glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Classical Mythology  
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  

The Absence of Lesbianism in Greco-Roman Myth

Nevertheless, the gay heritage from this great body of Western mythology is rich, and much richer, sad to say, than the lesbian heritage. Lesbianism hardly exists in the myths. No goddess ever has sexual relations with another goddess, or with a nymph, or with a girl. Nor, at the human level, do women fall in love with women.

Not even the Amazons, through living in an exclusively female society and warriors in a female army, did so. They had sexual unions once a year with men of neighboring tribes for the purpose of breeding daughters (sons they destroyed), but they did not become lovers to one another.

Ovid writes of a girl-loving girl, but in a narrative that views lesbian feelings with abhorrence. Iphis was brought up as a boy because her Cretan father would have killed a daughter at her birth. At thirteen, she was betrothed to Ianthe, whom she loved passionately but with the sense that such same-sex love was unnatural and monstrous. On the eve of the wedding, a merciful goddess solved her desperate dilemma with a miraculous sex-change, turning her actually into the boy she had always seemed (Metamorphoses 9.666-797).

Sappho, Plato, and Lesbian Love

Between Sappho in the early sixth century and Plato two centuries later, Hellenic writing was silent on the subject of lesbian sexuality.

Sappho of Lesbos, the island that yielded our elegant term for the love between women that she wrote about, was so highly regarded as a poet as to be dubbed "the tenth muse"; she habitually appeals to Aphrodite in her amatory lyrics, thereby establishing the goddess as the patroness of lesbian as she is of other types of love.

Plato composed for the Symposium and assigned to Aristophanes a myth to account for sexual orientations. Once upon a time the human race consisted of people whose shape was round and whose bodily parts were like ours but doubled and somewhat rearranged; and each person was a member of one of three sexes: male, female, and male-female.

They were so powerful that the gods felt threatened, and Zeus hit upon the expedient of weakening them by cutting them in half. The result was that each thereafter sought to unite with the missing half through love: The homosexual desired his other male half, the lesbian her other female half, and the formerly one desired his or her counterpart of the other sex.

This myth is truly remarkable. It shows that the notion of a sexual identity innate to the human personality is very old, and thus it roundly refutes the contention of those gay theorists who insist that homosexual identity is a concept that could not possibly have predated the invention of the word homosexual in the later nineteenth century.

Besides, this myth legitimates lesbian love by putting it on the same level as male-male and opposite-sex love--a radical move in the Athens of that time.

Society as organized within the Greek polis was indeed . The virile member was highly privileged--if, that is, it belonged to a freeborn adult, for his sexual hegemony extended over eromenoi and wife, as also over slaves and prostitutes. However honorable their paiderasteia may have been to the Greeks, they were severely when it came to lesbianism, Sappho and the Symposium notwithstanding.

The Romans had a different erotics of pederasty: The boys they made love with were slaves, but they were just as averse to romances between women. The classical myths manifest cultural biases in their ignoring and ignorance of lesbian love.


Though reflecting the mores and religious beliefs as well as biases of the Greek and Roman ancients, these myths transcend their native civilizations to play a crucial role in the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

They do so in several ways: by bearing witness to awesome societies of the past wherein at least some forms of homosexuality were naturalized and exalted; by making a rich vein of positive images, tropes, and allusions available for textualizations of same-sex love; and by enabling Western writers of later periods to read and represent their lived experience of homoeroticism in the timeless light of classical mythology.

Joseph Pequigney

  <previous page   page: 1  2  3  4  5  6    

Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about Literature

   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  Amazons

Historically either distrusted as agents of chaos or admired as examples of female power and intelligence, Amazons were depicted as heterosexual until the twentieth century, when lesbians adopted them as symbols of powerful women living without men.

arts >> Overview:  Classical Art

Ancient Greek and Roman art represents a variety of homoerotic experience in several different ways.

social sciences >> Overview:  Greece: Ancient

The institution of pederasty (paiderastia) was a conspicuous feature of ancient Greek public and private life, but other forms of male-male sexual relations flourished in the Greco-Roman cosmopolis of the second and third centuries C.E.

literature >> Overview:  Greek Literature: Ancient

Ancient Greece holds a unique place in the heritage of homosexual literature as it was a society that openly celebrated same-sex love in its poetry and prose.

literature >> Overview:  Roman Literature

Roman writers on homosexual or bisexual themes generally followed Greek models; but unlike the Greeks, Romans condoned sex with slaves.

social sciences >> Overview:  Rome: Ancient

Ancient Rome's attitude toward same-sex sexual activity was remarkably various, with role, age, and status as important as gender in the regulation of sexual relations.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects in the Visual Arts: Dionysus

The Greek god of wine, revelry, and orgiastic delights, and the patron god of hermaphrodites and transvestites, Dionysus has been extremely popular as a subject of Western art.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Ganymede

Since antiquity Ganymede, the beautiful Phrygian youth abducted by Jupiter, has served as an artistic expression for homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Hercules

A complex and multivalent character, Hercules is an exemplary hero whose myths remind us that a supreme manifestation of virility and physicality can also encompass sexual deeds outside the heteronormative.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects in the Visual Arts: Narcissus

Although the myth of Narcissus was originally intended as a moral fable against excessive pride, Narcissus has functioned in the arts as a symbol of same-sex passion, as well as of masturbation and effeminacy.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Orpheus

Although most artists since the Hellenistic age ignore the homosexual aspect of Orpheus, depicting him instead as the classical pattern of the poet-musician, notable exceptions are Colard Mansion and Albrecht Dürer.

literature >> Plato

Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.


Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Ingram Bywater. Basic Works. Richard McKeon, ed. New York: Random House, 1941.

Bonnefoy, Yves, comp. and ed. Mythologies. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Calasso, Roberto. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Trans. Tim Parks. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Cantarella, Eva. Bisexuality in the Ancient World. Trans. Cormac O'Cuilleanain. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Clarke, W. M. "Achilles and Patroclus in Love." Hermes 106 (1978): 381-396.

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Downing, Christine. Myths and Mysteries of Same-Sex Love. New York: Continuum, 1989.

Foucault, Michel. The Care of the Self. Vol. 3 of The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

_____. The Use of Pleasure. Vol. 2 of The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Freud, Sigmund. "On Narcissism: An Introduction." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. James Strachey, ed. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1966-1974. 14:67-102.

_____. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. SE. 7:125-230.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. 2 vols. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955.

Halperin, David M., John J. Winkler, Froma I. Zeitlin, eds. Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Halperin, David M. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. London: Routledge, 1990.

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Loeb Classical Library. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary. N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, eds. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

Plato. The Symposium. Works. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Irwin Edman, ed. New York: Modern Library, 1928.

Saslow, James M. Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

Sergent, Bernard. Homosexuality in Greek Myth. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.


    Citation Information
    Author: Pequigney, Joseph  
    Entry Title: Classical Mythology  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated June 11, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


This Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.