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Ancient and modern

Ancient and Modern

A classicist draws on ancient wisdom to illuminate contemporary follies

26 July 2003

12:00 AM

26 July 2003

12:00 AM

Poor old Archbeard of Canterbury! Who will rid him of these infernal gay priests? Or infernal anti-gay priests?

Ancient Greeks would have found the whole issue baffling. First, consulting gods for their views was a straightforward business: one examined entrails or sent a delegation to an oracle. If they got the interpretation wrong, the god would let them know soon enough. Greeks would have wondered what sort of Christian god this was who was incapable of alerting his followers to his will.


Second, ancient gods were interested only in being honoured, not in overseeing human morality. So Greeks would have found it strange that gods should be concerned about what people did in bed. To both men and gods, sex was just another aspect of the natural world, like rivers and the harvest. All such aspects had their ruling deities, who made sure that humans acknowledged them – or else. That is why men made them offerings: one remembers the poet Horace saying that he would shortly sacrifice a goat to the spring Bandusia on his farm. Aphrodite was the goddess of sex – hetero- and homosexual – paedophilia was an accepted norm of behaviour among the upper classes, and she took exception only to those who publicly rejected and therefore insulted her, like the mythical character Hippolytus who proudly declared his antipathy to sexual intercourse. As for the gods themselves, according to myth they had a fine old time committing incest, adultery, fornication and sodomy. All very enlightened and Third Way.

Since Greeks thought of the cosmos as being generated by intercourse between its primordial powers, especially Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky), sexuality was at the very heart of Greek thinking about the origins of the world. Indeed, they reasoned that Er


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