Sunday, November 11, 2007
Davidson, James. "Mad about the Boy." GUARDIAN November 20, 2007.
The secret of Greek homosexuality has only ever been a secret to those who neglected to inquire. The Greeks themselves were hardly coy about it. Their descendants under the Roman empire were amazed to read what their ancestors had written centuries earlier, drooling in public over the thighs of boys, or putting words into the mouth of Achilles in a tragic drama, as he remembered the "kisses thick and fast" he had enjoyed with his beloved Patroclus. The Romans certainly noticed what they called the "Greek custom", which they blamed on too much exercising with not enough clothes on. Christians mocked a people who worshipped gods who kidnapped handsome boys like Ganymede, or who, like Dionysus, promised a man his body in exchange for information about how to get into the underworld. Nor was it forgotten in the Middle Ages, when Greek Ganymede became a codeword for sodomitical vice. At the end of the 17th century the great classicist Richard Bentley knew well enough that the Greek word for a male "admirer", erastes, indicated a "flagitious love of boys". And in 1837, when Moritz Hermann Eduard Meier was asked to contribute a book-length article on the subject to a giant encyclopaedia of arts and sciences, he made no bones about it: "The spiritual elements of this affection were always mixed with a powerfully sensual element, the pleasure which had its origin in the physical beauty of the loved one." And yet there was always another side to the story. We hear of laws that punished men who "mixed with" or even "chatted" with boys. Xenophon, who knew Sparta better than anyone, says that the Spartan lawgiver had laid down that it was shameful even "to be seen to reach out to touch the body of a boy". Slaves called "pedagogues" - paidagogoi - were employed by Athenians to protect their sons from unwanted attention, and by Plato's time there were some people who had "the audacity to say" that homosexual sex was shameful in any circumstances. Indeed Plato himself eventually made so bold. At one time he had written that same-sex lovers were far more blessed than ordinary mortals. He even gave them a headstart in the great race to get back to heaven, their mutual love refeathering their moulted wings. Now he seemed to contradict himself. In his ideal city, he says in his last, posthumously published work known as The Laws, homosexual sex will be treated the same way as incest. It is something contrary to nature, he insists, and although there won't be laws against it, nevertheless a propaganda programme will encourage everyone to say that it is "utterly unholy, odious-to-the-gods and ugliest of ugly things". For these and other reasons there has long been debate about the true nature of this Greek custom - what the Greeks called eros, a "passionate life-churning love", or philia, "fond intimacy". Was it essentially sublime or sodomitical? A source of anxiety or a cause for celebration? Sometimes the Greeks seemed to approve of it wholeheartedly, even to suggest that it was the highest and noblest form of love. And other times they seemed to condemn it. Sometimes the ideal seems to be a spiritual, passionate but unconsummated "Platonic" love, like that much praised by Plato's Socrates. It was this notion that allowed Ganymede, ancient mascot for the vice unmentionable among Christians, to appear on the doors of St Peter's in Rome, where, amazingly, he remains, or as the emblem of "piety" in Christian picture-books. So popular were such prints of Ganymede in the Catholic Baroque that Rembrandt painted a harsh rejoinder. Instead of sublimely rising, his Ganymede is kicking and screaming, dragged off in incontinent terror. . . . Read the entire article here: http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2208343,00.html.