(For a proper understanding of the place of homeroticism in Jewish and Christian history, it is instructive to contrast it with its place in other religions. I have described previously how many religions not only accept a recognized and important place for same sex love, but even identify specific patrons of homosexual love. I now propose to consider the many other gods and goddesses who either took same sex lovers themselves, or were served by sexually or gender non-conforming priests and priestesses. I begin, as any account of the development of civilization must do, in the Middle East.)
Same sex love is a common theme in world religion and its literature, and is even present at the very beginning of literary history. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest work of literature – and includes a central theme of love between two men. The hero Giligamesh was the king of Uruk, described as two thirds god and one third man, and a giant in size and strength, with a prodigious sexual appetite. He routinely used his strength and royal power to take advantage of both young men, taking them from their fathers, and young women, taking them from their husbands. To protect their sons and wives from the kings lust, the people turn to their gods, and in particular the creator goddess Aruru, pleading with her to send Gilgamesh a companion on whom he can expend his energies. Aruru responds, and sends to Gilgamesh a man, Enkidu, who is massive in size, inspiring in physique, hairy like an animal, and with luxuriant tresses of hair “like a woman”.
The subsequent relationship between the two, their adventures together, Gilgamesh’s grief after Enkidu’s death and their subsequent reunion in the afterworld with Enkidu’s ghost form the meat of the epic. The content is not explicitly homoerotic, but there are clear erotic undertones. Enkidu was created to divert the king’s sexual appetite from his subjects, and there is no indication that such a prodigious sexual energy suddenly evaporated. At one point, Gilgamesh even declines a direct sexual invitation from the goddess Ishtar – preferring his male companion Enkidu. Recalling the words of the biblical prophet David about Jonathan, it is said that Gilgamesh loved Enkidu “like a wife”.
Discussing the erotic element in their relationship, the biblical scholar Marti Nissinen (“Homoeroticism in the Biblical World“) makes an interesting point, one that will be familiar to many gay men in the modern West, and should give pause to those who insist that sex between men may be permitted in a committed, permanent relationship, but not before:
At first, the Epic of Gilgamesh can be described as a characterization of love between two men, with a homoerotic aspect that expresses their deep friendship……At the beginning, there is plenty of sex in the lives of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but this lifestyle is presented as primitive and reckless. ….As the story proceeds, the relationship deepens and, simultaneously, the sexual passions seem to subside to the point that one can speak of a “spiritual” friendship between the two men. The erotic tension between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is not lost, but is transformed in the way that the same – sex interaction of the two men finally is characterized by love, with little if any sexual activity. Eroticism is important first and foremost as the impetus to the transformation which leads first from savage sexual behaviour to mutual love, and finally away from physical sex.
This process will be familiar to many modern gay men. In place of the romantic stereotype of a slowly blossoming chaste courtship, followed by a grand wedding and only then by sexual consummation, the pattern is more usually reversed. Possibly influenced by the absence in practice of opportunities for more conventional courtships between men to develop, possibly by the more frankly sexual interests in relationships of men compared with women, the majority of gay male relationships begin with sexual encounters on or soon after a first date. Some of these develop into lasting friendships, and then some into lasting, committed unions.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, it is not the gods who were queer, but their priests and priestesses. There is a wealth of material on this, but two extracts from de la Huerta make the point in summary:
In ancient Mesopotamia, the Goddess Innana (also known as Ishtar) was considered the patron of the sinnisat zikrum, a class of gender-variant and possibly lesbian princesses. Likewise, she was also honoured and served by the kulbu, gender-variant male priests, which included the assinu and the kurgarru. Both male and female functionaries wore androgynous attire combined with sacd vestments and were considered to hold special powers. It was believed, for example, that the simple act of touching an assinu’s head would lead to victory in battle, while the mere sighting of a kurgarru was thought to bring good luck.
The Canaanite Goddess Ashtar was also served by a class of gender-variant priests, called qedeshim (the “holy ones”) who were responsible for the upkeep of the temple grounds and the creation of ritual objects. They were said to engage in sacred temple prostitution and may have used sexual practices as a way to induce enhanced states of consciousness.
-De la Huerta, p 32 (after Conner, Blossom of Bone)
In Egyptian mythology, there is an important reminder that sex (whether between men or between a man and woman) was not always an expression of love, but was frequently an expression of power and aggression. Seth, the murderer of his brother Osiris, summons Osiris’ nephew Horus, ostensibly to achieve some reconciliation. Instead, he attempts to rape him while Horus is asleep, thus putting him into a sexually subordinate position, which would leave him unfit for kingship. Instead, the younger man turns the tables by getting some of Seth’s sperm in his hand, which he later mixes with his (Seth’s) food. By taking male sperm, into his body, it is Seth who becomes unfit for kingship.
Connor, Randy P, and Sparks, David: Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit
De la Huerta, Christian: Coming Out Spiritually: The Next Step
Greenberg, David F: The Construction of Homosexuality
Nissinen, Narti: Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective
Some Gods of Homosexual Love (Queer Saints and Martyrs)
Chin, Mayan Gay God (It’s a Queer World)
The Chinese Rabbit God (It’s a Queer World)