Before Alexander the Great forged his continent-spanning empire, there was his father, Philip II of Macedon. While not as flashy of a military boy wonder, Philip had his own share of sizable military victories, triumphing over the Sacred Band of Thebes and coining the phrase “divide and conquer”; he even perfected the phalanx, a formation instrumental to his successes. His grip on mineral resources gave him the wealth to elevate his rule into a full monarchy, then unusual for Greece. Alexander inherited and executed his plans after Philip fell to assassination, the details of which make for a historiography question.
Accounts of Philips death are consistent (he was murdered by a former bodyguard) but the motives vary from one account to another. Aristotle, Philip’s contemporary, claims that Philip’s father-in-law offended the assassin, and other historians believe that Alexander and his mother were involved. The third prevailing theory (and the reason Philip is included in this blog) is a complicated story of revenge, wherein Philip and the bodyguard had once been lovers. If true, it would suggest that Philip was as bisexual as his son.
“The pleasure of the bitten peach,” a flowery Chinese slang term for homosexuality, comes from the cautionary tale of Mizi Xia, semi-legendary courtier to the Duke Ling of Wei. Mizi Xia earned the Duke’s favor through his beauty and was consequently given leeway to break rules (such as borrowing the Duke’s carriage without permission so he could visit his ailing mother) that would have resulted in brutal punishment for anyone else. On one occasion Mizi Xia was praised for sharing an especially delicious peach he had already started eating with the Duke, giving rise to the above euphemism. Tragically, as Mizi Xia grew older the Duke’s attraction to him faded, and his old acts of filial piety and generosity that had won him approval were spun as evidence of wrongdoing. The moral of the story? Fickle rulers must be handled with care.
Mizi Xia may or may not have existed, but his story captured the imaginations of generations of Chinese writers. As the cultural context around courtiers changed his name gradually became associated with male prostitutes, finally shifting into a taboo as China’s opinions on homosexual relationships grew more disapproving.
Hit is a character who makes a brief appearance in the Sunan Abu Dawoodan, an early Islamic religious text. As the hadith goes, the Prophet Muhammad encountered him when he was calling upon his wives. Hit, a mukhannath who was acting as an attendant, made a saucy remark describing the attractive rolls of belly fat one of the wives had on her. Muhammad was outraged that someone whose job required him to have no interest in women could tell what caused men to lust over them, and Hit was subsequently banished from the household.
Considerable debate exists as to whether Hit and other mukhannathun should be viewed as homosexuals, transsexuals, transvestites, or eunuchs. The word itself translates to ‘men who resemble women’, but the definition is too expansive for easy classification. Male pronouns are used for Hit in accordance with the consensus of the linked sources, though the mukhannathun bear a close resemblance to the contemporary category of trans women, and so should arguably be referred to with female pronouns.
No images of Hit were easily available online; the above tapestry depicting an Arab music scene is the closest depiction that could be found, though it has no characters in common (unsurprising, given the prohibition on depictions of Muhammad).
Set (on the far right next to Ramesses the Third) was the Egyptian god of the desert, disorder, and violence, the last of which he demonstrated by murdering and dismembering his brother, Osiris, the king of the gods, in a fit of envy. Osiris’s wife, Isis, brought him back to life just long enough for her to conceive a son: Horus, the sky god (on the left). When Horus came of age, he challenged Set to determine which of them would succeed Osiris. One of their many battles involved Set engaging in intercrural sex when he though Horus was sleeping. Horus, however, knew what was happening, and threw Set’s semen in the river; he then spread his own semen and spread it on lettuce, which he tricked Set into eating. The gods ruled Horus the victor in that round, and he went on to finally triumph by beating Set in a stone boat race.
The myth of Horus and Set is listed in the LGBT themes in mythology page on Wikipedia, though the story contains only a single sexual act between two male gods, and it occurs as part of an extended competition between them. How their contendings should be classified, then, remains an open question; certainly by contemporary standards, it would be inaccurate to define them by a single act of sexualized dominance.
Ānanda, whose name means ‘bliss’ in Sanskrit, was the cousin and permanent attendant of the Buddha in Buddhist mythology. He was tireless in his efforts and compassionate in his spiritual services; as the story goes, it was at his urging that the Buddha permitted women to become bhikkhunis (monastics). For his exceptional memory and wisdom to process the Buddha’s words, he was known as the Guardian of the Dharma, and his enlightenment came just in time for a conference of monks after the Buddha’s passing.
Accounts of Ānanda’s past lives indicate that he had at one point been a paṇḍaka, a term that encompasses everything from intersex individuals to men who perform fellatio. One story tells of his romance with a cobra king (Nāga): Although their relationship was a happy one, Ānanda was forced to end it because their sexual entanglements were interfering with his spiritual development.
The Grecian “Father of the Gods and Men” gained his title after freeing his siblings from their cannibalistic father’s digestive tract, then banishing him and his fellow Titans to the underworld. As he is a mythological figure, there are no shortage of tales and variations on his deeds: Wikipedia’s list reads like a series of Chuck Norris jokes, with each legend more outrageous than the last. (“When Hera gave birth to Hephaestus, Zeus threw him off the top of Mount Olympus because of his repulsive appearance.”)
Zeus’s extensive (and often upsetting) sexual history is a story in itself. The mating practices of the Greek gods combined the drama of a human soap opera with the fantastical, creating scandals like the birth of Athena, goddess of wisdom, who sprung fully-formed from Zeus’s head after he swallowed her mother whole. Nowadays Zeus might be classified as bisexual because his liaisons included the pedaristic relationship he shared with Ganymede, the world’s most handsome boy, whose Latin name Catamitus was the origin for the term catamite. (Interestingly, Zeus also plays a pivotal role in Plato’s speech on the origin of love in his Symposium, in which he inadvertently creates both hetero- and homosexuality, along with the opening number of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)
The poet whose name gave rise to ‘sapphic’, a 19th century term for lesbian love ( taken from her home island of Lesbos), is remembered through a combination of her fragmented writings and secondhand accounts from her literary contemporaries and successors, including Plato. (And, as is the way of romantic historical figures, from a panned film that uses her life as a framing device.) She was likely educated as part of an aristocratic upbringing and married into wealth, which allowed her to compose the lyric poetry for which she became famous.
Sappho poses an unusual historiographic challenge in that, despite being the iconic Classical lesbian, it is difficult to determine if she was even sapphic herself. How much of her poetry can be taken as autobiographical fact is, excepting details like her daughter that were independently verified, a matter of interpretation. She did participate in a thiasos, the Classical equivalent of a romantic tension-charged women’s book club, and wrote erotic works about women, but debate exists as to whether or not they depict lesbian relationships, and men were also featured as subjects of poetic lust. Barring the discovery of new historical documents, Sappho will remain tagged only as ‘Historiography Saturday’.
A selection of Sappho’s poetry is available here and on numerous other websites.