Claire’s thesis idea: gender fluidity in Orphic literature

I spent the summer working on a research fellowship that will be the basis for my senior thesis. The project was a study of the language used to describe gender in the Orphic Hymns, and specifically of gender fluidity. I was interested in the ways that the gods are described as transcending a seeming human gender binary, and that their ability to transcend and fluctuate on the gender binary allowed them greater power than available in the human realm. I worked with theory about embodiment, or the physical ways in which a being embodies gender, and how performance of gender, both human and divine, is reliant on a body as a vessel. I also looked at how divine multiplicity, or the capacity of the gods to be multiple different selves at once allows them a more expansive experience of gender. I worked with the Hymns, but also other primary sources including Hesiod, the Aristotelian Physiognomonica, and the Bacchae. I applied methodology from Edmonds’ books on magic and Orphism, as well as Butlerian theory about the performativity of gender, and Boyer’s cognitive theories about how religions construct their divine. 

I intend to carry these ideas through into a more in-depth analysis of the literary cues of gender fluidity and their impact. My idea is to expand my study into “Orphic” literature, which is marked for its strange depiction and bending of familiar characters and stories. Of course, this is a category larger than I could ever hope to work through this year. I would like to include some study of Nonnos’ Dionysiaka (also too large for this project), which has direct correlations to the examples I studied in the Hymns. I’d also like to address the Derveni papyrus, the Orphic fragments, and a recently discovered Sinai palimpsest fragment, among other things. I would also like to get more into the modern gender theory methodology. 

These ideas come from my work throughout the last two years with Prof. Edmonds, who directed me towards the Hymns. There is very little scholarship about the Hymns, and none about its depiction of gender, meaning that this is relatively uncharted territory. I believe it offers fascinating insight into the powers allotted to the gods in “Orphic” literature, and how Orphic texts bend these characters beyond norms and binaries. Bringing gender to the study of Orphism (however loose it is) is inspired by a larger movement of gender and queer theory’s application to Classics. Although there is a rich history of feminism and classics, the application of queer theory and study of gender beyond the binary in the ancient world is still relatively new and developing. 

I’m balancing a campus job, two grad seminars, and my work with SPEAC. I anticipate being extremely busy, which will be a bit of a challenge. My topic is also still too large in scope, and I need to narrow down exactly what I’m looking for and in which texts. But I’m excited to start!

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