Zeus. Thor. Hercules. When we think of these Greek Gods, we all imagine statues of large, muscled ethereal beings who are the epitome of power, strength, and masculinity. But, the concept of gender in Greek mythology is not as binary as we might think. Throughout ancient Greece and in Greek mythology, tales of gender fluidity and transvestism were simply part of everyday society.
Dude looks like a lady
Across ancient Greek culture, having a man donning female dress (we’re not simply talking togas) is not unheard of, and this also applies to the Gods.
Even Zeus – the king of gods, the ruler of Mt. Olympus – was not above cross-dressing to get what he wanted. For all accounts, he was a ‘man’s man’ who unfortunately had a habit of collecting lovers (to the chagrin of his wife, Hera). Being an all-powerful god, lovers fell at his feet – except when it came to a nymph called Callisto.
Callisto had taken a vow of chastity as she was a devotee of the powerful goddess Artemis (who happens to be Zeus’ daughter). In order to seduce Callisto, Zeus used his godly powers to take the form of Artemis and basically seduced/raped her in that form. Imagine Zeus being in a woman’s body (his own daughter’s), raping another woman. As odd as it sounds, Callisto eventually became pregnant, but that’s another story altogether.
The Trojan War hero Achilles also had experience with cross-dressing when he was a child. His mother disguised him as a girl and sent him to live among the maidens in order to keep him from going to war. From a cross-dressing child, Achilles eventually grew up as a magnificent warrior, got married, and had a child. He later took part in the Trojan War where he died in battle because of his heel.
A similar upbringing was experienced by Dionysus – the god of wine and wild parties – who is sometimes depicted as an effeminate, long-haired youth. First assigned male, he then lived as a girl until reaching adulthood, when he embraced a bigender identity and went on to have orgies with both men and women.
Not all Gods dressed as women for their own gains. Demigod Hercules spent a year as a slave to Queen Omphale in order to atone for his own sins. As a slave, he was made to wear women’s clothes and sit at the spinning wheel, which was normally a woman’s place. He apparently wore the feminine look so well that he attracted the amorous attention of Pan, the half-man-half-goat god.
According to Greek mythology, before the world was created, there was an egg world. That egg would eventually be broken by Kronos (god of time) and Ananke (god of inevitability), and from that egg came Phanes. With two faces and two sexes, this primal god represented the ability to reproduce, and was the one to initiate life.
It probably comes as no surprise then, that even gender neutrality has a god. Hermaphroditus has long been a symbol of androgyny or effeminacy, and in Greco-Roman art was portrayed as a female figure with male genitals. According to stories, he was once a handsome youth who attracted the eye of a nymph who prayed to be united with him, and the gods answered her prayers by merging their two bodies into one. Hermaphroditus was the son of the gods Hermes (the winged messenger) and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty), and his name is a mash-up of theirs. The word ‘hermaphrodite’ is named after him.
Not all intersex gods were worshipped. The Greek goddess Agdistis – an offspring of Zeus – has a body that appeared outwardly feminine, but possessed both male and female sexual organs. Her bi-sexed body was perceived as a threat to the gods who feared that her body made her so powerful that she’d take over the world, so Dionysus came up with a brutal method to castrate Agdistis.
Love in the time of Greeks
People often blame homesexuality as a modern-day transgression, but it was already pretty commonplace thousands of years ago in ancient Greece. It wasn’t just the Spartan warriors who were intimately connected with their fellow men – even Greek Gods were known to dally in homosexual relationships.
There were plenty of same-sex couples in Greek mythology, mostly involving sugar daddy-type relationships. These were based on the custom of paiderastia (pederasty), a Greek practice where adult men maintain erotic relationships with adolescent boys. The younger mortal men – called eromenoi – usually end up dead.
Such was the case with a beautiful, young Spartan man called Hyacinthus who was famously known as the lover of the god Apollo. Hyacinthus was accidentally killed when he tried to catch Apollo’s discus which struck him in the head instead. The distraught Apollo then turned his dead lover into a flower: the hyacinth.
However, Apollo wasn’t Hyacinthus’ first man – he was already in a sort-of relationship with a bard named Thamyris prior to Apollo showing up. Being a god, Apollo easily stole the young man’s love and attention away from Thamyris. And while frolicking with Apollo, Hyacinthus caught the attention of another male – the god Zephyros, who managed to have a fling with the boy. Hyacinthus was undoubtedly a man-magnet.
There have been many other same-sex relations between gods and mortals: Dionysus and Ampelos, Hermes and Krokus, Poseidon and Pelops, and many more. Even mighty Achilles was known to have a thing with his wartime companion, Patroclus.
The demigod Hercules, while proven virile with the women, had a long, long list of male lovers. Notable lovers include Abderos, who got eaten by horses he was supposed to look after for Hercules; Hylas, who was Hercules’ companion when he sailed on the Argo; and Iolaus, who was with Hercules when he chopped off Hydra’s many heads. The relationship with Iolaus was actually enshrined in Thebes, where male couples of the day would exchange vows and pledges at his tomb.
Perhaps the most famous same-sex affair goes back to the philandering god Zeus, who was besotted with the “most beautiful of all mortals” – not “the-face-that-launched-a-thousand-ships” Helen of Troy, but a Trojan prince named Ganymede. He was so beautiful that Zeus turned himself into an eagle and kidnapped him, bringing him to Mt. Olympus to serve as cup-bearer (a sort of fancy teaboy) and, of course, as his lover.
Ganymende is described as being so attractive that he inspired amorous attraction from other males, and is often portrayed as the god of homosexual love. His name means “gladdening prince” – or “gladdening genitals”, depending on context.
Zeus and Ganymede had a pretty long relationship despite Zeus’ constant infidelity. Towards the end of the era of Gods, Zeus made Ganymede immortal by sending him to the stars as part of the Zodiac constellation where he shines as Aquarius (which means “cup-bearer”).
All’s fair in love
Mortals throughout history have looked to the gods for guidance, reassurance, and acceptance regardless of their sexuality. Tales of Greek Gods are full of what would be considered aberrant behaviour when it comes to these salacious stories. But whether it’s a divine cup-bearer or male lovers on Mt. Olympus, tolerance is often presented as a sign of civilisation’s advancement – and a reading of Greek mythology reveals a greater acceptance of gender identity in ancient Athens than we often see today.