The Many Names of Queer

Some people like to claim there was no homosexual identity until the word was invented in the nineteenth century, yet this is a very limited way of thinking. Historians have certainly shown the emergence of a queer subculture in the form of molly houses in the 18th century, that grew out of the thriving theatre scene of the Elizabethan and Stuart eras, and shown the prevalence of homosexual relationships in Renaissance Italy. Yet we can look much further back and find plenty of examples of what we might call queer culture. In fact in the ancient world there were many words used to describe both queer sexual acts and queer people.

sappho vase 435bc

Ancient Greek words for a woman who preferred sex with another woman include

hetairistriafrom hetaira ‘courtesan’ or ‘companion’

tribas, plural tribadesa reference to rubbing bodies together (tribo = rub)

and amazon – reference to fierce women warriors of the northern Scythian peoples

Romans also used tribas, plus

fricatricefrom fricare, to rub

virago – a man-like woman

Lesbian itself is of course related to the Greek island of Lesbos, which has had a reputation for erotic energy since ancient times, though lesbian had a broader meaning through the ages of amatory/erotic – in Greek the verb ‘lesbiazein’ meant to ‘imitate the lesbians’ and inferred shamelessness and taking the sexual initiative, not only female homosexuality.

Similarly Sapphic/Sapphism refers to the great female poet of ancient Lesbos (late 7th-early 6th century BCE), and became used synonymously with lesbian from the 19th century, though it had certainly always implied female erotic love.

catamite warren cup roman

It’s well known that the main form of same-sex relationship between males in ancient Greece was

paiderastia (pederasty), meaning “boy love”, between a sexually active older male and a passive adolescent youth. In Athens the older man was called erastes, who was expected to educate, protect, love, and be a role model for his eremenos whose brought in return his beauty, youth, and promise.

Ancient Rome was even more limited in its approval of same sex relationships between men, seeing them very much in terms of power. Yet Rome was a sex-obsessed culture, rich in phallic imagery and rich in words to describe homosexual acts and those doing them:

Terms for a man or boy taking the receptive role in sex included

concubinusmale bed mate

pathicus, deriving from Greek pathikos, equivalent to Roman passus, from which we get word passive.

puer delicatus – exquisite or dainty boy, a slave boy kept for sex



mollissoft, a word which stuck around – becoming molly in the early modern english molly houses.

pusioyep, pussy, related to puer, lad. Write Juvenal said the pusio was more desirable than women because he was less quarrelsome and would not demand gifts from his lover

Spintriamale prostitute

Exoletusan old male prostitute past his best

impudicus – lustful, especially related to sodomy. “The abstract noun impudicitia (adjective impudicus) was the negation of pudicitia, “sexual morality, chastity”. As a characteristic of males, it often implies the willingness to be penetrated. Dancing was an expression of male impudicitia.” (wiki)

Some of the words that were used slip towards transgender territory, such as


baptaieffeminate and licentious, originally the baptai were gender-variant, homo-erotically inclined priests of the Goddess Kotys, who originated in Phrygia, Turkey, and crossed into Greece 7th century BCE

cinaedus – homo-erotically inclined, gender-variant male. Originally, a cinaedus (Greek kinaidos) was a professional dancer, characterized as non-Roman or “Eastern”; the word itself may come from a language of Asia Minor. His performance featured tambourineplaying and movements of the buttocks that suggested anal intercourse.

gallus/galli/gallae – the name of the queer and outrageous trans priest/esses of Cybele became a general term for a queer, along with other terms that were used to describe the gallae – umbraticola (one who carries a parasol), cymbala pulsans (pulsating cymbals, one of the gallae’s instruments, and implying anal pleasure), tympanotriba (effeminate drummer like Cybele’s priests)

Pliny wrote that there are even those who are born of both sexes, whom we call hermaphrodites, at one time androgyni

Gender-variant priest/esses served many of the goddesses of the ancient world. Gender fluidity, and indeed homosexuality, were very much associated with spiritual service until the rise of Christianity during the later Roman Empire. As fear and suspicion of queer people, and our magical powers, spread, so queer sexuality became associated with dark magic, witchcraft and heresy.

The term sodomy for anal sex has 1st century roots, which is when Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria first proposed that interpretation of the Old Testament story (it then took a few centuries to become the official line of the Church), but has often being used over the centuries to refer to gay sex of all kinds, not simply anal. Buggery came into the picture because of the Bogomil sect, which originated in 10th century Bulgaria, and whose sex-positive heresy spread widely across Europe in the 14th century – the Catholic Church called them the Bougres, and the word stuck – so much so it was used by Henry VIII to make ‘unnatural’ sex a capital offence in the Buggery Act of 1533. ‘Bogomil’ means ‘kind and gentle people of God’ – I love that these kind, gentle folk gave us that great word.

Christian penitentials of the early Middle Ages use terms sodomita and mollis, and an Anglo-Saxon word of the time for an effeminate man was a baedling, possibly relating to an association with bath house.  12th century chronicler Richard of Devizes described the ‘great obscenities’ going on in London as ‘all sorts of men crowd together there from every country under the heavens’ – he mentions glabriones (pretty, smooth skinned boys), pusiones (hustlers), molles (effeminates) and mascularii.

Henry VIII brought in the Witchcraft Act just nine years after the prohibition of buggery. Four centuries of persecution of pagans and homosexuals was underway. The peak of the witch trials and executions came in the 17th century, but convicted gay men were still being hung, or sent to Australia, in the 19th.  The repeal of both acts happened in close succession too – witchcraft was no longer illegal from the 1950s, and homosexuality partially decriminalised in 1967, though by this point any association between the two was completely forgotten – the pagan movement that has developed since the 1950s emerged in a homophobic culture, and shows little awareness of the roles queers played in the nature religions. Nor do queers in general show much sign of being aware of the centrality of spirituality in our history.

Prior to homosexuality becoming adopted as the key word in the late nineteenth century, gay pioneers of that age had already come up with a range of new words for us – finding inspiration in ancient Greek philosophies that celebrate same-sex love.  In Germany, Karl Ulrichs adopted the term ‘Uranian’ (or Urning), inspired by the goddess Aphrodite Urania, the patron of spiritual love, choosing it to highlight the nobility and sacred potential of same sex love and distinguishing it from reproductive ‘Dionian’ love, named after Aphrodite Dionea. The term was taken up by English advocates of homosexual emancipation, such as Edward Carpenter and John Addington-Symonds, imagining a comradely love that would bring about true democracy by breaking down class and gender barriers. Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter in 1898,

To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble—more noble than other forms.”

Ulrichs expanded Urning to give these definitions:

  • Urning: A person assigned male at birth with a female psyche, whose main sexual attraction is to men.
  • Urningin (or occasionally the variants Uranierin, Urnin, and Urnigin): A person assigned female at birth with a male psyche, whose main sexual attraction is to women.
  • Dioning: A heterosexual, masculine man
  • Dioningin: A heterosexual, feminine woman
  • Uranodioning: A male bisexual
  • Uranodioningin: A female bisexual
  • Zwitter: Intersex

In the twentieth century, some of us started calling ourselves RADICAL FAERIES.

So when I hear people getting upset about the ever expanding alphabet soup of the queer universe, they need to open their minds perhaps a bit wider, to try to limit us to homosexual, bi-sexual, transexual is to curtail the discovery of who we are, for we are certainly more than the sex we have or the gender we love or the gender(s) we manifest! We are a portion of humanity whose natural sacred expression has been repressed for a very long time, we are still finding out who we are.

The words above are intended to help us reclaim ancient roots of queer nature, function and identity.  Similar surveys of other continents are possible.

africa rainbow

Turning to Africa:

“During precolonial times, the “mudoko dako,” or effeminate males among the Langi of northern Uganda were treated as women and could marry men. In Buganda, one of the largest traditional kingdoms in Uganda, it was an open secret that Kabaka (king) Mwanga II, who ruled in the latter half of the 19th century, was gay.


“The vocabulary used to describe same-sex relations in traditional languages, predating colonialism, is further proof of the existence of such relations in precolonial Africa. To name but a few, the Shangaan of southern Africa referred to same-sex relations as “inkotshane” (male-wife); Basotho women in present-day Lesotho engage in socially sanctioned erotic relationships called “motsoalle” (special friend) and in the Wolof language, spoken in Senegal, homosexual men are known as “gor-digen” (men-women).”

“In early seventeenth-century Luanda (the capital of Portuguese Angola), Catholic priests Gaspar Azevereduc and Antonius Sequerius documented third-gender natives known as chibados. The chibados dressed like women, spoke effeminately and married other men “to unite in wrongful lust with them.” More shocking to the priests was the fact that such marriages were honored and even prized among the tribesmen. In a similar record, Portuguese Jesuit Joao dos Santos wrote in 1625 that the chibadosmof southwestern Africa were “attyred like women, and behave themselves womanly, ashamed to be called men; are also married to men, and esteeme that unnaturale damnation an honor.” In his writings about seventeenth-century Angola, historian Antonio Cardonega mentioned that sodomy was “rampant among the people of Angola. They pursue their impudent and filthy practices dressed as women.” He also stated that the sodomites often served as powerful shamans, were highly esteemed among most Angolan tribes and commonly called quimbanda.”

In southeastern Africa, Bori cults—along with their crossdressing shamans and possession rituals—are still quite common among the Zulu. Shamans are known as inkosi ygbatfazi (“chief of the women”) while ordinary transgenders are called skesana and their masculine partners, iqgenge. Zulu warriors traditionally asserted their manhood by substituting boys for women and in the 1890s, Zulu chief Nongoloza Mathebula ordered his bandit-warriors to abstain from women and take on boy-wives instead. After his capture, Nongoloza insisted that the practice had been a longstanding custom among South Africans. Indeed, homosexual marriage was documented among the Zulu, Tsonga and Mpondo migrant workers of South Africa at least since the early nineteenth century. Boy-wives were known by various names such as inkotshane (Zulu),nkhonsthana (Tsonga), tinkonkana (Mpondo)”

“The Meru tribes of Kenya have a religious leadership role known as mugawe, which involves priests wearing female clothing and hairstyles.  In 1973, British ethnologist Rodney Needham noted that the mugawe were often homosexual and sometimes married to other menIn 1987, anthropologist Gill Shepherd reported that homosexuality was relatively common in Kenya, even among Muslims (both male and female). Most Kenyans initially discourage transgender behavior among their children but gradually come to accept it as an inherent part of the child’s spirit (roho) or nature (umbo). Shepherd observed third-gender men, known in Swahili as shoga, who served as passive male prostitutes and wore female clothing, makeup, and flowers at social events such as weddings, where they typically mingled with the “other” women. At more serious events such as funerals and prayer meetings, the shoga would stay with the men and wear men’s attire. Other Swahili terms for homosexual men include basha(dominant male), hanithi (young male partner) and mumemke (man-woman).  Lesbians are known as msagaji or msago(“grinders”).”

Published by shokti

i am shokti, lovestar of the eurofaeries, aka marco queer magician of london town. i explore the links between our sexual-physical nature and our spirits, running gatherings, rituals and Queer Spirit Festival. i woke up to my part in the accelerating awakening of light love and awareness on planet earth during a shamanic death-and-rebirth process lasting from January 1995 to the year 2000, and offer here my insights and observations on the ongoing transformation of human consciousness, how to navigate the waves of change, and especially focusing on the role of queer people at this time.

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