Pederasty in Ancient Greece‏


‘Anal intercourse in general, usually between a man and an adolescent boy’ is the archaic meaning of the word paederasty.

The Greek word paiderastia is an abstract noun of feminine gender. It is formed from paiderastês. Although the word pais can refer to a child of either sex, paiderastia is defined as “the love of boys,” and the verb paiderasteuein as “to be a lover of boys.”

Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chi...

The erastes touching the chin and genitals of the eromenos. Side A of an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 540 BC.

Pederasty in ancient Greece was a socially acknowledged relationship between an adult and a younger male usually in his teens. It was characteristic of the Archaic and Classical periods.

The words: erastês and erômenos are standard terms for the two pederastic roles.

The erastês is the older lover, seen as the active or dominant partner. Erastês should be distinguished from Greek paiderastês, which meant “lover of boys” usually with a negative connotation. The erastês himself might only be in his early twenties, and thus the age difference between the two lovers might be negligible.

The erômenos was regarded as a future citizen, not an “inferior object of sexual gratification,” and was portrayed with respect in art. The word can be understood as an endearment such as a parent might use, found also in the poetry of Sappho and a designation of only relative age.

Both art and other literary references show that the erômenos was at least a teen, with modern age estimates ranging from 13 to 20, or in some cases up to 30. Most evidence indicates that to be an eligible erômenos, a youth would be of an age when an aristocrat began his formal military training, that is, from fifteen to seventeen.

Vase paintings and an obsession with the beloved’s appealing thighs in poetry indicate that when the pederastic couple engaged in sex acts, the preferred form was intercrural. To preserve his dignity and honor, the erômenos limits the man who desires him to penetration between closed thighs.

Pederastic courtship. Detail from side A of an...

Pederastic courtship; detail from a black-figure Attic hydria, ca. 540 BC.

Anal sex may be depicted, but far more rarely. The evidence is not explicit and is open to interpretation. Some vase paintings show the erastês seated with an erection and the erômenos either approaching or climbing into his lap. The composition of these scenes is the same as that for depictions of women mounting men who are seated and aroused for intercourse.

As a cultural norm considered apart from personal preference, anal penetration was most often seen as dishonorable to the one penetrated, or shameful. A fable attributed to Aesop tells how Aeschyne (Shame) consented to enter the human body from behind only as long as Eros did not follow the same path, and would fly away at once if he did. Oral sex is likewise not depicted, or is indicated only indirectly; anal or oral penetration seems to have been reserved for prostitutes or slaves.

The myth of Ganymede’s abduction by Zeus was invoked as a precedent for the pederastic relationship, as Theognis asserts to a friend:

There is some pleasure in loving a boy [paidophilein], since once in fact even the son of Cronus [that is, Zeus], king of immortals, fell in love with Ganymede, seized him, carried him off to Olympus, and made him divine, keeping the lovely bloom of boyhood [paideia]. So, don’t be astonished, Simonides, that I too have been revealed as captivated by love for a handsome boy.

Greek myths provide more than fifty examples of young men who were the lovers of gods. Pederastic love affairs are ascribed to Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Orpheus, Hercules, Dionysus, Hermes, and Pan. All the Olympian gods except Ares had these relationships, which are adduced by scholars to show that the specific customs of paiderastia originated in initiatory rituals.

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