Bronze Age Buddies

Published in: November-December 2018 issue.


FOR THOSE INTERESTED in tracing the origins of homosexual relations in history, or in the literary history of the West, it is customary to begin with the ancient Athenians in Greece’s Golden Age. However, it is possible to go back quite a bit further in time, to the epoch in which writing itself began, to the Bronze Age, which can be dated from roughly 3300 to 1200 BCE. At least one great epic poem survives from the Bronze Age itself, Gilgamesh, while other sagas from that era were not written down until later. Thus, for example, the Iliadand the Odysseywere transcribed during Greece’s Archaic period (8th century BCE) but descend from an oral tradition concerning events of the late Bronze Age civilization of Mycenaean Greece. By the same token, the Hebrew scriptures were largely written during the Babylonian captivity but refer to events of the late Bronze Age.

         Rather than become mired in debates over vocabulary, I will use the term homosexuality to refer to any intimate relationship between two people of the same sex. Of course, past civilizations used different terms than we do and delineated gender and sexual roles in culturally specific ways. But there’s a wealth of information out there, and I don’t think we should exclude a priorithe possibility that there’s a continuous thread connecting the past to the present.

Achilles bandaging the arm of the wounded Patroclus. Attic cup
by the potter Sosias. Early 5th century BCE. Berlin Museum.

         The emphasis on ancient Greece in past research has had the effect of shining a spotlight on the custom of pæderasty—both in Greece and in other civilizations. For this reason, I will not emphasize the topic of pæderasty in what follows. Instead, my focus will be on adult couples of the same sex who shared an unusually intimate relationship, with or without the suggestion of sexual union. To the extent possible, I’d like to use a modern definition of a romantic relationship as one that involves both intimacy andsex, as well as the possibility of a long-term commitment. Pæderastic associations in Greece tended to be fairly brief. For the older partner, such a connection may have co-existed with marriage, while the question of consent arises with respect to the younger partner. The arrangement was more of a business or educational transaction than a romantic one, though there were elements of courtship and declarations of love.


Gilgamesh & Enkidu & Achilles & Patroclus

We begin at the beginning, with the earliest literary work of them all, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written down by the Sumerians near the end of the second millennium BCE. It is an extraordinary piece of work that made news recently when a new tablet was found that added further details to the story. What’s interesting about this story for our purposes is that it depicts a loving relationship between two men.

         The epic tells of the deeds of Gilgamesh as he rules the people of the city of Uruk. When his actions become oppressive and unpopular with the people, the gods send a wild man, Enkidu, to stop him. Matched in strength, the two men quickly become close companions and seem to be enough company for each other as to exclude everyone else. This union inspires the jealousy of the goddess Ishtar, who demands and then brings about the death of Enkidu. Gilgamesh is inconsolable upon Enkidu’s death and holds a lavish funeral for him that stretches over a period of days.

         There is a wealth of evidence in the text to suggest that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are lovers. We see them grappling together in mock combat as they describe each other in erotic language and then hold hands. When Enkidu is on his deathbed, Gilgamesh describes him as his beloved. His mother had prophesied to Gilgamesh, “You will love him as a wife,” and when tragedy strikes, he mourns Enkidu as though mourning a dead spouse. Finally, in the 12th tablet, Enkidu’s ghost returns from the underworld and makes a passing reference to sexual union between the two men, leaving the nature of their relationship quite clear. Nor would this interpretation be at odds with the traditions of neighboring peoples in ancient Mesopotamian. For example, the Assyrians believed that men having sex with men brought good fortune.

         Moving on to another founding epic and another famous couple, we encounter Patroclus and Achilles in the Iliad. As noted, Homer’s epic was finally committed to parchment in the 8th century BCE, but it is set in the late Bronze Age and describes a world, that of Mycenaean Greece, that was already ancient by then. (Consequently, it is full of anachronisms.) Homer never explicitly states that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, but this did not prevent many subsequent Greek writers and philosophers from assuming that such was the case. In the Symposium, Plato ends up arguing that love between two males is the purest expression of love. A similar spin is offered in plays by Aeschylus, Lycophron, and Aeschines. This interpretation was reportedly espoused by Alexander the Great. Thus even if Homer wasn’t exactly spelling things out, many prominent Greeks of a later age read between the lines and concluded that Achilles and Patroclus were more than just comrades in arms.

         Classical historians, even those who subscribe to this view, have not always been careful to point out that this relationship was not a pæderastic one. Neither warrior was a “boy” in the sense implied by this model. Indeed the men’s roles and ages are inverted, as Patroclus, presumably the passive partner, is described as being somewhat older than Achilles. The very concept of pæderasty did not exist in the Homeric poets’ time, and the term “erastes,” which refers to the older partner in such a relationship, does not appear in Homer. (By the way, a similar type of martial male bonding is also implicit in the 4th century BCE “Sacred Band of Thebes,” which consisted of 150 pairs of male lovers chosen because they were thought to be incapable of fleeing from a battle if defending their beloved.)


The Middle East

Bronze Age references to same-sex relationships are not restricted to pagan cultures but can also be found in the Hebrew scriptures, which, while apparently condemning homosexuality in a few early passages, also portrays such a relationship later on. I have in mind the friendship between David and Jonathan as portrayed in the book of Samuel (18:1–3): “And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father’s house. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.” In short, David and Jonathan formed a bond of uncommon closeness and affection after defeating the Philistines.

         Eventually, Jonathan is killed, and when David hears of his death, he laments: “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). The homoerotic implications of these verses have been memorialized by Renaissance sculptors Michelangelo and Donatello (both of whom were gay). This biblical depiction of a male-male relationship does not specify a passive and active partner (as with Achilles and Patroclus or Zeus and Ganymede); nor does it treat the union as a transaction or cultic act of worship. Instead, it seems in its simplicity to be an intimate and loving relationship of two equals, one that looks not so far removed from the contemporary pattern of romantic love between same-sex couples.


Excursus. Written records from ancient times can tell us something about heroes and kings, but archæological evidence can sometimes supply information about ordinary people. One example would be a male skeleton buried in female attire near Prague from around 900 to 500 BCE, suggesting a transgender person who was offered a burial appropriate to their gender. Another extraordinary burial site is that of an Egyptian couple, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, who were servants to the royal house of the Fifth Dynasty (mid-3rd millennium BCE). The two were buried together in a pose expressing intimacy and are widely believed to be the first recorded gay couple.

         To stay with Egypt but move up the social hierarchy, archæologists have unearthed quite a few gay figures associated with the royal house of the Pharaoh. For example, Pepi II Neferkare was recorded as having a relationship with one of his generals. From this period we also see the production of art depicting intimate relations between two males or two females. Turning to Egyptian law, we find scattered references to anal sex with a man as the receiving partner in the Book of the Dead and elsewhere, though it is not always clear if these are permissive or restrictive of homosexuality.


Asia, South and East

The Hebrew scriptures also gave us Leviticus, to be sure, which contains a measure of homophobia that is largely absent from most non-Abrahamic belief systems. Many authorities on the Dharmic faiths of South Asia note that gender and sexual variations are often mentioned in a positive light. Many Dharmic deities and figures are described as intersex or able to change genders. The Vedas frequently allude to a third gender known as the Hijira (occupying a similar role to the Thai Kathoey), though sometimes these references are negative. Elsewhere in the vast Vedas we do find proscriptions against same-sex relations for males, though female relations are not similarly prohibited. The Kama Sutra devotes an entire chapter to homosexual union and practices and also contains routine descriptions and allusions to gender-nonconforming individuals, and it is permissive toward both anomalies.

         Staying in India but shifting from the sacred to the secular, we also find homosexuality referred to in various codes of law in ancient times. The Manusmriti, an influential Hindu legal text written in Sanskrit, offers instructions as to the rights and duties of various social categories and includes references to a third gender. Another ancient Indian text, the Arthasatra, lists minor punishments for same-sex acts (consisting of the smallest of possible fines and bathing instructions).

         By the way, if we go back to history’s earliest written codes of law, we do not find prohibitions against same-sex interactions. Hammurabi himself, the giver of the first such code, reportedly had sex with men, as did a number of rulers of Babylon over the centuries. In the Code of Hammurabi, there are references to “daughter-men,” a class that can be interpreted as lesbians or transgender people. The code mentions them in order to allow their marriage to other women. This is a rare reference to lesbianism—if indeed that is what it is—a lacuna that is largely due to the low status of women in these highly patriarchal societies.

         In China and other parts of East Asia, there are references to homosexuality recorded among the oldest literature. The practice here is referred to variously as “the cut sleeve,” “the southern custom,” or “the leftover peach.” The latter refers to a relationship between two legendary lovers of the Zhou Dynasty who famously shared a peach together. Up until the Western cultural intrusion, many emperors had lovers of both genders, and homosexuality was regarded as a normal facet of life. For example, during the Warring States period (circa 450–225 BCE), the histories record a relationship between the King of Wei and a feudal lord.

         In Chinese mythology and religion, we often find references to same-sex relations. Spirits frequently take partners of the same gender. These partnerships aren’t characterized as unorthodox and involve physical contact and deep affection. Some Buddhist schools condemned same-sex relations as misconduct, though most Buddhist and Taoist schools were ambivalent or failed to mention homosexuality at all. In fact, there is a long recorded tradition of monastic male relations that could be interpreted as pæderastic.

         That said, assessing the prevalence of homosexuality in ancient Chinese literature is difficult. Often the same pronouns were used to refer to both male and female characters, which complicates things for obvious reasons. One of the less ambiguous sources is called The Intrigues of Warring States, which records an attractive young man being planted in a court to negatively influence the feudal lord who ruled there. In the Zhou period, a marriage-like arrangement between two men, Pan Zhang and Wang Zhangxion, is discussed.


From Early Greece to Late Rome

To return to ancient Greece—always a homecoming of sorts—the very word “lesbian” derives from the island of Lesbos, which was home to the poet Sappho around 600 BCE. Sappho was the leader of a group of unmarried women with and for whom she wrote her love poems. She is always included in the Greek canon of lyric poets and is the only woman (though not the only LGBT person) to make this list. Her community school was a “thiasoi,” suggesting the female equivalent of pæderasty. (There are reports of similar behavior taking place in Sparta involving older and more youthful women.)

         In Roman culture, we start to see state acceptance (as opposed to theological acceptance) of same-sex marriage. There appears to be an arrangement similar to civil partnerships. Adult male citizens were expected to marry a female citizen, though it was socially acceptable for a freeborn male to take a male lover, so long as he played the active role in sex. The passive partner was often an object of ridicule, as we see in taunting graffiti and in the epigrams of Horace. However, based on works such as the Satyricon and The Golden Ass, we find that behind closed doors these social controls did not apply—so long as the participants didn’t bring shame to their families.

         With all of these examples to draw from—and I realize this has been rather a whirlwind tour—I think the evidence is piling up that homosexuality is not the product of contemporary social constructs but instead has ancient roots. What’s more, we need not restrict our search for these roots to a study of 5th-century Athens, which practiced a particular form of same-sex relationship that admittedly differs from our own. There are descriptions of relationships from even more ancient civilizations that suggest a closer affinity to the modern Western pattern than is often acknowledged.


George Aitch is a doctor in London, England, who writes in his spare time. His work has appeared in on-line and print venues such asLitro, Confluence, andThe Crazy Oik.


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