I recently read an interesting study by Andrew Calimach on the ancient Greek custom of pederasty, the pedagogical and erotic relation between an adult man and an adolescent boy: Pinning Anal Sex on the Greeks — A Millennial Slur. He starts with an ancient libel: Europe’s Judeo-Christian civilization has constantly, under the label of “sodomy”, identified pederasty with anal sex; more specifically it was always pretended that the adult erastes sodomized his young eromenos. He explains that as much as they extolled the love of boys, the Greeks felt an utter contempt for anal sex, which they considered as “hubris”, an abuse of the worst kind. European scholars did not understand this, they interpreted Greek texts reviling anal sex as condemnations of homosexuality, so when one author wrote one text praising boy-love then another one condemning boy’s abuse (anal sex), they though that he had changed his mind (and guess which one of the two was considered wiser).
Indeed, the stereotype of the homosexual “back-ender” opposed to the heterosexual “front-ender” has remained with our culture until the 20th century. More recently, this hackneyed phrase of sodomy has been associated with intergenerational love. I once discussed challenges to a fixed age of consent, and an interlocutor—who considered himself as a revolutionary marxist—hinted at “crazy people who approve of a man sodomizing a 6 year-old boy”. (In reality, most boy-lovers of today do not try that.)
Today people think of Greek pederasty as an oppressive institution like slavery. Quite to the contrary, it was practiced between men and boys in the high society, with the consent of the boy’s father, and had nothing to do with the abuse of slaves. The sexologist Bruce Rind studied it in detail, and concluded that in the history of intergenerational relations, it was one where the rights of the young person were best guaranteed.
Calimach seems to share both passions of the ancient Greeks, their enthusiasm for boy-love and their loathing for anal sex. He claims that today’s practice of anal sex among gays is a recent development, that it was not so frequent in previous times. He contends that it came under the influence of the heterosexual norm that prescribes vaginal penetration, which gays tried to mimic with anal sex.
I disagree with his suggestion that anal sex among gays is a significant cause of today’s homophobia. Indeed, heterosexual men are in fact fascinated by anal sex, it is a standard feature of heterosexual pornography, and many heterosexual couples practice it. Before the advent of chemical contraception, it was even used as a method of birth control by many couples in the USA; today, some bigoted young women have recourse to it in order to let their lover have sex without breaking their virginity pledge.
However I understand his advise to young gays that they should not feel obliged to practice anal sex. Indeed, I hold the opinion that a different type of desire must be expressed in a different way, the practices corresponding to man-woman love are not necessarily suitable to other forms of love, which should not try to mimic it and become in this way subordinated to the heterosexual norm.
By a regrettable slip of language, Calimach labels anal sex “buggery”. The word “bugger” (“bougre” in French) comes from “Bulgarian”, it was coined in the Middle Ages to designate both the Bogomil or Cathar heretics and the sexual deviants, mostly homosexuals, but also zoophiles; in Anglo-Saxon countries, the word “buggery” kept until modern times this dual sense of religious and sexual deviance. This loaded word should thus be rejected by anyone who wishes to defend an unorthodox form of love.
A quite unusual feature for an academic work, this article ends with a long poem where Calimach expounds his ideas about homosexuality, the ancient Greeks, and today’s morality. I will quote and comment some parts of it.
That path was love, yet not love reproductive,
But a new love, of supermen productive,
And friendships firm, that made strong tyrants quake.
Thence modern man was born, from this found truth:
Man callow lives and dies, lest through man’s love awake.
Thus Greeks their glory won, through man’s love for a youth.
These verses call for several comments. First any love other than that between man and woman obviously does not lead to biological reproduction, so it will necessarily justify itself by other values than the Judeo-Christian “conjugal duty” of sex for procreation. This immediately leads to heretical ideas of freedom running counter to the religious dictate of a painful life devoted to hard toil and child-raising.
Even for man-woman relations, a similar free and non-reproductive relation was put forward by Cortezia, courtly love. Indeed, this love was necessarily adulterous, it could not exist within marriage, according to a ruling by the Court of Love under Marie, Countess of Champagne in 1174, reported by Andreas Capellanus in Tractatus de Amore et de Amoris Remedio (The Art of Courtly Love):
Dicimus enim et stabilito tenore firmamus, amorem non posse suas inter duos iugales extendere vires. Nam amantes sibi invicem gratis omnia largiuntur nullius necessitatis ratione cogente. Iugales vero mutuis tenentur ex debito voluntatibus obedire et in nullo se ipsos sibi invicem denegare.
This is translated as follows:
We declare and we hold as firmly established that love cannot exert its powers between two people who are married to each other. For lovers give each other everything freely, under no compulsion of necessity, but married people are in duty bound to give in to each other’s desires and deny themselves to each other
Next, courtly love held that sexual intercourse represented “mixed love”, while “pure love” consisted in sweet words, then later cuddling and kissing, and finally the possibility of erotic caresses, but nothing further. Here we see courteous woman-love rejoining Greek boy-love in rejecting penetrative sex.
A second comment is that such a free love must confront any form of tyranny. Dictators have always imposed conservative forms of love and marriage, but free love captivates the mind and impels one to fight against its oppression. Indeed, Calimach comments the third verse in the above stanza as follows:
A common trope in antiquity held that the friendships born from pederastic love were so strong that they were not bowed even by the force of tyrants, thus endangering their hegemony. A number of famous couples were held to have defeated the rule of tyrants, most famously Harmodius and Aristogiton who were lionized by the Athenians as founders of their democracy, but also Chariton and Melanippus, and Antileon and Hipparinos. These may well have inspired the Revolt of the Pages, where the Macedonian personal guard of Alexander the Great, a troop composed of pairs of teenage male lovers, vaingloriously plotted his assassination. The plot was exposed and its leaders put to death.
My third comment deals with the suggestion that “lest through love awake”, one “callow lives and dies”. Indeed, our society is not sufficiently aware of a child’s and a youth’s need of love for growing up. One thinks that parental love is sufficient, but their position of authority distorts that love relation, and worse, some parents are unloving. On the other hand, the immaturity of a child’s peers makes their love too shallow to be nurturing.
A current stereotype is to present an intergenerational relation as a sordid affair where the older partner only seeks his own gratification without any regard for the younger person’s needs. Not so, says Calimach, Greek boy-love followed the rules of duty and honour, and perhaps better than today’s easy love affairs:
The Greeks’ own words prove they were not uncouth,
To evil call their love is an untruth.
Against the shadow that man’s lust still casts,
And always will, on many-figured love
Their gentlemanly ways shone a bright ray that lasts.
Where today’s hordes through mire drag, they rose above.
Modern male love kneels down to pleasure’s god
In Greece, Eros the path of duty trod.
Honor was that one boon all Greeks aspired,
In honor’s quest they steadied shields in war,
Honor the touchstone that tested their love’s fire.
“What honor,” jeers the crowd, “have you gone mad?”
“We’re free at last, pile on, join the gay fad.”
The tribe of man has never been less free,
Hobbled by this mindless orgy’s trammel.
Can you not see, by liberating buggery
You’ve splattered everyone, like a pissing camel?
In the end, he feels much sadness for today’s basically materialistic and conformist view of love:
Wrath told leads me past anger into sadness
To muse upon the random ways of madness.
How blind belief in this dead end of lust
Has robbed all men of love that might have been.
Instead up rise hard walls of fear and disgust
And young and old esteem the tender touch unclean.
Nor ask why leering dawns this new dark age,
This maelstrom of materialistic rage,
When in our hearts this unvoiced void does gape,
When mangled Eros stumbles on one leg,
When man’s reduced to matrimonial ape,
And his sole destiny? Filthy lucre to beg.
Now considering another form of love, both very frequent and much misunderstood, that of men for younger girls, one must obviously take heed of both courteous and ancient Greek advise, by establishing the primacy of honour and feeling over sexual lust: “d’amor mou castitatz” (out of love arises chastity), said the troubadour Guilhem de Montanhagol. And out of heteronormative pornography arose fantasms of penetrative victories, front and back, which are foreign to genuine girl-love.
Sentimental love is not impotence, it is itself a great pleasure:
But be no man or woman so naive
As frigid their skilful play believe.
What man with eyes and heart, brain in his head,
Would joy refuse when tender beauty beckons?
No. The very peak of pleasure they assayed
But strode the path of him that honor reckons.
Andrew Calimach has published other works on homosexuality and Greek love, some can be accessed on his academic website.