In the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle recorded that the Celtic peoples (“and a few others”) “openly approve of male love”.
SIX CENTURIES LATER, around 200 CE, Greek orator and author Athenaeus recorded the same thing in a play called ‘Savants at Dinner’. He places a selection of noble guests at a symposium at which they quote more than 1200 ancient authors, name a thousand Greek plays and philosophise on many subjects. In Book XIII we read “Altogether, many persons prefer liaisons with males to those with females.” He states that those cities in which male love is “zealously pursued” are rules by good laws (the Greeks had a millennium old tradition of celebrating male lovers who overthrew tyrant rulers and established fair laws). Some of those tyrants “even went as far as to set fire to the wrestling-schools, regarding them as counter-walls to their own citadels.” He lists the Cretans, Chalcidians, Medes, Tuscans, citizens of Massalis (modern Marseilles in France) and the Celts as being enthusiastically approving of male-male liaisons.
Historians have told us that the Classical Greek civilisation approved of homosexual relationships – in certain circumstances only – and that under the Roman Empire gay sex, while common, became a power game in which the passive partner was looked down on. These stances are getting a gradual reinterpretation, but for sure we do have quotations from several Greco-Roman writers expressing their shock at, in comparison to their own cultures, just how queer the goings on in the Celtic North were.
Greek philosopher Posidonius, 1st century BC, traveled into Gaul to investigate the truth of the stories told about the Celtic tribes, and put it very simply: “The Gaulish men prefer to have sex with each other.”
Diodorus Sicilus wrote in the 1st century CE, –
“Although they have good-looking women, they pay very little attention to them, but are really crazy about having sex with men. They are accustomed to sleeping on the ground on animal skins and roll around naked with male bed-mates on both sides. Heedless of their own dignity, they abandon without qualm the bloom of their bodies to others. And the most incredible thing is that they do not find this shameful. When they proposition someone, they consider it dishonourable if he doesn’t accept the offer!”
Sextus Empiricus wrote that among the Germanic people sodomy was “not looked upon as shameful but as a customary thing.”
Bardaisan of Edessa wrote (2nd century CE) that “In the countries of the north — in the lands of the Germans and those of their neighbors, handsome [noble] young men assume the role of wives [women] towards other men, and they celebrate marriage feasts.”
Eusebius of Caesarea, wrote that “Among the Gauls, the young men marry each other (gamountai) with complete freedom. In doing this, they do not incur any reproach or blame, since this is done according to custom amongst them.” (4th century CE)
Aristotle had coined a Greek term – synousia – to describe the ‘passionate friendship’ between Celtic men. The word suggests erotic passion. While there was marriage, friendship seems to have been the basis of loving connections between males, a friendship that was not bound by moral judgements about the body and sexual expression.
For 1000 years Greek civilisation raised the vision of male love to the highest philosophical heights it has yet reached on this planet. Yet these were also the years of rising patriarchal power and homophobia. In contrast to the Greeks, not far away in Canaan the efforts of the Hebrew priests to distinguish their tribe from the others around them produced the prohibitions of male-male sexuality (and on cross-dressing) in the Torah that continue to devastatingly affect the lives of gay people in the world to this very day.
Even in Greece the debate was on. Aristophanes speaks in Plato’s Symposium:
“Those who love men and rejoice to lie with, be embraced by men, are also the finest bys and young men, being naturally the most manly. The people who accuse them of shamelessness lie; they do this not from shamelessness but from courage, manliness and virility, embracing what is like them.”
Plato himself, while seeing divine potential in male love, was opposed to the physical expression of that love. Yet even in the first centuries of Christian domination, when many Church Fathers were furiously railing against gay sex and gay people, there were strong voices presenting a different view. Plutarch’s ‘Dialogue on Love’ in the 2nd century makes a strong argument for the approval of love for both males and females – the play reveals how revered gay love still was at this time, and seems to argue that love of women can be brought up to the same level. 150 years later the dialogue ‘Affairs of the Heart’, by the satirist Lucian, is much less excited about the love of women, called “the more awkward cause” in the debate about which love is the best, and reveals that, as the new religious attitudes spread, non-Christian Greeks were holding on to their ancient attitudes.
The Celtic and Germanic people of northern Europe left us no written records, but archaeology has now revealed a prosperous, skilled, artistic culture that spanned the millennia of the Bronze Age. We know of warrior women among the Celts, and of softer, gentle Bardic men as well as fierce and powerful Druids (of both genders). History tells us these ancestors had no issue with male-male love, it was at least as respected and normalised as male-female. The Greeks elevated male love to a heavenly ideal, then ringfenced how that should be expressed (though we shouldn’t assume everyone saw it the same way), and looked on conjugal love as inferior. Perhaps the northern Europeans were more advanced in the sense of accepting that all love is natural and should be allowed its expression.
I conclude with one more quotation then a proposition:
Greek philosopher Ptolemy recorded in the 2nd century that Celtic men:
“are without passion towards women and do not care much about the enjoyment of love in the union… with Men, on the other hand, are more excessive and more likely to be jealous. Those influenced in this way do not regard their behavior as immoral and do not become really unmanly and soft because they are not influenced in the passive sense, rather they keep their souls manly, sociable, loyal, family-friendly and well-disposed. ” – Ptolemy, Apotelesmatika 2.3.14
Homophobia is unnatural. It was invented to control people’s minds and souls. Same Sex love is completely natural and was once accepted as such in the very lands that went on to develop a vile, murderous attitude to gay people, then spread this evil around the world. But they never managed to get rid of us, and after long dark centuries of persecution we are slowly finding our way again, and finding out who we are.
The ancient people of northern Europe approved of same sex relationships.
Every gay European deserves to know this history. Let’s make sure they find out.