LGBTQ+ in the Ancient World
Distinctions concerning sexual identity only began to appear after the rise of Christianity.
By Dr. Joshua J. Mark
Professor of Philosophy
In the cultures of the ancient world, there was no need for designations such as LGBTQ+ because there was no difference noted between what is now defined as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” relationships. There was no “us” and “them” dichotomy to encourage such labels; there was only “us” and whoever one chose to love was one’s own business.
The only stigma attached to male-male romantic relationships was one’s status and that of one’s partner. In Greece, Rome, and other cultures a freeman who “played the part of the woman” in a relationship was thought to have compromised his manhood, but no thought was given to the relationship itself. Ancient writers regularly pass over an individual’s sexual orientation unless it has some bearing on an event under consideration because sexual identity was a complete non-issue. In Mesopotamia, the so-called “cradle of civilization“, same-sex relationships were so common, based on evidence from artwork as well as literature, that they are depicted equally with those of the opposite sex. Scholar Bruce L. Gerig comments:
Making love was a natural activity that should not be demeaned, they believed; and it could be practiced as one pleased as long as no third party was harmed, or prohibition broken (such as the banning of sexual activity on certain days and some women reserved for the gods). In fact, scholar William Naphy notes that a striking feature of the ancient Near East was “how few cultures seem to have any significant ‘moral’ concern about same-sex activities…most cultures seemed to accept that males might have sexual relations with other males.” (8)
Distinctions concerning sexual identity, and prohibitions on same-sex relationships, only begin to appear after the rise of Christianity which rejected practices associated with earlier religious beliefs. It was not, then, a same-sex relationship that was being condemned but any activity non-Christians participated in such as sacrificing to pagan gods or attending non-Christian religious festivals.
There are not even words in the ancient languages which translate to the modern-day “homosexual” and “heterosexual” which were only coined in 1869 CE. The Greek term arsenokoites, translated as “homosexual” in the Bible for the first time in 1946 CE, never existed until it was coined by St. Paul in his epistles I Timothy 1:10 and I Corinthians 6:9. The actual translation is “male beds” and seems to refer to men who slept with men in non-Christian traditions, not to same-sex relationships. The irony of present-day divisions over sexual identity and the call of certain segments of society for a “return to traditional values” is that same-sex relationships were quite clearly traditionally accepted, respected, and even revered for over 2,000 years.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the priests and priestesses of the popular goddess Inanna (better known as Ishtar) were bisexual and transgender. One of the aspects of the goddess considered most awe-inspiring was her ability to turn men into women and women into men, the power of transformation. Her father-god Enki is said to have created a third gender, “neither male nor female” who became Inanna’s servants, her clergy. What is today referred to as “non-binary” gender was recognized over three thousand years ago as a third gender created by the divine will.
The gods also blessed same-sex relationships as is clearly seen in the document The Almanac of Incantations, which contains prayers for both opposite and same-sex couples. A man who had sex with a man of his own social status was thought to bring good fortune and prosperity while only trouble could come from a same-sex relationship with someone above or below one’s status, but the same was believed true of opposite-sex relationships. This same paradigm applies to other ancient cultures where the status of those involved was what mattered, not their sex.
The Chinese, for example, followed this same model in upper-class men and monarchs taking male lovers from among their courtiers, but this was acceptable because the upper-class lover would ennoble the lower-class beloved. Records referencing same-sex male relationships in China date back to at least 600 BCE, and same-sex couples are mentioned in poems, anecdotes, and histories with more frequency starting with the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). Female same-sex relationships are ignored in Chinese literature in the same way women are generally passed over by male ancient historians. Male couples were associated with the ennobling aspect of love by which both the lover and the beloved are elevated and made better by the association. Scholar Louis Crompton, commenting on the stories which came to define same-sex relationships in China, writes:
Clearly, these normative tales, if we may so call them, show an unselfconscious acceptance of same sex relations, an acceptance that was to persist in China for twenty-four centuries. They contrast strikingly with the myth that dominated the imagination of Western Christendom – the story of Sodom with its supernatural terrors. But they are also quite distinct from the traditions of ancient Greece. Instead of legends of heroic self-sacrifice in a warrior society, we have piquant tales of delicate consideration and tenderness. (215)
One of these tales, The Cut Sleeve, relates how Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty (r. 7-1 BCE) was resting with his lover Dong Xian who had fallen asleep on the sleeve of Ai’s robe. Rather than wake him, he cut off his sleeve and went out to hold court in a disheveled state. The phrase “the cut sleeve” came to be used to reference same-sex relationships along with others which also come from stories exemplifying the consideration a lover has for his beloved.
Same-sex relationships in Japan were also considered ennobling during the Pre-Meiji Period (800-1868 CE) and were not only blessed but encouraged by the great Buddhist sage Kukai. Kukai (better known as Kobo Daishi, “The Great Teacher”) founded Shingon Buddhism in Japan c. 806 CE and continues to be revered in the present day. Contrary to legend, he did not introduce the concept of same-sex relationships to Japan as they were acknowledged much earlier. The Japanese referred to these relationships as nanshoku (“love of males” or “male colors”), and they were legitimized by the aristocracy and the literate elite who were influenced by the model of Chinese same-sex relationships.
The Japanese regarded romantic attachments and sex as a natural part of life whether the object of one’s desire was one’s own sex or the opposite. In Lady Murasaki’s famous novel The Tale of Genji (c. 1020 CE), the hero seduces the younger brother of the woman he is trying to court, but he is not regarded less for doing so, and his obvious bisexuality is of so little concern to the author that she never mentions it again.
Fluid gender identity was recognized in Egypt throughout its long history and, as in other cultures, drew little notice and no condemnation except when a male of a certain social status “played the part of the woman” in sex. Scholar Colin Spencer notes, “Bisexuality in the male was accepted as natural and never drew adverse comment, but passive homosexuality made the Egyptians feel uneasy. What if a king showed such a feminine disposition?” (34). The only problem Egyptians had with same-sex relationships was a show of weakness, of overt femininity, in a male of certain status. Although the Egyptians respected the power of the feminine, as evidenced by their many powerful female deities, they did not believe mortal women could effectively wield power (though a significant number of them clearly did, Hatshepsut being one of the more famous).
There was no concept of a “homosexual” relationship in Egypt, only relationships. When male-male sexual relations are mentioned negatively, it always has to do with one male surrendering his masculine power to another in sex, not in a relationship. In the famous tale of The Contending of Horus and Set, for example, it is not the sexual act that troubles the gods but Set’s claim that he dominated Horus.
The cult of the Phrygian goddess Cybele and her consort Attis flourished in ancient Greece c. 300 BCE, and one of its defining characteristics was the galli (also given as gallae), the transgender clergy who identified as female. The cult is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia before spreading across Asia Minor, and the galli may have initially been inspired by the cult of Inanna and her clergy. Long before 300 BCE, however, same-sex relationships were commonplace in Greece. Plato (l. 428/427-348/347 BCE) praises male-male relationships in a number of his dialogues, only reversing his position in the last, Laws, written when he was older, and it is thought he is here condemning the strong passions such relationships can arouse – the same he earlier praised – and the problems this can cause for those involved.
Aristotle (l. 384-322 BCE) was unconcerned with same-sex relationships except, again, regarding a male surrendering his masculinity by playing a passive role in sex. The great stoic philosopher Zeno of Citium (l. c. 336-265 BCE) exclusively favored male relationships. The classic model of these was for an older man (the erastes, “lover”) to court and win the affections of a youth (the eromenos, “beloved”) who would be cultivated, cultured, and improved by the relationship. The Spartans encouraged male-male relationships in the Agoge, the Spartan education program as it was thought lovers would fight more effectively to impress and protect their beloved. This paradigm is famously proven by the Sacred Band of Thebes, a troop of same-sex lovers, who were undefeated in battle from 371 to 338 BCE when they were killed, to a man, at the Battle of Chaeronea.
The Romans followed the same model as the Greeks of an older man, established in society, cultivating a relationship with a youth who would benefit from it. As in Greece, the sexual aspect of the relationship was the least important, and there had to be genuine affection and respect shared by both parties for their association to be considered honorable. Married Roman men regularly had affairs with male lovers and, as noted in other cultures, the only dishonor or stigma attached to such a relationship was a male of some standing playing a passive role. This primarily had to do with anal intercourse and allowing oneself to be penetrated; no other sexual act or position is criticized. Julius Caesar (l. 100-44 BCE) famously engaged in same-sex relationships, and attempts were made to disparage his character for assuming the passive role in sex. Caesar was a formidable enough warrior and statesman, however, to brush off these criticisms and still retain his stature. Among the most famous committed same-sex relationships in Rome was that between the Roman emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) and his young lover Antinous (l. c. 110-130 CE), but there are many others recorded and, no doubt, many more among people no historian ever cared to write about.
Gender Identification in Other Ancient Cultures
These same paradigms existed in virtually every other culture in the ancient world. In Thailand, a third gender, known as the Kathoey (“lady boys”) have been recognized since the 14th century CE, although they almost certainly existed previously. In India the law code Manusmriti (c. 1250 BCE) treats same-sex and opposite-sex relationships equally, and both this work and the famous Kama Sutra (c. 400 BCE) reference a third gender known as the Kinnar (also known as Hijra). Both of these groups are marginalized in the present day, but there is nothing in the ancient texts that stigmatizes them and, unlike other cultures, no loss in status attached to a third gender playing a passive role.
Native American tribes recognized a third gender known in the present day as a Two-Spirit who was both male and female. The ancient term for this gender has been lost, as many aspects of Native American language and culture were through the European colonization of the Americas, and so this is a modern designation. The Two-Spirit was greatly valued by the community and, as with the adherents of Inanna and Cybele, were thought to have been transformed from male to female by the gods. A boy who embarked on the vision quest rite of passage to manhood would be visited by a deity and shown who he truly was and, if chosen as a Two-Spirit, would return to his community and begin dressing as a woman and performing work associated with the female members of the tribe.
Throughout Africa, there are a number of different designations for people identified and self-identifying as a third gender. Among these are the Ashtime who, like the Two-Spirit of the Americas, are men who identify as women and perform women’s traditional tasks. Many of these are married to men and, although marginalized today, just like the Kinnar and Kathoey, were recognized as divinely transformed beings in the ancient past.
The first change in this paradigm came with the rise of Christianity and its intolerance of other faiths and earlier practices. Once it was embraced by the Roman Empire after Constantine‘s conversion to Christianity and its precepts were understood as ultimate truth, there was no room for consideration of other, alternate narratives. The Bible itself, however, does not condemn same-sex relationships and has nothing to say on third genders at all. One of the most commonly cited lines condemning LGBTQ+ individuals in the present day is Leviticus 18:22 – “Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination” – which is only articulating the same position many ancient cultures took regarding a man “playing the part of a woman” in sex; it has nothing to do with a same-sex relationship.
The tale of Sodom and Gomorrah from the Book of Genesis is also commonly cited in attacks on the gay community, but even Church Fathers such as Saint Ambrose (d. 397 CE) understood the sin of the people of the cities to be a breach of the rules of hospitality, having nothing to do with sexual identity. Another famously misunderstood passage from the Bible, Romans 1:24-27, is warning that people who engage in the kinds of rites and rituals pursued by adherents of pagan religions, such as sacred orgies and sacred prostitution, will be given over to their lusts by God and abandoned and, again, has nothing to do with sexual identity. Any translation of the Bible which encourages an understanding that the divine is condemning same-sex relationships is a misinterpretation of the work.
Same-sex relations in all of the above cultures were negatively impacted at first by Christianity and Christian missionaries before that same kind of religious intolerance was spread by Islam and even faiths such as Buddhism, which, as noted, initially encouraged same-sex relationships. This kind of intolerance is born of and fed by ignorance and fear which is perpetuated by societies and communities trying to preserve what they see as “traditional values” without understanding that among the most basic of such values is love and respect for other people. Spencer comments:
Sexuality exists in all its depth and complexity regardless of how society tries to control or guide it. Some would say it is the greatest force within us and perhaps this is why we show such fear of it, continuing to subjugate and tame it, often when there is no need. “Uncontrolled sex” is linked in our minds to barbarism, to the decay of the fabric of civilization, perhaps to our own evolution. Perhaps this is why for so many centuries society has reserved its greatest moral censure for unorthodox sexual behavior. What a different history we might have had if “morals” had been exclusively concerned with how humane and tolerant a society was, instead of being obsessed with how we have an orgasm.
The LGBTQ+ community remained marginalized for almost 2,000 years until the latter part of the 20th century when individuals began asserting their right to live as freely with their own sexual identification as anyone else. In the United States, the Stonewall Rebellion of 28 June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village, New York, was the pivotal event that encouraged the LGBTQ+ community to step out of the shadows and demand their civil rights. The example of the freedom fighters at the Stonewall Inn, who resisted an unjust and prejudicial legal system which continued to keep them marginalized and afraid, inspired others around the world to emulate them in demanding an acceptance from the modern world which was freely given by the ancients.
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Originally published by the World History Encyclopedia, 06.25.2021, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.