Sunday, 5 July 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 13 - A Shell

LAST TIME : 36) Sappho, of the island of Lesbos, was a lyric poet of Ancient Greece who wrote about marriage using allusions to the heroic 37) Achilles, who spent several years disguised as a women before going to the Trojan War and falling in love with 38) Patroclus. Although Sappho was exiled from Lesbos several Byzantine emperors were exiled to Lesbos, including the ancestor of 35) the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). Other emperors, like 39) Emperor Mikhael III (840-867), weren’t so lucky – they were assassinated.
39) Emperor Mikhael III has come down to us with the nickname “the Drunkard” and he was accused of many things, including grave robbing. He was also the emperor at the centre of the final split between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

One innovation introduced during his reign is one of those things which makes Russia different from Western Europe. In 863 the pagan ruler of Slavic Moravia asked the Emperor to send some teachers to convert his people to Christianity. The Moravians had no written alphabet, so to translate the Bible into Slavic the Byzantine teachers created a new alphabet called Glagolitic. Later Slavic converts, the Rus of Kiev, likewise had no written alphabet so they adapted Glagolitic and named it after the man who created it, St. Cyril. The alphabet is still called the Cyrillic. I wonder if President Putin or any of those Russian homophobes realise that their laws against the lgbt community are written in letters that are directly derived from the actions of an lgbt emperor.

39) Mikhael III had no legitimate children. One of the most important things any successor to an emperor had to be was to be born “porphyrogenitos”, or “born in the purple”. In an age of assassinations it would help your rightful claim to the throne if you were “porphyrogenitos”, and you have to thank the shell of a sea snail for that. I’ll explain why later, but we’ll return to Mikhael III’s attempt to produce a rightful heir. Rather than create a scandal and dump his childless wife to marry his mistress, Mikhael married his mistress off to his court chamberlain Basileois, the man who was to succeed him as 40) Emperor Basileois I (d.886).

40) Basileios was a peasant who arrived in Byzantium penniless. He was rescued from the streets by a priest who took him in and married him (the Greek Orthodox Church had a same-sex union ceremony). Basileios then caught the eye of a relative of Emperor Mikhael III who liked well-built peasant lads like Basileios, and began working as his groom. A little while later Basileios met a wealthy widow who insisted on marrying him to her son. That’s 2 same-sex marriages and a sugar-daddy in just a couple of years. Not bad going for a peasant.

Basileios came to the personal attention of Emperor Mikhael at one of the sporting events that were the remnants of religious festivals like the Olympics. The Bulgarians present boasted about being better athletes than anyone else. Mikhael spotted the hunky groom of his relative, Basilieos, and chose him to fight against the best Bulgarian wrestler. Basileios won. After that Basileios and Emperor Mikhael were virtually inseparable.

Basileios found himself being elevated into official court ranks, which was unusual for someone who was just a peasant. In no time at all he was made the court chamberlain, the person responsible for access to the emperor, and after uncovering a plot to overthrow Mikhael Basileois was rewarded with the title of Caesar. In 866 he became Co-Emperor (one of the other good things to be if you need to prove your later claim to be sole emperor). At the same time Mikhael adopted Basileios as his own son, yet another good thing for a future emperor. You can see where this is heading, can’t you? But what is most unusual about the adoption is that Basileios was about 10 years older than his new adopted father!

Emperor Mikhael was also beginning to show a great deal of interest in a new young man at court by this stage and Basileios was sure he was going to be “retired to Lesbos” like other Byzantine officials were. He decided to do something about it. After a banquet in which Mikhael, living up to his nickname, got himself and his new toy-boy totally stoned, Basileios just walked into the chamber with a group of companions (he was in control of access to the emperor remember) and killed the couple. As Co-Emperor and adopted son of Emperor Mikhael III Basilieos now became 40) Emperor Basileois I of Byzantium.

But there was one thing Basileios could never be, and that was the thing I mentioned earlier – “porphyrogenitos”, “born in the purple”. It was a title used for all children born to a reigning emperor, even becoming part of the name of some of them. This links us back to 35) the Marquis de Sade, because his imperial ancestors were born “porphyrogenitos”, and all of Emperor Basileios I’s children would be also, even if he wasn’t.

But why are these children called “born in the purple”? In the medieval period there were strict laws on who could wear what item of clothing and in what colour. Purple was only allowed for the highest ranks of royalty. The reason being that the only purple dye that gave a strong, lasting colour was very expensive to produce. It was called Tyrean purple, and came from those shells of sea snails I mentioned.

These sea snails could only be found around one of the Greek islands, Kythira. It was the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, specifically her incarnation of Aphrodite Urania which I wrote about a couple of years ago. The famous painting by Botticelli shows her arising from the sea at Kythira, and one of Aphrodite’s oldest temples was situated on the island.

Kythira was also the place where one of Aphrodite’s main attendants was venerated. This other god attended her when she arose from the waves, and he’s a god we’re encountered many times on this blog because he’s the Ancient Greek god of gay sex – 41) Eros.

Next time we see how Kythira and Eros are connection to the Mutiny on the Bounty.

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