Tuesday 16 August 2011

The Gayest Games in Ancient Greece

Tomorrow I’ll start telling you about the Great Panathenaean Games, which I call the Gayest Games in Ancient Greece. This took place in Athens and was one of the grandest in Ancient Greece.

The origin of the games is shrouded in the mists of time. They were created to honour the patron goddess of the city, Athena. Legend says that they started as an annual 2-day festival 729 years before the Olympics in 1507 BC. After restructuring the city-state, the minotaur-killing hero Theseus extended and expanded the games into a week-long celebration held every 4 years in 566 BC. That’s when they became known as the Greater Panathenaean Games. No-one’s sure on what date they were held. Scholars suggest anywhere between August 13th to 21st. I’m going for the middle point – 16th/17th August.

One Athenian dynasty most associated with the games were a family that makes the camp US soap “Dynasty” look like the Mili-bland, sorry Miliband, family. Their names crop up several times in the history of the games.

The chart below helps to explain the complicated family relationships.

The head of the dynasty was Peisistratus, ruler of Athens during the early years of the 4-yearly Greater Panathenaean Games. During his earlier career as military governor he had a trainee soldier-athlete boyfriend called Charmus. Peisistratus married and had 2 sons, Hippias and Hipparchus. When Charmus was older he too became a military governor and took Hippias as his boyfriend. And Charmus had a daughter called Timonassa who married Hipparchus. When Charmus died, Peisistratus or Hippias (no-one’s sure which) built an altar dedicated to him and Eros outside the city gates. On Peisistratus’s death Hippias and Hipparchus became joint rulers. Hipparchus decided to take a young boyfriend called Harmodius, but Harmodius already had an older lover called Aristogeiton, who …

Confused? I’ll finish this off later in the week.

Don’t forget that it was perfectly normal for a man to have wife and a boyfriend. But to use the terms gay or bisexual wouldn’t be accurate. They were men who had sex with men because that’s what their society did, just like keeping slaves and not giving women the vote. Very rarely there were couples we would recognise as gay today, and one couple in particular left a big mark on the Greater Panathenaean Games and the development of democracy. More on that on Day 8.

Day 1 of the Greater Panathenaean Games would have been tomorrow, and they start with something the modern Olympics doesn’t have (thank goodness), an early version of the Eurovision Song Contest. And if you thought the Eurovision contest lasted too long ……

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