Gay Triumphalism and the Modern Cult(s) of Antinous

P Sufenas Virius Lupus

Certain modern Antinoan groups, one may note, have portrayed Antinous as the “god of youth, beauty, and homosexuality.” When I am asked about our group, the Ekklesia Antinoou, I always say that we’re a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist religion focused on Antinous; this is what it says on our group’s home page, in fact. There is a difference in these two stances that is fundamental, in my opinion: we are saying that we’re queer in focus, not only in the sense of “lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans”-inclusive, but in the widest and broadest sense of that term, the way that it is used in queer theory, i.e. that we are interested in getting a different and unique perspective on issues, even if that perspective is one that has been derided or demonized in the past. By his very nature, Antinous is in that sense queer–and by that I mean his nature as a non-imperial human who was deified, which was the real scandal of his religion initially.

Saying that Antinous is a “god of homosexuality” is a whole other kettle of fish. If that’s his only job, then I have to say it’s a real second-class, consolation prize of a job, because a ton of deities did it before him and are still doing it; very few people worldwide know about Antinous, but everyone knows about Apollo and Hermes and Eros and Herakles and Zeus and Poseidon, etc. It is true, I have personally in the past suggested that one possible way to think of Antinous is as an embodiment of what I’ve called the numen homosexualitatis, in the same way that the reigning Emperor in late antiquity was considered the embodiment or incarnation of the numen or genius Augusti. But even so, that’s very different than saying that this is Antinous’ strict sphere of influence, or even one among many of them.

Theologically, I come from a background in (amongst other things) what the Christians call “praxis-based theologies,” which would include feminist theology, queer theology, liberation theology, political theology, etc. One of the things articulated about these types of theologies very early on, which the current Catholic pontiff objects to strongly, is that they are “non-genitive theologies.” Note that they are all phrased as “liberation theology” rather than “theology of liberation”–well, the former is non-genitive, while the latter is genitive. What this essentially means is that the subject at hand determines how the theology is done, rather than some overarching idea of acceptable methodologies within theology then determining and generating doctrine on a particular subject. The distinction here is an important one–I would thus not say that Antinous is a “god of homosexuality”; but, nor would I say that he’s a “gay god” either.

I am, in general, opposed to the idea of saying that any deity in any pantheon is the “god of X.” In Celtic Studies, as well as Celtic spirituality, this is one of the bugbears of people who are new to these pursuits: “Who’s the god of love for the Celts? Who’s the sun god of the Celts?” and so forth. Most Celtic deities are transfunctional and can’t be pinned down that easily, and in fact the concept of having one “god of the sun” or one “god of love” would be pretty laughable to the mindset we encounter in the ancient Irish, Gaulish and Welsh sources available to us. This type of model of different gods being “gods of XYZ” is one that has been inherited from classical mythological scholarship–but I would argue that even within respectable classical scholarship these days, such formulations are rare and outdated. I don’t think anyone can argue that Apollon is “just” a sun god; one would have to include among his many associations and spheres of influence such things as music, prophecy, wind, wolves, healing, and a variety of other things, and even then, it would not be a complete picture, because it is obvious that in individual devotions and relationships to people, Apollon can be any of these things or none of them, and in fact will be whatever he would like to be. The same is true of Dionysos, who far too often just gets pegged as the god of wine, but he’s infinitely more than this, and in fact is perhaps more prone to popping up in unexpected ways than any other deity of the Greek and Roman pantheons. So, in looking at Antinous as he himself is, and in all of the syncretisms in which he appears, can we legitimately say that the one similarity between all of them is that they were all gay? No! What about Silvanus? We don’t have very much mythology about him at all, so it’s very difficult to say anything about his sexuality (anachronistic as it would be to say so anyway, on which see below), and yet that particular aspect was to the fore at the Lanuvium Temple (one of Antinous’ first non-Egyptian cult sites) as well as elsewhere. What about Osiris? In the myths which survive, I can’t think of any occasion on which Osiris was involved in any homoeroticism (apart from one attestation, so Sannion has informed me, which is more concerned with rape as a form of subjugation and humiliation rather than as a consensual and loving sexual expression), and yet this was the first deity to whom Antinous was syncretized, and one which endured for many years. And to say that he was a god of youth or of beauty as well is an exercise in stating the obvious. Dionysos and Hermes were often portrayed as youths, so again, just because Antinous was “younger” than either of them (and what does age matter in the realm of the eternal gods?) is silly; and likewise, to say that he was beautiful in a way that the other gods were not is also risking hubris in a very overt fashion–the beauty of the gods, any single one of them, is obvious, and the relative beauty of Antinous’ incarnate form is something to be acknowledged and admired, but not insisted upon as his primary attribute.

To reduce any deity, or indeed any human being, to one aspect only, or even just a handful of aspects, is one of the most profound forms of disrespect one can pay to another being. Brad Pitt is not just a pretty face, he’s an extremely good actor, a socially-minded individual, and I’m sure he’s a ton of other things (a good Scrabble player, he might have very nice knees, he may be a champion of considering James Hilton the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, etc.), and to be considered just one of those things would be the last thing in the world he’d consider good. I have always tried to see Antinous in as multi-dimensional a manner as possible, and in the past tried to counteract the ways in which some others simply wanted to portray him as a “pretty face” and a “gay god.” (This was a tendency that many people have had in other areas as well–for example, trying to pigeon-hole me, Phillupus, into “only” being a scholar, when in fact I think I’m much more multi-dimensional than my scholarly pursuits and accomplishments indicate.) If Antinous were not intelligent and spiritually-aware and interested, I don’t think Hadrian would have liked him as well as he did, and I don’t think anyone in his immediate circle would have bought into the idea of his deification. To make Antinous into what amounts to little more than a divine gay sex toy is wrong on all sorts of levels.

It is patent historical fact that there was no conception of gayness or homosexuality as such in the ancient world during which Hadrian and Antinous lived, nor was there until many centuries (in fact, nearly two millennia) later. There was certainly social recognition for homoerotic relations between people, but that’s not the same thing, and it was certainly not along the lines of what we currently think of as “gay” or “lesbian” lifestyles. That’s like saying that the ancient Pythagoreans were vegans–yes, perhaps they were close to vegans in practice and had a philosophical basis similar to them, but they were in fact vegetarians and probably weren’t as comprehensively in the mind of not eating any animal products at all. It is true that the relationship of Antinous and Hadrian which they had before Antinous’ death pretty much lead directly to the generalization and wide recognition of his deification, but to say that their relationship was analogous to or identical with a modern gay relationships is, again, not accurate. Hadrian was not gay, nor was he even bisexual (it is attested that he had relationships with many different women, even though his wife was not prominent among them), he was simply a typical Roman man of his day. Had Antinous lived, it’s very difficult to know how things would have gone for him; but to “thank the gods” that he died when he did so that he never had to be “sullied” with the shame of heterosexual relationships or sex because society necessitated it is a really lousy thing to think or say.

All of these things amount to something which I had encountered in my religious studies education among Christian queer theologians, as well as other different types of philosophers and thinkers, which is triumphalism. To take any maligned aspect and elevate it to one’s singular raison d’etre, and then to emphasize it to the exclusion of all else, and then to further take it and make one sound as if one is better in that field in every possible way than anyone and anything else (because if that’s the only thing that one does, then one had better be pretty good at it!) is a very typical psychological response for people who have been made to feel inferior in some way.  While it might be a necessary coping mechanism, it is one which is best left behind and evolved past than prolonged incessantly. When gay people come out, the tendency is to say “Being gay is the best thing in the world ever, and everyone should be gay!” and it is understandable why; but healthy gay people eventually move past this and go “Yeah, but there are cool straight people, and cool bisexuals, and I’m happy for people to be whatever it is they are.” There are queer theorists and theologians who are overly insistent on the fact that because they are gay, and because gayness is maligned as badly as it is, but because sexuality is at the roots of spirituality and therefore contains the greatest potentials to be transformative and liberating, that therefore because they are gay and out and proud that they are more spiritually-evolved and, as it were, “holier than thou,” in comparison to non-out gay people, non-spiritual gay people, etc. This type of triumphalism is not to be encouraged, I don’t think; holding the idea that I am “better than” any other human that I meet, or any other gay person, is the first sign that I am most definitely not better than any of those people, in my opinion.

The position that Antinous is a gay god, but not only a gay god, but THE GAY GOD, and the only religious figure appropriate for worship for any gay person, is an idea that leads to thinks like proselytization, and it is precisely this direction which earlier Antinous groups were taking when I left them. The need to convince others that what one is doing is the right thing in order to validate it to oneself is an obviously flawed psychological set of priorities, and one that I want nothing to do with. If we truly want queerness to be liberated wherever it is found, then we have to be happy and comfortable with people being gay Muslims, gay Catholics, gay Mormons, gay pagans of any stripe, and gay whatever there is to be “been!” And thus the polytheism aspect comes into this–I think that polytheism is best defined as not the belief in many gods (though that’s certainly part of it most often) but the belief that there are many possible sources of and paths to truth, not only in pursuit of the various gods of one pantheon, but the various gods of other pantheons, and the various gods (singular and plural) of other religious systems as well.  And at the end of the day, there is not just a singular truth, but in fact many truths, to which there are many paths.

So, the insistence that all gods are false except for Our God, who is Our God because he is Just Like Us and Exactly (and Only) What We Think He Is and Say He Is, is not a path that I’m interested in treading, nor is it one that I’m interested in advocating in any group.

Anyway, that’s my position on these matters. I’m certainly interested in hearing what other people think on this subject as well (not that it is a unified subject necessarily!), so please do feel free to express your own opinions on these matters!

Benedicti Omnis Antinoi vobis!



One Response to Gay Triumphalism and the Modern Cult(s) of Antinous

  1. Pingback: A is for Antinous (and Acceptance into Graduate School) | My Sun Sets to Rise Again

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