Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2001-2002

Lovers’ Legends: The Gay Greek Myths, by Andrew Calimach

reviewed by Andy Armitage

It’s a truism that history was written by the victors, that what really happened can only be – to use a modish term for an old phenomenon – the work of a spin doctor, learned though he or she may be. Orwell wrote in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

Such is the case with gay erotic love in history, whether we’re dealing with the sonnets of Shakespeare or male love in classical Greece: references and allusions have been deftly obscured by those for whom such abominations are un-Christian or just plain wrong.

Thank goodness fragments of ancient tales remain, in plays, in stories, often in their original form, for scholars to revisit – preferably scholars who don’t take their bibles along for bedtime reading (unless it’s scholarly reading for rational aims!).

“At a time when young adult novelists, refreshingly, have acknowledged their readers’ interest in matters of romance and sexuality, high school and college students who are introduced to mythology continue to be offered tales that have been fig-leafed as effectively as Victorian statues,” writes Heather Elizabeth Peterson in an afterword to this refreshing collection of Greek myths with their fig leaves duly – and rightly – removed.

Amusingly, Peterson – who appears in the acknowledgments also, but of whom we hear no more – quotes from a 1967 book by Bernard Evslin, Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths (Four Winds Press), which renders the story of Narcissus. As Narcissus gazed into the pool, writes Evslin, the face he saw there – “the most beautiful face he had ever seen” – had a “nimbus of light behind it so that the hair was blurred and looked long – like a girl’s ... He knew that he could look upon this face forever ... He put out his hand to touch her.” (My italics.)

Calimach’s version has our hero going mad with desire, then, realising that the image is his own, bemoans his lot: “You are none other than myself, aren’t you? What cruel longing is this, that longs for that which never left, and turns wealth to poverty?”

Narcissus tears his hair and claws his face and chest in his anguish and then looks back at the image, itself ragged and dishevelled, and sobs helplessly: “I love you! I love you!”

Note here that we do not see Narcissus as narcissistic – not in the sense that we mean nowadays, the sense in which one is in love with oneself – but as being in love with another male who just happened to be himself.

While this is a scholarly work (although Calimach says he’s no classicist), containing the usual apparatus of the academic historian, such does not detract from the sheer pleasure of reading the stories themselves. Don’t feel you have to read the references – but they’re there in case you need them.

The loves of all the gods and heroes we’ve heard of – and maybe some we haven’t – are summed up on Page 4, before Calimach begins on the tales themselves, which are gathered from fragments of various ancient texts. Apollo, patron of culture and protector of the young, he says, was the champion of male love. “Besides Hyacinthus, Cyparissus, and Orpheus he had many beloveds whose stories have been lost.”

Then there is the first god ever to love a man: Poseidon, “who loved Pelops, and perhaps also Kaineus, to whom he granted invulnerability”.

He goes on to list Zeus himself, who was “set on fire” by the sight of Ganymede’s thighs (and who wouldn’t be, looking at the statue pictured on Page 5?); Hermes, who “had his beloved Antheus”; Pan, whose boyfriend was Daphnis, “whom he taught to play the panpipes”; and Dionysus, who loved Ampelos.

We all know how male love was treated in the times of Classical Greece. Weren’t we all taught at school? Weren’t we told how “adult lovers were pursuing teenaged beloveds” (pp. 2-3), and how “male love was held to be an apprenticeship for manhood, a way to learn about warriorship, culture, and proper behavior” (p. 3)? No? Perhaps not. Whether our knowledge of human relationships in those times came from Victorians writing in books or late-twentieth-century teachers with Victorian ideas, our learning was well and truly “fig-leafed”.

Calimach’s tour of the loves of the gods and heroes is a minor tour de force. Read it, and read it again. Then dip in some more as the fancy takes you. (And remember that words such as “gay” and “homosexual” would not have been known to the Greeks of classical times; indeed, the very concept of homosexuality would not have entered a classical Greek’s head: these things just were.)

In addition to the usual ways of buying, you can get Lovers’ Legends through the website of the publisher, Haiduk Press, or by ringing them in the USA on 800 247-6553. It should also be available through Amazon. If you order via the GALHA website and click on the Amazon button, you generate money for GALHA, and there you will no doubt find a UK price. Calimach’s story, “Narcissus”, will be reprinted in the next issue of G&LH, with a special introduction by the author.

Postscript, Spring 2004: Lovers’ Legends has been republished in a new edition with an accompanying audio CD. See Andy Armitage’s review of Lovers’ Legends Unbound in Gay and Lesbian Humanist, Spring 2004.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-02-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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