Grass monkey, that funky monkey, GRASS MONKEY! asks:

So, the Greek God Apollo, he is definitely bi right?

Well, there’s a bunch of caveats I have to rattle off whenever someone asks a question like this, ‘cause in ancient Greek culture there’s no such thing as “bi” or “gay” – and there’s definitely no such thing as “straight.”  The categories simply don’t exist; there are no words for them in the ancient Greek language.  Personally, I think we have reason to believe that the whole concept of being exclusively attracted to only one gender would have seemed a bit alien to the ancient Greeks.  It’s just… kind of normal for adult men – men who are married to women and happily participating in a strictly patriarchal and, weirdly, kind of heteronormative social structure – to also be attracted to younger men and teenage boys, and indeed to have sex with them.  What’s more, this is totally fine, because in general Greek marriage customs only require that a married woman should not have sex with any men other than her husband (and Sparta had exceptions to even that rule; I also kind of suspect that extramarital lesbian relationships might have been common as well, but that’s a lot harder to track, because almost all our written sources come from male perspectives and they just have an extremely rudimentary understanding of female sexuality).  Marriage is a very functional, utilitarian, transactional thing; you get married in order to produce legitimate male heirs who will inherit your property and your place in the social fabric of your city.  That’s a duty that you have not just to your family but to your entire community, because it ensures continuity of land ownership, and land is where the community lives and produces food.  The point I’m trying to make is that male/male romantic or sexual relationships are doing different things from male/female ones, in a way that wouldn’t have left much room for a modern conception of same-sex relationships, where we want to be seen as equal and equivalent to straight people.

Of course, there totally are gay people in ancient Greece – like, in spite of everything I just said, Agathon and Pausanias in late 5th century Athens definitely seem like life partners who are married in all but name, consciously defying their society’s conventions and basically getting away with it.  I just have to go through all these caveats because I don’t want to put the ancient Greeks on a pedestal or make them out to be more liberated or enlightened than they actually were.  Men can have sexual relationships with other men, and within certain specific contexts those relationships are even idolised – if you haven’t heard of the Theban “sacred band,” you’re seriously missing out – but ultimately you’re still “supposed” to marry a woman and have babies.  Admittedly, men have a lot more freedom than women to opt out of that.  Rather than speculating about the identities we might assign to historical figures if they lived today, I think it’s usually a more useful way of putting it to say that the ancient Greeks’ conception of “straightness” – that is, their understanding of what the “default” male sexuality is – was just not the same as ours, and actually involved a lot of gay sex.  That seems counterintuitive, but, well, there are men today who identify as straight while having sex with other men, because the notion of a “straight man” refers to a complicated and messy ideal of masculinity that prescribes a lot of other things besides just who you’re attracted to (see also: “fellas, is it gay?”).

What was the question again?

Oh, right.  Apollo.

Well, if you ever go to Sparta (which is underrated in my opinion; although somewhat remote and not as impressive as Athens, modern Sparti is a lovely place to visit and has some very neat archaeological sites) you can take a quick jaunt out to Amyklai, the most remote of the five villages that united to form the ancient city-state of Sparta, and visit the Throne of Apollo.  There’s not much of it left, but it was once a very important shrine with a famous colossus of Apollo as its cult statue.  Apollo was Sparta’s most important god, and the Throne of Apollo was the site of one of Sparta’s two most important “national” religious festivals (alongside the Karneia, also dedicated to Apollo): the Hyakinthia, which took place during the month of Hyakinthios.  Amyklai’s patron god was Hyacinthus, once a young mortal whom Apollo had pursued romantically, only to kill him in a tragic accident, and the Throne of Apollo was built over an ancient burial mound that the Spartans believed was Hyacinthus’ tomb.  The Hyakinthia was a celebration of the union of Apollo and Hyacinthus, symbolising the union between Amyklai and the other four villages of Sparta (which were all much closer together and didn’t retain separate identities to the same extent).  So… I suppose what I’m saying is, not only does Greek mythology have a well-known romantic relationship between Apollo and a mortal man, the fact of that relationship was part of the bedrock of Spartan identity, and its commemoration was the focus of one of the most important festivals of the Spartan year.

so yeah I guess “bi” kinda covers it

Bonus fact: the -nth- consonant cluster, which we also see in “Corinth,” is widely believed to be non-Greek – that is, words containing that particular sound (most of them proper names) are not Indo-European in origin, and may be remnants of the lost languages spoken in Greece during the Early Bronze Age (c. 3000-2000 BC).  Hyacinthus is therefore probably an ancestral deity of Laconia, whose worship there predates almost everything we now know as “Greek mythology.”

4 thoughts on “Grass monkey, that funky monkey, GRASS MONKEY! asks:

  1. OK, cool, I was asking because in rick riordan’s trials of Apollo, Apollo feels tortured due to the fact that many lovers he had in the past were tragically killed or totured, one notable one being emperor Commodus, and another being the sibyl, so I just wanted to fact check if that was an actual possibility, or something Riordan pulled out of a Karpoi’s butt.

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  2. Huh. First time I hear an actual queer person talk about not applying modern terms to greco-roman figures.

    I do admit I’m not exactly scholarly about history and mythology, usually- I watch OSP, am finishing high school, have heard people on social media mention things about how the Ancient Greeks Were Pretty Gay™️ (Like the Sacred Band of Thebes, which, hell yeah.) But that’s about it.

    And when I asked my history and philosophy teachers about gender roles regarding queerness in Greek society, trying to find a way to learn a bit more with sources that were neither Wikipedia/Tv Tropes nor In-depth technical-minded academic articles, all I got was a twenty minute spiel on how talking about two men fucking being in any way GAY was ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT!!!! There was NO HOMO!!!

    I know they wouldn’t have the same words, views and culture as we do today, but they would have the same drives. And I wanted to find out more about how they dealt with them- I knew patriarchal marriages for heirs were normal, but men might bone both genders freely and had romantic, equal relationships with other men.

    I wanted to find out more about where things like the band of Thebes fell in society, about how free women were to fuck each other, considering misogyny was (Thanks for covering that, by the way.)

    My teachers had jack shit to say about this. They’re the usual straight people who are Totally Not Homophobes and Have Gay Friends, but flinch back when they have to as much as say the word “gay”.

    So I began to look at this attempt to “separate our culture from theirs” as just erasure. After all, when my teachers talked about it it wound up just being a way to dodge both the subject and the fact that gay people exist. It’s quite odd to see it used in discussion like this.

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    1. Oh, autocorrect ate a word: considering misogyny was rampant. Anyways, I do suppose it makes some sense to refrain from using the same words to highlight the radically different worldview and social context. But, to quote OSP: “the only thing more extensive than Apolo’s list of male lovers is Apolo’s list of female lovers.” plus “Athena, described as one of the few beings Aphrodite has no sway over(…)”

      If they quack like a bi and an aro, walk like a bi and an aro, and look like a bi and an aro, then it feels a bit disingenuous, at best, to say they’re not really just because the social norms were different, y’know?

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    2. Yeah, it’s… complicated, which is why I also go out of my way to say that, sure, maybe they’re not “gay” in modern terms, but they sure as hell aren’t “straight” in modern terms either. For me, the takeaway is that sexuality and gender are constructed by culture (at least in part), and *we* are allowed to construct our *own* idea of what they mean.

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