Pride history rundown: cultures and figures throughout time

Josh Pollard, Learning and Development Advisor,

Let's look back at some well known figures and cultures who expressed their sexuality in a way which breaks all our modern perceptions.

Ancient Mesopotamia - 5,000 - 3,000 BCE

The Sumerian deity, Inanna, Queen of the Heaven, was the goddess of sex, war and justice. (quite the résumé). It was believed that she had the power to change a persons gender. This is evidenced in multiple fragments of poetry which shows people living outside of the gender binary during these times. Writings from a High Priestess of Inanna in the city of Ur state:

‘To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna. To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.’

There is much evidence of individuals living outside the gender binary within this civilisation; once such example are men who joined the temples as Gala (Priest of Inanna) would become, for all intents and purposes, women. They would adopt female names and sing in a dialect which was reserved for female speakers of the language.

Examples of non-binary individuals was not limited to the cults of Inanna; a Sumerian statuette depicts a signing with a male name, however, the gender of the figure has been identified as female. Although we cannot be sure to the exact extend of individuals living outside the gender binary, there is evidence across Mesopotamian sites supporting this theory.

Like many periods in history, women's sexuality is not often or well documented, however there are two texts which do mention female same sex activity.

 Khnumhotep & Niankhkhnum - 2613 - 2181 BC

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are claimed by some scholars to be the first same-sex couple in recorded history. The were both attendants to  King Niuserre of the 5th Dynasty of Egypt. After their death they shared a tomb which contained images of them embracing and touching nose-to-nose, which was a gesture used in Ancient Egypt as a kiss. They were both married and had children, which lead some people to believe that they were brothers rather than lovers, however, in images in the tomb Khnumhotep is pictured in the place of honor, which would have been reserved for his wife. 

Ancient Greece 800 -146 BCE

Classical Antiquity - 800 - 323 BCE

Greek culture did not have a concept of sexual orientation as an identity. Sexual behaviour and desire were rooted much more in the roles that each participant would play, such as active or passive. Same sex relationships between adult men were fairly common place and as exampled by the image to the left, was even shown on pottery and other items as the social norm.

A common same sex relationship, particularly with in the more elite circles of the culture, were between an older male and a young boy, until he was able to grow a beard. These relationships, while having a sexual element, were also about education and protection; with a strong bond and love between the two participants. 

This kind of relationship was called “pederasty” - While problematic and disturbing to us now; the bonds shared by the participants would last their lives.

A similar practice was also common within the Greek Spartan culture, but was much more geared towards training the youth towards the skillsets required for war and conquest. 

There is also evidence to suggest that these relationships were also reflected within the Mythos of ancient Greece too, with several well known characters having same sex relationships, such as;

  • Theseus and Pirithous
  • Achilles and Patroclus
  • Orestes and Pylades

The topic of homosexual love and relationships were also covered in detail by many of the writers of the time, such as Plato and Herodotus.

Sappho of Lesbos - 630 BCE

A poet from the Island of Lesbos, who's work was highly praised by Plato and called his twelfth muse (high praise indeed in ancient Greece!), is one of the few examples of a likely homosexual woman in ancient times. Sappho is wrote many love poems addressed to girls and women.

There are fewer mentions of women LGBTQ+ figures as much writing in ancient times focused more on males.

The Galli - 200 - 300 B.C.

The Galli were priests in the cult of Cybele (The universal Goddess, mother to Gods and Men). On initiation into the Cult the Galli would castrate themselves and afterwards would wear clothing and jewellery of Roman women. 

Galli's gender become a focal point of discussion within Roman culture and was often attacked for not confirming to the masculine image of males which Roman's held in high regard. This break from the gender norms makes them a very interesting example of possible non-binary individuals in an otherwise binary and gender confirming culture. 

Romans - 625 BCE - 476 A.D.

Speaking of the romans; while their gender views were considered to be very binary. With men and woman occupying classic roles; with a strong emphasis on the masculinity of males; their attitudes to sexuality are (famously) more liberal than we'd expect.

Emperor Hadrian, of wall fame, who ruled from 117-138 AD was known to take both male and female lovers. (When in Rome...) The Roman's did not define sexuality with terms like "homosexual" or "Bisexual". Antinous was the most famous of his lovers, writers of the time describe the pair as inseparable as they travelled together across the Empire. Until Antinous' tragic drowning the River Nile. There are suggestions that his drowning my not have been an accident, but this has never been confirmed.

A bust of Emperor Hadrian

The common misconception of the Roman's being "up for anything" or that Roman men would commonly engage in homosexual acts, as women were viewed as the lesser or weaker sex, are both overly simplified and inaccurate depictions of their attitudes towards sexuality. 

A more accurate picture is that while the definitions between sexualities were far less defined compared to modern western societies and what we would consider to be homosexual or bisexual relationships were far more common and openly encouraged and practiced; this seemingly liberal and open minded civilisation still had those that considered it wrong and actively sought to prevent it; however, it cannot be denied that the Romans were a very sexual people which could also be attributed to their religion; which connected sexuality to prosperity and had a whole range of magic and ritual acts which involved sexual acts. 

King Edward II - 1284 - 1327

The reign of Edward II was not a great time for England. In a short period of time there were large military defeats, political crisis unlike any previously seen and a civil war. The tale of Edward, tells of his downfall being firmly laid at the feet of his trusted advisors and "Favourites"; two gentlemen by the names of Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser; who are now widely considered to be his lovers.

"When Edward was 15 years old, Piers Gaveston begins to appear in the prince’s household accounts. Gaveston was the son of one of the king’s household knights, and the two teenagers struck up a close friendship. After a falling out between prince Edward and and the king in 1307, Gaveston was banished to France. Before he left, the young prince Edward lavished him with gifts including two fine outfits, five horses, swans and herons. He also accompanied Gaveston to Dover with two minstrels. "

- English Heritage

Gaveston would return to England and serve Edward when he became king, however, meet his untimely death at the hands of the Earl of Warwick when he was captured at Scarbough Castle. He was executed much to the humiliation and heart break of Edward.

His second favourite, Hugh Despenser, by most accounts sounds like a bad rebound relationship. He was a greedy and power hungry and used his position as the Kings new favourite (often referred to as the "Second King") lead England into a conflict with France, which ultimately ended in the King and Despenser being captured. Edward was forced to give up the thrown and Hugh was hanged, drawn and quartered. - Not a great track record for Edward.

Pirates - Circa 1660 - 1726

Pirates, yes, that's right. Those vagabonds that plundered the 7 seas and installed a fear on all who saw the jolly roger; often enjoyed each other's company between raids. 

In fact, it was actively tolerated and conditions aboard the ships encouraged it. Pirated in fact had very strict codes when it came to their behaviour onboard their vessels and during raids, often having to agree to a code of conduct, and if they broke this code, they could face physical injury or death.

There is a book which delves into this topic in great detail, called "Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition". - While not be the most sympathetically written book and containing some outdated views, its considered the go-to when researching pirate sexuality.

While this was a whistle stop tour and there are many other people I could have mentioned, I hope that this opens your eyes to the existance of LGBTQ+ figures in history and evidence of full spectrum of human expression even when it was not fully recorded.  

The terms homosexual and heterosexual were coined in the 19th century in an effort to normalise same sex relationships in the face of much heated hatred and criminalisation, primarily in Europe. The existence and acceptance of same sex relationships, for many ancient cultures prior to the rise of Christianity would have been widely accepted and seen as nothing, really, of note. Some in Rome, may have mutter about the perceived lack of masculinity in a man who engages in acts with another man, but these would have been the minority. This view of it being alien and different are very modern constructs.

Queer is nothing new, it is as old as humanity and will last as long as we do. Queer was always here.

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