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Fifty Shades of Greece

Ever wondered about the sexual lives of the Greek people ? Fret not because we've got you covered. 

In Ancient Greece, arranged marriages was a common practice, with the goal of such unions serving the purpose of procreation rather than love. As such, it was normal for men to seek alternative means to satisfy their sexual desires. A common means was pederasty, which was prevalent during the 5th Century BCE throughout Greece according to Greek Homosexuality by James Dover (Postscript, pp205). The relationship was usually formed between an adult man known as erastes(lover) and a boy known as eromenos(beloved).The prevalence and nature of pederastic relationships is integral to understanding homosexuality in Ancient Greece.

EROTIC, CHAOTIC, DRAMATIC

We bet you’ve all heard of Zeus, even if you may not know exactly who he is. Well, if you already knew who Zeus is, you’re still in for a treat because the number of people he slept with and the measures he took to achieve his amorous desires will serve as an eye-opener for you!

WHO ON EARTH IS ZEUS?

Well, technically, he isn’t on earth because he is the Greek god of sky! Not only that, he also ruled as the King of the Olympus gods after disposing his father, Cronus. Zeus was seen as unfaithful as he was notorious for sleeping around. However, most of his romantic pursuits weren’t consensual. He had the habit of transforming himself into animals to rape the women he was attracted to!

Statue of Zeus. By Riccardo Botta / EyeEm via Getty Images

THE SEVEN OFFICIAL MARRIAGES

Zeus’ official wife and queen was his sister, Hera, the goddess of marriage. He succeeded in bestowing that title upon her when he violated her in his real form after disguising himself as an injured cuckoo to receive Hera’s pity. Truly embarrassed by this incident, Hera had no choice but to wed Zeus to mask her shame.

Hera was notorious for her jealous and vengeful nature (also known as Hera’s wrath). She was always seen meddling in Zeus’ countless affairs and exacting revenge on her love rivals. In fact, Hephaestus, one of Hera's offspring, was her virgin-born child whom she bore in a fit of anger as she could not stand watching Zeus sleep around with other women!

Greek Gods Zeus and Hera were the rulers of Olympus. Their roman equivalents are Jupiter and Juno, By Cristian Baitg via Getty Images

Zeus’ first wife, Metis, the goddess of wisdom did not share a long union with him. Threatened by the knowledge of being overthrown by a second child, Zeus tricked Metis into turning herself into a fly and swallowed her before the birth of their firstborn, Athena. Nine months after swallowing Metis, Zeus had a terrible headache and ordered to have his forehead split open with an axe, from which Athena sprang out. (“The Goddess Athena”, loc. 16-19) Fun fact: Zeus became wiser after swallowing Metis and it was said that the goddess of wisdom was giving him advice from his tummy!

After Zeus’ marriage with Metis ended with her in his stomach, he married Themis and they had several children. Zeus also fathered the Three Graces with his third wife, Eurynome.

Zeus wanted it all, family or not. In fact, before Zeus wedded Hera, the sister he was first attracted to was Demeter! Despite Demeter’s resistance, Zeus successfully violated her by disguising himself as a bull. Zeus’ next wife was his aunt, Mnemosyne, who gave birth to the nine Muses after she slept with him for nine solid nights.

Zeus wedded Hera while his sixth wife, Leto, was pregnant with his child. Hera was incredibly jealous of Leto hence she gave Leto an incredibly hard time during her pregnancy. Thankfully, Leto managed to birth two children who grew up fast and protected their mother.

THE AFFAIRS

Aside from his marriages, Zeus had numerous affairs as well. In fact, he also slept with our Mother Earth, Gaia! Gaia was his grandmother and they bore two children together.

Zeus’ taste in women was far from exclusive. Divine or mortal, Zeus was unstoppable (imagine Hera’s rage). Zeus had an affair with a mortal woman, Semele, and when Hera came to know of this affair, she disguised herself before Semele and convinced her to ask Zeus to present himself in the same grandeur that he would before Hera. Zeus granted Semele’s wish although it meant her death as she was a mortal incapable of withstanding the grandeur in which Zeus appeared. 

Hera’s wrath also extended to another mortal whom Zeus had an affair with — Io, who was well-known for her long persecution by Hera. Zeus seduced Io under a cloud to prevent Hera from finding out. Fun fact: Io was a priestess at one of Hera’s temples so if Zeus and Io were caught red-handed in bed, Io would be damned! Zeus turned Io into a cow before Hera confronted him about the two of them. However, he was outsmarted by Hera as she knew that the cow was Io and demanded Zeus to gift it to her. When Zeus asked for Io to be delivered back to him, Hera sent a gadfly (no, not Socrates!) to chase after Io who was still in her cow form. Io ultimately escaped the clutches of Hera and the gadfly at Nile, where she transformed back to human form and gave birth to Zeus’ son.

The famous Helen of Troy was also fathered by Zeus when he visited Leda in the form of a swan which resulted in Leda giving birth to an egg from which came Helen and her twin, Clytemnestra. However, the exact paternity of Helen and Clytemnestra was questionable as Leda slept with a mortal man shortly after she was visited by Zeus. Leda also had another pair of twins who were supposedly fathered by the mortal man. Well, they didn't have the technology to run a DNA test back then!

 

THE MALE LOVER

Homosexuality wasn’t uncommon among the Greeks as we’ve discussed in class. Zeus’ erotic escapades certainly weren’t restricted to the female gender only! He was attracted to Ganymede, a Troy Prince and had him abducted to Olympus to serve as a cupbearer to the gods. Although not many cultures today approve of such behaviour, the Greeks practiced pederastyAs such, even though Zeus was perceived as being lustful and lecherous by raping women repeatedly, he assumed a more mature and responsible role of a mentor when he introduced an innocent boy into the ways of adult society. *Click here for more information on pederasty!

Zeus’ amorous escapades were difficult to track. Apart from his numerous erotic and incestuous relationships, he also had many children whose mothers were unknown, hence the genealogy of the gods could be really confusing and baffling! Oh well, guess we just have to . . .

via GIPHY

Guess what our post is about!

Let’s play a little game. We will describe a scene and you will guess what topic our final blog post is going to be about! Game on!  

It is the year 1964. Ahmed Moussa, an Egyptologist, has just discovered the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum who had been ancient royal servants in an ancient cemetery. In the Palace of King Niuserre during the 5th Dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs, both Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum had shared the title of Overseer of the Manicurists and as a result, had been buried in their joint tomb. However, was that the only reason? A close inspection of all the tombs in the ancient cemetery showed that this was the only tomb that had images of men embracing and holding hands!

 

Another interesting tidbit would be the names of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum. Khnumhotep means “joined to the blessed state of the dead” while Niankhkhnum means “joined to life”. A combination of their names therefore, bring about the meaning of “joined in life and joined in death”. They had worked together in life and had been united in death as well. How romantic! Within the tomb, these two men are also depicted in an embracing posture while their noses are touching (which is basically a kiss in ancient Egypt). This is actually the most intimate pose that one can find on Egyptian art!

 

So, have you guessed what we are going to be talking about?

It is about homosexuality in ancient civilisations! As years have gone by, homosexuality has been an increasingly controversial topic that has been debated on a global level. Although the term “homosexuality” had only been invented in the 19th century, homosexual behavior exists in all cultures and has existed in all periods in history. Even in one of our UGC111 classes in the first half of the semester about Greece, homosexuality had been briefly mentioned as something that was the norm amongst men who sought after each other for companionship. Therefore, we decided that we shall expand on that topic and shed more knowledge about homosexuality in Greece.

 

Fun fact: Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are seen as the first homosexual couple known to mankind!

 

The Ancient view

In Ancient civilisations, homosexual sex had been seen as innocent and safe if it was consensual. Similar to sex between heterosexuals, it was viewed as a symbol of love.

 

Greece

As we had learned in class, men in Greece had seeked companionship with other men which could have been either a friendship or a romantic relationship. However, did you know that there was another term given to homosexuality? “Paiderastia” which meant “boy love” when it had been directly translated was the most common form of homosexual relationship between humans seen in Greece. This was a relationship between two males - one is normally an adult, while another is an adolescent. Slightly disturbing, isn’t it?

 

You may now begin to wonder, ''What was the reason behind this pederasty?'' To give you some context about when this had started, it was actually before the rise of poleis in ancient Greece. The Greeks had been organised according to age groups into different tribal communities and as each male progressed from one age group to the next, he was accompanied by an older man for some time in order to smoothen the transition between age groups which was seen as a rite of passage. The older man would educate his youth about the ways of the Greek life and the responsibilities of adulthood which over time, evolved into pederasty.

 

The rise of poleis further elevated pederasty as instead of leaving the confines of their community, boys began to pair up with older men within their polis who played the usual educational and instructional role that they used to in the tribal communities while sharing a sexual relationship with these boys. You will be relieved to know that this had an age limit; boys had to be above 12. However, no evidence of legal punishments for engaging with boys younger than 12 can be found either. These relationships normally lasted from when a boy was 12 to when he was 17 as males were considered adult men when there is widespread growth of body hair. In Ancient Greece, men who adopted the passive role within a homosexual relationship were often stigmatised and feminised within society and even shamed! Examples of such relationships would be Pausanias of Athens and the tragic poet Agathon as well as Alexander of Macedon and his childhood friend, Hephaestion.

 

Art in ancient Greece also reflected homosexuality. A female poet, Sappho, from the Island of Lesbos had written almost 12,000 lines of love poetry to women and girls and in some cases, her love had not been requited. Sappho and her island have, therefore, become the emblem of love between women, hence, the term ''lesbians''.

Some of you curious readers may like to find out more about homosexuality in other ancient civilisations as well! Other ancient civilisations include Ancient Rome, Ancient Persia, Medieval Europe and Ancient China.

 

Kiki, Shankari, Siti Hafizah

Greek, Gay and... Proud?

In today’s society, many people find the idea of homosexuality repulsive and reject the romantic relationships between two same-sex individuals. Travel back in time to Ancient Greece, however, and you will be greeted with a different reaction where homosexuality was embraced as a social norm. In Greek, there is no two separate terms for sexual preference and both heterosexual and homosexual love were part of aphrodisia (love). In fact, the term “homosexual” was only invented in the late 19th century by Hungarian-born Karl-Maria Kertbeny.

Although intimate relationships between females did exist in Ancient Greece, the homosexual relationship between men was more prevalent and widespread. As mentioned in lecture, women in Ancient Greece, especially Athens, did not experience the freedom we have today and were largely viewed as inferior to the Greek men.

The idea of Platonic loveknown as love without sexual desire, first came from the Greek philosopher, Plato. Plato first described two types of love in his dialogue, Symposium. The first type was the attraction towards another person for physical pleasure and reproduction while the second was the love for another because of their intelligence or virtue. The former can be used to describe the sexual relationships that men in Ancient Greece had with their wives while the latter is observed in men seeking the companionship of other males who were intellectually equal, due to the limited role women played in Ancient Greek society.

Plato's Symposium, depiction by Anselm Feuerbach

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The XY Chromosomes

Before diving into specific examples of Greek homosexuality, here is some background information on the male-male relationship in Ancient Greece. Pederasty, which means “love of boys” in Greek, was the largely socially acknowledged relationship between an erastes (adult male) and an eromenos (adolescent male). Before anyone pulls a face of disgust at this seemingly paedophilic behavior, please continue reading on. 

Rather than simply being lovers, pederasty served as an ideal mentor-mentee relationship. The age difference between the erastes and eromenos is vital because the older, more knowledgeable male had the responsibility of teaching his younger partner important aspects like politics and military. This enables the eromenos to attain helpful skills while under the care of the erastes and eventually become a fully-functioning member of the Greek society.

For example, The Sacred Band of Thebes was a Ancient Greek military unit famous for being made entirely up of male lovers. In today’s military forces, homosexual relationships are frowned upon but for this elite unit, the deep relationship between lovers was seen as a military advantage because lovers were willing to endanger themselves for one another. This was exactly what led to their numerous victories in the battlefield, making them a force to be reckoned with despite being a small unit.

The Naked Workout

You might have heard about sleeping in the nude, but what about exercising naked? That’s right, male athletes in Ancient Greece used to train and compete naked in gymnasiums. In fact, the word ‘gymnasium’ is derived from a Greek term ‘gymnos, which means naked. The classical Greeks had no qualms about openly displaying their admiration for the bodies of others and thus, it should not be surprising to know that pederastic scenes in visual arts were often situated in the gymnasium.

Example of a pederastic scene in a gymnasium

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Pederasty in Greek Literature

Pederasty was often seen in Greek mythology too whereby the Greek gods were known to have male lovers too. Apollo, Greek god of the Sun, was known for having many male lovers. One of his lovers was Hyacinthus, a Spartan prince. According to Greek mythology, the two were practicing throwing the discus when the jealous Zephyrus disrupts the path of a discus, which hits Hyacinthus and kills him. Apollo was said to be so filled with grief that he created a flower out of Hyacinthus’ blood and named it after him in memorial of his death.

(Apollo and Hyacinthus, by Jacopo Caraglio)

Hyacinthus

Poseidon was yet another god with a male lover. In the story of Tantalus and the Olympians, Poseidon took Pelops, Tantalus’ son, as his “lover and beloved”. Poseidon often took Pelops out on his golden chariot and taught him how to control the winged horses that flew the chariot. Poseidon loved him so much that he made Pelops immortal.

This signaled to the Greeks that what was acceptable for the gods was also acceptable for mortals. One famous male-male mortal relationship in Greek history is that of Achilles and Patroclus, as portrayed in the Iliad. Although there is debate as to whether the two were lovers or not, there is no doubt that they had a deep and meaningful friendship, so much that Patroclus’ death was the key driving force for Achilles’ return to battle with the sole purpose of avenging his death by killing Patroclus’ killer, despite the gods’ warning that he may lose his life. Their willingness to put themselves in danger for each other was archetypal of the male bond seen in Ancient Greece.

Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, depiction by Nikolai Ge

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