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August 2022
 
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Myth Conceptions

Mythic Masculinity

by jaimie l. elliott


The Ultimate He-Man

Heracles was the greatest and most powerful of the Hellenistic heroes. He once held up the world upon his massive shoulders. He slew the monstrous Nemean lion with his bare hands and used its impenetrable skin as his armor. He impregnated 50 women, the old-fashioned way, in a single night. When he died, he was raised to Olympus as a god. His prowess, both physically and sexually, resounds throughout history as the paragon of masculinity. He is often viewed more as a force of nature, dangerous and temperamental, the personification of yang.

He was the ultimate he-man... and very much bisexual.

Before the bodybuilders and power lifters of modern times jettison their patron of strength, it must be noted that the ancient Greeks did not have issue with Heracles' male lovers. On the contrary, his bisexuality mirrored the pederast relationships prevalent at the times, where an older man tutored a boy as part of the initiation into manhood (and it must be noted that the relationship was not always sexual in nature). Mythology is more than arbitrary fantasy; it is a symbolic representation of the society that created it. The institution of Greek pederasty was no different.

Not surprisingly, this aspect of Greek society and mythology was suppressed or ignored by Western culture for centuries. Even today, Heracles' bisexuality is either omitted or treated as an alternative view (my own emphasis in bold):

"He was an insatiable lover of women and, according to some, also took his young squire Hylas as a lover."

- Leeming, David: The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford University Press

Granted, the quote could mean the author only questions the Hylas reference without judgment about Heracles' overall sexuality. However, the very fact that the text uses a qualifier on just one of many identified male lovers implies a different standard. An ancient Greek would most likely have simply accepted "...an insatiable lover of both women and men" and left it at that.

An Even Older Hero

It becomes more complicated, though, when the culture in question is not adequately understood.

Controversially, Gilgamesh is another mythological hero who's sexuality has been a topic of discussion. Cast in the same mold Heracles and predating him in written form by a millennium, the two-thirds god, one-third man God-King from ancient Mesopotamia had a penchant for sowing his seeds among the soon-to-be brides of Uruk. Understandably, this angered the men of Uruk (the women were oddly silent about the situation). To bring the hero under control, the gods create the feral Enkidu to confront Gilgamesh. Tamed by the prostitute-priestess Shamhat, Enkidu arrived in Uruk and a colossal wrestling match ensued that lasted the entire day. In some versions, the match ended in a draw or with Gilgamesh barely winning. Regardless, Gilgamesh and Enkidu became best of friends and treated each other as equals.

At this point, the interpretation becomes sketchy. Translating and maintaining proper context in modern languages can be troublesome. Doing so with ancient, lyrical Babylonian is nigh impossible. With scant understanding of the culture, certain phrases are difficult to interpret. One in particular, repeated in various forms while Gilgamesh recounts to his mother a dream, raises eyebrows:

"You loved [Enkidu] and embraced him as your wife ."

- Kovacs, Maureen Gallery: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford University Press

The ambiguity in the translation has caused a long-running debate within academia as to the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. I suspect that it mirrored what was culturally acceptable at the time, as per Heracles, and may have been interpreted differently at different periods of history. We know their views on sex were different from ours. For example, the priestesses of Ishtar, a major goddess, practiced prostitution as part of their worship. While there is doubt to the manner of affection between the two heroes, the depth of affection cannot be understated. Enkidu's death devastates Gilgamesh and spurs him on his futile quest for immortality. If Enkidu was not his lover, he certainly was his soul mate.

Modern (Re)Interpretations

One only has to look at Disney or Marvel Comics to see how Heracles is revamped for modern times. He is bereft of his rage, his bouts of madness, his sexual appetite. He acts somewhat whimsically, often boyishly. Although his physical strength remains, he is no longer a force of nature. He has, in essence, become sanitized for the masses, a pale version of his former self. In fact, he is more commonly known by his Roman name Hercules, his older name sounding antiquated.

Gilgamesh, despite being one of the oldest of literary works, will most certainly never achieve the level of familiarity of the Greek. His culture is too far removed from our own. Few know of his origins, his impact on subsequent mythology, and the fact that Babylonia is now Iraq. Gilgamesh's potential, from a marketing standpoint, would seem doomed to be a buddy movie with his hairy friend Enkidu as they romp through Acadian forests.

Cynicism aside, we must remember that mythology adapts to the current society, even if borrowed from another culture. While perhaps frustrating for academia, the truth is as society evolves, whatever represents society must evolve with it. Society will pick and choose what aspects of a particular myth should be relevant. For example, as of the time of article, the homosexual nature of Gilgamesh and Enkidu's relationship is excluded from the Wikipedia entry on the Epic of Gilgamesh. In my personal opinion after perusing the discussion tab, some of the editors almost seem offended by the concept and their editing reflects this. Even the Heracles entry on his male lovers is not without a spat or incidents of vandalism. Despite humankind's insistence of being beyond mythology, the truth is that our discussions reveal our subconscious need for mythology to possess certain meaning. As our perceptions change, one way or another, over time, so to will our representation of ever-changing myth.

Spelunking the Mythology

External Links

There are numerous sources on the World Wide Web regarding Heracles, Gilgamesh, and their sexuality. Wikipedia is a good place to start.

References

Maureen Gallery Kovacs ; The Epic of Gilgamesh, 1989, Stanford University Press


© 2007 Jaimie L. Elliott

Mr. Elliott currently resides in Marietta, Georgia, with a wife and step-daughter, where he spends much of his time working as a project manager for IBM. His first love is fantasy, although he dabbles in poetry and literary fiction as well. He won first prize in the short fiction category in the Georgia Writers Association yearly contest and has been published in Aphelion and Swords Edge. He's currently looking for an agent for his novel Vicious Moon Cats.

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