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Homosexuality in ancient greece was

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A group of teenage girls are carrying a plough through the night, like a team of oxen. Teenage girls, invol-ved in some kind of ritual, processing towards a mountain ridge. They are singing a beautiful song, a work Homosexuality in ancient greece was art, full of obscure allusions and some familiar names from ancient myths: Helen's devoted twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, "Aphrodita", the goddess of love, the dangerous, teasing Sirens.

But now the girls seem to be calling out to each other, strange, old-fashioned names: And they are flattering each other - "lovely Wianthemis".

No, something more than that. Hints, even, of sexual jealousy: A hard sound, chink, chink. Metal chipping out stone. High on a precipitous altar-dotted promontory, a man is surrounded by a small crowd of youths. They are watching him, as the sweat pours off him, chiselling strange, old-fashioned letters into the lava. Fast-forward a couple of hundred years.

Athens in the age of Plato. A man accused of attempted murder. He begins to tell his side of the story, how he got into a fight with some worthless creature called Simon. They nod sympathetically, as if all is now clearer. 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 inwhen 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: 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 "Homosexuality in ancient greece was" 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 Homosexuality in ancient greece was 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 "Homosexuality in ancient greece 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. But the image of an idealised non- sexual same-sex love was still powerful enough at the end of the 19th century for Oscar Wilde to think it a good idea to invoke the Greek example - "that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect" - in his defence when charged with sodomy.

Some members of the audience in the courtroom clapped and cheered, although there "Homosexuality in ancient greece was" nothing very spiritual about the sensual love unblushingly described by poets such as Aeschylus, Theocritus and Solon - as Wilde knew better than anybody. A number of solutions have been proposed over the years to account for these apparent contradictions. Meier and others appealed to changes over time.

First they identified in the distant past - the age of heroes - a rather extreme form of buddydom, comrades-in-arms like Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's Iliad, not lovers in the modern sense, nor in any Homosexuality in ancient greece was sense either, just extremely good friends. When later more homosexually inclined Greeks added kisses - and more - to the relationship, they had simply misunderstood what Homer intended.

The origins of the true in famous Greek Love should be placed, these scholars suggested, about years later, in the years before BC, in a virile and passionate and educational appreciation of youthful male beauty that was very quickly "corrupted" or "poisoned" by sensuality and indeed sex.

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