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Hanna Holborn Gray Fellow Claire Hylton '23

December 9, 2022 Alex Kelly '23

The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. We're highlighting the research of this year's fellows in a series of online profiles.

Claire Hylton '23, Classical Languages

"Primeval, Two-Natured, Thrice Born: A study of gender fluid Dionysos in the Bacchae and the Orphic Hymns"

Abstract: This paper concentrates on the gender fluidity of the gods in the Orphic Hymns, a Hellenistic Greek collection of short invocations. These hymns, mostly consisting of short epithets, are quite mysterious, given their unusual presentation of the gods and cosmogony, and the relatively little information that we have about the authorship or provenience. There is relatively little scholarship about the Hymns, and none that analyzes its depiction of gender. This paper argues that one of the most important parts of the Hymns is its depictions of the gods as gender fluid, transcending the gender binary with a fluid, expansive gender experience. This fluidity is one of the ways in which the gods of this collection are constructed as all-powerful. I use the methodology of polythetic categories and cue validity to show how gender is a constructed category, and I look at a variety of cues throughout the Hymns to evaluate how they signal gender. This study is primarily philological, looking at the specific words used to describe birth, physical function, and appearance. While one might describe the human experience of gender as embodied, the divinities do not inhabit gender in the same ways. I look at the ways in which the divine embodiment is differently conceived, set the gods outside the limitations of the human experience. The Hymns offer a curious challenge to a rigid gender binary, depicting the gods as existing beyond these boundaries.

Was there anything surprising about the work you did?

I came into the project looking for a very specific thing in the texts I was working with. I realized pretty quickly that I would actually have to let the texts lead, and I would follow where they led me, even if it meant that my ideas had to change to fit the texts.

How will you use your research in future studies?

My Hanna Holborn Gray research is the foundation for my thesis this year. My summer work on my chosen text gave me a solid foundation for my thesis, and will allow me to go deeper into this topic in the coming months. I’ve also developed more research skills and strengthened my ability to work with primary texts, which will help both with my thesis and with my future research, down the line.

How did you choose your topic?

My project changed a lot from my initial idea to my final paper. I came in with an interest in the gender-fluidity of the god Dionysos after taking a Greek class on the Bacchae, and my advisor suggested I look into the Orphic Hymns as a source of comparison. As I got further into the project, I realized that the Hymns are where my interest lies, and I was able to use the rest of the summer to do a deep dive into the text of the Hymns.

The Hanna Holborn Gray Fellowships offer funded independent research in the humanities. Each summer, Bryn Mawr College awards up to 15 students a summer fellowship of $4,500 to undertake an independent research project in the humanities or humanistic social sciences.  The research may either be the beginning of the senior thesis or a project that stands alone, but is relevant to their intellectual interests and must be supported by a faculty advisor.

Hanna Holborn Gray Undergraduate Research Fellowships

Department of Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies