Nobody told us Hercules was gay!
Nobody told us Hercules was gay!
History is written by the victors. They choose what will be remembered, and what covered up. So it has been with male eros. Looking at any history textbook, one would think that never has a society praised love between men, never has a painter, a poet or a pope shared his bed and his heart with another male. Evidence of same-sex love has been either quietly suppressed, as with the ancient Greeks and Romans, and modern figures of all kinds, or quickly destroyed, as is still done with newly unearthed Inca and Mayan art. The result of this fraud has been a needless polarization of society and suffering for those people who happen to fall in love with others of their own sex.
Uncensored, the historical record reveals just the opposite: the male love instinct is universal. Only society’s attitude towards it has varied. Most cultures have regulated male love, integrating it by means of customs and traditions. Only a few have tried to deny it, repress it, and cover it up.
Normally, male love is part of the social fabric. From the city states of ancient Greece, and Rome with its emperors (Trajan and Hadrian among others), to the Siberian shamans and Native American two-spirit medicine men, from African kings and tribesmen to Chinese emperors and scholars, people the world over understood and made space for men’s sensitivity to the beauty of other males. They recognized that – married or not – men fell in love with men or youths, dreamt about them, wrote about them, fought over them, and took them to bed. And they usually understood that boy children were excluded from the game of sex, to the same degree that they understood that girl children were excluded as well.
In Ancient Greece love between males was styled along the same lines as the marriage customs. Grown men sought teenage lovers, just as they married teenage wives. The main difference was that the “gay marriage” could only take place with the beloved’s consent, while the girl was told by her father whom to marry and had to obey. The customs and ethics of male love were encoded in Greek mythology. Male love was a cornerstone of the culture that created theater, philosophy, mathematics, history, and other arts and sciences. Democracy was another invention of the Greeks, and the two men they honored for its introduction were Harmodios and Aristogiton, a gay couple. Love between males was thought to bring out the best qualities in a youth AND in his lover, especially manliness and courage. In warfare soldiers often fought side-by-side with their grown beloveds, as in the renowned Theban band; later, led by Alexander the Great and his boyfriend Hephaestion, the Greeks conquered the known world. Greece, of course, was no Utopia: prostitution, often attended by slavery, was common, and parallel to the ethical culture in which young beloveds were treated with consideration and moderation, there ran an undercurrent seen by the Greeks as debauched, in which young citizens were paid for sex and subjected to practices seen as degrading, such as oral and anal penetration.
In Japan, apprentice Samurai paired up with older warriors to be trained in love and war, and all the shoguns slept with pages called “kosho,” their “nanshoku” loves recorded by writers and shunga painters who immortalized “shudo,” the Way of the Young. They likewise immortalized the hard lives of the “tobiko” or fly boys, traveling young kabuki actors who had to labor on stage by day and please their clients in bed by night.
In the Moslem lands, famous Iranian and Arab poets such as Hafiz i-Shirazi and Abu Nuwas praised and rued the charms of boys (whom they plied with wine and seduced). Sufi holy men from India to Turkey sought to find Allah by gazing upon the beauty of beardless youths. Storytellers included gay love tales in the Thousand and One Nights. Artists like Riza i-Abbasi amused kings and princes with exquisitely wrought erotic Persian miniatures and calligraphies. Mullahs and censors railed against male love, but men of all walks of life, from Caliphs to porters, delighted in it and all looked forward to being attended by fresh-faced tellaks (masseurs) in the hamam, and “unaging ghilman (youths) as beautiful as pearls” in paradise.
In North America and Siberia, shamanic traditions dating back to the stone age recognized the special spiritual powers of those men and women drawn to same-sex love, as we still see in the Native American two-spirit tradition, which survives to this day.
In the pre-modern west, male love survived mostly underground, visible only when the lovers were unlucky enough to get caught, or when hinted at by artists brave enough to flout convention. Many writers, musicians, painters and poets depicted male love, but always in coded form:
Michelangelo, who adorned the Sistine Chapel with vibrant male nudes; Shakespeare, who serenaded his darling boy in his sonnets; Blake who railed against priests “binding with briars my joys and desires;” Whitman, who sang the body electric, Proust, Baden-Powell, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Auden, Isherwood. . . The list of luminaries, artists, statesmen, men of the cloth, knights and knaves who felt the pull of male love – by itself, or alongside the love of women – is endless – and we only know a fraction of them, for most covered their traces too well and will forever remain hidden.
The big lie that same-sex love is “against nature,” a fiction which flies in the face of both biology and history, depends on ignorance and censorship for its survival. The World History of Male Love, gleaning the work of scholars in gay studies, aims to undo that censorship by publicizing gay love’s role in man’s spirit and culture: its successes, its failures, and the controversies it has given rise to over the millennia. We hope the prose and poetry, religion and mythology, art, philosophy and history collected here from around the world will serve to deepen understanding of male love’s place in human nature. It could also illuminate the growing debate about gay marriage, a tradition documented the world over for thousands of years, but nowhere as widely or as recently as in North America, where it was practiced and honored by many of the First Nations.
The documents gathered here are testimony to the power of love. Where forbidden, it has prevailed over stonings, burnings, lobotomies, schoolyard homophobia, the gallows and the gaol. Where openly welcomed, it has blossomed into the highest achievements of the human mind. It is past time every school child knew of these things.
One time, during a workshops at a gay youth conference, a young man piped up from the back of the room, exclaiming “No one told us Hercules was gay!” Let’s hope that in coming years students will not have to wait until they are in their twenties to make that discovery.