Sexuality in Greek Mythology
Greek mythology offers a nuanced vision of human and divine sexuality. Many mythological figures are polyamorous (taking many lovers) and though the divine hierarchy conveyed is quite patriarchal, several female figures show agency in pursuing lovers or abstaining from romantic relationships entirely. Figures like Hermaphroditus and Teiresias also demonstrate a fluid understanding of gender identity and its psychological impact.
1 The Celibate Goddesses
The goddesses Athena, Artemis and Hestia were either innately asexual or deliberately abstinent. In Nonnus's "Dionysiaca," the Titaness Aura describes Athena as "manly" and undesirable. Yet the goddess of wisdom never lacked in suitors; she simply refused all marriage proposals and sexual propositions. Likewise, Artemis, goddess of the hunt, turned the hunter Actaeon into a deer for his voyeurism. Despite being the goddess of the traditionally feminine realm, the hearth and home, Hestia refused to marry both Apollo and Poseidon, preferring instead the warmth and solace of the hearth.
2 Gods and Boys
The hero Heracles loved the handsome Hylas so much that he went mad with guilt and grief when nymphs kidnapped the young man. Pederasty and emotional devotion of this nature was present throughout Greek mythology. The gods, too, engaged in relationships with young men, often without their consent. Upon seeing the beautiful Ganymede, Zeus transformed into an eagle and kidnapped the boy to become his lover. Zeus made Ganymede his cupbearer, granting the boy eternal youth to perform the task.
3 The Love of the Goddesses
Neither Aphrodite nor Persephone were happy with their marriages and, like many of the goddesses, enjoyed numerous extramarital affairs. When Aphrodite witnessed the birth of Adonis, she fell in love immediately. She protected him by placing him in a box, asking the goddess Persephone to look after him. But Persephone, too, fell in love. The goddesses asked Zeus to decide which of them would remain with Adonis. Zeus proposed that Adonis spend a third of the year with each goddess and to use the time in the last third however he wished. Adonis indicated his preference by choosing to spend this time with Aphrodite as well.
4 The Intersex God
Aphrodite also had an affair with Hermes and named their beautiful, winged son Hermaphroditus. When he was a young man, Hermaphroditus found a pool of water to bathe in. The Naiad Salmacis pestered him, but he refused her advances and asked her to leave. When Hermaphroditus undressed, Salmacis attacked him, wrapping her body so tightly around his own that they merged. As a result, Hermaphroditus now resembled a beautiful woman with male genitals. Unhappy with the difficulties posed by his new form, Hermaphroditus asked his parents to curse the pond so that all men who entered would suffer a similar fate.
5 Involuntary Womanhood
Tiresias came across a pair of snakes mating and killed the female with his staff. Immediately, Tiresias turned into a woman who loved men. She learned much during this time, but when she came across a pair of mating snakes eight years later, she killed the male, turning back into a man. When Zeus and Hera asked him which gender enjoyed sexual intercourse more, Tiresias admitted that he enjoyed sex more when he was a woman. Hera punished him with blindness, but Zeus gave Tiresias the power of prophecy and an extra-long human lifetime, adding to his wisdom.
- 1 Internet Archives: Full Text of "Dionysiaca"
- 2 University of Houston: Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite
- 3 Universitat de Barcelona: The Ismenodora of Plutarch’s Eroticus. (Has Western Culture “sexualized” –i. e. “masculinized”- Ethics?)
- 4 Theoi Greek Mythology: Naiades Mysiai
- 5 Theoi Greek Mythology: Ganymedes
- 6 The Perseus Project: Apollodorus, Library
- 7 University of Virginia: Metamorphoses Book IV
- 8 University of Virginia: Metamorphoses Book III