Homosexuality defined by Myth: a brief essay

The homosexuality of the ancient Greeks is a topic not often explored, due in large part to a cultural bias in the West that has only begun to dissolve in the last couple of decades. However, homosexuality was an important part of many aspects of Greek culture, and featured often in their poetry, drama, and visual arts. In addition, homosexuality played a large part in many of the myths of the Greeks. I hope to show some of the aspects of cultural Greek homosexuality and their relations to various myths. First I will examine the place of pedastry in Greek homosexuality. I will also look at homosexuality among soldiers. Finally, I will examine the use of homosexuality as a rite of initiation. All of these can relate to specific Greek myths, and will illustrate that the treatment of homosexuality in myth is reflective of its place in Greek culture.

Before we can give a proper discussion of Greek myth and homosexuality, it is necessary to define homosexuality as it related to the Greeks, and examine a bit of its history. While 21st-Century Western culture dictates that homosexuality is necessarily exclusive of heterosexuality, to the Greeks this was not so: sexual activity could not be so clearly divided.1 In fact, though it is usually called homosexuality, the culture of the Greeks would more properly label it as bisexuality.2 Homosexuality was not confined to a separate group identified as a minority, but as a normal alternative to heterosexual relationships.3 In addition, though there is evidence of homosexual behaviour between women, this was not as common as that between men as women did not have the same privileges as men throughout Greek history.4 As a result, a discussion of homosexuality in this paper is a discussion of sexual activity between males, and is not exclusive of those same males participating in sexual activity with females.

As shall be seen in my examination of pedastry, the roles in homosexuality were strictly defined for the Greeks: the person playing the role of the man in intercourse was known as the erastes; the one in the passive role was called eromenos—these terms will be used as English words to signify those roles.5

There is much debate as to the history of homosexuality in Greece, but I shall examine it briefly as a starting point to a deeper evaluation of its place in myth and culture. Many believe that homosexual practices began among the Dorians, and it is possible that it was most common among them.6 Overt homosexuality was widespread in Greece by the 6th century BCE, and 4th century Athens readily accepted it.7 It is interesting to note that throughout time, Greek views of homosexual behaviour seem to change. While it is clear from evidence in the visual arts (such as painted vases) that it was common in Athens at one point,8 as Athens began shifting towards a democratic society, depictions of homosexual behaviour began to disappear.9 When these changes took place is highly debated however, and beyond the scope of this paper. More important is its place in Greek myth: many Greek myths of homosexuality are clearly meant to show the origins of that behaviour in the region from which the myth originates.10 For example, Apollodorus writes that Hyacinthos “aroused the passion of Thamyris, …the first man to love other males.”11 In addition, Plato contends in his Laws that the myth of Ganymedes being abducted by Zeus as his eromenos was made up by the Cretens as an excuse for their action.12 Both of these myths will be discussed more fully below; I wish only to show here that it is evidenced that whatever the exact history, homosexuality was relatively common among the Greeks, and at various times widely accepted. I shall now examine its place in Greek culture, and its specific relationship to Greek myths.

The most evident aspect of Greek homosexuality is its pedastric nature. The most commonly accepted homosexual relationship was that between an adult and a young adolescent—the older man would necessarily be the erastes, with the younger being the eromenos.13 The ideal age of the eromenos was between 12 and 17, though 15 to 17 was preferred.14 Once the eromenos was older than this, generally around the time they began to grow a beard and body hair, it was no longer respectable for the erastes to keep loving them.15 This is perhaps evidenced in Homer’s Iliad in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. (The homosexual nature of this myth is contended, and is more fully explored further in my discussion; for the moment, we shall assume their relationship was that of lovers.) When Patroclus is killed, Achilles laments more greatly than any other character upon another’s death. Thetis, his mother, suggests that it is now time for him to take a wife.16 This can be seen as a rebuke for him being too long in a homosexual relationship after he has passed the age of a normal eromenos.17

The very existence of pedastric homosexual love is evidenced in a few myths. One of the main ones is the story that Zeus abducted the Trojan prince Ganymedes, made the prince his lover, and kept him on Mount Olympus to be the cupbearer of the gods.18 Apollodorus says of this only that “Ganymede was so beautiful that Zeus used an eagle to carry him off, and made him cupbearer to the gods in heaven.”19 This mentions nothing explicitly of a homosexual relationship; however, Theognis wrote that Zeus “once came to love Ganymede,”20 suggesting actual sexual contact. In addition, in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Aphrodite speaks to Anchises about those the gods have loved in an attempt to calm his fears, and mentions that “Zeus Planner took away blond Ganymedes because of his beauty.”21 This clearly suggests a sexual encounter, because Aphrodite is trying to calm Anchises with regards to their own sexual encounter; her words would have no basis if there had not been the same between Zeus and Ganymedes.22 The Greeks came to accept this sexual relationship by the 6th century.23 This myth clearly tells of a pedastric relationship between the erastes Zeus, and the young prince of Troy who is Zeus’s eromenos.

The pedastric relationships of the Greeks were used largely in an educational process, of the erastes teaching the eromenos.24 The relationship was fostered in order to teach the young boy of manly virtues and the duties of citizenship—an education that could not be achieved from a relationship with women, who knew nothing of those.25 In a description of Crete, the 1st-century writer Stabo tells of the institutionalized abduction of a boy by a man, who then takes the boy away to the wilderness to educate him.26 This is, in effect, ritualized rape, but its purpose was educational.27 This aspect of homosexuality was also very apparent in myth. The majority of homosexual myths involve Apollo (some of which are detailed later). Apollo was seen as the perfect man, and a god of knowledge, among other things.28 He was the archetypal teacher, and so was the archetypal erastes, involved in many myths as the lover of various young boys, thereby implying the importance of the relationship as educational.29 Thus, the pedastric aspect of Greek homosexuality held an important place in their culture and in their education, and this is reflected strongly in their myths.

Pedastric homosexuality extended to other areas of Greek culture as well, notably Greek soldiers, and this too was reflected in their myths. Homosexual relationships between older and younger soldiers were encouraged in many areas of Greece: when the erastes and eromenos were in the same battle, each would be inspired to excel in battle in order to look good in the eyes of their lover.30 In his Dialogue on Love, Plutarch wrote that the high regard given to homosexual activity was due to the inspiration given to a soldier by his eromenos in preparation for battle.31 In Elis and Boiotia, pairs of lovers were posted beside each other in the army—furthermore, the “Sacred Band” of Thebes, which made up the fierce core of their army, was made solely of couples.32 Thus, the love or sexual relationship with boys in Crete and Laconia—that is, among the Dorians—served a useful purpose in society, and was a necessary social institution.33 Interestlingly, sexual relationships among soldiers were not always pedastric; in training, for example, love among youths was also common.34

Though perhaps less immediately apparent, this aspect of homosexuality was also very present in mythology. For example, in Homer’s Iliad, it has been suggested that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was one of sexual love.35 Though Homer never explicitly states as much in his poem, this does not necessarily mean that the relationship did not exist.36 Epic poetry does not discuss homosexuality by its very nature, rather referring to such things implicitly—in fact, the text only gains its full meaning when some things are taken implicitly.37 The lack of explicit discussion of homosexuality could be indicative of a cultivated sensitivity.38 The evidence of a homosexual relationship is certainly there in the text: Achilles once asks the gods to rid the world of all humanity but him and Patroclus.39 When Patroclus is killed, the intensity of Achilles’s sorrow indicates a relationship deeper than simple friendship.40 The show of sentiment described between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad is only ever otherwise evidenced between a man and woman.41 Though it is not explicit in Homer, the relationship became interpreted as homosexual even by the Greeks, as early as the 5th century.42 (Interestingly, there is much debate over which of Achilles or Patroclus was erastes or eromenos.43 Thetis’s rebuke of Achilles suggests one thing, but different ancient writers interpreted it differently.) The love of Achilles for Patroclus causes him to fight all the harder in battle, showing that even this aspect of Greek homosexuality was evidenced in their myths.

One of the most important aspects of Greek homosexuality was its use as a ritual of initiation for the eromenos. This is the most common representation of homosexuality in Greek myth, though initiation practices were not used as frequently by the Classical periods.44 Yet, it is still apparent—in Sparta, boys were entrusted to older lovers at the age of 12 to learn to be true Spartans and be initiated into Spartan adult life.45 Xenophon wrote in his Constitution of the Lacedaemonians that it was the highest form of education for a man to spend time with a decent boy, bringing him into adult life.46 The homosexual relationship between initiator and initiate was socially obligatory.47 Most pedastric myths follow this pattern—they are stories of initiation into adult society, often metaphorically represented as initiation into the world of the gods.48 A boy would learn about virtue in a period of segregation, and this was reflected in myth: often, it would involve the death of the boy and a ressurection into a new form, which represents adulthood.49

There are many examples of myth that show this pattern. In Pindar’s first Olympian Ode, he tells the myth of Pelops and the start of the Olympics. In his version of the myth, Pelops is abducted by Poseidon, who is in love with him.50 Poseidon ravashes Pelops, who later reminds Poseidon of the gifts of love he bestowed, and asks for a favour in return.51 Poseidon then helps Pelops win the race against Oenomaos. This myth represents an initiatory ritual done so that Pelops can win the race and become king.52 Alternately, Athenaeus writes that Laius abducted Chrysippus, Pelops’ son, inventing the practice of homosexuality. This is also a myth of initiation as Laius instructs Chrysippus in chariot driving.53 The tale of Ganymedes, too, is initiatory, as Zeus’s abduction and love for him initiates him into the immortal world of the gods.

Perhaps most famous, however, are the initiatory myths of Apollo and his lovers, especially the adolescents Hyacinthus and Cyparissus. Hyacinthus was so beautiful that many beings fell in love with him, including both Apollo and Zephyrus.54 Apollo and Hyacinthus are playing with a discus, and Hyacinthus is killed when Zephyrus jealously causes the discus to go astray. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, relates the story:

The Spartan boy, impelled by his zeal for the game,
Unknowing, rushed right out to retrieve the discus,
Which the hard earth shot straight back up, Hyacinthus,
Into your face. Apollo went white, no less than
The boy. He cradled your slackened limbs and warmed you…
…Phoebus [Apollo] cried out…
“…Is it wrong to play? Can it be called wrong to love?…
… you will become a flower, my groans engraved
Upon you…”

Hyacinthus’s blood rose up and turned into a flower.55 In this tale, Apollo instructs Hyacinthus in the use of the discus, and the boy’s death is a metaphor for the initiation into adulthood.56 Even more suggestive is the story of Cyparissus, also loved by both Apollo and Zephyrus.57 Ovid tells us this story as well, relating how Cyparissus was granted a gift of a deer by Apollo, but one day accidentally killed the deer with a javelin while being instructed in its use by the same god:

The boy,
Unknowing, struck the deer with his sharp javelin
And when he saw him dying from the savage wound
Cyparissus wished to die himself. How many
Words of comfort Apollo spoke, urging the boy
To grieve more moderately, more in keeping with
The magnitude of the loss! But Cyparissus
Would not be consoled. He prayed to the gods for this
Supreme gift: to be allowed to mourn for all time.
And soon enough—his strenuous bouts of weeping
Had drained his body of blood—his limbs turned greenish;
The hair that had hung across his snow-white forehead
Grew long and wild; he stiffened; now his tapering
Treerop turns its gaze to the star-filled open sky.
The saddened god cried, “You’ll be lamented by me,
And you’ll lament for others, and accompany
All those who grieve.”58

This story too shows an instructory initiation coupled with the homosexual love between boy and god. In fact, this particular myth relates directly to a Cretan initiation hunt done by boys with men, connecting with the killing of the deer by Cyparissus.59

Both of these stories have a form of death or transformation representing the change from the beardless eromenos youth to a stage of life of a bearded adult, through a ressurection.60 Apollo is the ideal figure to catalyze this transformation, because Apollo is both the god of knowledge, and so instruction, and also the god of young men, the patron of those who must undergo the initiation.61 Apollo is eternally a youth; he is an accomplished initiate himself, and so is the ideal teacher of the youth of myth.62 As can be seen, these myths of homosexual encounters are tales of the initiation of the eromenos into adult life, through the metaphor of death and ressurection or of entering the world of the gods. They are tales of instruction from the older man to the younger boy.

It is interesting to note that when gods are involved in homosexual relationships, they are always in the role of erastes. The Greeks likely would not want to place their deities in roles of submission, and would assume that the gods needed no initiation or instruction.

The Greek myths of homosexuality directly reflect how homosexuality appeared in the Greek’s culture. The myths usually spoke of pedastric relationships, which is how homosexual relationships appeared in Greek life. Some myths spoke of love between warriors, which was often reflected in Greek culture, especially among the Dorians, as it would strengthen the army. Finally, Greek homosexual myth usually told of an initiation, and this is how homosexuality was passed down into Greek culture, as a means of helping educate young boys and initiate them into the world of adults—at which point their lives as eromenos also ended. Homosexual behaviour appeared throughout the development of the Greek world, and though it and public opinion evolved over time, it always retained these core concepts, remaining as they appeared in the Greeks’ mythology.

Footnotes
Works Cited

Mythology, Sexuality , , , , , , , ,

3 comments


  1. Well researched and written. Congrats. We like this essay! We have linked. let me know if I’ve stolen too much and I will reduce the extract! xhomoresistx

  2. Hi! I’m trying to track down where “Achilles once asks the gods to rid the world of all humanity but him and Patroclus.” You have it listed as footnote 39, but the footnote link isn’t working. Would love to find out where it is – Colin Spencer in “Homosexuality In History” pg. 41 says it’s in Book XVI, but doesn’t give a line number. It’s evidently a line left out of the version by Aristarchus of Samothrace, and I’m trying to track it down. Thanks! Lee

    • Hi Lee! Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the month-late reply =/ Thanks for the heads up on the footnotes not working.

      I checked it out, and my footnote just reads, “Homer, Iliad, XVI. According to Sergent, these lines are not always included in translations.” Which means I didn’t personally seek out the reference myself (there’s lazy researching for you).

      In my copy of Iliad (trans. Robert Fitzgerald), lines 15-19 read:
      “Ah, Father Zeus, Athena, and Apollo!
      If not one Trojan of them all
      should get away from death, and not one Argive
      save ourselves were spared, we two alone
      could pull down Troy’s old coronet of towers!”

      Could be what the note is referring to, though obviously it’s a little specious to say that’s an invocation of love.

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