LGBT Themes in Ancient Mythology
Religion and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) movements have long been butting heads. The world's three Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - have struggled with accepting and blessing gay relationships, as their respective holy texts speak of abomination and sin. It is true that these days, more and more religious organizations are finding peace and tolerance in alternative sexual orientations, but religion is still usually seen as an entity of chastity and discipline.
That was not always the case.
Ancient religions had adherents of different beliefs and philosophies. Moral values and concepts of love and sex, as well as good and evil, differed from culture to culture. Some might be surprised to find that in many old religions, mythology is full of gay relationships!
It should be noted that these examples are only some of the many illustrations of LGBT themes in mythology. Some mythologies in particular (I'm looking at you, Greece!) were so rich in homosexual or intersex themes that I picked the best ones. It should also be noted that some of these myths are absolutely not for kids, as religious stories often aren't.
Greek and Roman Mythology
It isn't a secret that Greek culture - and to some extent, subsequently Roman culture as well - had a more lax attitude toward same-sex relationships. Though there is some debate about exactly how widespread tolerance was, evidence of gay themes is overwhelming in artifacts. Artwork on cups and vases, literature (such as Plato's Symposium) and stories are full of gay and transgender themes. A book could be written on the number of "gay" myths and stories, but here are a few of the most significant:
- Zeus and Ganymede: Zeus was quite the personality among the Kings of the Gods in the ancient world. Among his other quirks, he is known for straying from his wife Hera on a number of occasions. One of his lovers was the young man that Homer described as the most beautiful of mortals, Ganymede. It is said that Zeus saw him tending sheep in the field, and was immediately entranced. Morphing himself into an eagle, he swooped down and kidnapped Ganymede, and once he brought him to the heavens, he made him immortal and gave him the duty of cupbearer to the gods. In fact, as Plato points out, Ganymede was so beloved by Zeus that he was the only among his lovers to be granted the gift of immortality. Today, their story is immortalized in the stars - Ganymede is one of the moons that orbits Jupiter (the Roman name for Zeus).
- Hermes and Aphrodite's child: Aphrodite, the beautiful love goddess, is perhaps the only deity in Greek mythology that can rival Zeus in her list of steamy affairs and lovers. Once she slept with Hermes, the messenger god, and bore a beautiful son who was notable for looking so androgynous. Some accounts say that the child actually was born two-sexed, some that the boy was cursed by naiads and became intersex after. The child's name? Hermaphrodites, where of course the term "hermaphrodite" came from.
- Ianthe and Iphis: Iphis's father wanted a son so badly that when his wife became pregnant, he threatened to kill the child if it were a girl. When Iphis was born, her mother, in despair, decided to conceal her true gender and raise her as a boy - even her name is gender-neutral. The ruse continued until Iphis reached adulthood, when she arranged to marry the lady Ianthe. The two fell deeply in love from the moment they met. Iphis, worried about the marriage in regards to her still-secret gender, prayed at the Temple of Isis the night before her wedding. The goddess turned Iphis into a man, and Ianthe and Iphis had a happy marriage thereafter. Despite the heterosexual twist, it's a rare nod to lesbianism, and even transgenderism.
- Apollo and Hyacinth (Hyachinthos): Hyacinth is commonly said to have been a beautiful young man and lover of Apollo, the sun god. Once, Apollo and Hyacinth were playing with a discus and throwing it back and forth. In an effort to impress Apollo, Hyacinth ran to catch it after the god threw it, but the discus struck the mortal Hyacinth and the blow killed him. In horror and grief, Apollo refused to relinquish his fallen companion to Hades, and instead created a flower from Hyacinth's spilled blood - the hyacinth. This popular story has frequently been immortalized in art.
Records of the Celtic religion are hard to find, probably due to being destroyed at foreign invasion, or perhaps because of the lack of unity among the people. Most accounts come therefore from foreign sources, like the Romans.
- Cúchulainn and Ferdiad: Though the relationship of these legendary heroes is not explicitly described as gay, it has been interpreted that way - and you'll see why. As best friends and foster brothers, the men were close. They both trained together under the warrior Scáthach and were said to be equal in all things except for separate gifts. She taught Cúchulainn how to use the spear known as Gáe Bolga, and Ferdiad had thick skin that weapons could not pierce. At one point, fate puts the two men on opposite sides and forces them to fight to the death. The story mentions them sharing a kiss during the conflict, and Ferdiad recalling them sharing a bed. The fight is long and fierce, but Cúchulainn finally defeats Ferdiad by thrusting the spear up through his friend's anus, where the "thick skin" didn't reach.
The tales of Odin and Ragnarok are not as explicit in same-sex references as Greek mythology, though the pantheons can be compared in the excitement of their stories and the gods' love of alcohol. Still, they are not without their own references. Though meant as an insult, Loki the trickster god once accuses Odin of homosexuality. Loki is involved in a few other odd tales.
- Loki the Mother: Loki was capable of shape-shifting and on several occasions turns himself into a woman, usually for purposes of causing trouble. At one point, he turns himself into a mare and in an effort to distract the great stallion from his work, has sex with Svaðilfari. Loki then becomes pregnant and gives birth to Sleipnir, the powerful eight-legged that becomes Odin's steed.
- Thor and Loki cross-dressing: Not exactly gay or transgender, but a bit of gender-bending fun. When the giant Thrym steals Thor's great hammer, he demands the hand of the goddess Freya as ransom. When Freya refuses Thor's request to marry him, Thor and Loki devise a new plan: they dress as women. Thor dresses as the bride "Freya" and Loki as his bridesmaid. The false Freya is offered Thor's hammer, and Thor slays the giants with it.
Chinese mythology, as a concoction of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and local folktales around the massive country, is relatively liberal with its depiction of same-sex relationships and gender-ambiguous gods. Historically, there are records of homosexuality. For example, emperors were known to keep female concubines, but many kept male concubines as well. One legend claims that Emperor Ai from the Han Dynasty said he would rather cut off his sleeve than disturb his male lover who had fallen asleep on it, and from there, one euphemism for homosexuality still sometimes used today became "the passion of the sleeve."
- Wu Tien Bao: A rabbit-god that is associated with homosexuality. Wu Tien Bao was once a man who fell in love with a handsome official, and followed him around. But when he was caught peeping at the official, and the official had him beaten to death. But because Wu Tien Bao followed the official out of love, he was turned into the Rabbit God. Temples were built in his honor, and gay couples would go there to pray. Though temples to the god were largely destroyed in China, one exists in Taiwan today.
- Women's Kingdom: An island said to be inhabited by only women, that is only accessible by the sheer chance of whirlwinds blowing them there. The women who live there have sexual relationships with other women, and become pregnant by lying outdoors and the wind blowing into their bodies.
- Xian (Animal/Fairy Spirits): These spirits became lovers of humans and tended to choose same-sex partners who were usually men. The Xian might stay with their lovers for many years, and even beg the Fairy King to allow them to stay with their human lover for a long time. One famous spirit was the dragon, who, unlike most of the other animal spirits, preferred old men to young men. It is said that the dragon comes out during a rainbow and looks for old men to have sex with. This is illustrated in one myth, "The Farmer and the Dragon," which stars a rather unfortunate 60-year-old farmer named Ma.
- Lovers reincarnate with a new gender: There are some stories of lovers in past lives who meet again in their next life. If the woman in the past life was virtuous, she might be rewarded with reincarnating as a man in her next. However, the love between the couple doesn't diminish. One story is "The Fox Spirit and the Scholar," where the wife was reincarnated as a male scholar, and her husband, for his lack of loyalty to the Emperor, was downgraded to a fox spirit. The fox spirit, however, was so in love with his wife that he practiced alchemy to turn himself into a man again, and the two were happily reunited.
Native Japanese myths are associated with Shinto, Japan's animistic pagan religion that still exists today. Among many things, Buddhism was an import from China, probably through Korea, and as myths mixed, some parallels can still be seen with Chinese mythology. Homosexuality clearly exists in Japanese lore.
- Shinu no Hafuri and Ama no Hafuri: The gods Shinu No Hafuri and Ama No Hafuri were said to have brought (male) same-sex love into the world, as lovers and attendants to the sun goddess Amaterasu. When Ama No Hafuri died, Shinu No Hafuri lost himself to grief and committed suicide.
- Amaterasu and Ame No Uzume: In contrast to the typical mythological pantheon, Amaterasu, a goddess, is considered the most high and ruler of the sun. A famous myth tells of Amaterasu shutting herself in a cave after conflict with her brother Susano, and with her takes the sun. The other gods are desperate to lure her out of the cave, and the goddess Ame No Uzume performs a sexual dance, taking off all of her clothes. Amaterasu is entranced, watching the dance, and exits the cave. A transgender god Ishi Kore holds up a mirror, and while Amaterasu admires her reflection, the other gods shut the cave behind her.
The ancient Mesopotamian world, comprised of several overlapping societies, seems to have had a place especially for intersex people. The high god Enki of Sumerian mythology recognizes those who appear not to be male or female, and some myths claim he even created a "third gender."
- Gilgamesh and Enkidu: The legendary king Gilgamesh was said to be so arrogant that the creation goddess Aruru created Enkidu to act as his other half and balance out his emotions. Enkidu is said to have been raised in the wild, and he meets Gilgamesh when the two have a wrestling match. Gilgamesh is impressed with Enkidu's strength and the two become close friends - and some accounts suggest, dear lovers. Enkidu falls to sickness and dies, and Gilgamesh mourns so greatly that he refuses to allow Endiku's body to be buried until maggots begin to eat his body. Gilgamesh's observance of Endiku's decomposition are his inspiration to achieve godly divinity. What is notable about their relationship is the numerous times Enkidu is compared to a woman, the flowery loving descriptions Gilgamesh uses for Enkidu (such as his beloved and most dear), mention of them embracing and kissing, and some arguably sexual content in book XII of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Ancient Egypt, though featuring myths that don't shy away from sex in the least, seems to have few stories that outright reference homosexuality. Still, here is one that features two of the big-name gods.
- Horus and Set: In a rather crass myth, Horus, the sky god, is indicated to have had rough relations with Set. In a power struggle between the two, Set fiercely tries to prove his dominance over Horus before the other gods. One scheme was that of seduction, as if Set could prove he had had sex with Horus and been the one to penetrate him, that would show his superiority. During the seduction, he tries to do the deed with Horus, but unbeknownst to him, Horus catches the ejaculate in his hand. Horus counters by secretly spreading his own semen on Set's food, and when Set eats it, it is proven that Horus's sperm is inside Set and not the other way around, thereby proving Horus's dominance.
Dahomey, located in present-day Benin, Africa was a kingdom predominantly made up of Fon people that featured a lot of unique and rather advanced social and political elements, including an all-female military unit that were well-known for their bravery. In another interesting gender switch, young men, sometimes castrated, also served as "royal wives" to the king. Dahomey itself wasn't an ancient nation - it officially existed from the 1600s to the 1900s - but it drew upon West African Vodun and animistic religious practices and beliefs.
- Mawu-Lisa: Mawu and Lisa were twin siblings, and female and male respectively. However, they combined to create the intersex creator deity Mawu-Lisa, who is said to have created the world, and its plants, animals and people.
The native religions of the Hawaiian and Maori people feature many gods with frequent examples of apparent bisexuality or sexual androgyny. Some examples of these are the bisexual goddess Haakauilanani, and the male lovers Pala-Mao and Kumi-Kahi. Several myths have been interpreted as being gay.
- Hi'iaka and Hopoe: The cloud-bearing goddess Hi'iaka is depicted as having a number of sexual relationships with other women, including Hopoe (who is credited with teaching Hi'iaka the hula dance). The story had a tragic ending. When the volcano goddess Pele suspects that Hi'iaka has been having relations with a man she has her sights on, in revenge, she has Hi'iaka's lover Hopoe turned to stone. Hi'iaka was so distraught at Hopoe's death that she took revenge upon Pele by embracing the lover Pele wanted. The goddess Wahineomo was said to be another of Hi'iaka's lovers.
It should be noted that this is only a glance into some of the more famous stories. Instances of LGBT themes in mythology are as varied, plentiful, and of course controversial as one might expect. One thing is certain, however, and that is that there was never a culture on earth that wasn't aware of same sex relationships, even as opinions differed, and mythology is one of the best reflections of ancient cultures that we have.