LGBT themes in classical mythology

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Greco-Roman mythology features male homosexuality in many of the constituent myths. In addition, there are instances of cross-dressing, and of androgyny which has been grouped under the acronym LGBTQ+.


These myths have been described as being crucially influential on Western LGBT literature, with the original myths being constantly re-published and re-written, and the relationships and characters serving as icons.[1] In comparison, lesbianism is rarely found in classical myths.[2]


Homosexuality and bisexuality[edit]

Apollo, the god of sun and music, is considered the patron of same sex love, as he had many male lovers and was often invoked to bless homosexual unions.[3] He is also called "the champion of male love" by Andrew Callimach.[4] Other gods are sometimes considered patrons of homosexual love between males, such as the love goddess Aphrodite and gods in her retinue, such as the Erotes: Eros, Himeros and Pothos.[5] Eros is also part of a trinity of gods that played roles in homoerotic relationships, along with Heracles and Hermes, who bestowed qualities of beauty (and loyalty), strength, and eloquence, respectively, onto male lovers.[6] In the poetry of Sappho, Aphrodite is identified as the patron of lesbians.[7]

Sex and gender[edit]


The sex-change theme also occurred in classical mythology. The reason for the transformation varies, as in the case of Siproites (Σιπροίτης), a hunter from Crete, who was transformed to a woman by Artemis after having seen the goddess bathing/nude.[57][58]

There was also a motif of a woman needing to disguise herself as a male and later being transformed into a biological male by mysterious forces (mainly the gods). In the cases of Iphis and Leucippus, the woman's mother was pressured (by her husband) to bear a male child so the protagonist was forced to impersonate a male from birth. Later in life, manhood was granted through the blessing of a deity (Juno/Hera in Iphis' case and Leto in Leucippus').

Caeneus and Mestra, each of who was a mate of a god (Caeneus was a rape victim of Poseidon/Neptune and Mestra was a lover of the same god), were granted manhood by the said god. Mestra, however, had the ability to change her shape voluntarily, instead of staying in male form like Caeneus and other instances above.

Tiresias, on the other hand, became female because he struck a couple of copulating snakes, displeasing Hera, who punished him by transforming Tiresias into a woman. Later the sentence was remitted, due to either trampling on the mating snakes or avoiding them, and he became male again. In another version, Tiresias' sex-change was caused by an argument between Zeus and Hera, on which they debated whether a male or a female had greater pleasure in sex, so they transformed him into a female to experiment.

Androgynes and intersex[edit]

According to Leah DeVun, a "traditional Hippocratic / Galenic model of sexual difference – popularized by the late antique physician Galen and the ascendant theory for much of the Middle Ages – viewed sex as a spectrum that encompassed masculine men, feminine women, and many shades in between, including hermaphrodites, a perfect balance of male and female".[59] DeVun contrasts this with an Artistotelian view of intersex, which argued that "hermaphrodites were not an intermediate sex but a case of doubled or superfluous genitals", and this later influenced Aquinas.[59]

Hermaphroditus (also the namesake of the word hermaphrodite), the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, is considered the god of hermaphrodites and intersex people. Hermaphroditus was depicted as a winged youth with both male and female features, that is, usually female thighs, breasts, and style of hair, and male genitalia.

Dionysus has been dubbed "a patron god of hermaphrodites and transvestites" by Roberto C. Ferrari in the 2002 Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture.[60] He is referred to as effeminate, which is sometimes linked to his being dressed in girl's clothes during his childhood. In Orphic Hymn 41, the goddess Mise is referred to as an aspect of Dionysus, who is described as "male and female" (ἄρσενα καὶ θῆλυν).

Apollo was another god with effeminate features. His cheeks and chin are said to be soft and tender.[61][62] He was beardless and kept his hair long, giving him a feminine appearance. In one of his myths, he is mocked for draping himself in women's clothing, while his twin sister Artemis was made fun of for appearing manly and rough.

In addition to Dionysus/Mise, several gods are referred to as "both male and female" or "both female and male" in the Orphic Hymns, including Selene,[63] Athena,[64] and Adonis.[65] In Cyprus and Athens, an aspect of Aphrodite with male genitals and in some cases a beard, called Aphroditos, was worshipped. Macrobius (c. 400s AD) wrote in his Saturnalia, at 3.8.2:

There's also a statue of Venus on Cyprus, that's bearded, shaped and dressed like a woman, with scepter and male genitals, and they conceive her as both male and female. Aristophanes calls her Aphroditus, and Laevius says: Worshiping, then, the nurturing god Venus, whether she is male or female, just as the Moon is a nurturing goddess. In his Atthis Philochorus, too, states that she is the Moon and that men sacrifice to her in women's dress, women in men's, because she is held to be both male and female.[66]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Pequigney (2002), p. 1
  2. ^ Crompton (2006), p. 97, "Rome and Greece: Lesbianism"
  3. ^ Christine Downing, Myths and mysteries of same sex love
  4. ^ Andrew Callimach, Lovers' Legends: The Gay Greek Myths
  5. ^ Conner, Sparks & Sparks (1998), p. 64, "Aphrodite"; p.133, "Erotes"
  6. ^ Conner, Sparks & Sparks (1998), p. 132, "Eros"
  7. ^ Conner, Sparks & Sparks (1998), p. 64, "Aphrodite"
  8. ^ a b Pequigney (2002), p. 5
  9. ^ Penczak (2003), p. 17
  10. ^ Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus II.38.2
  11. ^ Callimachus, 'Hymn to Apollo'
  12. ^ Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 4 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190)
  13. ^ Conon, 33
  14. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.13.4–5
  15. ^ Ovid's Metamorphoses, 10
  16. ^ 'Photius', Bibliotheca
  17. ^ a b c Pequigney (2002), p. 2
  18. ^ Virgil, Aeneid, 391-394
  19. ^ Lucian Gallus 3. For the myth, see also the scholiast to Aristophanes Av. 835; Eustathius, Ad Odysseam 1.300; Ausonius, 26.2.27; Libanius, Progymnasmata 2.26.
  20. ^ Clement of Alexandria, Clementina Homilia, V, 15.
  21. ^ a b Licht, Hans (2009). Sexual Life In Ancient Greece. Oxon; New York: Routledge. p. 443. ISBN 9780710307026.
  22. ^ Servius' Commentary on Virgil, Aeneid 4.402
  23. ^ Ovid's Metamorphoses, 5
  24. ^ Photius, Bibliotheca excerpts, 190.33
  25. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2, 367 sqq.
  26. ^ Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses, 12
  27. ^ Virgil, Aeneid 10.325
  28. ^ a b c Pequigney (2002), p. 3
  29. ^ Aldrich, Robert (1993). The seduction of the Mediterranean: writing, art, and homosexual fantasy. London; New York: Routledge. p. 231. ISBN 9780415093125.
  30. ^ Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses, 8
  31. ^ a b c Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, 13.80
  32. ^ a b c d Pequigney (2002), p. 4
  33. ^ Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 10
  34. ^ Miller & Strauss Clay 2019, p. 133.
  35. ^ Pseudo-Hyginus, De Astronomica 2.12.
  36. ^ Photius, Bibliotheca excerpts, 190.50
  37. ^ Photius, Bibliotheca excerpts - GR
  38. ^ Serv. Ecl. 8.30
  39. ^ Licymnius, Fragment 771 (from Athenaeus, Scholars at Dinner) (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric V)
  40. ^ Morales, Helen (2007). Classical mythology. Very short introductions. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. p. 93. ISBN 9780192804761.
  41. ^ a b Nonnus, Dionysiaca
  42. ^ Pseudo-Plutarch, On Music, 7.
  43. ^ Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, 2.5.5.
  44. ^ a b Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, 13.77
  45. ^ a b Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses, 30
  46. ^ Fratantuono, Lee (2007). Madness unchained: a reading of Virgil's Aeneid. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. p. 139. ISBN 9780739122426.
  47. ^ Lucian, Erotes
  48. ^ Lycophron, Alexandra 134.
  49. ^ Euripides, The Cyclops 580—585.
  50. ^ Aelian, On Animals, 14. 28
  51. ^ Hoffmann, Herbert (1997). Sotades: symbols of immortality on Greek vases. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 16. ISBN 9780198150619.
  52. ^ Pepin, Ronald E. (2008). The Vatican Mythographers. New York: Fordham University Press. p. 17. ISBN 9780823228928.
  53. ^ a b Pseudo-Apollodorus, 1. 3.3.
  54. ^ "OVID, HEROIDES IV - Theoi Classical Texts Library". Retrieved 2022-09-11.
  55. ^ Ovid's Heroides, 4
  56. ^ Downing (1989), p. 198
  57. ^ Antoninus Liberalis, cited by Francis Celoria. The Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis: A Translation with Commentary, pp.71.
  58. ^ Orion: The Myth of the Hunter and the Huntress, pp.125-126. University of California Press.
  59. ^ a b DeVun, Leah (June 2018). "Heavenly hermaphrodites: sexual difference at the beginning and end of time". Postmedieval. 9 (2): 132–146. doi:10.1057/s41280-018-0080-8. ISSN 2040-5960. S2CID 165449144.
  60. ^ Ferrari, Roberto C. (September 19, 2002). "Subjects in the Visual Arts: Dionysus". Archived from the original on July 12, 2009. Retrieved April 8, 2015.
  61. ^ Callimachus, Hymn to Apollo
  62. ^ Lucian, Dialogues of the gods
  63. ^ Orphic Hymn 8
  64. ^ Orphic Hymn 31
  65. ^ Orphic Hymn 55
  66. ^ Macrobius; Kaster, Robert A. (2011), Saturnalia, Volume 2, Harvard University Press; p. 58 ISBN 0674996712