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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Immortal Queer; LGBTQ+ Narratives in Mythology

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Loki consumes the female Gullveig’s heart, and is impregnated, an illustration of lines from Hyndluljóð, or Song of Hyndla, by John Bauer, 1911.

The moment you suggest that in the “good old days” men were men and women, women, and all of this LGBTQ+ stuff is rather new and “woke,” I will refer you to the story of Hercules, who abandoned the other manly Argonauts to save his male lover, Hylas, from the nymphs. Or of Loki, from the ostensibly manlier Norse pantheon, who turns himself into a female horse to distract a stallion and winds up pregnant. Head to the east and you will find Krishna, who becomes a woman so a hero doesn’t die a virgin—yes, Krishna, one of the most revered deities in the world, became a woman and slept with a man. The Chinese have a gay god as do the Japanese, as did the Aztecs and Egyptians. Etc, etc, and so forth. Pride month is new, but queer is immortal.

‘Him Have I Lost’; Achilles and Patroclus

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC. From Vulci (Wikipedia).

Perhaps the best-known of Greek same-sex lovers were Achilles and Patroclus of Homer’s Iliad. Achilles famously sulks in his tent, refusing to help the Greeks, until Trojan Hector kills Patroclus. If Menelaus’s rage at having Helen stolen from him motivates the Greek siege of Troy, Achilles’ rage at Patroclus’s death is what leads the Greeks to defeat the Trojans. His anger at Patroclus’s death is equaled by his grief. A “black cloud of grief” surrounds him as he tears his hair and covers his face with dust. Antilochus, who bears the news of Patroclus death, restrains the hands of the moaning Achilles for fear he may cut his own throat in grief. Achilles’s goddess mother hears Achilles’s grief and tries to comfort him. His response: “My mother...what pleasure have I therein, seeing my dear comrade is dead, even Patroclus, whom I honored above all my comrades, even as mine own self? Him have I lost.”

Achilles and Patroclus may be the most famous of male lovers from Greek mythology, but they are far from the only ones. The gods Zeus, Apollo, Pan and Dionysus had same-sex lovers, as did Hercules! The Greeks clearly saw no conflict between same-sex love and being respected, admired, revered.

Mother Loki

Loki takes the form of a mare and flirts with the giant’s horse in “Loki and Svadilfariby Dorothy Hardy, 1909.

Norse Loki takes on a female form more than once, most famously when he becomes the mare who bears Odin’s eight-legged steed in the text Gylfaginning. It is the tale of the building of Asgard’s walls, which a giant in disguise offers to build in exchange for the hand of Freya. Loki convinces the gods to accept the builder’s offer, but to set a deadline he could not possibly meet. However, the builder and his horse make such fast progress on the wall that the gods fear they will have to give him Freya. They threaten Loki if he does not remedy the situation so he hatches a scheme. Loki realizes that the builder’s horse is crucial to the builder meeting the deadline. The next day, when the builder starts working, “a mare suddenly ran out of the woods to the horse and began to neigh at him.” The mare, Loki in disguise, drives the giant’s horse mad and it chases Loki into the forest, delaying the giant. The Gylfaginning coyly relates that Loki “had run such a race” with the giant’s horse that he bears a foal some time afterward.

Loki’s impregnation feels like a punchline, a comeuppance, but the fertility god Freyr was also said to be worshipped by gay priests. For more on Freyr and other Viking attitudes toward gay sex, check out this excerpt from Gunnora Hallakarva's Viking Lady Answer Page post, “The Vikings and Homosexuality.

Krishna Becomes Woman

The exceptionally alluring Mohini, Krishna’s (Vishnu’s) female form. Photograph of a famous statue of Mohini from the 12th Century Chennakeshava Temple, of Belur in the state of Karnataka, India. (Wikipedia.)

There are so many instances in Hindu stories of gods and heroes changing gender or having multiple genders, that it seems more the rule than the exception. A striking example of this is that of Krishna, who is God on earth, becoming a woman specifically to marry and sexually consummate that marriage with a hero who is asked to sacrifice himself for the good of the universe. Aravan is the son of the great hero Arjuna and a Naga princess. His death in the great Mahabharata war is required for the forces of good to succeed, but Aravan is a virgin and does not want to die a virgin. Not only does Krishna become the woman for Aravan—he becomes an exceptionally alluring woman. Krishna’s female name, Mohini, is meant to suggest the essence of female beauty and attraction. And it is not only a marriage of convenience. After Aravan’s death, Mohini mourns his loss. The story lives on in an annual ritual with transgender women and men dressed as women ritually marrying Aravan (whose name seems to become Iravan in ritual or after his death). According to the article “Celebrating the Third Sex” in the English newspaper, The Telegraph, 25,000 transgender people participated in the event in 2007.

‘Neither and Either:’ The ‘Two-Fold form’ of Hermaphroditus

Hermaphroditus in their male-female form is not an uncommon figure to find in art. "Sleeping Hermaphroditus," an ancient sculpture on a mattress by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Louvre Museum. (Photo by Pierre-Yves Beaudouin, Wikipedia)

What strikes me most about Ovid’s story of the son of Hermes and Aphrodite isn’t that he becomes intersex after his encounter with the naiad Salmacis, but the nymph’s palpable desire for him when he is a man. Of course, in begging the gods never to be separated from him, she finds herself physically merged with him, but otherwise lost.

Salmacis is said to be the only female of Greek mythology to attempt to rape a male and by Ovid’s description, she certainly steps over the line of being forward. After proposing marriage (or offering to sleep with him if he is already married or promised) Salmacis seems to give up when Hermaphroditus threatens to leave the woods if she doesn’t leave him alone. But she spies on him and when he removes his clothes to dive into a pool, she strikes. Ovid describes her as ivy on a tree or as the cuttlefish grappling with its prey, kissing him this way and that. When Hermaphroditus refuses her, she makes her wish to never be parted from him and in the way of gods or genies granting the word of a wish, she is merged with him: “they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.” Hermaphroditus’s limbs are “softened” and he speaks “not with the voice of a man.”

Another feature of the story that struck me was Ovid’s initial descriptions of Hermaphroditus, which seem to feminize him. He blushes at Salmacis’s aggressive forwardness and Ovid describes his blush as the color “of an apple in a sunlit tree,” and as “the moon eclipsed, blushing in her brightness.” Hermaphroditus is as the fruit or the feminine moon, and perhaps I read into the ancient descriptions my own associations from much later texts of blushing maids. Men obviously blush and are not always receptive to feminine advances, but it seems to me that Ovid has foreshadowed Hermaphroditus’s end or, as with the aggressive Salmacis, suggested that to be male or female is not so great a difference.

A Girl on Fire’; Iphis and Ianthe

Iphis and Ianthe may never have made love as females in Ovid, but that didn’t stop Rodin from depicting it in this statuette; Victoria and Albert Museum.

For a culture that gave us Sappho, satisfyingly modern depictions of lesbian love are absent in the Greek myths I know, and they are not very evident in ancient stories elsewhere, though I don’t count myself an expert on the topic. Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe may come closest. Iphis’s father threatens that if his wife delivers a girl child, he will order it put to death. Of course Iphis, whose name is gender-neutral, is born a girl, and her mother hides it to save her life. Iphis is raised as a boy and Ovid, as with Hermaphroditus, seems to minimize the difference between the sexes in his description of her, “whose features would have been beautiful whether they were given to a girl or a boy.”

Iphis is betrothed to the beautiful Ianthe in childhood and the two grow up together and are very much in love, though Iphis is troubled by her secret: “Iphis loved one whom she despaired of being able to have, and this itself increased her passion, a girl on fire for a girl.” Iphis, heartbreakingly, sees her love for a girl as a monstrosity that outdoes even Pasifaë’s attraction to a bull, which leads to her birthing the minotaur, in that at least Pasifaë is female and the bull, though an animal, male.

Iphis and her mother dread the approaching date of the wedding and with no time left to spare, her mother prays to Isis to save her daughter. I warned that it is a disappointment for queer readers, but Ipis is transformed into a man, a happy ending as far as the Iphis of Ovid’s tale is concerned! In “Lesbian Mythology,” by Christine Downing, 1994, Downing argues that the lack of what we would understand as homosexual relationships between women in the Greek context is the male-centric lens of our received Greek mythology. That lens centers the penis in sex and without it, sexual relationships between women weren’t likely interpreted thus. Downing’s essay examines many of the goddesses and their relationships with other women and men. The closest evidence that a goddess had same-sex relations would be when Kallisto welcomes the kisses and embraces of Zeus when he approaches her disguised as Artemis. Zeus’s rape of Kallisto leaves her pregnant, for which Artemis turns her into a bear in punishment, another unjust ending for a woman in Greek mythology.

A Taste of Queer Deities from World Mythology and Religion

(Left to right): Tu'er Shen, The Rabbit God, a Chinese deity who manages love between homosexual people; image from the 2010 Taiwanese television program The Rabbit God's Matchmaking, Wikipedia; Inari Ōkami, a female Japanese god or spirit associated with same sex love, agriculture, foxes and trickster Kitsune spirits, image by Neko-Y; Aztec “Flower Prince” Xochipilli, patron of homosexuals and homosexual prostitutes Wikipedia; Shaushka, Hurrian goddess of fertility who is depicted as female with male clothes and in groupings of both gods and goddesses, Wikipedia.

Queer may be immortal, but unfortunately, hate is too, and as much progress as LGBTQ+ people have made in the U.S., and as much progress as many straight people have made in accepting queer people, there is still clearly quite a ways to go to securing the rights of all people to live, love and present as they wish. I hope that this modest attempt to share a few of the queer narratives from mythology may help pride and all the progress pride supports. Happy Pride Month, 2021!

Christine Downing’s “Lesbian Mythology” was published in Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques , Summer 1994; Vol. 20, No. 2, Lesbian Histories (Summer 1994), pp. 169-199.



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