SEX. LOVE AND HOMOSEXUALITY IN ANCIENT GREECE

SEX IN ANCIENT GREECE

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The Greeks gave sexual matters a fair amount of attention. Men raised monuments to their genitalia and had sex with the sons of their friends. Some had slave lovers. Naughty images were featured on vases and drinking cups. Sexual themes were common in Greek drama and actors routinely wore conspicuously short costumes with massive woolen phalluses hanging out the bottom. The word "ecstacy comes from the Greek word ekstasis , which means to "stand forth naked."

The Greek gods realized that sex was the driving force behind all things. According to Herodotus, “the Athenians were first to make statues of Hermes with an erect phallus. Hippocrates was one of the first to advise men to preserve their semen to boost vitality. The Greek poet Hero wrote in the 4th century B.C. that a man's sex drive decreases in the late summer when "goats are the fattest" and "the wine tastes best."

The Greeks believed that the root of purple-flowered mandrake was an aphrodisiac. The root is shaped like a pair of human legs. The Romans and Greeks regarded garlic and leeks as aphrodisiacs. Truffles, artichokes and oysters were also associated with sexuality. Anise-tasting fennel was popular with Greeks who thought it made a man strong. Romans thought it improved eyesight.

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Actor
Ray Tannahill wrote in the History of Sex : "Masturbation, to the Greeks, was not a vice but a safety valve, and there are numerous literary references to it...Miletus, a wealthy commercial city on the coast of Asia Minor, was the manufacturing and exporting center of what the Greeks called the olisbos , and later generations, less euphoniously, the dildo...The imitation penis appears in Greek times to have been made either of wood or pressed leather and had to be liberally anointed with olive oil before use...Among the literary relics of the third century B.C., there is a short play consisting of a dialogue between two young women, Metro and Coritto, which begins with Metro trying to borrow Coritto's dildo. Coritto, unfortunately, his lent it to someone else, who has in turn lent it to another friend."

For women sex was used as a form of power. In Aristophanes’s Lysieria the heroine leads the women of Athens in a sex strike in which wives refuse to sleep with their husbands to get even with the dominate male class. The strike paralyzes the city and the women seize the Acropolis and the treasure of the Parthenon. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Book: Courtesand and Fishcakes: the Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson (St. Martins Press, 1998)

Sex, Religion. Literature and Drama

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Silenus
Greek pilgrims used visit a temple dedicated to Aphrodite's son Eryx and a cavorted with prostitute-priestesses.

The Greek creation story emphasizes the creation of gods not the creation of the Earth and has a lot of sex in it. The Greeks believed that love and sex existed at the beginning of creation along with the Earth, the heavens, and the Underworld . Chaos, apparently the first Greek celestial being, was a goddess who beget "Gaia, the broad-breasted" and "Eros, the fairest of the deathless gods." Chaos also gave birth to Erebos and black Night. These two offspring mated and gave birth to Ether and Day. They in turn gave birth to the Titans.

The Titans existed before the gods. They were the sons of the heaven and earth. Cronus , the father of Zeus was one of the Titans. He castrated his father, Uranus, and out his blood emerged the Furies, the Giants and the Nymphs from the Ash Trees. Aphrodite arose from the discarded genitals. The god's lovemaking positions were also a little weird. Tartarus, the goddess of the Underworld , made love with Typhoeus while he was one her shoulders with his hundred snake heads "licking black tongues darting forth." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Ancient Greek literature is filled with sex, violence and scandal. Some of the most famous works by Aristophanes---including The Birds , Lysistrata and especially Women at the Thesmoporia “are filled with obscenities and sexual innuendos. The reasons why some of the works are relatively clean today---and more boring than the otherwise might be---is that many of the translations were done by Victorian era Britons.

Greek dramas often featured liberal use actors of with giant phalluses.

Ancient Greek Courtesans

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Greek aristocrats had courtesans and all-make drinking parties often featured naked prostitutes. Marriages who often arranged and men sought satisfaction with courtesans or male lovers. Prostitutes at Ephesus advertised their services outside the doorway of the brothel with an inscription of a foot and a woman with a mohawk haircut.◂

The Greek women with the most power and freedom, surprisingly, were courtesans, known as hetaeras . When they weren't working Grecian courtesans didn't have to maintain an image of virtue so they could do what they wanted, and they had money to do it with. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Grecian consorts were similar to geisha girls. They entertained their patrons with poems, dancing and singing at drinking parties (called symposiums ). Sex was extra, in some cases a lot extra. Sometimes their prices were set according to how many sexual positions they had mastered. One courtesan who had mastered 12 positions charged the most for one called keles (meaning "racehorse" in which the woman mounted the man from the top).

Famous Ancient Greek Courtesans

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During the Golden Age of Greece perhaps the most powerful person after the Athenian leader Pericles was his consort Aspasia. Some historians claim she wrote many of his speeches and pulled strings behind the scene.

Lamia, a Greek courtesan, charged king Demetetrius of Macedonia 250 talents ($300,000) for her services. To pay off the expense the king instituted a tax on soap. The famous Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes wanted the Sicilian-born Greek courtesan so bad he offered "1,000 drachmas for a single night." She took one look at him and upped the figure to 10,000 drachmas ($20,000), a figure he was still happy to pay.◂

Mnesarte was said to be the most beautiful prostitute in Greece during the 4th century B.C. Once when it looked as if she was going to be found guilty in a court of law for the crime of profanity, she ripped open her robe in front of the judge and was acquitted.◂

According to Hermippus of Smyrna the glamorous courtesan Phyrne was never seen naked but "at the great festival of the Eleuina and that of the Posidonoa.” There he wrote “in full sight of a crowd that had gathered from all over Greece, she removed her cloak and let loose her hair before stepping into the seas; and it was from her that Apelles painted his likeness of Aphrodite coming out of the sea." Other famous courtesans included Lais, Gnathaena and Naera.

Homosexuals in Ancient Greece

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Tomb of the Diver symposium
Homosexuality in ancient Greek was tolerated and regarded as no big deal, and, by some, even considered even fashionable. But apparently not everybody. Orpheus was dismembered by the Maenads for advocating homosexual love.

Among the Greeks homosexuality was common, especially in the military. Some have argued that homosexuality may have been the norm for both men and women and heterosexual sex was primarily just to have babies.

Sexual contact occurred among males in the bath houses. Gymnasiums, where naked men and boys, exercised and worked out together, were regarded as breeding grounds for homo-erotic impulses. At the extreme end, members of Magna Mat cults dressed in women’s clothes and sometimes castrated themselves.

Some have argued that homosexual marriages of some kind were widely accepted in classical antiquity and that the medieval church continued the pagan practice. There arguments though tend to be weak and based on anecdotal material. There is no proof that such marriages existed in Greek and Roman culture except among the elite in imperial Roman smart set. Other evidence of homosexual marriages come from isolated or marginal regions, such as post-Minoan Crete, Scythia, Albania, and Serbia, all of which had unique and sometimes bizarre local traditions.

In ancient times men sometimes made a pledge by putting their hands on their testicles as if to say, "If I am lying you can cut off my balls." The practice of making a pledge on the Bible is said to have its roots in this practice.

Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo contains descriptions of romantic homosexual affairs.

Homosexuality, Education and Alexander the Great

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Alexander the Great probably had gay lovers. Although he was married twice some historians claim Alexander was a homosexual who was in love with his childhood friend, closest companion and general---Hephaestion. Another lover was a Persian eunuch named Bagoas. But many say that his truest love was his horse Bucephalas.

Relationships between older men and teenage boys was believed to be common. In Clouds Aristophanes wrote: "How to be modest, sitting so as not to expose his crotch, smoothing out the sand when he arose so that the impress of his buttocks would not be visible, and how to be strong...The emphasis was on beauty...A beautiful boy is a good boy. Education is bound up with male love, an idea that is part of the pro-Spartan ideology of Athens...A youth who is inspired by his love of an older male will attempt to emulate him, the heart of educational experience. The older male in his desire of the beauty of the youth will do whatever he can improve it."

In Aristophanes's The Birds , one older man says to another with disgust: "Well, this is a fine state of affairs, you demanded desperado! You meet my son just as he comes out of the gymnasium, all rise from the bath, and don't kiss him, you don't say a word to him, you don't hug him, you don't feel his balls! And you're supposed to be a friend of ours!"

Homosexuality, Militarism and Sports in Ancient Greece

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Homosexuality and athleticism were said to have gone hand in hand in ancient Greece. Ron Grossman wrote in Chicago Tribune, “Far from finding homosexuality and athleticism mutually exclusive, they considered gay sex an excellent training regimen and an inspiration for military valor.” Plato said, “if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made of lovers they would overcome the world.”

Homosexuality appears to have been the norm in ancient Sparta for both men and women with more than a touch of sadomasochism thrown in. The Spartans believed that beating was good for the soul. Heterosexual sex was primarily just to have babies. Young boys were paired with older boys in a relationship that had homosexual overtones. Plutarch wrote: “They were favored with the society of young lovers among the reputable young men...The boy lovers also shared with them in their honor and disgrace.”

When a boy reached 18, they were trained in combat. At twenty they moved into a permanent barrack-style living and eating arrangement with other men. They married at any time, but lived with men. At 30 they were elected to citizenship. Before a Sparta wedding , the bride was usually kidnapped, her hair was cut short and she dressed as a man, and laid down on a pallet on the floor. "Then," Plutarch wrote, "the bride groom...slipped stealthily into the room where his bride lay, loosed her virgin's zone, and bore her in his arms to the marriage-bed. Then after spending a short time with her, he went away composedly to his usual quarters, there to sleep with the other men."||

The Sacred Band was an army unit and warrior caste from Thebes, northwest of Athens. Ranked second in fierceness after the Spartans and celebrated in the song Boeotia , the region of Greece from which they were from,, they were often paired with theirs lovers under the assumption they would fight harder for their lover than they would for themselves. It was said they never were defeated in battle until Greece lost its independence to Philip II of Macedonia. But even then Philip was moved by their bravery. Plutarch wrote: “When after the battle, Philip was surveying the dead, and stopped at the place where the 300 were lying and learned that thus was a band of lovers and beloved, he burst into tears and said, “Perish, miserably they who think that these men died or suffered anything disgraceful.”

Sappho and Lesbians in Ancient Greece

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Alma-Tadema's view of a
woman reading poetry
Sappho wrote sensuously about love between females. The word "lesbian" comes from her home island of Lesbos. Born in 610 B.C. in Lesbos, off of Asia Minor, she was probably from a noble family and her father was probably a wine merchant. Little is known about her because she didn't write much about herself and few others did.

In Sappho's time, Lesbos was inhabited by the Aeolians, a people known for free thinking and liberal sexual customs. Women had more freedom than they did in other places in the Greek world and Sappho is believed to have received a quality education and moved in intellectual circles.

Sappho formed a society for women in which women were taught arts such as music, poetry and chorus singing for marriage ceremonies. Although the relationship between Sappho and the women in her society is unclear she wrote about love and jealousy she felt for them. In spite of this, she had a child named Kleis and may have been married.

In his book The First Poets , Michael Schmidt speculates on where she was born and raised on Lesbos: was it in the western village of Eressus in rough, barren country, or in the cosmopolitan eastern seaport of Mytilene? He subtly evokes her poetic style: ''Sappho's art is to dovetail, smooth and rub down, to avoid the over-emphatic.'' And he aptly compares the relationship between voice and musical accompaniment in Sappho's performance of her poems to the recitative in opera. [Source: Camille Paglia, New York Times, August 28, 2005]

Over the centuries passionate arguments over Sappho's character, public life and sexual orientation have sprung up. Even though there is no direct reference to homosexual or heterosexual sex religious leaders---including Pope Gregory VIII, who called her a "lewd nymphomaniac in 1073---ordered her books burned.

See Sappho Under Poetry Under Literature

Love in Ancient Greece

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Courtship scene
Some scholars claim that the idea of love began with the Greeks and the notion of romantic love began with chivalry in the Middle Ages. The ancient Greek poet Nimnerus wrote: "What is life, what is joy without golden Aphrodite?/ May I die when these things no longer move me?/ hidden love affairs, sweet nothings and bed."

According to one myth, Zeus originally created three sexes: men, women and hermaphrodites. The hermaphrodites had two heads, two set of arms and two sets of genitals. Alarmed by their power, he separated each one in half: some became lesbians, some became male homosexuals and some became heterosexuals. Each felt incomplete and spent his or her life trying to track his or her other half down.

Arisphanes expressed similar ideas. In an attempt define love he wrote: "Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of man, and he is always looking for his other half...And when one of them meets his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or of another sort, the pair are lost in amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and will not be out of the other's sight, as I may say, even a moment...yet they could not explain what they desire in one another" other than "this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of an ancient need."

Plato espoused similar ideas. He viewed lovers as incomplete halves who could not find peace until they found each other. His ponderings in The Symposium , a banquet staged in honor of Eros, are the oldest known attempt to systematically unravel the mysteries of love. In The Republic , Plato wrote about marriage mainly as a means of reproduction while he wrote about the erotic loves in Symposium in "blushingly romantic terms."

Ancient Greek Love Tablets

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Kalliarista stele
from Rhodes
A curse that focuses on erotic love found on a potsherd perhaps heated in a ritual read: “Burn, torch the soul of Allous, her female body, her limbs, until she leaves the household of Apollonius. Lay Allous low with fever, with unceasing sickness, lack of appetite, senselessness.”

The text of one Greek curse found rolled up in the mouth of a red-haired mummy found in Eshmunen in Ptolemaic Egypt read: “Aye, lord demain, attract, inflame, destroy, burn, cause her to swoon from love as she is being burnt, inflamed. Goad the tortured soul, the heart of Karosa...until she leaps forth and comes to Apalos...out of passion and love, in this very hour, immediately. Immediately, quickly, quickly...do not allow Karosa herself...to think of her [own] husband, her child, drink, food, but let her come melting for passion and love and intercourse, especially yeaning for the intercourse of Aapalos.”

One tablet addressed to a ghost goes: “Seize Euphemia and lead her to me Theon, loving me with mad desire, and bind her with unloosable shackles, strong ones of adamantine, for the love of me, Theon, and do not allow her to eat, drink, obtain sleep, jest or laugh but make her leap out...and leave behind her father. Mother, brothers, sisters, until she comes to me...Burn her limbs, live, female body, until she comes to me, and not disobeying me.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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