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Doing Justice to the Classics

Ancient fables said to prove that all women are “inveterate liars and deceivers”

One of the foundations of misogyny is a set of generalizations about women that justify their oppression. Authors in the misogynist and increasingly violent “Men’s Rights Movement” like to prop up their hateful view of women by pointing to ancient evidence as “proof” that these generalizations are true. In an article entitled “No Fable,” the misogynist Douglas Galbi, whose personal webpage and contributions to A Voice for Men have been documented on Pharos, cites the example of the ancient Greek woman Thais to argue that all women are deceptive and value material wealth over everything else. Like the rest of Galbi’s work, this article is meant to support one of the fundamental (and fundamentally wrong) claims of contemporary misogynists, that it is men, not women, who are oppressed in what Galbi calls today’s “gynocentric” culture, and that this oppression has very old, even ancient, roots.

Thais was what is conventionally called a “hetaira,” who traveled with Alexander of Macedon, who is often referred to as “Alexander the Great.” Like many scholars, Galbi translates hetaira with the english word “courtesan,” implying that she was a kind of high-class prostitute, but there is debate among scholars about the social and legal position of women like Thais as well as about the nature of the economic arrangement between the hetairai and the men they were attached to.

Galbi is keen to represent Thais as a promiscuous and vindictive schemer, charging her first with “regularly hav[ing] sex with Alexander the Great’s leading general Ptolemy” and then with “le[ading] Alexander the Great like slave girls ruled all-powerful caliphs in the ancient Islamic world.” It is true that Thais and Ptolemy had children together after Alexander’s death, but Galbi imposes on this story an implication of infidelity to Alexander. In saying that she “ruled” Alexander, Galbi is referring to the claim found in most, but not all, ancient sources about her that at a drunken party she convinced Alexander to burn the Persian capital of Persepolis after he had conquered it in 330 BCE. The historian Arrian more plausibly argues that Alexander burned the city in retaliation for the Persians’ burning Athens in 480, but Galbi prefers to believe the patently misogynist historical tradition that seeks to blame women and absolve men. No doubt Galbi has chosen Thais in order to claim, as others have about Antony, that even so “great” a man as Alexander was powerless against women.

Galbi’s mistranslations allow him to make the poem better fit the prejudices of misogynists like him

For further evidence that “women like Thais dominate men despite men’s understanding of their deceptions,” Galbi turns to the Latin versions of Aesop’s fables, starting with one composed in the first century by Phaedrus. Galbi translates a poem describing a conversation between a “young man” (iuvenis) and a “prostitute” (meretrix) in which, when “he offers himself willingly to her,” the meretrix flatters him, saying “even though everyone is fighting [for my affection] with gifts, I value you the most of all.” In the poem the young man “remembers how many times he has been deceived” by her, but nevertheless calls her “my light” and responds “I am happy to hear what you say (vocem), not because it is trustworthy but because it is pleasurable to me.” Galbi comments, “That’s the pathetic spirit that prompts husbands to accept being cuckolded.”

The poem vilifies the prostitute, calling her “deceptive” (perfida) and “one who sets an ambush” (insidiatrix), but Galbi resorts to mistranslating the Latin in order to make her not only dishonest but promiscuous. The word translated “willingly” above is facilem, which must modify the young man in the Latin text, but Galbi applies it to the meretrix instead of to the young mantranslating it “easy woman.” He also sexualizes her words to him, translating a Latin phrase involving the word facere “I do you before everyone else” (the most basic meaning of facere is “to do”.) Facio can have a sexual connotation in Latin, just as “to do” can in English, but Phaedrus here is using facio in the common sense of “to value,” by which the line means “I value you the most of all.” These mistranslations allow Galbi to make the poem better fit a favorite prejudice of misogynists like him, that women “deceive men” and “use men as a means for freely acquiring material goods.”

Galbi’s second fable comes from a medieval version of Aesop by Gualterus Anglicus. Unlike Phaedrus’s fable, this poem is specifically about Thais, but it features the same depiction of the woman as deceptive and self-interested. Galbi praises the man in this poem for saying he will only accept “equal love” from her, and praises the poet for commenting that “if anyone loves Thais, let him believe that his goods are loved, not himself.” Galbi calls this “medieval freedom of speech” that “dares to criticize women” and rejects forms of love that “subordinat[e]” men. Modern men, Galbi argues, should be more like this than like Alexander or the young man in Phaedrus’s fable who “eagerly and foolish [sic] believe that women are like goddesses” when they are really, as he claims Anglicus recognizes, “inveterate liars and deceivers.”

All that Galbi has really done is to take the pervasive misogyny of much of ancient culture at face value

Whereas many misogynists online degrade women as part of a strategy to have sex with as many as possible, Galbi’s version of misogyny is one that recommends avoiding women altogether. In this he tends toward the philosophy of the so-called “Men Going Their Own Way” (MGTOW) community. One of their core tenets, according to one of their flagship sites, is the “refus[al] to bow, serve and kneel [to women] for the opportunity to be treated like a disposable utility.” Galbi wants men to realize that the women in their lives are using them for material gain as Phaedrus and Anglicus claimed women like Thais did in antiquity, and furthermore that “pleasurable sex with women” is dangerous because, Galbi claims, “men have no reproductive rights and men are readily lynched as rapists.”

Galbi maintains a pretense of scholarship, providing a bibliography and discussing scholarly articles about the texts he cites. But all that Galbi has really done in this and other articles is to take the pervasive misogyny of much of ancient culture at face value. His article’s title “No Fable” acknowledges as much: he’s claiming that these obviously fictional scenarios, many of which include, for example, talking animals, should be understood literally: if a text says that women are deceptive, his reasoning goes, it must be showing that women of that period really were deceptive. And if the text is ancient, so much the better, because it shows that female wickedness has been recognized for a long time. He’s not much better than the misogynists who say “because a ‘great’ ancient writer said something bad about women, it must be true about women.” Not to mention the white supremacists who say that because the ancient Greeks had slaves, we should celebrate our own history of slavery.

For Galbi, anyone who sees anything other than misogyny in these texts is just as credulous as the young man when he believed Thais’ promise to be faithful

Galbi’s view is that the oppression of men led literary artists to write about it, sometimes openly, as he claims Anglicus does, but other times covertly, as Galbi argued elsewhere about Macrobius. And there are, in fact, scholars who argue that the genre of fable serves to question the power structures that are dominant in whatever culture the fabulist is writing. For Aesop, whose fables Phaedrus and Anglicus were translating and adding to, this meant challenging masculine authority such as the men who controlled the influential Delphic oracle and became rich through administering its sanctuary, or traditional sources of “wisdom” like the Seven Sages. Aesop probably shouldn’t be called a feminist, but challenging the political authorities of his day meant challenging men.

Galbi, however, wants to say that the power structure that Phaedrus and Anglicus challenged was “gynocracy,” the domination of men by women. For him, scholars who see anything else in these texts are just as credulous as the young man was when he believed Thais’s promise to be faithful. He attacks a scholar who argues that Anglicus’ fable about Thais recognizes that what some might call Thais’s “infidelity” is the result of her lack of economic opportunity outside of prostitution. This reading, for Galbi, shows “appalling…gender conservatism and complacency” and “lacks any critical perspective on men’s social position under gynocentrism.” This might ring true to the disaffected, frustrated, and lonely men who come across material like Galbi’s, but not to anyone who has considered the persistence of misogyny over thousands of years. You can’t have “critical perspective” on a system of oppression that never existed.

We have linked to an archived version of the article above to avoid giving Galbi’s site traffic. You can visit the page itself here.

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