History

This ancient gay love story was once as popular as our Romeo and Juliet    

We’ve all heard the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet but did you know that a queer love story was just as popular in archaic Greece?

I’m talking about the love affair between Patroclus and Achilles, whose friendship was established in Homer’s epic poem the “Iliad” but was immortalized as a homoerotic relationship by the ancient playwright, Aeschylus. Only fragments from Aeschylus’ once massively popular tragedy survive but his portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is indisputably romantic. In his three-part series titled, “Achilleis,” Aeschylus wrote about the life and love of Greek mythological hero, Achilles.

achilles_and_patroclus_by_wjsolha.jpg
Artist credit:  https://goo.gl/JXFbN5

For those of you unfamiliar with Homer’s “Iliad”, Achilles was prophesized to either die a hero in battle or live a long, uneventful life. Ultimately, Achilles decides to become a soldier and fights in the Trojan War with his best friend, Patroclus. Sadly, Patroclus is slain by Trojan Prince, Hector, and Achilles goes wild with grief. He beats his chest, smudges ashes on his head and acts like a recent widow. Motivated by sadness and, despite being warned that pursuing vengeance will result in his own death, Achilles murders Hector.

In “Myrmindons”, the first installment of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship differs from the “Iliad” because it’s made to be explicitly sexual.

An example of this blatant eroticism can be seen after Achilles finds Patroclus’ body stripped naked on the battlefield by the Trojans. Achilles laments his dead lover by saying, “Had you no reverence for the unsullied holiness of your thighs/ Ungrateful for the many kisses I gave you?” (Can’t get much gayer than that).

It’s important to understand that these plays of Aeschylus were so popular that the content was considered common knowledge even a hundred years later. To put that in context, the Great Gatsby was published just under a hundred years ago and most people  in modern society are aware of the book’s plot. In fact, Aeschylus’ rendition and interpretation of Homer’s epic poem was nearly universally accepted or recognized in ancient Greece.

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History

A history of same sex love: Greeks (1)

When I was 23-years-old I handed my mother a 13-page coming out letter. This letter read like a dissertation and I’m honestly shocked I didn’t include citations or a bibliography. It was structured linearly and I proceeded to argue my case for being a lesbian. I’m talking biblical references, well-developed ethical arguments (with counter-points and rebuttals), appeals to ethos, pathos and logos AND academic quotes. [Is it obvious I had just completed my first argument course?]

Needless to say, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (diagnosed) and an insatiable desire to learn.

Prior to coming out, this led me on a quest to consume as much information about homosexuality as humanly possible. I would like to share this information in case another could benefit from my extensive research when coming out to his/her/ their family.

I found a historical understanding of homosexuality to be especially important when conversing with people who claim it is “unnatural” or the byproduct of a liberal agenda.

Here are some facts about homosexual activity (the Greeks did not have a word for homosexuality as we understand it today) in parts of ancient Greece.

  • Pederasty was an important part of Greek culture where an older man (erastes) would teach a younger, most likely teenaged, man (the eromenos) all about politics, war, sex and essentials to becoming an ideal citizen
  • Homosexual activity is extremely common among the Olympian male gods
    • In fact, all primary male gods on Olympus had homosexual relationships attributed to them with the exception of Ares (the god of war)
      • Zeus kidnapped the beautiful Ganymede to be his lover and cup-bearer on Mount Olympus, Poseidon took Pelops, the king of Pisa, as his lover, Apollo is linked to several men but most notably the Macedonian Prince Hyakinthos, who was killed after catching a discus and Apollo turned him into the hyacinth flower.
        • Hercules, Dionysus, Hermes and Pan also enjoyed the company of men
      • Poets constantly wrote about same-sex love, attraction and affection. These included
      • Greek political leaders had consequential instances of homoerotic passions
        • Athens: Solon, Peisistratus, Hippias, Hipparchus, Themistocles, Aristides, Critias, Demosthenes, and Aeschines
        • Sparta: Pausanias, Lysander, and Agesilaus
        • Samos: Polycrates
        • Syracuse: Hieron and Agathocles
        • Thebes: Epaminondas and Pelopidas
        • Macedon: Archelaus, Philip II, and Alexander
      • Socrates, Plato and Xenophon spoke or wrote about the power of love between men (albeit denying physical expression of this love)
      • Stoics, or people who ascribe to self-control as a means of overcoming emotions, such as Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus lauded boy love
      • Phidias’s love for Pantarces was memorialized in marble.
      • In Plato’s Symposium, the character Phaedrus praises the “male eros.”
        • “For I know not any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning life than a virtuous lover, or to a lover than a beloved youth. For the principle that ought to be the guide of men who would nobly live—that principle, I say, neither kindred, nor honor, nor wealth, nor any other motive is able to implant so well as love.”

Many biographers and historians believe that, in Greek culture, “not to have had a male lover seems to have bespoken a lack of character or a deficiency in sensibility”. However, as time progressed the “sin” of the ancient Greeks was widely condemned. In fact, homosexuality became “the sin not even to be mentioned among Christians.” If it had to be mentioned it was limited to legal treaties or discussions of moral theology.

Why was there such a distinct and sharp change? I don’t have an answer yet but we’re on a mission to keep learning and discovering.

Ps the majority of this information comes from this book. I highly recommend purchasing it.