Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.04
Andrew Calimach, Lovers' Legends: The Gay Greek Myths. New Rochelle: Haiduk Press, 2002. Pp. 178. ISBN 0-9714686-0-5. $25.00.
Reviewed by Teresa Ramsby, University of Massachusetts Amherst (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 1360 words
In an attractively packaged, slim volume Andrew Calimach (AC) weaves together the key Greek myths and legends about love between men. He interweaves the stories with the debate on the virtues of heterosexual vs. homosexual love, traditionally attributed to Lucian of Samosata entitled "Erotes," or as AC puts it, "Different Loves."1 The result is a delightful collection of stories that serves to emphasize both the aspects of love that the ancient Greeks valued and the important role that homosexual attraction and consummation played in the narratives that captured the attention and the imagination of the first Western audiences. The book is aimed particularly at the non-specialist, but the nature of the compilation will please even experts in mythology who seek a new way of seeing the old material.
First I will address a few minor faults. The work is described as a restoration and retelling; the stories are, "restored from original sources in translation" (4). However, AC nowhere explains his methodology in choosing translations or versions of the myths. The bibliography makes it clear what translations he refers to in general, and he includes the primary sources for each story in the endnotes, but a person wishing to learn from AC the process of bringing such a wide array of materials together gets little or no help in this matter. A bit more on his choices and decisions would have been a valuable addition for interested readers. Also, the first section of the book is called "Beloved Charioteers," whereas it would have been better called, simply, an introduction. Here he mentions charioteers as one form of male companion in the ancient world, but he makes many other points as well: the meaning of the word "myth," the overall nature of homosexual love and homo-eroticism, and the degree of cultural acceptance of homosexual love in the ancient world. He also would have served his readers well had he informed them that he interweaves the stories with the philosophical debate "Erotes." The first part of the debate begins the text, and the brief 3-line introduction to the debate does not do enough to inform the reader that the myths and legends are on the way. A simple warning from AC in the introduction could have cleared all this up in an instant.
That said, the stories AC chooses are well selected and presented. He first presents the introduction to a debate on the proper form of love between Charicles (of Corinth) and Callicratidas (of Athens). The debate is reported by Lycinus to his friend Theomnestus, who wonders who is better: the lover of boys or he who delights in women. From there AC guides us to the story of Tantalus from which arises the love-story of Pelops and Poseidon, which then leads to the story of Pelops in Pisa and the chariot race between Oinomaus and Pelops and the treachery surrounding the deeds of Myrtilus. In the story AC reminds us that it was Myrtilus who called down the curse on the house of Pelops, the house of Atreus. The next story is of Laius and Chrysippus (illegitimate son of Pelops), whom AC charmingly calls "Goldenhorse." It was for love of Goldenhorse that Laius, future father of Oedipus, incited Pelops to wage war on Thebes. Again, AC reminds us that it was Pelops' curse that drove the insidious actions that nearly brought the downfall of Thebes and that inspired the catalog of psychiatric complexes recognized by Freud.
The second part of the debate appears as a divider of the stories. The debate begins with Charicles defending heterosexual union. The arguer pulls no punches, and AC is wise and provocative to include this argument without doctoring it to any queer advantage. The debate continues in later sections of the book, and the counter-argument, in favor of homosexual love, clearly wins, proving the point that argument is a contest and even a clever argument can meet its match. The stories then proceed with Zeus and Ganymede, (and the story reminds us of the hefty price the Trojans paid for the love between Zeus and their prince), Hercules and Hylas, Orpheus and the boys of Thrace, and the other tales surrounding the life of Orpheus.
AC has done something very important here. Many people might never before have associated the key narratives of Greek mythology (the curse on the house of Atreus, the curse on the house of Laius, the Trojan war) to specific events brought about by homosexual love. As AC writes in his postscript, it has too often been the tendency of myth compilers to sanitize the texts, to alter them "in deference to modern sensibilities" (118). He goes on to contemn the "pantheon of emasculated gods and heroes" produced for young readers (120). There are valuable lessons in this collection even for those who have a lot of knowledge about mythology. Traditionally much attention is paid to the straight hero (or his straight version): Paris (and Helen), Jason (and Medea), Theseus (and Ariadne), and Orpheus (and Eurydice), whereas the homosexual stories that AC compiles turn out to be as important, if not more so, to the literary heritage that spins off of the mythological canon. "Myth," AC writes, "at once primitive and sophisticated, is a pedagogy as well as a psychology" (120). As one begins to see these stories at work effecting (and affecting) Western attempts to articulate thought and action, AC's words gain clarity and significance.
The debate breaks in again and Callicratidas presents his defense of homosexual love. It is an eloquent argument that appeals to the philosophic over the pragmatic, to beauty over nature. Part of his argument includes a critical assessment and overall rejection of female beauty or female capability for virtue. In the final section of the debate Lycinus, the referee, concludes with the statement, "in truth virtue does not reach perfection among women. So do not be angry, Charicles, if Corinth yields to Athens" (111). The misogyny inherent in these texts is something AC avoids except to acknowledge the male-dominated aspect of ancient society (3) and the absence of narratives involving the love of women in his collection (120). In short, AC's book is not one from which to gain a well-rounded critique of ancient Greek society, or of homosexual love in the ancient world.
The stories proceed with Apollo and Hyacinthus, Narcissus, and Achilles and Patroclus. The final part of the debate then appears, followed by an afterword by Heather Elizabeth Peterson (who this person is; we are not told), a storyteller's postscript and the acknowledgements. The end of the book contains notes and sources for each story, illustration sources, a bibliography, and an indexed glossary. As to the aesthetic aspects of the volume, the collection is filled with wonderful images from ancient art: vase paintings, mosaics, sculpture, and gems are inserted to illustrate the stories as they occur. The illustration sources in the back are helpful and complete, including location and provenance.
The book is dedicated to Allen Ginsberg, and the first two pages of the text showcase the 1981 poem "Old Love Story" (originally published in the 1986 collection entitled White Shroud: Poems 1980-1985 (HarperCollins)). The poem surveys the loves of men throughout history, from Zeus and Ganymede, Hadrian and Antinous, to Michelangelo's male models and Wilde's Bellboy. The poem ends with the famous last lines, "I want people to understand! They can! They can! They can! / So open your ears and hear the voice of the classical Band." Ginsberg's poem was written just before the AIDS epidemic burst forth into global awareness, when the emerging gay community was more carefree than would be the case a very few years later. This placement of Ginsberg's poem at the beginning of AC's book transports the reader to a period when the insistence among gay men and women in the U.S., as shown in the Stonewall riots of 1969, was that mainstream culture acknowledge, let alone accept, the presence of gay people in this country. Thus AC's enjoyable book is also a reminder that there is a lengthy tradition of celebrating love between men that is entirely independent of current concerns about health and sanitization.
1. Lucian of Samosata is not now believed to be the author of this dialogue. M. D. Macleod, in his introduction to the dialogue in the Loeb edition of 1967, asserts that stylistic matters point to another, unknown, author.