Sunday 21 June 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 12 - A Lesbian

Last time : 32) Niels Bukh (1880-1950) developed a form of gymnastics that was adopted by the Japanese military in which 33) Goh Mishima (1921-1989) served. Goh was a pseudonym adopted after the death of his friend 34) Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), who encouraged him to pursue more sado-masochistic representation in his art, the “sado” being named after 35) the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), whose ancestors were Lords of Lesbos, the island home of 36) Sappho (6th-7th century BC).
36) Sappho was a lyric poet, one of the first female poets whose name is known to us. Most of her life has been reconstructed through her poems, some of which are considered to be autobiographical.

During ancient times and during the Roman period Sappho’s reputation as a poet was high. The “Dark Ages” lost much of the knowledge and literature of the ancient world after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Eastern Byzantine empire decided to drop the study of Sappho from their academies. Consequently, very little of her work was copied out and distributed, leaving the few fragments that remain from ancient Greece. Sappho’s popularity re-emerged after the redistribution of ancient texts during the Renaissance of the 14th century. Even then, it was her use of grammar that was more important than her poetry.

Sappho’s poetry describes love for both men and women, and it is the references to the latter which led to 19th century writers to adapt her name and that of Lesbos as poetic named for female same-sex desire.

As a lyric poet, as opposed to a heroic epic poet in the manner of Homer, Sappho is regarded as the first romantic poet in history. In several of her poems she uses the wedding ceremony as a theme. In the article I posted at the beginning of May about the hawthorn I mentioned how the plant was sacred to Hymenaios, the god of the wedding ceremony. I also mentioned that Sappho provided the first written reference to Hymenaios and weddings.

In another of Sappho’s wedding-related poems she includes the popular notion in Ancient Greece that when a couple marry they become “as gods”, acknowledging the heroic tradition in poetry by praising the bridegroom for his bravery in battle with terminology found in Homer’s Trojan epics. Classical scholars have ascribed an identity to Sappho’s anonymous bridegroom based on these phrases she used, and that person is 37) Achilles, the legendary Greek hero of the Trojan War.

37) Achilles has his own links with Lesbos. Bring only a few miles from the fabled Troy it’s no surprise that it finds its way into the Trojan stories. Traditional belief on Lesbos says that it was Achilles who took the island from the Phrygians for the Greeks. Some of the women were taken as slaves, including Briseis with whom Achilles was particularly taken with.

But before all that Achilles displayed some transvestite/lesbian behaviour of his own.

As a youth Achilles was sent by his mother to live at the court of the king of Skyros to avoid being called up to fight in the Trojan War. To further her plan she disguised Achilles as girl. In fact, the ancient poems say that Achilles learnt how to talk and walk like a woman and was so good that he fooled everyone for several years.

However, Achilles fell in love with the king’s daughter, Deidamia. Still disguised as a woman Achilles suggested they shared companionship in the bed at night, justifying it by saying that other women do it so why don’t they. The princess was still unaware of his true gender and it gives the incident a lesbian flavour. His romantic words as recorded in the surviving poems are reminiscent of those written by the only ancient poet who gave desire a female voice, 36) Sappho, which indicates the writer knew of her work.

Achilles then reveals his true gender to Deidamia and they continue with the pretence for several more years – they have two children before another Greek hero, Odysseus, arrives and “outs” Achilles as a man. Achilles then has no choice but to go off to the Trojan War.

During the war Achilles forms an equally loving and deep relationship with someone else, a fellow soldier, 38) Patroclus. I’ve often commented on the same-sex coupling in the ancient gymnasiums where both Achilles and Patroclus would have trained. What seems to be more than just the traditional coupling in this case is the fact that both men are apparently of the same age and display strong emotional bonds contrary to the man-youth norm. By the time they were fighting in the Trojan War both were expected to have formed relationships with younger men, but they hadn’t. The reaction of Achilles to the death of Patroclus is a strong indication of their love, whichever form it took.

The “lesbian” episode on Achilles and Deidamia leads us back to Lesbos and Sappho. Around 600 BC Sappho was exiled from Lesbos after a political coup. What is ironic is that during the later Roman and Byzantine periods the island became neglected and was used as a place where politicians were exiled to. It was not the place to be seen.

Not, that is, until 1354 when a Genoese freebooter came to the aid of Emperor John V who had been “retired” to Lesbos by his deposer. Having helped John to regain his throne the freebooter was rewarded by having the emperor’s sister in marriage and being made Lord of Lesbos. The new lord regenerated the island back to the centre of trade and commerce it once was. His direct descendant was 35) the Marquis de Sade.

Emperor John V was one of the lucky ones. He was exiled returned and died of old age. Other emperors were assassinated, as happened to 39) Emperor Mikhael III (840-867).

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