Gay History - May 10, 320 BC: The Greek Author and Poet Theocritus Is Born

Gay History – May 10, 320 BC: The Greek Author and Poet Theocritus Is Born

May 10, 320 BC Theocritus is born in Syracuse and is credited with being the first and greatest pastoral poet.

In the heritage of homosexual literature, ancient Greece holds a unique place. Here was a society relatively hospitable to the love of boys and youths, and, on occasion, to love between older men, in which poetry and prose that celebrated. Such affections formed a significant part of its culture.  Theocritus developed the verse form known as the pastoral, a stylized and artful form usually about shepherds or cowherds who sing of love and friendship and were  highly homoerotic.

Thirty (nearly) complete poems and twenty-five epigrams have come down to us under the name “Theocritus.”

Seven of the thirty poems (idylls) completed by Theocritus are essentially homoerotic: in the fifth idyll two shepherds good- naturedly accuse each other of pederasty (one accusing the other of anal rape in the bushes), using colloquial expressions that are “obscene” enough to be printed in Latin in some modern English translations from the Greek (a notorious pedantic practice that makes merely vulgar passages seem especially wicked – and easier to locate); in the seventh idyll Aratus is passionately in love with a boy; in the twelfth idyll a lover addresses his absent beloved and describes a kissing contest amongst boys in honour of Diocles, lover of Philolaus; in the thirteenth idyll Hercules frantically searches for his beloved Hylas; in the twenty-third idyll a lover commits suicide and is revenged by a statue of Eros falling upon his faithless beloved; in the twenty-ninth idyll a lover speaks to his inconstant and immature beloved; and in the thirtieth idyll a rejected suitor reflects upon the heartbreak caused by the love of lads. Theocritus portrays the homosexual lover as one who experiences fleeting moments of gaiety ending in dejected frustration and pensive memory – the very same way in which he portrays heterosexual lovers.

Theocritus’ work was unavailable to most Renaissance writers, and their imitations are almost always secondhand, by way of Virgil and French pastoralists. But the very first English translation of selected pieces, the anonymous Sixe Idillia of 1588, contains an insightful comment about the paradoxical love-death relationship between the boy-surrogate (Adonis) and the sacred king wearing the totem skin (the boar). The boar pleads his case to Venus:

Venus, to thee I sweare,
. . .
Thy husband faire and tall
I minded not to kill;
But as an image still
I him beheld for love [i.e., Eros]Which made me forward shove,
His thigh that naked was
Thinking to kisse, alas!
. . .
Why beare I in my snowt
These needless teeth about?

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