Stuff from Way Back #19: All Hail the (Greek) Phallos

Virtually overnight the western world, including even parts of Latin America, has come to accept homosexuality, and the major issue is no longer tolerance but the public and legal status of a homosexual marriage.  On the other hand, there is central Africa, where practicing homosexuality can mean death, and the hypocritical Islamic (mostly Arab) world, where homosexuality is typically a crime but often engaged in because of the extreme sexual segregation, especially in the Gulf states.  And of course Russia has now enthusiastically embraced homophobia, hardly surprising in a county where the majority of the population is still coming to terms with the nineteenth century.


This sort of serious hostility towards homosexuality is yet another gift of the No-Fun God, who declares such behavior unnatural and an abomination, and prior to the arrival of the Christians (and outside Judea) attitudes were very different.  While there are exceptions, most non-Abrahamic societies have tolerated or in some cases even accommodated homosexuality in their social and religious values.  The Greeks are an excellent example, and ironic, since Greek values and ideas are at the heart of the western tradition, while their sexual practices were vehemently rejected by the religion that affixed itself to that tradition.


Because of deep-seated hostility in the Christian west to such practices, Greek homosexuality traditionally received little or no attention in the standard histories, and when it did, the account was typically distorted by the moral prejudices of the author.  Otherwise competent scholars turned a blind eye to the evidence of widespread homosexuality, including the so obvious and explicit scenes found on pottery.  (The Greeks depicted every sort of activity on their pots.)  Only recently has classical studies turned to serious investigation of Greek sexuality, much of which investigation is unfortunately marred by new prejudices.


It should be noted right off that if modern terminology is to be used, Greek society was not homosexual, but rather bisexual.  Homosexuality may be defined as the more or less exclusive sexual preference for members of the same sex and must be considered some sort of biological aberration (no offspring can be produced) affecting a minority in every society.  Bisexuality is the willingness to entertain sexual partners of either gender and would appear to be in large measure a socially determined trait, unless we assume that the Greeks were somehow physiologically different from other people.  Thus, while there was surely the usual homosexual minority, many urban Greeks, especially those of high social status, were apparently bisexual, seeking different things from the different sexes.  In fact, to judge from the large numbers of female prostitutes and evidence such as the successful sex strike launched by the Athenian women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, heterosexual relations were very important to Greek men.


Using modern terminology is in any case a dangerous practice, since there is the risk of also projecting into the past modern concepts that have a different or no meaning in ancient society.  The terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual,” which are little more than a century old, are valid classifications for Greece only in the most superficial sense, that is, labeling a single different-sex or same-sex act.  As more general characterizations they are useless because they group behaviors that the Greeks considered very different, the sex of the partner, for example, being almost a trivial concern compared to the all-important issue of social status.  Dominance and issues of penetration and receptivity were frequently of far greater importance than gender, and certain areas of Greek society might be more appropriately described as phallocratic rather than heterosexual or homosexual, though this term as well is too restrictive and potentially misleading.


Why ancient Greece – or at least the upper levels of its urban population  – should have been one of the very few openly bisexual societies in history, certainly in the West, is not perfectly clear.  The origins of male homosexuality were seen by the Greeks in the sexual segregation of the military societies of the Dorians (the second wave of Greek-speaking invaders from the north, c. late 13th to early 11th centuries), and Plato in fact blames the Spartans and Cretans, who were Dorians, for spreading the practice.  But while Plato may be reflecting an opinion generally held in Greece during the classical period, that opinion is not necessarily true, and there is no hard evidence for the diffusion of Dorian practices through the rest of Greek society.  It is true, however, that the overwhelming male orientation of polis (city-state) society, which resulted in a sort of sexual segregation, can probably be traced back to the warrior communities of the early Dark Age, which resulted from the Dorian invasions.  The warrior hosts disappeared, but because of the endless intercity warfare, the polis was in many ways also a warrior society, and the absolute dominance of males continued.


The pertinent fact here is that outside of childbearing everything that mattered in the polis was in the hands of males, which meant in turn that outside of heterosexual relations everything that was of any concern to a Greek male involved other males.  With very few exceptions women were completely uneducated and uninvolved in anything beyond the household and the odd cultic practice, and consequently, for meaningful companionship and a relationship with any intellectual content whatsoever a male normally had to turn to another male.  Male relationships thus filled a basic social need.  This situation of course does not necessarily lead to open homosexuality and did not in most other similar societies.  Further, while it is perfectly clear that extreme sexual segregation inevitably leads to some degree of homosexual behavior (look at any prison population), it generally does not lead to open, socially acceptable homosexuality.


Why then the Greeks?  An entirely satisfactory explanation is elusive, and I can only suggest a few reasons.  First, the relatively high level of social and intellectual freedom in Greek society, due in part to the open nature of the constitutional polis and in part to the fragmentation of Greece into hundreds of separate political units, which encouraged some small measure of diversity.  This resulted in a social atmosphere more conducive to change and acceptance of different practices.  This is not to suggest that Greek society was wildly progressive – it certainly was not, even in the heady days of change in the sixth century – but rather that the polis was at least marginally more inclined to accept nontraditional behaviors than the average pre-modern society.  Much more important, the Greeks had no inherited prohibition of homosexuality, no command from god that erotic experiences between persons of the same sex were wrong, which would allow the homosexuality inevitably practiced in secret in sexually segregated societies to come out into the open.  Finally, because sex was viewed as an important expression of status and citizenship, social position became much more important than the actual gender of the partner, producing an environment more open to sex between males.  In short, the male dominance and sexual segregation fosters the bisexuality, and the relative social freedom and lack of any serious religious prohibition brings it out of the closet.


But let us not misunderstand Greek sexuality and think simply of cheap thrills and bathhouse promiscuity.  Obviously, there were those who engaged in casual sex, especially with slaves and male prostitutes, but a serious relationship involving free males was bounded by a strict set of rules, and behavior that publicly violated those rules was socially unacceptable and sometimes criminal.  An acceptable pairing involved an older male, the erastēs, who was the active partner, and a younger male, the erōmenos, who played a passive role.  The erōmenos could not be too young, less than about twelve, and there would be talk if he were still playing the passive role much beyond the age of fifteen or sixteen (“when the beard was grown”).  The pair could not openly engage in oral or anal sex, because that would compel the erōmenos to play a subordinate, female role and not only bring shame upon him, but also injure his future status as a citizen.  Personal physical inviolability was one of the hallmarks of citizenship, and penetration of a male would place him in the category of slave and woman.  The kinaidos, the man who allowed himself to be so used, was the negation of everything represented by the hoplite, the heavy infantryman who defended the polis: manliness, citizenship and dominant status.  Indeed, the worst insult you could deliver to a man was to call him euryprōktos, “wide-assed.”  The acceptable practice was intercrural copulation, in which the erastēs, facing his partner, thrust his penis between his thighs, thus avoiding penetration.


Such at least was the social ideal, and some men maintained lofty attitudes regarding their liaisons, emphasizing the educational aspect of the relationship and their responsibility for the development of their erōmenoi as men and citizens.  There is some truth to this, inasmuch as Greek society (excepting Sparta) had no formal educational apparatus and the continued absence of the urban father from the household may have strained the relationship between father and son, but this must not be exaggerated.  The evidence suggests that sexual attraction to and pleasure with adolescent males was the common motivation and that penetration was frequently practiced, for all that one never spoke of it in public.  The Romans, incidentally, shared these attitudes, though unlike the Greeks they considered citizen youths out of bounds, and the distinction between penetrating men (permitted for virile males) and being penetrated by men (definitely not permitted) is still made among males in some Mediterranean and Latin American societies.

Greek honesty concerning homosexual behavior was only a single facet of their incredibly open attitude about human sexuality in general.  Sex, and in fact body functions in general, rather than being a taboo subject were a source of great amusement, as is readily obvious from Aristophanes and from Greek pottery (the stuff hidden away by Christian museum curators).  Aristophanes’ comedies were at heart social and political satire, the highest form of comic expression, but that satire was wrapped in humor that a modern audience would find obscene and puerile – jokes about farting, penis size and suchlike.  But the Athenian audience loved it, and these were people who had just sat through and enjoyed several tragedies; the modern equivalent might be several Ingmar Bergman movies followed by some mixture of Redd Foxx and the Three Stooges.


Free of any divine commandments to the contrary, the Greeks were able to develop a more open attitude about human sexuality, and I suspect their society was all the more psychologically healthy for it.  The Greeks were far more willing than most civilized peoples to recognize the inner nature of the human animal and squarely face what this meant in terms of human needs and behavior.


Finally, a popular Greek “pottery joke.”  There were traditional shapes for wine cups, and one was similar, though smaller, to the common chamber pot.  A picture of a woman peeing was painted on the inside bottom of this type of cup, and when the imbiber (inevitably male) finished his drink, he suddenly discovered the squatting woman and got the joke.  Yes, these are the same people who discovered democracy and philosophy, and yes, they would have found dribble glasses and whoopee cushions completely hilarious.


When men were men

When men were men

Hey, it's Greek art

Hey, it’s Greek art

And women were women

And women were women



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