Let’s start by looking at the name Bilitis and at who she was, or wasn’t.
In 1894 a book was published in Paris called “Les Chansons de Bilitis” (The Songs of Bilitis). It was a collection of erotic lesbian poems that had been translated from their original Greek into French by an author called Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925).
In his introduction to the poems Louÿs described them as autobiographical works by Bilitis, a courtesan from the southern coastal region of Turkey called Pamphylia who, through a series of failed or abusive relationships, settled first in Mytilene on Lesbos and then on Cyprus. On Lesbos Bilitis got to know the island’s most famous inhabitant, the female poet Sappho. Pierre Louÿs assumes that Sappho taught Bilitis the art of poetry.
“Les Chansons de Bilitis” were set out to illustrate her life. The first part recounts Bilitis’ childhood in Pamphylia. She falls in love with a man who later rapes her. However, she marries him and bears him a child. Her husband continues to be abusive and Bilitis feels she has no choice but to abandon the marriage and her child and escapes to Lesbos.
The second part of the “Chansons” sees Bilitis in Mytilene on Lesbos. Through Sappho she meets a young girl called Mnasidikia. The friendship between them lasts ten years, but the love Bilitis had for Mnasidikia was unrequited. Eventually Bilitis becomes jealous of the attentions Mnasidikia is getting from men. Once again she thinks it is best to move on.
Bilitis arrives on Cyprus still yearning for Mnasidikia. The final “Chansons” tell us that she became a courtesan in the cult of Aphrodite. Louÿs suggests that Bilitis wrote her poems late in life while on Cyprus.
Bilitis died and was buried on Cyprus is a magnificent terra cotta coffin within the underground chamber. This was rediscovered in 1864 by a German archaeologist called G. Heim. The coffin lid bore the sculpted face of its occupant. Inside was her body. Around the walls of the chamber were black stone tablets on which were inscribed the poems Bilitis had written.
Thirty years after the discovery of her tomb the poems of Bilitis were translated and published by Pierre Louÿs as “Les Chansons de Bilitis”. It was a huge success and was hailed by scholars as an important addition to literature and history. It received praise in particular for its lesbian eroticism.
But there were some scholars who were mystified by this sudden appearance of a previously unknown poet with such a significant amount of work. There were also a few literary critics who suspected that the poems were not from ancient Greece at all.
Eventually, Pierre Louÿs came clean and admitted that “Les Chansons de Bilitis” were fake and that he had written them himself. A clue to the hoax comes in the name of the archaeologist who was alleged to have found the tomb and poems, G. Heim. This is a pun on the German word “geheimnis”, which means “secret”. You might have thought that the confession of a hoax might have upset both the literary and academic worlds, but it didn’t.
What Louÿs did from the start was study actual ancient Greek poetry and literature and produce a modern work imitating the ancient style. It’s a technique that wasn’t new (the fake poems of an ancient Scottish poet called Ossian had captured the public’s imagination a century earlier), and is still sometimes used today (a novel written entirely in Middle English was published recently).
“Les Chansons de Bilitis” came to be seen as an example of sincere imitation through academic research, and remains so.
So, how did a literary hoax inspire the name of a lesbian organisation in the USA? Despite being a popular book on continental Europe “Les Chansons de Bilitis” was relatively obscure in America. During the 1950s several lgbt groups formed, including the Daughters of Bilitis which was founded by several lesbian couples in San Francisco in October 1955. At their second meeting they chose their organisation’s name.
The name Bilitis was chosen deliberately because it was obscure. The general public had never heard it before but it was quite well-known among the many lesbians who had obtained privately printed copies of “Les Chansons de Bilitis”. Because of its erotic content the book was subject to censorship and not available publicly. It was obscure enough for the Daughters of Bilitis to use it with the comfort of knowing that the general public wouldn’t be aware of the sexual focus of the organisation while many lesbians would.
The organisation’s name also echoes that of several women’s charitable and social organisations across the USA, in particular the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organisation of women descended from soldiers who fought in the War of Independence. The choice of “Daughters of” for the lesbian organisation gave it an air of respectability.
The Daughters of Bilitis enjoyed a successful existence for a few years, but the emergence of more radical feminism in the 1960s created a schism in the organisation. Despite this, the Daughters of Bilitis were an important part of the pre-Stonewall lgbt rights movement and went on to inspire other female groups.
|Album cover of a very rare vinyl recording of “Les Chansons de Bilitis” produced in 1961 in France.|