Hermes is described as having brought her unyielding necessity. (1 130)
            Aphrodite then goes on to entreat by grasping or touching Anchises' knees – γουναζομαι[14] – a form of supplication and suggests that Aphrodite is lowering herself and pleading to be noticed(1 131).
Lead me, a virgin, untried in love, to your home. (1 133)
            And a little later she is offering him gold and riches as a dowry, as a counterpart to the offerings he promised her (11 101–2).
Although we know that this powerlessness which Aphrodite claims for herself is pretence, symbolically it is important, since it reveals the potential vulnerability of even a goddess, and furthermore Aphrodite in order to get to bed with Anchises outwardly abrogates her power, allows him to lead her to his home – in other words patrilocality has become the rule rather than matrilocality – and to take the role which has at least the appearance of power. (Which is so, given that she is in control of the situation, because she casts desire into his heart and misleads him with incorrect information.) Both claim to be attracted to each other, but it is significant that it is Aphrodite who loses power because of the attraction. Their reactions to the situation are typical of male/female power relations. Aphrodite disclaims her powers as a goddess and descends into the mortal realm. Anchises’ response to his attraction is to claim her as his own and he proceeds to lead her off to his bed.
He says to her:
Then no one of the gods or of mortal mankind
Shall stay me from lying with you this moment in love– (11 149–151)

He assumes his masculine right to claim her in such a way and does so.
Aphrodite’s response to this is not the response of a powerful goddess of love seducing a mortal man, but rather a fairly meek and powerless woman who has been led here by a god (Hermes), and who is subject to the desires of immortal and mortal males – Zeus and Anchises respectively. Certainly, it is possible for Aphrodite at any time to stop the pretense of mortality and powerlessness – but it is significant that she does not do so. She maintains her position, as a powerless woman until after they have slept together.
If power of men in relation to women were not the central theme of the hymn it would be a strange fact that a goddess of love should have to abase herself in order to lie with a mortal man. This is the crux of the power differential expressed. In myths which deal with gods’ relations with women, whether they be mortal or immortal, the god involved does not abase himself in order to do so, although he may take on human form to protect a mortal woman from his harmful aspects (e.g. Semele is consumed by Zeus because he appeared to her as thunder and lightning). Most often the god forces himself upon the woman (as, for example, does Hades in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter).
Aphrodite, goddess of Love does none of these things. She beguiles and deceives Anchises, but it is she who is led by Anchises to his bed. Anchises holds the power in relation to her as a woman, although he holds her in awe, and fears her as a goddess – as is revealed in the following section:

But when he beheld Aphrodite's throat and her beautiful eyes,
He shuddered with fear and, averting his gaze, turned aside
And hid his own noble face in the folds of his cloak (11 181–183)

At this time Aphrodite holds the power position and Anchises fears the consequences of his actions. He implores her, in Zeus’ name, not to make him live as a weakling amenēnos (αμενηνος) or as an impotent man; but he does not fear death. Rose[15] goes so far as to suggest that he fears castration. If this is so then Anchises fears living as a powerless man, more than he fears death itself. Castration, impotence, or weakness are all signs of powerlessness in men and are to be avoided. Deborah Dickmann Boedecker suggests a different interpretation based upon Aphrodite’s origin as a Dawn-goddess and her responsibility the passing of time. What she suggests is that Anchises fears mortal aging. Aging is also a sign of increasing physical weakness, and in the case of Tithonos, whose story is told soon after this, outright senility, physical and mental.
So, whichever interpretation we take, Anchises fears powerlessness; an honourable death would be preferable to any of the above alternatives.
Aphrodite reassures Anchises that he has nothing to fear, that he will not be weakened by impotence or age or castration, but rather that he will increase in stature among mortals because he is to be the father of a son who will rule over the Trojans, and from whom will descend a line of children to children forever
A son as dear, who will rule over the Trojans
And from whom will descend a line of children to children forever (11 196–197)

and that the Trojan race is nearest to the gods in physique – as is again shown by the stories of Ganymedes and Tithonos.
Anchises, having feared powerlessness, is reassured of his future power through this association with Aphrodite, and he is assured of even a kind of immortality via his descendants. However, the situation is quite the reverse for Aphrodite as she explains

The child shall be called Aeneas because of my terrible shame
At having fallen into the bed of a mortal[16] (11 198–199)

Aeneas, for her, is the evidence of her fall into shame. She is immediately aware of her humiliation and consequent loss of power through this act.

"But for me there will be great disgrace among the undying gods
For all days forever and ever on your dear account–
They who once feared my taunts and the cunning with which I united
All gods at some time with women of mortal descent,
Subduing them all to my purpose. Never again
Will my tongue wield such power among the immortals,
For I have gone sadly astray; shockingly, blamelessly
Have I gone out of my mind and planted a child
Under my girdle by going to bed with a mortal." (11 247–255)

She can no longer wield her power triumphantly over the gods, nor taunt them any longer about their sexual relations with mortals. She calls it onomaston and apeplagchthein de noio (1 254) which indicate that she was not herself and her mind led astray.
Thus we see that Aphrodite has lost considerable power since the beginning of the hymn, she has been humiliated and she has lost much of her former glory. On the other hand, Anchises, from his humble origins as a herdsman, has gained considerable stature. In the long run he cannot compete with her immortal powers, but he, as a man, in contrast to her as a woman, has gained from the situation.
The final indignity is that she must appeal to Zeus to punish Anchises if he should ever boast about the truth of their affair to mortals.

"If ever someone of mortal mankind should inquire
What mother carried your dear son under her girdle,
Remember well to tell him what I command you:
Say that the boy was born of a flower-faced nymph,
One of those who inhabit the forest clad mountain.
If ever you blurt out the truth and foolishly boast
Of having mingled in love with bright-crowned Cytherea,
Zeus in his anger will smite you with a smouldering bolt of swift lightning.
All this I tell you. See to it well in your heart.
Curb your tongue, and never mention my name.
And with awe and reverence fear the wrath of the gods." (11 281–290)

Deborah Dickmann Boedecker in connection with Aphrodite’s humiliation notes the use of the epithet daughter of Zeus throughout the hymn.[17] It is first used in line 81 when Aphrodite approaches Anchises. It was here a
“… double function. It recalls her subordination to Zeus, who is humbling his daughter through his love affair with a mortal, and it emphasizes her divine nature in contrast to Anchises’ mortality.”[18]
It is used again (11 107–111) when she is professing her mortality to Anchises. When Aphrodite is reassuring Anchises that he has nothing to fear from the gods – she is called daughter of Zeus.
“The use of the epithet διοσ θυγατηρ [daughter of Zeus] in its synchronic sense therefore reflects the process through Aphrodite, who originated as a celestial figure in Indo-European tradition, became incorporated into the Olympian family and subjected to her “father”, the Homeric Zeus.”[19]
If Deborah Dickmann Boedecker is right about the origins of Aphrodite, and her origins are Middle Eastern, then it would appear that Aphrodite, in her assimilation into the Greek pantheon, suffered a considerable curtailment of powers, and of areas over which she previously had sole control. Within Greek tradition she became almost solely associated with love. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite shows that even in her own domain in the Greek tradition – that of love – she can be overpowered by Zeus.  This may be seen as a reflection of what occurs to women, in terms of power in love relations with men. In her symbolic role as a woman there is a significant decrease in power available to her – even in the area in which she in particular, and women in general, are said to prevail. Love,[20] as it is presented here, entails for a woman surrendering of herself. From a position of power already considerably lower than that of a man (even in relation between a goddess and a mortal man), her access to and exercise of power is even further reduced. Love is an instance of attrahent and though it need not be oppressive where power is equal, when, as in this case, the woman abrogates what power she does have, in order to have a relationship with a man, it is clearly being used as a means of controlling her. The entire framework of the poem is concerned with the reduction of Aphrodite’s power and the concomitant increase in power of the male characters. Zeus proves his widespread control even over areas that are the particular domains of other deities; Anchises emerges from the union with an assurance of control over some mortals, and an increase in glory and fame as a result. Indeed, this is a key example of the humiliation of a goddess as representative of the humiliations of women that are to become normalised under patriarchy.


Atkinson, Ti-Grace Amazon Odyssey, Links Books, New York, 1974.
Baumeister, Augusti, ed. Hymni Homerici, Aedibus B.G. Teubneri, Lipsiae, 1888Boedecker, Deborah Dickmann Aphrodite’s Entry into Greek Epic. Mnemosyne Supplement 32, Brill, Leiden, 1974.
Chantraine, Pierre Dictionaire etymologique de la langue grecque: Histoire de mots, Kincksiek, Paris, 1968.
de Crespigny, Anthony “Power and Its Forms” in de Crespigny, Anthony and Alan Wertheimer, eds. Contemporary Political Philosophy, Nelson, London, 1970.
Firestone. Shulamith The Dialectic of Sex – The Case for Feminist Revolution.. Paladin, London, 1972.
Greer, Germaine The Female Eunuch, Paladin, London, 1972.
Hesiod, Theogony, West, M.L. ed. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1966.
Liddell and Scott Greek–English Lexicon, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1953.
Plato The Symposium, Dover, Kenneth, ed.  Cambridge University Press. 1980.
Rose, H.J. “Anchises and Aphrodite”, Classical Quarterly, 18, 1924.
Sargent, Thelma The Homeric Hymns: A verse Translation. New York: WW Norton, 1975.

Dr Susan Hawthorne has a passion for myth as history and ancient languages and has studied Greek, Sanskrit and Latin. She is a poet and her collections Cow (2011) and Lupa and Lamb (2014), and her novels The Falling Woman (1992) and Dark Matters (2017) draw on her knowledge of languages and mythic history. She studied philosophy and contributed 'Diotima Speaks through the Body' to Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Essays in Plato and Aristotle, Bat-Ami Bar On (1994) which challenges the idea that Diotima is a fabrication. She is Adjunct Professor in the College of Arts, Society, and Education, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.

[1]                 I would like to thank Miriam Robbins Dexter for reading this article and making illuminating comments that have helped me to check the language and my conclusions about the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite to which I came all those years ago.
[2]                 Aphrodite is known as the Greek goddess of love, but her roots are far more ancient, as will become clear throughout this essay.
[3]                 Anchises is a son of the royal family of Troy and the father of Aeneas later credited with the founding of Rome.
[4]      Aphrodite’s power, as explicated here are far wider than those implied by Hesiod in Theogony, 11 205–206. Hesiod's text suggests that she is a frivolous girl full of whimsical smiles and deceptive displays of love and desire.
[5]      All translations from the Greek are from Thelma Sargent, The Homeric Hymns: A verse Translation. New York: WW Norton, 1975.  The Greek text consulted is Hymni Homerici, ed. Baumeister, Augusti, 1888.
[6]     While Thelma Sargent's translation has many strengths, it still is of its time. In 1975, it was all right – indeed perhaps mandatory in Classics – to use a word like 'mankind' rather than a more general word like humanity or mortal form.
[7]      Boedecker, Deborah Dickmann Aphrodite’s Entry into Greek Epic, 1974, Chapter 1.
[8]      Chantraine, Pierre Dictionaire etymologique de la langue greque, 1968, Vol. 1, p. 148.
[9]      This is an example of the conflict based use of power by a male deity – and an example of coercive power. Coercive power involves the use or the threat of use of force by one party. For this to be effective s/he must have access to more forms of power, or at the very least be believed to have access to more power; thus it may not be necessary to actually exercise the power to gain compliance. This is obviously believed to be the case when mortals are threatened by immortals.
[10]    This is a typically Greek form of immortality and is expounded by Socrates in The Symposium, 208c1–209e4.
[11]    de Crespigny, Anthony “Power and Its Forms” in de Crespigny, Anthony and Alan Wertheimer, eds. Contemporary Political Philosophy, Nelson, London, 1970. p 50.
[12]    Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon, 1953.
[13]    r can be expressed as ar or ra Greek harpázō Latin rapio.
[14]               In Near Eastern poetry such as the Ugaritic, the “knees” are used as a euphemism for the genitals. Thank you to Miriam Robbins Dexter for pointing this out to me.

[15]    Rose, H.J. “Anchises and Aphrodite” Classical Quarterly 18 (1924) pp. 11–16.
[16]    She is deriving the name Aeneas from – shame.
[17]   It is also used by Homer and Hesiod, in which Aphrodite is said to have floated to Greece from the Near East. See Hesiod, Theogony, l 173.
[18]    op cit, Boedecker , p. 36.
[19]    ibid. p. 37.
[20]    For a much fuller analysis of love from a feminist perspective see op cit, Atkinson “Radical Feminism and Love” in Amazon Odyssey; Firestone The Dialect of Sex, ch. 6; and Greer The Female Eunuch.

Questions of Power and Rights in Surrogacy: Is it acceptable for gay men to exploit surrogate mothers facing poverty, racism, eugenic forces and misogyny?

Paper presented at Broken Bonds and Big Money: 
An International Conference on Surrogacy.
Storey Hall, RMIT, Melbourne, 16 March 2019.

I am a lesbian. In my political activism over more than forty years I have repeatedly spoken out against homophobia as well as fighting against misogyny, ableism, racism and classism among other oppressions. Today, in my talk, I am going to criticise gay men who engage women to be surrogates so that they can fulfil their 'desire' for children. My criticism is for anyone – straight or gay – who acquires children through surrogacy. I am a critic of violence against women and have been especially outspoken on violence against lesbians. Just as when men charge women with chauvinism, it cannot stick because men are the dominant group. Likewise, when a lesbian is critical of the politics of some gay men, we have to remember that gay men have more power under patriarchal structures than do lesbians.

My view that gay men should not be engaging in surrogacy is not a hatred of gay men, but rather a political difference: a difference that I will spell out in my talk. I am not the first person to criticise gay men, indeed other lesbians and gays have also done so (see Klein, 2017; Solis, 2017; Bindel and Powell, 2018).

I support the words of Julie Bindel and Gary Powell who write:

We are a lesbian and a gay man who have been involved for many years in the struggle for gay and lesbian equality and for broader human rights issues. We both unequivocally oppose all forms of surrogacy as unethical; as legally, medically and psychologically dangerous; and as an abusive commodification of women and of babies that also carries significant and barely-reported health risks for the women and babies involved (Bindel and Powell, 2018).
Power is at the centre of surrogacy, and it is misuse of power that we are talking about here. When one person has access to, and can exercise more, power than another, it is a relationship of unequal power.
Consider the following sentences:
Kim Kardashian West has a baby through surrogacy. Kim Kardashian is very rich. Who does she 'choose' to be her 'surrogate'. A rich woman? Not likely.
I hated being pregnant, ... But as much as I hated it, I still wished I could have done it on my own. The control is hard at the beginning. Once you let that go, it’s the best experience. I would recommend surrogacy for anybody (Fisher, 2018).

But, as contributors to Broken Bonds (Lahl, Tankard Reist, and Klein, 2019)  make clear, giving up control is difficult and keeping control is more common among commissioning parents with dire consequences for the birth mothers.
Although she suffered placenta acreta during her own pregnancy, Kim Kardashian thought, nevertheless, that it would be okay for another woman to put her own health at risk in order that she, Kadashian, could have a third child.
Another sentence:
Elton John pays £20,000 to surrogate mother to have second son (Daily Mail Reporter, 2013).
The woman remains nameless, not only to the public but even on the birth certificate. Instead David Furnish (Elton John's husband) is named as the mother.
This is Orwellian. In the real world women are mothers; men are fathers. What a dinosaur, say the critics of my position. I say, no I care about language, about truth in language, about being able to trust what I am being told and not resorting to fake news.
Anca Gheaus (2016) argues an even stronger point. She writes:
... a gestational mother acquires the moral right to parent in virtue of having gestated the child. Moreover, the reasons for holding the right are such that the right cannot be transferred to other individuals (Gheaus, 2016, pp.21; my emphasis).
This phrasing reminds me of the inability of a person to legally sell themselves into slavery (though the practice continues). There is a moral integrity encapsulated in these human rights that makes them incontrovertible.
At the centre of the surrogacy industry is a system of classism, racism, ableism and misogyny. In addition, the logic of eugenics drives surrogacy.
Classism: Kardashians and John: These are clear examples of classism. Class and sex go together. Men earn more than women whether they are heterosexual or gay. Men are able to exploit women easily and a two-man family is probably even better off than one with a man and a woman. Analysis of classism and racism in surrogacy is not new. Gena Corea (1985), Renate Klein (1989), Robyn Rowland (1992) and Janice Raymond (1995) have all noted the power differences and exploitations based differences of class and race.
Racism: It is clear that racism is an integral part of surrogacy considering the places in which women are used as surrogates. Sheela Saravanan for her book, A Transnational Feminist View of Surrogacy Biomarkets in India (2018), interviewed at least fifty women for her ethnographic study.
Kajsa Ekis Ekman summarises the use of poor women in surrogacy:
At a clinic in Anand in northern India, women give birth to Western children. White women's eggs are inseminated with white men's sperm, and the embryo is implanted in the wombs of Indian women. The children will show no traces of the women who bore them. They will neither bear her name nor get to know her. After giving birth to the children, the Indian women surrender them (Ekis Ekman, 2013, p. 125).
          Southeast Asia and South Asia have been leading places for surrogacy clinics and Sheela Saravanan documents how that has worked (Saravanan 2018) and the ways it continues in India (Saravanan in Lahl et al, 2019, pp. 91-100) even if foreigners are now technically no longer able to engage in surrogacy in India. Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal have now banned surrogacy. But Laos has opened clinics. Exploitation based on class and race continues.
          Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Hungary, Georgia are all places to visit to get a baby through surrogacy. While the women here are white, they are poor and women from Eastern Europe are often still regarded as lesser beings by Westerners (Lahl et al, pp. 25-26; pp. 43-46; pp. 761-74; pp. 107-110; pp. 117-120).
          In the US, where commercial surrogacy is legal in 11 states, it is African-American and Hispanic women who are frequently used by the surrogacy industry and if white women are, they are poor white women (Lahl et al, pp. 121-126). In the US, you can order twins born with two different fathers (Daily Mail, 2019).
Ableism: the Baby Gammy case in 2014 made headlines around the world. A child with Down syndrome "left behind in Thailand by his Australian commissioning parents, sex-offender father and his wife" (Klein 2017, p. 1; see also pp. 39-40). The push for a eugenic reproductive approach is the ultimate political oppression, namely the erasure of an entire class, sex, caste, religion or ethnic group. Children perceived as 'less than perfect' (Place, 2019) will be eliminated. As I put it:
When we hear of this it is usually referred to as ethnic cleansing, genocidal rape, mass murder and almost to a person—a decent person—it is regarded negatively. But when it comes to the erasure of people with disabilities before birth such negative connotations rarely manifest themselves (Hawthorne forthcoming 2020).
Surrogacy enables the intending parent to specify the genetic characteristics of the child and, in particular that the child should not be born with a disability.
Women who go through surrogacy as part of their contract can be required to undergo a 'foetal reduction' when multiple embryos develop. They can be forced to have a termination in the event that the expected child shows a disability in utero. Women can be left literally 'holding the baby' and not being paid the amount of money they agreed to because of a disability either in utero or appearing at birth.
Misogyny: As Renate Klein argues so cogently in her book, Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation, three women are negatively affected by a surrogacy arrangement:
          The birth mother 'the surrogate' who puts her life at risk for the commissioning parents.
          If there is an egg donor – and in the case of gay men wanting a child, this is always the case (Eastman in Lahl et al, pp. 27-36) – then the egg donor's health is jeopardised. The process of donating eggs is not simple and as Maggie Eastman points out it has left her with serious physical (terminal breast cancer) and psychological repercussions.
          In a heterosexual couple, the new 'mother' can feel at a loss, can feel she is a failure and be deeply resentful towards the baby and the woman who gave birth to her/him..
          The child of the new parents will also end up questioning what has happened. Was I bought? Why did my birth mother never contact me (she was probably prevented from doing so)? Who are my blood relatives? These are the same questions adopted children ask (Mackieson, 2015).
A sentence I hear regularly in the media and in debates about surrogacy is that gay men have a 'right' to 'family formation'.
Whose rights are we speaking about here? Not all gay men are rich, but I would venture a guess that the gay couples who engage a surrogate are not on low wages, are not working class.
People say, "I'm against surrogacy, but how else will those poor gay men have a baby?" Women are socialised to give and to continue giving at their own peril.
Before critics accuse me that none of this applies to Australia where we have only so-called altruistic surrogacy, women continue to provide their bodies to others. It is not unusual for lesbians to have children for gay men.
There is no right for anyone to have a child. Under the rules of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) numerous protocols are broken including that of selling of children and as Renate Klein documents the surrogacy industry violates Article 7 and Article 35 of the CRC (Klein, 2017, pp.100-101).
Julie Bindel and Gary Powell point out that an argument of 'equality' is being used to make it acceptable for gay men to engage in 'surrogacy'. But as I noted at the beginning, there is no equality here, but rather a relationship of unequal power. Spanish writer, Raul Solis (2017 cited in Klein, 2017, pp. 153) coins the word 'gaypitalismo' to express his concern that gay men are swapping 'being oppressed' with becoming the oppressor after years of support from lesbians and heterosexual feminists in their battles against criminalised homosexuality.
Surrogacy is an industry in which we are creating a new stolen generation with consequences of transgenerational trauma as we have seen in the Bringing Them Home Report (1997) and Julia Gillard's National Apology for Forced Adoptions (2013). But this time it is inherently a part of the industry. The baby is conceived in order to be taken away at birth. As Renate Klein points out in Surrogacy, pets are better treated and puppies and kittens are usually not removed from their mothers until 6 to 8 weeks old (I am not recommending this, simply pointing it out).
The surrogacy industry in Australia has a number of prominent gay men at its helm (Sam Everingham; Stephan Page). Surrogacy is also a big money earner: for IVF clinics; for lawyers; for brokers. And coming up in Taiwan is a kind of Baby Fair:
New York-based non-profit Men Having Babies (MHB) stages events across the world to provide advice and support to all LGBT+ people who want to become parents and plans to stage its first annual Asian event on March 9-10 in Taipei, Taiwan.

The two-day event, described as a 'boot camp', will include prospective 'surrogate' mothers, egg donors as well as lawyers, doctors and local clinics.
So whose rights are we talking about here? We need to be talking about the rights of poor women, of women whose poverty or desperation is caused by structural racism, of the disabled rejected because they did not fit the model of the perfect baby; of women once again subjected to misogyny.
Gay men in these days of equal marriage laws are perceived by the mainstream as a progressive force. And some gay men do behave as a progressive force. However, there is a distinct class of wealthy mobile gay men who are promoting surrogacy as a new freedom for gay men. But there is nothing progressive about exploiting women on the basis of poverty, ethnicity, disability or sex. There is no place for an industry based on misogyny, racism, classism and ableism.
Bindel, Julie and Gary Powell. 2018. 'Gay Rights and Surrogacy Wrongs: Say "No" to Wombs-for-Rent" '. Stop Surrogacy Now.
Corea, Gena. 1985. The Mother Machine: Reproductive Technologies from Artificial Insemination to Artificial Wombs. New York: Harper & Row.
Daily Mail Reporter. (21 January 2013). 'Last of the big spenders! Elton John 'paid £20,000' to surrogate mother for giving birth to second son Elijah.' Daily Mail. <>
Ekis Ekman, Kajsa. 2013. Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Fisher, Luchina. (14 March 2018). 'Kim Kardashian West explains why she chose a surrogate for her third child'. ABC News.
Gheaus, Anca. 2106. 'The normative importance of pregnancy challenges surrogacy contracts'. Analize—Journal of Gender and Feminist Studies. New Series. Issue No. 6. pp. 20-31.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2020. 'Medical wars against the less than perfect: The politics of disability'. Forthcoming in Vortex. Mission Beach: Spinifex Press.
Klein, Renate. 1989. Infertility: Women Speak Out about Their Experiences of Reproductive Medicine. London: Pandora Press.
Klein, Renate. 2017. Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation. Mission Beach: Spinifex Press.
Lahl, Jennifer, Melinda Tankard Reist and Renate Klein (eds.) 2019. Broken Bonds: Surrogate Mothers Speak Out. Mission Beach: Spinifex Press.
Laing, Lucy. (27 January 2019). 'Baby "twins" have two different fathers after gay couple were both able to fertilise an embryo of a surrogate mother'. Daily Mail. <>
Mackieson, Penny. 2015. Adoption Deception: A Personal and Professional Journey. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Place, Fiona. 2019. Portrait of the Artist's Mother: Dignity, creativity and disability. Mission Beach: Spinifex Press.
Raymond, Janice G. 1995/2019. Women as Wombs: Reproductive Technologies and the Battle over Women's Freedom. Mission Beach: Spinifex Press.
Rowland, Robyn. 1992. Living Laboratories: Women and Reproductive Technologies. Sydney: Sun Books. Available from Spinifex Press.
Saravanan, Sheela. 2018. A Transnational Feminist View of Surrogacy Biomarkets in India. Singapore: Springer.
Solis, Raul. (25 March 2017). 'Los Vientres de Alquilar: La cara mas brutal del '"Gaypitalismo"'. Paralelo 36 Andalucia;
Taylor, Michael. (22 February 2019). 'Gay parenting 'boot camp' moves to Asia to meet growing demand from China'. Essential Baby.
Wilson, Ronald and Dodson, Mick. 1997. Bringing Them Home Report: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Australian Human Rights Commission. <>
Dr Susan Hawthorne has been a lesbian feminist for more than forty years. She is author and editor of 25 books of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, the most recent of which is Dark Matters: A novel (2017). In 2017 she was
Winner, Penguin Random House Best Achievement in Writing in the Inspire Awards for her work increasing people's awareness about epilepsy and the politics of disability. She is Adjunct Professor in College of Arts, Society, and Education, James Cook University, Townsville and Publisher at Spinifex Press. She acknowledges the many discussions that took place with Renate Klein in writing this essay.