February is LGBTQ history Month, so I thought to explore a few themes over these blogs connected with history and gay identity.
For this week’s blog I have a friend to thank who sent me a few links which I’ll share here so you can see the articles also.
As gay men we are used to growing up feeling that we might be considered weak. As we look back at the past it’s not possible to completely correlate a societies attitudes toward same sex activity with our modern understanding of being gay, but it is interesting to see that sex between men has at times been considered a way to boost virility and strength.
This is evident in research into the Vikings and their attitude to sex between men. When Vikings were preparing for battle they would have a mock battle between 20 men, using wooden swords and shields. At the end of this there would be the victors, referred to as Vinnas, and losers referred to as Vatas.
The winners gathered together on one side of a rope, and the losers would goto the other side and pray to the Nordic god Freyr, asking for guidance and to become stronger. In Viking culture it was believed that seaman contained the essence of a man’s strength, a belief that is also present in Eastern Tantra. After the prayers the winners would cross the line and take whichever of the losers they wished and choose their preferred method of ensuring the loosing man took in their essence.
The ancient texts tell us that losers eagerly took in the winners’ offerings as they wanted to capture their energy, channeled through Freyr himself and that to let one drop be wasted was an insult to the god. If someone had performed particularly poorly then they would have several winners giving them the god’s ambrosia. The loosing man would eagerly participated in this as there was such a strong belief that by doing so he would gain some of the power of the winning man.
Viking culture continued to celebrate this same sex bonding until the coming of Christianity. As I said at the start, this was not gay relationships as we see them now, but I think it helps to bring a shift of perspective if we can see there were cultures where sex between men was seen to serve a purpose that was considered empowering for the men involved. Also – if I had been taught this at school it would have made my history lessons suddenly even more fascinating, but we impose a contemporary view of masculinity onto cultures from the past and any evidence of same sex activity is often removed form the history we tell.
To read more click here
The second article brings us closer to home, for those of us who live in London. It explores Roman London and the attitudes to sex between men. Next year will see the 1900th year anniversary of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Londinium. From the historic texts it’s clear that among the men who were part of his entourage were men he enjoyed intimacy with. He would have been completely open about this – not for him the furtive meeting of some modern politicians who condemn homosexuality whilst going to a gay orgy when no-one is looking! Hadrian had no concerns about being seen to have male lovers as the men of Londinium also had their own male lovers.
Writing tablets discovered during recent digs in London show that society here was organised in much the same way as in Rome itself, for at least the first century of the city’s existence and this included sex between men being common place. Hadrian himself was married, but never had any children, and there is some belief now among scholars that he was gay in our modern sense in that he preferred men and had no sexual interest in women.
The Roman attitude to sex between men was not an equivalent to our understanding now of what it is to be gay. There was often a power dynamic between a master and his male slave and Roman men considered the important thing to be that they be the dominant partner in any sexual encounter rather than what gender the partner was.
Whilst sex between Roman men was commonplace it does seem Hadrian had more of a romantic experience with one particular lover named Antinous. Antinous was a greek teenager who from the age of 17 until his death at 19 was inseparable from Hadrian, traveling with his wherever he went until he drowned in the Nile whilst they were traveling in Egypt.
Hadrian was distraught, going into an extended mourning. On emerging from this he had his dead lover declared a god, and his cult spread around the Empire, where his shrines would have a statue depicting him in Egyptian headdress. He became the most popular deified human throughout the Empire and his cult lasted for 400 years until the asendency of Christianity led to it being banned.
In the 19th Century displaying a bust of Antinous in your home was a coded way to let others know you were gay and Oscar Wilde referred to him in his writings. In 1985 a US pagan called William E. Livingston began worshiping Antinous and this led to the founding of a group that has Antinious as their god. Some see him as a Jungian archetypal form that represents gayness whilst others see him as a deity and refer to him as the gay god! This is not in line with his cult status in the Roman Empire, where there was no notion of homosexuality as we understand it, but fascinating to see that 1900 years after his death there are again people who worship him. To read more click here