Same-sex desire

‘Homosexuality’ as a way to describe a single category of behaviour is a modern European term, but same-sex desire is not a modern western invention (as has sometimes been claimed).

The British Museum has a large number of objects that provide evidence that desire between members of the same sex has always been an aspect of human existence and experience.

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A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the world by Richard B. Parkinson is published by the British Museum Press.
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Early desires

This small sculpture shows two figures embracing, and is said to have been found in a cave at Ain Sakhri in modern Palestine. It is the earliest known depiction of a couple making love and is from around 11,000 years ago. It is usually assumed to show a man and a woman, but why do we assume this so easily? Nothing makes it absolutely certain that it is a man and a woman.

This sculpture’s ambiguity is a reminder that we should not project our assumptions about sex and gender onto the past. We need not assume that either 'heterosexuality' or the modern nuclear family as we know them are the default options for any society, ancient or modern.

Heroic love in Mesopotamia

Flood tablet

Flood tablet, northern Iraq, 7th century BC 

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest surviving poems we have and was probably composed in the 13th to 11th centuries BC. It tells the story of a semi-historical king, Gilgamesh, and his close friend, the hairy wild man Enkidu. This tablet, from more than 2,500 years ago, is part of it.

The epic tells how Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the goddess Ishtar and win. But shortly afterwards Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh spends the rest of the poem grieving and trying to outwit death itself. Before they meet Gilgamesh is told 'You will love him as a wife, you will dote on him'.

Such intimacy does not necessarily involve sexual desire. However, some historians have debated whether particular words or phrases in their story could be understood sexually, and whether Gilgamesh and Enkidu are not just friends but lovers: a ‘homosocial’ relationship or a ‘homosexual’ one? There is no clear sexual contact, but the relationship is described in erotic terms.

Two ancient Egyptian men together

Desire and love leave no archaeological traces, and with different cultural conventions it is hard to tell whether male intimacy is an expression of same-sex desire or not. There are a few controversial cases from ancient Egypt.

This funerary stela has been deliberately damaged. It is dedicated to two male officials, named Hor and Suty, and is carved with their names, titles and hymns to the sun god. It has been suggested that they might have been a male couple, whose images were later erased by their wives and children. While this interpretation is possible, it is very unlikely, as on another stela of the two men the erasures include these same family members.

Here, the men refer to each other as:

'my brother, like myself, his ways pleased me,
for he had come from the womb
with me on the same day.'

This is usually interpreted as meaning that they were twins—and their names suggest they were named after the twin gods Horus and Seth (also known as Suty). They both worked as architects on the great temple of Amun at Luxor in around 1375 BC.

Iconography or pornography?

This bronze figure shows an ancient Egyptian god with a large erection. To modern eyes, it may appear to be pornographic. In fact it is a standard representation of the god Amun-Kamutef (‘the bull of his mother’) and was dedicated in a temple at Thebes. The presence of an erection symbolizes strength, virility and the ability to stay alive.

It is hard to assess what is erotic in another culture, and easy to project our ideas onto such images. Sex and gender seem like universals, but even with such direct visual images, everything is culturally shaped.

The ancient Egyptians recognised the existence of same-sex desire, but the handful of references that survive all refer to men, and are all slightly negative. These include a fictional tale in which one god tries to seduce another by saying ‘What a lovely backside you have’. This is perhaps the earliest recorded chat-up line in human history.

Most of the texts and works of art that survive are from government or elite circles, and as such present an official view of society.

The Lesbian poet

'Believe me, in the future
Someone will remember us...'

The poet Sappho is said to have lived in the late seventh century BC in the town of Mytilene on the isle of Lesbos, a Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea. By the third century BC she was known as an important writer of the Greco-Roman world, and nine volumes of her poetry were held at the famous library in Alexandria.

Sappho wrote love poems addressed to women. She seems to have been the head of a socially and religiously sanctioned group of young unmarried girls or women. These factors, have contributed to the belief that Sappho was a lesbian in the modern sense, as well as the original meaning of an inhabitant of Lesbos.

Regardless of her sexuality, she stands at an early period of recorded history as an example of a woman brilliant in her chosen work.

A coin in the Museum collection dates from the second century AD - when Sappho was already as remote in time as Chaucer is from us today. The coin was issued in Mytilene, to celebrate its most famous daughter.

Greek men together

Red-figured kylix

Red-figured drinking cup showing a Greek drinking party, Italy, about 485-480 BC 

Intimacy between men was culturally approved in some cities in ancient Greece. Much ancient Greek art displayed naked male beauty and was more likely to be seen by a male audience.

This cup shows scenes of an elite male drinking party in Athens from around 485–480 BC. Guests lie and sit on couches and are served by boys.

Sexual relationships between males are particularly well known from fifth to fourth century BC Athens, the time of Plato and the temple of Athena known as the Parthenon. The ideal was that the younger partner should not be more than 20, and the older partner not older than 40. There is, however, also evidence for relationships between adult males, and life was much more varied than this ideal.

Male intimacy in Rome

This silver cup provides evidence for physical intimacy in the Roman Empire, with scenes of two male couples making love.

While to modern viewers, images of a young man with a boy (probably aged between 14 and 16) are highly controversial, Roman society considered that the age difference made the relationship acceptable.

A Roman man was free to choose sexual partners of either gender. The Romans believed men should be dominant, both socially and sexually, so as long as a man remained the active partner in any sexual encounter, his masculinity and status was not in question.

This cup was bought by the American art collector Edward Perry Warren (1860–1928). He referred to the cup as the 'holy grail' and treasured its vivid portrayal of same-sex desire.

Hadrian and Antinous: an imperial romance

Marble bust of the emperor Hadrian and Antinous

Marble bust of the emperor Hadrian, Italy, AD 117-118, and Antinous, Italy, AD 130-140

The reign of the Emperor Hadrian (76–138 AD) was marked by military campaigns and imperial building projects, including the famous wall across the north of England.

He married into the imperial family, but in his early 50s he met a Greek youth in what is now modern Turkey, possibly during a tour of the province in AD 123. Named Antinous, the young man became the emperor’s lover.

During a later imperial tour of Egypt in AD 130, Antinous drowned in the Nile and Hadrian is said to have been distraught and ‘wept like a woman’. His devotion to Antinous led him to found a city named Antinopolis on the banks of the Nile where he died.

He also made Antinous into a god - not unusual for members of the emperor's family, but unheard of for such a low born person. Hadrian commemorated his beloved in huge numbers of statues, figures, portraits and coins across the known roman world.

Women together on a Roman lamp

Scenes showing two women together are rare, but this first century oil lamp from Roman Turkey shows two women having oral sex together on a couch. While sex was frequently shown on everyday domestic items, it is uncertain who would have used or seen this lamp. It may have been made to titillate male viewers, rather than to appeal to women.

Scenes on a Maori treasure box

Maori treasure box

Maori treasure box, New Zealand, late eighteenth century 

Sexual practices between males were recorded in many areas of the Pacific region by early eighteenth century European explorers. European missionaries and colonial officials in the following centuries strongly discouraged such activities, and where they continued it was in secret.

In many Polynesian areas of the Pacific same-sex acts were tolerated only between a gender-crossing male and socially accepted man. Polynesian languages have terms such as Mahu and Fa’a fafine that define people who are effeminate and sometimes cross-dressing men.

This Maori ‘treasure box’ from the late eighteenth century includes stylised sex between two males.