Wednesday 2 August 2017

Happy Chaeronean New Year

Yes, it’s New Year’s Day again. There’s so many every year, but today is the first day of the year 2355 according to the Order of Chaeronea, a secret Victorian society founded in 1897 devoted to the ethical, spiritual and moral emancipation of gay men.

It seem strange that a society which aimed to create one of the first world-wide lgbt communities did so in secret. But then all such communities were underground and “secret” in many cities around the world at one time.

The Order of Chaeronea was the brainchild of George Cecil Ives (1867-1950), a writer and advocate for prison reform. He was a friend of many leading figures in Victorian homophile circles, including Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds, whom he referred to as the Four Leaders of Hellas. This was is allusion to the Ancient Greeks and their tradition of same-sex love. They called themselves Uranian, and this was a name first coined by the German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) who was a pioneer in the campaign for the equality and acceptance of homosexuality.

George Cecil Ives chose the name of the Order of Chaeronea himself. It is named after the location in Greece where a famous battle was fought in 338 BC. This was a battle fought between the bisexual King Philip II of Macedonia with his son and successor Alexander the Great against an alliance of Greek cities. One of these cities was Thebes whose army included an elite force now known as the Sacred Band ofThebes. What was notable about the Sacred Band was that it was composed of male couples. All armies across ancient Greece were made up of men who had sex with men, it was part of their training, but the Sacred Band of Thebes was recruited entirely from self-declared couples not individuals.

At the Battle of Chaeronea the Sacred Band was annihilated. Their exploits entered legend and became regarded by later civilisations as the ultimate expression of love between men.

When George Ives founded the Order of Chaeronea many centuries later he did not envisage that it should be made up of couples and that it was to be centred on love not sex. He did acknowledge, however, that some physical attractions would lead to other things in such an organisation as this but that it was not its prime aim.

For George Ives sex was more philosophical than physical. He got very annoyed when the only thing the men he had sex with could only think about what they were doing and not discuss why. In fact he thought that sex between men was a danger to the class system. The Victorian era was one where class was rigidly adhered to, more than perhaps any other time since medieval feudalism. They were paranoid about anyone or anything being out of their “proper” place in the world.

But back to the Order of Chaeronea. Being a secret society it is virtually impossible to say how many members it had, or who they were. The only evidence we have to go on is the word of the members themselves, particularly Ives’ own note books and diaries. Even then used his own code words to disguise that he was written. Oscar Wilde may have been a member. He was certainly a friend of Ives and several others who are thought to have been “Chaeroneans”. It is thought that there could have been between 200 and 300 members worldwide. Among those suspected of being members, as well as the “Four Leaders of Hellas” are Samuel Elsworth Cottam, Lord Alfred Douglas, Charles Kains Jackson, John Gambril Nicholson and Rev. Montague Summers.

As with most Victorian societies there was a series of rules, ceremonies and rituals complete with passwords that makes the Order of Chaeronea sound  very much like the Freemasons. Indeed, the Freemasons may have been the inspiration for them. Members of the Order were called Brothers of the Faith (or Sisters, as there were lesbian members also, by some accounts).

Why does all this mean that today is New Year’s Day? When George Ives founded the Order in 1897 he chose to date all correspondence and references in his diaries from the date of the Battle of Chaeronea which took place on 2nd August 338 BC. The little surviving evidence, though, suggests that he actually reckoned 1st January as the start of the Chaeronean year.

Whichever date was actually used, I would like to nominate today as the Chaeronean New Year’s Day.

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