Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 3f: The Roman Period - Tribades - Astrology
* * *
Following Seneca’s quote of the use of “tribade,” in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, uses of the term in Latin are closely connected with astrological literature, and appear in very similar formulas (some clearly deriving from each other or from a common original), such that we can derive additional context from similar formulas that use other language, as well as context from Greek astrological literature that uses the Greek form of the word. Boehringer provides a chronology of the exact sources, with their dates and the word forms used in them. In addition to Greek and Latin forms of “tribas,” parallel astrological references introduce the term “fric(a)trix,” which derives from a similar meaning (to rub).
The astrological texts have the general purpose of explaining a wide variety of types of behavior in terms of the person’s astrological influences. In all cases, the behaviors in question deviate from the norm. The general formula for tribades/fricatrices is that some star or planet is located under a “masculine sign” and therefore causes women to be sexually attracted to women, sometimes using the word tribade. The more specific explanation of why and how this influence acts is various, and additional understanding can be found in how the same or parallel configurations affect men. For example, in certain examples the configuration causes women to be tribades and men to be excessively attracted to women (i.e., it influences both sexes to have increased attraction to women). In other conjunctions women become tribades but men are impotent or eunuchs (i.e., it causes each sex to become more like the other sex). In yet another version, a “masculine” conjunction causes women to be tribades while the parallel “feminine” conjunction causes men to be effeminate or sterile. Women who are influenced to be tribades may also behave in a “virile” fashion in other aspects of their lives.
The same type of explanation may appear without using a specific term for the women, describing them as desiring sex with women. And rather than the word tribade, the text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus describes a conjunction giving rise to the fricatrix who “is loved by women who are fricatrices” in which both partners are given the label, with the implication that there is no distinction of active and passive.
Within this period, the other instance of Frictrix, in Tertullian, is ambiguous in meaning. Tertullian is listing types of people associated with extreme “oral pollution” (which didn’t necessarily derive from sexual activity). While some have interpreted Tertullian’s use as generally meaning “prostitute”, the context suggests that this reading would be redundant, since the women in question have already been described as prostitutes, to which is added, “and who are, themselves, fricatrices too.” This leaves open the possibility that, as in the other example of fricatrix from astrological sources, Tertullian’s text is refering to women who have sex with women. [Note: Possibly with the implication that oral sex is involved.]
Boehringer discusses the social context of astrological literature in general and emphasizes that it concerns itself with characteristics outside the norm (since the norm doesn’t need to be explained) The texts discussed here uniformly describe women’s same-sex unions as outside the norm and immoral. But they do not construct a category of “homosexual orientation” that encompasses both sexes, nor do they consistently construct an understanding of tribades as male-acting. Although a “masculine” astrological influence is common among them, the effects on women are sometimes to make them more “virile” and sometimes to create desire between two “feminine” women.
The references in astrological literature as not describing actual, specific individuals, but rather personality “types”. Boehringer concludes from this that during the 1st and 2nd centuries the “tribade” was a literary construction that can be disregarded. [Note: I may be misunderstanding the text. It seems to me that a literary trope of this type would make no sense unless there were actual real-life behavior that people wanted an explanation for. But it remains that this evidence operates on a theoretical plane, not a concrete one.]