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Greco-Roman mythos paves a long road of LGBTQ+ History

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

Happy Pride! Let's read some ancient myths, shall we?

As knowledge of art history enters the mainstream little by little, the understanding of queer relationships and their historical significance has risen in interest to both historians and activists alike. Many closeted individuals and allies, too, seek to learn the story of a taboo topic that directly pertains to a slowly progressing world. However, with the 3 famous Greco-Roman period myths discussed today, it appears that human beings have always loved the same, and will continue evermore.

Achilles and Patroclus

Achilles Binding Patroclus’ Wounds painted on a Kylix vase by a Sosias painter in Greece (500 BCE). img. src.

Achilles and Patroclus, a celebrated duo famous in Greek literature first appeared in Homer's Iliad. Achilles was a warrior that possessed superhuman strength, with his heel being his only weakness. He fought in the Trojan War alongside Patroclus, a companion delegated by his father.

The two developed a pederastic relationship, a term referring to a romantic or sexual relationship between two men—one younger and another older—most common in ancient Greek and Roman cultures. When Patroclus dies in battle, he becomes Achilles' resolve to win the war and seek revenge on Patroclus' killer Hector, a prince of Troy. Although Achilles does not survive the Trojan War, as he was defeated by Paris' arrow, he kills Hector, fulfilling his wish to avenge his lover.

Achilles' deep affection for Patroclus remains a popular concept in queer history and Greek lore.

Iphis and Ianthe

Literature and Painting by Angelica Kauffman (1782). Though unconfirmed, some suggest this scene references the story of Iphis and Ianthe. img. src.

The tale of Iphis and Ianthe appears in the seventh fable of Ovid's Metamorphoses, a saga of Greco-Roman fables written in early Imperial Rome.

Ligdus and Telethusa, an expecting couple, face a conflict: Ligdus vows to kill their child should they be born female, as he believes only a son would be strong enough to support their family. Telethusa attempts to refute him, but Ligdus remains insistent. One night, ancient Egyptian gods Isis, Osiris, Anubis, Bubastis, and Apis arrive at her bedside and offer to save her child with a plan. They advise she raise her child as male, regardless of sex. Accepting the gods' counsel, Telethusa gives birth to a daughter but tells Ligdus that he has a son. Ligdus names the child Iphis, a unisex name.

As Iphis aged, they developed an androgynous appearance and soon became betrothed to their childhood friend, a beautiful young woman named Ianthe. The two loved one another dearly, but Iphis had not yet revealed their secret. Riddled with dread, Iphis feared that romance between two women was unacceptable in the eyes of others.

As their wedding day approached, Telethusa brought Iphis to a temple and prayed to the goddess Isis to aid her daughter and relieve her burden once more, and upon leaving the temple Isis answered her prayer. Iphis's appearance changed: their hair shortened, features hardened, and their gait widened. By a miracle, Iphis had transformed into a man. The couple happily married the next day.

This story not only proposed a potentially lesbian relationship but includes aspects of gender non-conformity or fluidity and gender transformation. One of the most impactful Roman fables explored by researchers and readers, this tale continues to carry its meaning into the modern era.

Apollo and Hyacinthus

The Death of Hyacinth by Alexandre Kisseliov (1801) depicts the dying Hyacinthus with Apollo at his side. img. src.

In the tenth part of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the legend of Hyacinth and Apollo tells a short story of the beautiful Spartan warrior Hyacinthus, beloved by the god Apollo. This story includes an original version and an embellishment widely accepted as its alternate version.

As the two lovers, Apollo and Hyacinthus, were one day throwing the discus, Apollo threw his disc and Hyacinthus ran to catch it. However, the disc missed his hands and struck his head, killing him. Apollo desperately attempts to revive the boy with his healing powers, but his abilities were simply not enough. Overcome with sorrow, the god summoned flowers to bloom from spots of Hyacinthus' blood, the flowers known today as larkspur.

Another version of the story includes references to another immortal figure, Zephyrus, the west wind. Zephyrus, jealous of Apollo's love for Hyacinthus, redirects the path of Apollo's disc, causing it to strike the youth in the head. Though now a classic trope, this version falls in line with common descriptions of gods' behaviors, particularly when feuding, in ancient literature. The dangerous nature of the gods and their desires often leads to mortal suffering.

Few other details such as how the pair met, how they lived, and whether the meaning of the story extended beyond a captured moment in time, exist. However, alone, the tale remains one of the more obscure yet tragic depictions of homosexual relationships in Greco-Roman mythos.

Contextualizing Sexuality in Ancient Mythology

As described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there exists a black-and-white perception of sexuality that, in some ancient cultures, bore no meaning. "The ancient Greeks did not have terms or concepts that correspond to the contemporary dichotomy of ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’." Across regions, there were sometimes distinctions in which non-heteronormative types of eros were prohibited, but in others, such relationships were celebrated. Despite regional differences, the overarching view of sexual orientation by Greek authors was that beauty (or attraction) was not distinguished or defined by sex. In these sources, it may be surprising that the assumption of heterosexuality was very uncommon in ancient Greece. Most individuals would not have an exclusive interest in one gender, opting to rather pursue individuals based on preferences such as "beauty or character," their tastes generally uninfluenced by morals. By current definition, many ancient Greeks would be considered bisexual, pansexual, or demisexual.

Before the prevalence of Christianity and increasing disapproval of same-sex relationships in Imperial Rome, under the earlier Republic Roman interpretations of homosexuality were much the same as Greek. However, as Rome continued to change leadership from empires to barbarian tribes and kingdoms to Catholic occupation, acceptance of sexuality fluctuated by century.

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