Greece’s Gay History: From Apollo to Mamma Mia

It’s been a long time coming, but Greece has recently become the first majority (90%) Christian Orthodox country to legalise same-sex marriage. The change has come after many years of resistance from the country’s conservatives and the Church of Greece. Christianity was first introduced to Greece in 49 AD, by Saint Paul the Apostle, a travelling missionary who is largely responsible for the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. The Church of Greece is still accorded the ‘prevailing religion’ in Greece’s constitution, which is largely due to the role the church played in both the years of the Ottoman Empire and the Greek War of Independence (mid 15th century – 1821).

Greece decriminalised homosexual practice in 1951, legalised same-sex civil unions in 2015, and gained the right to foster (but not adoption) in 2018. As of February 15th this year, same-sex couples in Greece now have the right to get married and adopt children.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, “People who have been invisible will finally be made visible around us. And with them, many children (will) finally find their rightful place. For every democratic citizen, today is a day of joy.”

The lateness of this motion may surprise some, as homosexuality seems synonymous with Ancient Greece to many. But despite its romanticised history, Ancient Greece likely wasn’t the gay paradise people think of it as. We must remember that while Ancient Greece is the homeland of some of history’s greatest philosophers, free-thinkers, and to democracy itself, it was also the home to slave-owners who saw no issue with sexual exploit or with having sexual relations with minors. Basically, Ancient Greece was a place where anything goes, which included homosexuality. So, in celebration of their recent milestone, let’s take a journey through Greece’s gay history. 

The most accepted same-sex relationship in Ancient Greece was pederasty, which is relationships between adult men and adolescent boys. The Greeks didn’t see anything immoral about men and boys having relations, though it is evident that young men were fully capable of rejecting suitors and ending relationships that no longer interested them. There are many stories of these relationships ending in murder and suicide, such as one man who hung himself in the doorway of the home of the young man who refused him, and love triangles that turned bloody. 

Plato often spoke in defence of same-sex relationships, and even suggested that homosexuality was “purer” than heterosexuality. Later in life though, he contradicted himself, by shaming same-sex relationships. 

There are many stories of the Greek Gods and their homosexual affairs. The well-known story of Orpheus and Eurydice – of the musician who entered the Underworld to save his wife – has a rather unknown sequel. After Eurydice’s death, Orpheus began to only pursue young men, which he did so successfully that he incurred the rage of Dionysus’ female followers. As a result, they ripped Orpheus limb from limb, and discarded the pieces of him in the Hebrus river where his head continued to sing. 

Even Hercules had multiple boyfriends, though they all died young and tragically. Stories range from being drowned by nymphs or eaten by horses, just to name a few. Just standard gay drama really. 

Another popular story is that of Apollo, the god of music and poetry, and Hyacinth, the young man he loved. Hyacinth was killed by the wind god, Zephyrus, who threw a discus right into Hyacinth’s head (apparently there are no normal deaths in Greek mythology), and from the blood of his head wound, the first hyacinth flower bloomed. The hyacinth still holds homosexual connotations, which was popularised by Oscar Wilde.

Sappho is another very well-known figure in Greek History. The bisexual poet (c.610 – c.570 BCE) has now become an icon for queer women all over the world. She also inspired the coining of the term ‘lesbian’, which comes from Lesbos, the small Greek island where Sappho lived her whole life. She was most well known for her lyric poetry, which often addressed her female lovers. In her time, she was referred to as the Tenth Muse and The Poetess, so great was her poetry, though most of her work has been lost over time, leaving only fragments still remaining. Her only complete poem is Ode to Aphrodite, where Sappho implores Aphrodite for help in the pursuit of a lover. Not much is known about lesbianism in Ancient Greece, apart from Sappho’s legacy. 

Inspired by Sappho, the English-French poet Renée Vivien and her lover Natalie Barney attempted to establish an artist’s colony on Lesbos in 1904. The idea ultimately failed, and the two withdrew to Paris where they decorated their salons with replicas of Greek temples and often recited Sappho’s poetry. 

In 2005, Greece held its first annual pride event, Athens Pride, where 500 people attended. Over 100,000 people attended the same event in 2019. The city also hosts Outview Film Festival, an international LGBTQI+ annual film festival which was founded in 2007. The Queer Archive Festival, founded in 2020, is another foundation of Greece’s queer society, where queer art and culture is fostered. The offical Athens website even has a LGBT+ section where queer news, events, and articles are published.

Modern media has also contributed to Greece’s gay identity, most notably with the camp-y, free-spirited musical film Mamma Mia. Other works include the gory, homoerotic novel The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which follows the crimes performed by a group of Greek studies students. 

Perhaps Greece’s history isn’t any gayer than anywhere else, or any more accepting. Greece has often been portrayed as something of a gay utopia, and whether that has ever been true or not, the country now actually has a chance of living up to its ideal. Greece may be a little late to the party in terms of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, but their LGBTQI+ community has been growing through the cracks for a long time, but now we may finally be able to see them bloom. 

Jacinta Rossetto
Jacinta Rossetto

Jacinta Rossetto is a writer, artist and editor studying Creative Writing at QUT. Her passion project is a little something called Dawn Street Zine, a zine that she writes, designs, produces and scouts content for. Her favourite genres to write in are gothic fiction, literary fiction and romance fiction.

Articles: 14

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