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    Ancient Loves and Lovers Chaffe

    rainbowguyMen have written of loving men and women of their love for other women since the beginning of recorded time. From the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the oldest known epic poem—predating Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by more than 1500 years—to the fall of the Roman Empire, the people of the Ancient World not only enjoyed same-sex relationships, but they also celebrated them in stories, poetry, art, and monuments.

    The men and women of long ago did not see and understand the world as we do. No one considered herself to be lesbian or himself to be gay, not only because the words did not yet exist, but also because they had no concept of sexual orientation. People believed sexual interaction was a behavior, based upon sexual interest or attraction—or necessity in an arranged marriage—not an expression of an identity. It was something someone “did” and not something someone “was.”

    The ancient codes of law were mostly silent on sexual relations between two men or two women. The early legal texts, when they mentioned it at all, concerned themselves with specific deeds, not general moral principles, and the status of the other individual, not the gender of the partners. Same-sex relations were either so rare that they went unnoticed—which seems impossible—or so common that nobody cared.

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    The names of many of the people who contributed to their ways of life, and so to ours, have been lost to us, but we remember these men who loved men and these women who loved women so long ago, among many others. Both gods and mortals did so proudly and often openly, although some, like Pharaoh Neferkare and General Sasenet, ca. 2200 BCE, were secret lovers.

    Other leaders did not try to hide the truth about themselves and each other. Some had enduring relationships, including the semi-mythical Achilles and Patroclus, friends and lovers; Aristogeiton and Harmodius, ca. 514 BCE, the Athenian paramours who became the pre-eminent symbols of democracy in ancient Athena; and Damon and Pythias, ca. 400 BCE, who have personified sincere trust and devoted, loving friendship for more than 2000 years.

    In ancient times, stories of love between two men formed part of many cultures. Among them were the Hebrew David, ca. BCE, who said of his cherished Jonathan, “Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women;” Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty, ca. 1 BCE, who cut the sleeve from his robe so not to awaken Dong Xian, his adored, when he fell asleep across it; Roman Emperor Hadrian, who deified his beloved Antinous after his death, ca. 138 CE; and Saints Sergius and Bacchus, ca. 280–310 CE, Roman soldiers and lovers who lived and were martyred as a couple united in their Christian faith.

    The love between two men or two women was a favored subject for writers, especially poets. Theognis of Mergara, ca. sixth century BCE, addressed many of his songs to Cyrnus, “his beloved of life.” Anacreon, ca. 582–482 BCE, beseeched the god Dionysus to “become a good advisor to Cleobulus, that he accept my love.” Meleager, a first century BCE Hellenistic poet, wrote of same-sex infatuation: “At 12 o’clock in the afternoon/In the middle of the street/Alexis!/And the summer sun and that boy’s look/Did their work on me.”

    Some expressed their feelings more generally. The homoerotic epigrams of Strato of Sardis, ca 125 CE, who seem to espouse love for everyone, mention his attractions, passions, and infatuations: “A friend of youth I have no youth in mind/For each has beauties of a different kind.” His collection of homoerotic and amorous writings, the Musa Puerilis, became the 12th book of what is now known as The Greek Anthology.

    In those far away times and different civilizations, women had fewer possibilities than they do now. The pantheons of the gods included them in important roles, but in these earthly realms they seldom were allowed to participate in the affairs of state, commerce, and the arts. We know of fewer of them because they had little opportunity to make public contributions to their societies.

    Sappho’s achievements are the more remarkable because of this. She was born between 630 and 612 BCE.

    Very little about her life is known for certain, but her poetry became widely admired during antiquity and she was esteemed by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria as one of the Nine Lyric Poets worthy of study. Sadly, most of her works have been lost to time, surviving now only in fragmentary form.

    We thank and honor Sappho and our other predecessors from ancient times for their gifts to us—a heritage that has shaped our culture, our philosophy, our shared mythology, and the direction our history has taken from their time to our own—and for their examples of love and caring relationships that have survived across the centuries.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.