A REVIEW OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN GREEK MYTH BY BERNARD SERGENT
L'Homosexualité dans la mythologie grecque by the French historian and mythologist Bernard Sergent was published by Payot in Paris in 1984, and translated by Arthur Goldhammer as Homosexuality in Greek Myth, published by Beacon Press in Boston in 1986.
Gods and Boys: Pederasty’s Mythic Dimension in Ancient Greece
by Marvin Shaw, June 1987
Long suppressed by Pauline Christianity and its Puritanical successors, the actual extent and value of homosexuality among the ancient Greeks has come farther into the light only in recent decades. Contemporary mythologists and historians such as K. J. Dover and Georges Dumezil, with their extensive researches and forthright rejection of homophobic inhibitions, have been busily correcting the distortions and omissions. Now a brilliant young French historian joins the positive revisionists.
Bernard Sergent has demonstrated with most impressive scholarship that pederastic education among the ancient Hellenes was firmly rooted in the religion they practiced. Beginning far back in Indo-European proto-history, Sergent meticulously traces the human origins of the education of male youth by loving men. Then, more importantly, he shows how this social institution was not only legitimized but glorified in the myths that were the foundations of their culture.
The mentor/lover was the erastes; the pupil/beloved, the eromenos. Among the myriad pairs we find Apollo and Hypolytus, Zeus and Ganymedes, Achilles and Patroclus, and Dionysus and Adonis. That utter quintessence of ancient masculinity, Hercules, stood as erastes to no less than 14 eromenai! And the above are only the most familiar of the gods and heroes.
Sergent, after sketching the earliest evidence of pederasty in the Taifali migrants from Central Asia and some parallel Germanic tribes, concentrates on the Cretans. There he explains the pederastic function, showing how the man chose and trained his pupil until the youth was ready to be tested and initiated into manhood. At this period, the choosing was done on the basis of the lad’s physical and mental resources, not necessarily his beauty. Later, the criteria were reversed.
In both early and late periods, however, there was almost always love. And sex. The mode was either anal or inter-crural. Naturally, the eremenos became an erastes himself.
This pederastic arrangement in no way interfered with the heterosexual necessities of the society. The eromenos later married and had a family. Sergent doesn’t comment on what effect a husband’s becoming an erastes had on his wife, but this custom seems to have been so legitimized that difficulties were probably minimal.
Sergent’s research is formidable. The presentation of supporting detail is exhaustive. Unfortunately, for those who are not aficionados of Greek mythology, they are also exhausting. Many inclusions are obscure. But Sergent is intent on composing a case so complete that it will be academically irrefutable. For the non-expert, selectivity is advised.
“Relevance,” that favorite term from the social shifts of the early 70s, would not seem applicable here. But when one remembers that bisexuality, gay parenthood, and the like were considered bizarre and illegitimate only a generation ago and are now commonplace, Sergent’s ancients seem like role models.
A prefactory note states that the preparation of this book was financed in part by a grant from the French Ministry of Culture. Imagine that in the administration of US Secretary of Education William Bennett! Have a go at this one.
Review originally published in the June 1987 issue of the NAMBLA Bulletin Volume VIII, No. 5, p. 6.
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