In his introduction to Edward FitzGeralds
famous adaptation of Omar Khayyams Rubáiyát,
the editor remarks that:
FitzGerald (1809-1883) found
himself a homosexual in a society that, while it admired and
respected a civilization [that of classical Athens] that gloried
in, and boasted of, its homosexuality, itself found the behaviour
so offensive as to be virtually unmentionable.
Despite some progress in
this matter since the Victorian age, it still does not seem that
the full extent and importance of homosexual love in classical Athens
and throughout all of ancient Greece is common knowledge today.
Indeed, knowledge of male love may be even rarer than it was in FitzGeralds
time, since classical studies are no longer presented in most
schools, and in the universities the subject attracts only the
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It is important in the beginning to define our vocabulary. The
term homosexuality as it is used and understood today
is not applicable to Greek antiquity for three reasons: First of
all, most Greeks were bisexual. Second, homosexuality and 'gay' as sexual identities are recent developments, emerging only in the 2Oth Century (our idea of what it means to be gay or a homosexual has largely been influenced by recent gay activism and the emergence of gay rights on the cultural landscape). Last, and most important of all, passion and erotic love
between two adult men (the model for modern gay relationships), was generally
considered unusual and held up to ridicule. Homosexual love in Greece
was love between a man and a boy.
with all else, there were exceptions, such as the well known
relationship between Alexander the Great
and his boyhood friend Hephaiston, or the one between the
mythical hero of the Trojan war, Achilles, and his best
friend and lover, Patroklos. These love affairs fit the pattern of gay relationships today. However, the relationship that
was characteristic of the Greek way of life, accepted or even
regarded as a social duty by the state, was intergenerational
male love. In its ideal form this bond was between a man (called the
erastes [lover] in Athens, or the inspirer
in Sparta) and an adolescent youth (called the eromenos
[beloved], or the hearer, respectively). It bears
saying here that opinions even then were divided, with a lively debate going
on between proponents and opponents of homosexual love.
The Greek word for homosexual love between a man and a youth
was paiderastia (hence pederasty), derived from pais,
boy, and eran, to love, meaning emotional and sensual
affection for a pais. A common synonym for beloved boys
in Greek writings is ta paidika, the boyish.
The youths who attracted mens attentions ranged in age
from adolescence to early manhood, as can be seen from the images
that have come down to us on Greek pottery and sculpture.
Relationships with overly young boys were frowned upon then as
they are now (though some Greek beloved youths would have fallen
below the age of consent in many modern countries), one mark
of a beloved ripe for a mans attentions being the ability
to think for himself.
The Greek male was expected
not only to marry and raise children, but also to be available
for friendship and homosexual love affairs with worthy youths, not to the exclusion
of marriage but as its necessary complement. Thus his destined
path through the garden of love would begin some time in adolescence
when the boy was courted by many men and would choose one to be his
lover. This homosexual relationship would continue till early adulthood when he'd begin
courting and winning the love of a deserving youth of his own. Then
it would expand to include taking a wife and having children. (Of course there were countless variations on this
theme, some noble and others sordid, just as it is with us today
in our love life.) This variety of life was reflected in the
deep well of time, the ancient sacred myths
on which were based the archetypes of human life and self-knowledge.
Greeks were familiar with the tales of male love: Zeus descending as an
eagle to carry off Ganymede, the most beautiful boy on Earth,
to be his lover on Mount Olympus, of Apollo and Hyacinths
ill fated love, and of many other such passionate friendships
between gods or heroes and handsome youths. Among the Greeks,
this love did more than dare speak its name, it fairly shouted
it from the rooftops. It was one of the fundamental traditions
of Greek life, one practised and enjoyed to the fullest. Indeed,
it was a social must which no poet, no philosopher, no artist
disdained to explore. It was discussed in public as a matter
of course and included in the reflections of the greatest minds.
That a man should be attracted
both to lovely women and to beardless boys was seen as natural
and normal. It was also accepted that some men would lean more
towards one, and some towards the other. However, young males
were considered the fair sex par excellence; the Greek ideal
of beauty was embodied by the young man, a fact evident in all
of Greek literature and art from first beginnings to last examples.
examined the question of which kind of love was preferable, and
often the love of youths won out. Apart from purely scientific
texts there was hardly a work in which juvenile male beauty was
not praised, from casual asides to richly embroidered descriptions.
The extent to which the youth was the paragon of beauty can be
seen in the arts, where even girls were often represented with
boyish traits. Furthermore,a great deal of pottery depicting
youths has been found, often inscribed with the epithet kalos
(the masculine form of beautiful), while pictures of girls and
the feminine kale are rare. Even he great sculptor Phidias
payed homage to his beloved by carving kalos Pantarkes
on a finger of the colossal statue of Zeus at Olympia.
Besides their physical charm,
boys were also valued for their minds, held to be especially
capable of reason and debate and therefore meant to be cultivated.
Thus homosexual love was the driving force not only of the sexual
but also of the pedagogic side of Greek pederasty. Ancient culture
was male oriented through and through. To the Greek man, his
spouse counted mostly as mother of his children and keeper of
his household. With very few exceptions women (and wives in
particular) were excluded from intellectual and public life.
Girls were considered capable only of chitchat, and unworthy
of education. Only hetairas, a class of entertainers
/ courtesans who were not charged with domestic responsibilities,
could enter the political and philosophic arenas. Thus, the intellectual
development of most girls was neglected, while the right upbringing
of boys was given the highest importance.
aim of the Greek educational system, the paideia, was summed
up by the words: kalos kagathos, beautiful
and good, meaning that beauty of body and goodness of soul
were the essence of human i.e. male perfection. Homosexual love between
men and youths striving together to develop these virtues was
seen as the most effective way to cultivate that ideal. It was
said that even Herakles (Hercules) could perform his mighty deeds
with more ease when his beloved Iolaos watched him.
It was in commemoration of their union that the Iolaeia,
gymnastic and equestrian games, were celebrated in Thebes.