One of the elements of Ancient Greek culture I have always loved is their attitude to the naked human body. They had none of the absurd hang-ups of the later Christian civilization. At the original Olympic Games young athletes would take part in races absolutely naked. They would also play the flute and recite poetry at the Games in the same state. I’m sure that the sense of shame that the Christians and others have associated with the displaying of the genitals has brought a lot of unnecessary misery to the planet. Orsipuss from the city of Megara was famed as the first athlete to run naked at the Olympic Games. Theognis, a poet from the same city wrote: “Happy is the lover who works out naked and goes home to sleep all day with a beautiful boy.” Of course the whole idea of what today we would call gay love was built into the religion of ancient Greece. Zeus, son of Cronus and King of the Immortals, fell in love with a beautiful boy called Ganymede. He seized him and carried him off to Mount Olympus and made him divine so that he was able to keep the lovely bloom of youth for ever.
Pederasty was an important element in Greek culture. An older man (erastes or “lover”) would court a lovely youth (the eromenos or “beloved”) from a noble family with the full agreement of the boy’s father. The older man (probably in his mid to late 20’s) would act like a kind of sponsor or mentor to the youth. If the lad was very beautiful then there would often be a lot of competition between the older guys, sometimes leading to ferocious fights. It was usually left up to the sought-after youth to make the final decision of who would be his erastes . The boy who would be between the age of 12 and 18 would be showered with presents and the courtship was seen as an important part of the eromenos’s journey to maturity. It was a vital part of his education, a rite of passage.
The Greek practice of pederasty seems to have originated on the island of Crete. It was seen as a part of a boy’s initiation. This involved a kind of ritual abduction which was carried out with the full knowledge and agreement of the lad’s father. Indeed, many Greek dads prayed that their sons would grow up to be so handsome and attractive that they would win the richest and most influential suitors.
The older man would get the boy’s young friends to help him to organize the abduction. Then he would carry the loved one off to his andreion which was a kind of exclusive club for men. Here the lovely youth would be showered with gifts – then the older man would take the boy and his friends away into a deep forest where they would hunt and feast for two months. At the end of this period there would be more gifts – military attire, an ox and a drinking cup. Other more costly gifts followed. When the party returned to the city the chosen boy would sacrifice the ox to Zeus and his friends would join him at another feast where he would receive his adult clothes that would mark him as a famous or renowned person. During meals the boy would stand beside his master and serve him wine in the cup he’d been given – like Ganymede, the beautiful boy who was cup-bearer to Zeus.
If we could go back in time to Classical Greece, perhaps we would see a beautiful young male creature without pressing needs of his own. He is aware of his own beauty and is, perhaps, a little self-absorbed. He will smile sweetly at the admiring lover; he will show appreciation for the older man’s friendship, advice and assistance. He will allow the lover to greet him by touching, affectionately, his genitals while he, himself, looks demurely at the ground.
From ancient writings and the artwork on vases it is clear that the love shared between the erastes or lover and his eromenos (the boy) would go beyond the bounds of a merely platonic relationship. Very many of the Greek vases show the older man fondling the youth’s genitals. Over this a kind of modern fairy tale has been created. Some historians and scholars have insisted that when the older guy fondled his boy’s cock and balls the youth would remain in an unaroused state. Now of course anyone who has known a healthy, lusty teenager or has been one himself would find this somewhat difficult to believe. The mentor would also have taken pleasure at the organ growing beneath his touch and obviously this would, in very many cases, lead to intercrural sex (where the older man inserts his cock between the youth’s thighs) or full on anal fucking.
Youths with broad shoulders, narrow waists and prominent buttocks were especially prized although in contrast to our own age perhaps, it was the smaller, daintier genitals that were desired. A huge dangling cock was thought to make a boy look ape-like.
In Classical Greece an aristocratic boy would have been considered ready for this kind of mentoring relationship once he had passed through puberty. In Athenian law there was no real age limit spelled out but sex had to be consensual. However the society did frown on boys who opened their legs to earn money. If they offered themselves as prostitutes and were found out they would be in danger of losing their citizenship and being denied important positions in society later in life. Most boys who had been involved in a relationship with an erastes would go on to marry a woman and raise a family. A boy’s involvement with the older man would usually end when the lad started to grow a full beard and body hair. In many cases the men would maintain a close friendship for the rest of their lives. However writings from these classical times indicate that there were also some boys who came to hate their older lovers. Obviously Greek society didn’t consider that there were separate sexual categories for men such as “straight”, “gay” or “bi”. Indeed the word “homosexual” wasn’t known until the Nineteenth Century when it was coined by a Hungarian doctor.
Of course ancient Greece and in particular the city-state of Athens is the birth place of democracy and it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest that gay relationships made a strong contribution to this. Indeed several of the writers of the time recorded that one of the reasons that the love of boys became fashionable in Athens was that it was considered that the strong bonds between lusty youths and young men in their prime would help the community resist domineering tyrants and dictators. The great Greek critic and philosopher Aristotle also maintained that Cretan lawgivers encouraged sex between men and boys because it was an effective method of birth control.