Gay Marriage: An Ancient Institution
Gay marriage is such a hot button topic these days. There are those who see it as an abomination, a corruption of ‘the sanctity of marriage’, and it would seem that they are in the majority, as marriage between same-sex couples is currently not recognized on the federal level in the United States. Of course there have been strides made at the state level and internationally, but much work remains to be done to change the tide.
It is funny to me, to see all this angst and oftentimes violent reaction against same-sex love being recognized by the government, largely because the very intuition of marriage was founded by same-sex couples, (not to mention democratic governance, but we’ll get to that in a moment).
While documentation is difficult to present from ancient times, two of the oldest known civilizations, KMT(ancient Egypt) and Sumer(ancient Mesopotamia) both feature something like same-sex marriage in the distant past.
In KMT, where many of the modern marriage rituals originate, there were no civic marriage licenses. People just got together and started a family, with a party of their families coming together to celebrate the occasion. The first ever state-sponsored, public marriage ceremony, at least 1850 BCE, was actually the joining of the high priestess of Sekhmet(the fiery goddess of destruction) and the high priestess of Bast (the more docile goddess of health and sensuality), and was done so largely for political reasons; Sekhmet being the goddess from the south and Bast from the north, to unify the diverse people, and also a symbolic union of aspects of one’s own self, passive and aggressive.
This is not to say there were no romantic same-sex coupling in KMT as well, though, as the even older (2600 BCE) mastaba(burial tomb) of Niankhkhunum and Khnumhotep declares the two men(royal manicurists of the pharaoh Niuserre) to be “Niankh-Khnum-Hotep”, joined in life and death, and depicts them nude and in loving embrace in carved and painted relief.
Niankhkhunum and Khnumhotep wall imprint
In the epic of Gilgamesh, compiled from Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian tablets dating upwards to 2150 BCE, making it one of the oldest documented pieces of literature in the world, Gilgamesh was a god-king of the city of Uruk(and actually is documented as a real historical king around 2500 BCE). He was ungodly beautiful and awesome, but also a bully and tyrant and the people prayed to the gods to be delivered from his antics. In response, Enkidu was created, his perfect foil, a wild hairy man. When the two met, they at first began fighting (Enkidu was cock-blocking Gilgamesh, to be blunt), but as the fight progressed, they eventually stopped, kissed and holding hands went to live in the palace together. Gilgamesh’s mother(goddess-queen Ninsun) even tells Enkidu, “Though you were not born of my womb, I now adopt you as a son,” which is pretty much as official a joining of houses you can get in ancient times. The two would go on to have many adventures before Enkidu was killed in a conspiracy of the gods (who feared their power together), leaving Gilgamesh one of history’s first recorded widowers as well.
This gets to the core of the matter (fear of power) and also brings us a little up the time stream to ancient Greece and the story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, from 514 BCE. They were lovers and members of Athens’ elite. There was a man Hipparchus, who seized control of Athens through might(a tyrant), and though his rule brought great prosperity to the city-state, the people resented his manner of seizing power, and the gay power couple conspired with others and stabbed and killed him.
Both were killed for their offense and after the reign of Hipparchus’s little brother (an even worse tyrant) was overthrown, Athenian democracy (the template for modern democracy) became firmly entrenched. Harmodius and Aristogeiton were celebrated as Liberators and Tyrant-killers, martyrs for equality, commemorated in stone and song, and their families given special privileges for many generations in Athenian society.
Edgar Allen Poe’s translation of the original Callistatus ode sums it with
“Harmodius’ praise, Aristogiton’s name,
Shall bloom on earth with undecaying fame;
Who with the myrtle-wreathed sword
The tyrant’s bosom gored,
And bade the men of Athens be
Regenerate in equality.”
At the end of the day, same-sex marriage is all about equality. The fear and suppression of same-sex couples, according to Plato, “is due to the evil on the part of the rulers and to cowardice on the part of the governed.”
I invite you to learn more about ancient same-sex marriages in this supremely well-researched and cited article “A History of Same Sex Marriage” found here.
If you had asked me back in the 1970’s, when LGBTQ activism in Virginia really emerged, “What do you think will have changed in 40 or 50 years?” I would never have guessed marriage equality.October 8, 2014
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