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Laius and Chrysippus

Laius, the king of Thebes, was said by many to have been the first mortal to bring the practice of the love of youths to the Greeks, yet others credit king Minos of Crete. What we know for sure is that while he was still too young to rule, his cousins, Amphion and Zethus, grabbed the reins of power. With the help of loyal subjects Laius fled Thebes to save his life, and sought refuge in Pisa, a neighboring kingdom. There King Pelops welcomed him warmly in his castle. When Laius reached manhood, Pelops entrusted his son, Chrysippus, ‘Golden Horse,' to him so that he would teach the boy the charioteer's art. The king loved Chrysippus best of all his sons, and wanted him well trained in the arts of war. Laius did as he was asked, but fell hopelessly in love with the beautiful youth. During the Nemean games, in which the pair competed in the chariot races, Laius kidnapped the boy. By then Amphion and Zethus had met with misfortune, so he was able to take him back to Thebes where he kept Chrysippus, by force, as his lover. It was not as if he did not know what he was doing. "I have understanding," he used to say lamely by way of excuse, "but nature forces me."

Laius Kidnapping Chrysippus; 4th c. Apulian volute krater (wine mixing bowl); The Getty, Malibu
Laius Kidnapping Chrysippus

The young man did not live long thereafter. Some say that he killed himself in shame for having been taken against his will, but others blame Pelops' wife, Hippodameia, ‘Horse Tamer.' They say that she was afraid Pelops would appoint Chrysippus successor to the throne, over the heads of Atreus and Thyestes, her own children. So she traveled to Thebes with her boys to eliminate the threat. Once there she tried to persuade her sons to murder the youth by drowning him in a well, but they backed down. Enraged, Hippodameia burst into Laius's bedchamber in the middle of the night, where both were sleeping. She took his sword off the wall, and plunged it into the belly of his unwilling lover. Laius was immediately accused of the deed, but Chrysippus had recognized Hippodameia as she fled (on her way to take her own life), and with his last breath declared the king innocent. Nonetheless Atreus and Thyestes took over the kingdom and threw Laius in a dungeon for taking the boy without his consent, an offense which became known in all of Greece as "the crime of Laius."

In the mean time Pelops had gathered his army and marched against Thebes to recover his son. Upon reaching Laius's court he found the king already imprisoned and his son dead. The father, though deeply aggrieved for having arrived too late, spared Laius' life, recognizing that it was overwhelming desire that had driven him to abduct the boy. Nevertheless he put a bitter and terrible curse on Laius, one that was to spread like a darkling cloud over him and his descendants, down to the third generation. The god Apollo, protector of youths and boys, warned him well what would happen: "No son are you to have," said Apollo's oracle at Delphi to Laius when he came to inquire why his wife had borne him no children, "for if you do, that boy will kill his own father and sleep with his own mother." But Laius, always driven by passion more than by reason, of course disobeyed, and payed the price with his life. And his son, Oedipus by name, paid more dearly still.

Comments on the Concepts of Gay and Homosexual:

The book The Gay Greek Myths restores the homosexual and homoerotic content of the Greek myths. But Gay Greek Myths, indeed "gay mythology" in general, is a misnomer. "Gay" as a sexual identity is a recent development, emerging only in the 20th Century and 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. In the time of the Greeks there was no such identity as gay - or straight - and they did not compartmentalize their sexuality into homosexual and heterosexual. Their homosexual passions were part of their erotic expression as sexual beings. They would not have considered their love for boys as gay or homosexual, as separate from other sexual expressions, and the worth of the relationship was judged not by the gender of the person one loved, but by its results. Nevertheless, throughout this site you will see the use of the words gay, homosexual and homosexuality when referring to ancient practices. Indeed this very section is titled "Homosexual Greek Myths." This is done for practical purposes, so we can easily describe the sexual relations of the ancients with familiar vocabulary. Things, however, were much more complex then the words might indicate.

Mythographer's Comments

These Greek myths are based quite closely on ancient fragments, materials until now passed over by modern mythographers. The sources range from poets to historians to playwrights and early Christian polemicists. Thus the form of the stories should be seen as a late one, incorporating in many cases Roman sensibilities.

Of course there has never been any one "true" version of any of these stories, as they were told and retold over a span of at least two thousand years across a region ranging across three continents, from the Black Sea to the shores of North Africa, an area now occupied by such countries as Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and others. Nonetheless, the myths collectively reflect a world view in which male love was wholly compatible with living life in a sacred way, a path to heroism and divinity.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Editorial Board, World History of Male Love, "Greek Mythology", Laius and Chrysippus, 1999 <>

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