9) Polycrates was the ruler of the Greek island of Samos. He made Samos the home of culture and science with people like Pythagoras and the poets Anacreon and Ibycus living on the island. Anacreon and Ibycus were among the most pederastic of poets. That is, they had many boy lovers and wrote poems about them. It is said that Polycrates could easily be Anacreon’s equal in the number of boy lovers he had, but Ibycus could out-number them both.
Among Polycrates’ huge construction projects were a fortified wall around the island, a temple to Hera, and a tunnel through Mount Castro. Its no wonder Aristotle specifically named him in his criticism of such costly projects.
Polycrates’ name has become applied to a psychological complex; as one medical website puts it, “the paradoxical despair over too much good fortune”. Even though the complex is named after Polycrates it isn’t he who displayed it. One of his allies, the Egyptian pharaoh, wrote to Polycrates saying that he felt the gods might become jealous of his success and he advised him to throw away something he valued in order to avoid their punishment. This Polycrates did. He threw his most precious jewelled ring into the sea.
Several days later a fisherman caught a huge fish and thought it was a worthy gift for Polycrates (you can see where this is going, can’t you). The tyrant’s jewelled ring was found inside it (this tale may be apocryphal as similar versions appear in many other cultures).
|Cover illustration from around 1890 of an edition of “Der Ring des Polykrates”, a lyrical balled written by Friedrich Schiller in 1797.|
There are many examples of the Polycrates complex in history. One often mentioned in text books is the story of 10) Paul Morphy (1837-1884).
Paul Morphy was a chess prodigy and considered by some to have been the greatest chess player of his era. At the age of 12 he played three games against a chessmaster and won them all. At the first American Chess Congress in 1857 he became the US champion. In Europe he beat all of the chessmasters he played against.
Back home in New Orleans Morphy laid down a challenge to play against anyone in the world. No-one took him up on the offer because everyone knew he couldn’t be beaten. This led to Morphy into giving up chess for good. He considered he had become too successful and became riddled with guilt.
Morphy was found dead in his bath in 1884. His celebrity status led to many fake stories being circulated, such as the spurious story of him arranging dozens of women’s shoes around his bath before he died. Naturally, this kind of story fuelled talk about his sexuality. Like so many people, we’ll never know for sure. Morphy’s sexuality was first questioned in 1931 in “The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis”. At the centre of this was a letter written by his European tour manager who referred to himself as “…a lover, a brother, a mother…” to Morphy.
Whilst it is true that Morphy had a somewhat feminine personality and never married or had any serious relationships with women (except one in a novel) it is best to say “possibly”. The whole question was also covered in issue 2 of a short-lived magazine on lgbt chess called “Chess Pride” in 1998.
One of Morphy’s matches became legendary. It is often called the Opera Game because it took place in the private box of Prince Karl II, Duke of Brunswick, at the Italian Opera House in Paris. The duke had previously invited Morphy to a performance of “Norma”, an opera Morphy was keen to see. However, they spent the whole time playing chess with Morphy with his back to the stage.
“Norma” isn’t a very well-known opera. The title character is a druidic high priestess in Roman Gaul in love with the Roman proconsul. Despite its obscurity “Norma” inspired a novel by 11) Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999).
Marion Zimmer Bradley is best known for her historical fantasy and science fiction novels. “The Forest House” is her take on “Norma”, transferring the action from Gaul to Roman Britain. The novel was published in 1993 and was a prequel to her previous novel “The Mists of Avalon”. It was actually the first novel Marion began writing when she was 17. She didn’t finish it until she was in her 60s.
Although Marion’s novels are still popular her personal reputation was tarnished after her death following accusations of child abuse against boys and girls with her husband.
“The Mists of Avalon”, published in 1983, is probably Marion’s most famous novel. It was her first to have an Arthurian theme. She also wrote several novels with an Atlantis theme, and I’ll return to that subject in July.
Perhaps the reason why “The Mists of Avalon” became so popular was because of its feminist slant. The 1980s were a time of radical feminism and the legends of King Arthur, being distinctly macho and masculine, were revived by a new feminist angle that reflected the mood of society at the time.
This revival wasn’t the first. King Arthur has always been a major heroic character but every now and then, such as the feminist angle in the 1980s, society feels to need to breathe new life into him. This is what happened in 19th century Victorian England. With the industrial revolution changing the world some people felt that progress was too quick and that a return to the ideals of the past should be revived. The old folk tales and heroes of England were seen as role models for this revival.
In the forefront of this revival, and using the Arthurian legends as their main themes, were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement. Both groups had members and associates in the lgbt community. At the head of these was Simeon Solomon, a painter whose reputation was virtually destroyed because of his homosexuality. In recent years his neglected grave has been restored.
There was also May Morris, daughter of William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. And there was also Sir Edmund Gosse, a Pre-Raphaelite associate and poet. But to continue our “80 More Gays” sequence let’s look at an Arts and Crafts designer and Arthurian novelist called 12) Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942).
Next time on “80 More Gays”: We talk a lot of bull about an Italian hotel, and let it take us halfway round the world to see Seven Sisters.