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.

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