Dr. Gisela Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg, M.A., Ethnosociologist


New Research on Institutionalized Greek Pederasty


Up until recently, institutionalized pederasty was still being practiced in remote areas of Melanesia. Earlier it had been quite widespread; in Europe, we know of the ancient "boy-love" of the Greeks and Gauls. Neither the active nor the passive partners in such sexual contacts were exclusively homosexual, but rather were, considered from the perspective of their overall life-course, bisexual. Because the older participants in such contacts (imbedded within fixed rituals of boy-initiation) were in fact married, and the initiates were initiated (even via pederastic, strictly ritualized contacts) in order to turn them into men who were ready for marriage. To this extent, same-gender sexual contacts between older and younger persons have been an uncertain means of ethnological socialization. Due to the fact that, as of this point in time, there has been surprisingly little discussion of this issue, particularly as it concerns Greek "boy-love," in the following I am obliged to provide a brief overview of some of the new research into this phenomenon, in the course of which I would also like to refer to two recent and relevant studies of the phenomenon within non-European contexts. 1

A fundamental commonality of all pederastic rites of boy-initiation is that such contacts are meant to turn the immature, often still childlike initiates into big, strong, and real men, which is to say, by supplying them with semen. Through it a quasi-"building-up" quality is conferred, based on the pre-scientific conception, on the part of the relevant ethnological group, that the male's seed is a means for the transmission of biological virility and general "competency." Although here we Europeans would speak of sperm as a sort of "magical substance," that misses the mark; such events are thought of as being absolutely real. And although – due to its much smaller chronological distance from us – we are better informed about the details of non-European institutionalized pederasty than we are about the boy-love of the ancients, the two forms of initiation are clearly based on similar ideas; ethnology is capable of shedding some light on many things which, in philological terms, would appear to be enigmatic or disparate. Of course, Greek studies have long suffered from the fact that, because of the universal European prejudice against "the homosexuality taboo," 2 it has been obliged to try to steer clear of that topic. But of course, given the absolutely overwhelming wealth of material concerning ancient "boy-love," which it was impossible for the old philology to overlook, like it or not, scholars working in this area have been wrestling with this subject since (approximately) the turn of the twentieth century.

In his time, the renowned Wilamowitz-Möllendorf 3 interpreted boy-love as a remnant of the "camp-life" era of the Doric migration; i.e., as situational homosexuality, which had eventually become customary, and would have been retained. He judged it, in accordance with the times he lived in, as a "sin against nature." Broad – as well as deep – insight into the matter was found in the work of E. Bethge, 4 who clearly recognized both the ritual as well as the institutional character of the custom, also drawing on early ethnological material in support of his thesis, although admittedly only to a limited extent, and without an awareness of the actual parallels which would have shed additional light on the matter. His work was received by the experts in such a way that it was also accompanied by a moral rebuke, which would then be taken up, sans any sort of careful examination, by the next party. In that way, the tacit agreement on the part of the Philologists Guild, to not let themselves get scientifically involved in the phenomenon, was saved. Only about thirty years later was Erst W. Jager 5 successful in looking at boy-love again through Greek eyes, in the course of which it became clear that what we had here was not an isolated sexual impetus, but rather, an experience enthusiastically engaged in by all of the senses, in which sex was included. In this way, one bypassed the question of how what had – up until that point – been classified as an immoral sexual component could now become something positive. Later authors such as H. I. Marrou 6 and later A. Lesky 7 would be overly timid, in order to be able to protect themselves against anything having to do with homosexuality: the phenomenon was referred to by circumlocutions of every kind, thus making it virtually impossible to deal with in any sort of scientific way. Finally, Th. Vangaard 8 interpreted pederastic contact as an exclusively aggressive act of domination and subjugation, a view for which the extensive material on the subject provides not the slightest support; quite the opposite, as we shall soon show.

For the first complete stock-taking of all of the existing pieces of information on Greek boy-love we owe thanks to K.J. Dover. 9 Admittedly, however, his liberal use of the term "homosexuality" is problematic given that – even with numerous qualifications, which are still not fully adhered to – pederastic contacts are interpreted as "homosexual," in the sense suggested by present-day usage of the word. In this way, what is perhaps to us, at best, the "indecency" of pederasty is gently removed from discussion. Because, Greek boy-love knows nothing of life-long sexual contacts between the same partners (as today's homosexual couples occasionally are). It knows nothing of exclusive same-gender sexuality between adults (the older partner in such a bond would almost always have been married). Moreover it is inappropriate to lump this uncertain phenomenon in together with male prostitution and promiscuity. (There was prostitution in antiquity with slaves; but it was forbidden with free persons. And there was promiscuity between free and slave youth, just as there were relationships which are of interest here, those between a younger person and an adult partner.) In other words: In spite of a detailed and therefore extremely helpful explication of the extensive literary and archaeological sources, for Dover, Greek boy-love is sui generis; that is, sexual contacts – within the context of an institution – with boys between twelve and (at the most) eighteen years of age suddenly become quasi "pure homosexuality" – which even today is more tolerable than pederasty in its actual sense – which is of course just what is intended. Dover now interprets the concept of "homosexuality" as the presence of a "preference" or "disposition," which in turn, in the end, is nothing more than the old idea of a "homosexual predisposition." Consequently, a serious ethnocentrism has slipped into this otherwise laudable work, thus rendering Dover's conclusions curiously contradictory. The well-established concept of "bisexuality" is carefully avoided. I may be doing an injustice to what, in the meantime, has become a world-famous work, but for me it is, first and foremost, a very scientific, precise, and rather useful description of sources, and nothing more, because the central problem is omitted – that of boy-love.

The real breakthrough of a true synthesis and interpretation, drawing on modern psychological research, all of the available ancient sources, as well as parallels among "primitive" peoples, was accomplished in 1982 by Harald Patzer. 10 It is his view of Greek boy-love that we shall review in the following, where, for reasons of space, only the conclusions are able to be reported; not, however, his lengthy and elaborated reflections, from which he had reconstructed the overall picture.

This new overview showed that there had been not just one, but two forms of institutionalized Greek pederasty, which, nevertheless, had the two following characteristics in common: The passive partners were boys between twelve and eighteen years of age; the criterion for the so-to-say "upper limit" was the sprouting of facial hair; i.e., the upper limit could be considerably younger than eighteen. The older man had to be an adult; i.e., battle-ready and, moreover, in full possession of all civic rights. Both partners had to belong to the same social class, and in addition, and above all, free; for slaves, the institution was absolutely taboo. The form of sexual activity in such a relationship was definitively prescribed (interfemoral intercourse), and anything else was expressly ruled out. Only the older party was permitted to be sexually active; the younger party was not supposed to evince any sexual stirrings of his own. Both partners were required to carefully consider whether or not the other appeared "suitable." The older party wooed his chosen one with traditional gifts of increasingly symbolic character: hounds and horses (as attributes of the hunt and war) as well as cocks and hares (as symbols of male potency).

Financial considerations were regarded as being irrelevant to partner selection; of course, when they did come to light, that brought disgrace to those concerned, because then, the relationship would have shifted to the realm of prostitution, which was taboo for freepersons and, if proven, would lead to a loss of civic rights; i.e., further participation in political life would be prohibited. If all of the aforementioned criteria were met in such a partnership, it was treated as "permitted" boy-love; if not, it was "unauthorized," and thus, if it became known, sanctions could be imposed.

The historical relationship of the two forms of institutionalized Greek pederasty towards one another is a matter of some controversy. Patzer distinguishes the "Doric," which prevailed in areas that had been conquered by the Spartans, from the so-called "Classical," whose sphere was (the remaining portion of) greater Greece. The Doric was older to the extent that, as such, it had maintained itself in terms of its extremely "ancient" apparent characteristics; however, the two forms did co-exist chronologically. Patzer presumed that it was a matter of different varieties of a common estate shared by all Greek tribes in all eras, whereby, in the Doric form, the prototype had been partly preserved, which then itself, on the other hand, in part further evolved or transformed into the "Classical" genus, while the above-described "frame conditions" remained the same for both. The reason for the distinction has to do with historical factors concerning the colonization of Greek lands, which there is no need to go into for our purposes here.

Now to the principal characteristics of Doric boy-initiation: The goal of the institution, which was always focused on a given individual (group-initiations, as, for example, would occur among many "primitive" peoples, were unheard-of in this context), was to turn the boy into a full-fledged warrior. Every other aspect of life took a back-seat to the warrior ideal. For both partners, participation in the initiation was a social obligation; one was merely able to choose or reject any given partner. The Doric form, far from being limited to the Spartan motherland, had also spread to islands which had been conquered – or were strongly influenced – by the Dorians, from whom, incidentally, the oldest archaeological/literary evidence (in the form of rock carvings on the island of Thera) is derived. It had clearly been handed down from Sparta itself that every adult warrior, i.e., full citizen, must prepare a young lad for the initiations and, over the course of one's life, perhaps several. Of course, at the same time the full citizen, in order to be regarded as such, also had to be married, which is why these people's men have traditionally been regarded as being bisexual. Bachelors and men who refused to "sponsor" (to be linguistically precise, which does not mean, for example, the relevant term used by the Greeks) a boy by preparing him for the  prescribed rites for warrior life, were severely punished, namely, by the loss of civic rights and honors. This meant that they were expelled from the warrior class, and were thereby stripped of their rights. Humiliation (the removal of clothing) was another common punishment, and in Sparta, the respect that youth were legally mandated to show their elders was no longer applicable to such persons. In concrete terms, the protocol for how the rite was to be carried out was as follows:

When a warrior would choose a particular boy whom he wished to initiate, the first criterion for this selection would be that the boy was of equal status to him (the social aspect), and secondly, that the initiation was to be formed by someone who was regarded as being a true hero (the individual factor). It was not, for example, the handsome or even the particularly intelligent boy who was regarded as being worthy of initiation; rather, the selection was made, one-sidedly, according to the criterion of so called "competency." This was understood to mean that the lad was physically strong enough, corresponding to his age, in order to one day grow into the "warrior life," and moreover, brave enough to strive for this. The rite called for the initiator to kidnap ('abduct') the initiate from the parental home. What this really was, however, was a "mock kidnapping," because the initiator-to-be would have previously announced his intentions to the relatives of his chosen one. If, for any reason, those concerned did not believe their young family member to be worthy, they would earnestly defend the boy, and send the adult warrior fleeing. If the mock kidnapping was not in any way permitted, it was regarded as dishonorable. Likewise, it was shameful for a lad not to be chosen by any adult warrior, because this showed that something wasn't right with his "competency." The further course of events is described by Harald Patzer (op. cit., pg. 72 ff.): "If the abduction was successful, the kidnapper gave the members of the family gifts, for compensation and reconciliation. The boy was brought to an isolated location "in the countryside," where the two embarked on a two-month-long hunt. The reconciled relatives festively escorted the pair to every location, and provided them with magnificent hospitality. Likewise, after two months, the two were festively escorted back (meaning, "they descended"; the "countryside," the deserted area was, consequently, in the mountains, which is also where the hunt took place). The period of living together in very close proximity was brought to a close via the older partner showering the younger one with presents, among which a coat of armor, a bull, and a drinking vessel were obligatory. Now, the boy organized a celebration, to which people from all over were invited, where the bull – which had been given to him as a gift – was sacrificed to Zeus. Moreover, he was obliged to solemnly declare whether he had promised to join the older person's communal group, or, whether someone may have done violence to him in some way. Then he will have gotten satisfaction, and the relationship is dissolved. Otherwise – and we may infer this with confidence – the relationship continues on. Thus the boy is regarded, from that point on, as being on the same level as the lover, as the closest of comrades-in-arms in terms of battle lines, enjoying the greatest privileges, and carrying the name of "highly honored" (klénoi), just as the coat-of-armor which had been given to him will forever mark him as being among the cream of the crop.

In this sequence – according to Patzer's analysis – two stages of initiation may be detected: The first is concluded with the sacrifice to Zeus, with the giving of the drinking cup making it clear that from now on, the initiate is a member of the Spartan male "Banquet Society" (the sysitia). The second stage consists of his proving himself worthy to be "on the same level" in an actual emergency; i.e., when he follows his sponsor into war. Regarding the significance of the actual sexual act in this coming of age rite, Patzer writes (op. cit., pg. 78 f.): "Among the gifts which the elder party has given the boy includes a bull, which the boy then sacrifices to Zeus. To the latter is ascribed supernatural fertility; therefore Zeus is, likewise, understood to be the conferrer of biological male power, which he gives to the boy, or, to the extent that he has already given it to him, is even further supernaturally protected and heightened." In Cretan Greece at least, the Minotian boyish (pre-Indo-Germanic) God of Spring endures, who is called upon to provide general prosperity, whereby one asks him to regeneratively cover all of the earth. The presentation of the coat of armor was an outward sign that someone had come of age and possessed full civic rights. From the beginning of the first stage of  initiation, the boy's legal guardian was no longer his father, but rather, his initiator. Furthermore, from that it is evident that the social, recognized character of Doric boy-love is that the institution was legally prescribed.

Its second type, classical boy-love, is historically most recent, and therefore, better covered than the Doric, and is, compared to the former, more peaceable. Because it was not (or no longer?) aimed at the acquisition of specifically military competency, but rather, sought to promote various masculine assets and qualities. It was also less obligatory, and it was no longer monitored by the state. Therefore, the relationship between the partners was freer, or, better; more private, although it was still a matter of a socially accepted institution which was usually regarded as being a given, without, however, any longer being a social "must." Its geographic sphere of influence is considered to have been greater than that of the "Doric"; however, the complex problem of the two forms' mutual influences and interdependencies is not able to be addressed here. In any event, the changed goal-directionality of the institution has, according to Patzer, to do with changed circumstances of living: Out of a tribal and warrior culture came an advanced civilization; and the high culture life of the polity had to sweep the barricades away. An additional distinguishing characteristic consists of the fact that whereas Doric boy-love as an institution covered, as "worthy," all suitable boys of the tribe, in the classical type, it was the corporate and exclusive prerogative of the aristocracy. It conveyed elite traits, and facilitated the bringing-up of a noble youth elite; and though this did make them stand out from the non-aristocratic citizens of the polis, the latter were meant not to envy the former, but rather, to admire them. This continued to support the notion that physical beauty, which at the same time also encompasses flawlessness, strength, and dexterity, makes it possible to radiate elite excellence, so that, from first glance, one is able to pick out what constitutes true nobility. It is this idea which lies behind the common label of "beautiful" for a beloved boy within the context of classical boy-love. Rather than drilling in battle, man and boy now practice athletic disciplines, the younger learning from the older civic virtues; in this way, through fine art and a knowledge of literature or politics, the former defensive function against (just) subjects is turned into a conservation function for the prevailing groups, which for their part is felt to be represented by the young aristocracy; because, they are the ones who win Olympic competitions for their cities (and thus even for their lowliest inhabitants). The evolution from war to sports is obvious. From the old warrior rule, only the preferential treatment within the polity remained, which, admittedly, required a more permanent justification in order to be sustained over the long-term, which is why the nobility (and logically, it only) concerned itself with carrying on – for its up-and-coming male counterparts of similar status – the traditionally most meaningful form of social beneficence, boy initiation. The ability to put up a fight now becomes generally understood as the ability to competently cope with the rigor's of one's own existence. Instruction in philosophy becomes more important than any of the more traditional areas of learning. At the same time, with the athletically-centered cult of youthful male beauty, what we have here is the famous Greek equating of the "beautiful‘ with the "true" and the development of a canon of universal human virtues, which the aristocracy uses not to take advantage of the citizenry, but rather, to set an example for them.

As in later Hellenism and early Christendom, where other – namely, genuinely oriental – ideas about art and the goal of virtue emerge, Greek notions concerning this were partially eroded over a long-term spiritual process, in part transformed, in part eventually discarded entirely. Over the course of this evolution, classical boy-love was valued less and less; in the year 529, the Roman Emperor Justinian decreed the closure of what was, at the time, the almost thousand-year-old Platonic Academy of Athens, calling it "a hotbed of vice."




l. Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg, Gisela:  Rites of Manhood: On Institutional Pederasty In Papua and Melanesia, Frankfurt/M., Verlag Ullstein GmbH, l980; Herdt, Gilbert:  Guardians of the Flutes: Idioms of Masculinity, XVIII, New York, l980, McGraw Hill; for my critique of this, see: "Male Behavioral and Expressive Styles," in: Anthropos, Vol. 77, 1982, St. Augustin b. Bonn, Anthropos-Verlag, pg. 250 et seq.

2. Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg, Gisela: The Homosexuality Taboo: The History of a Prejudice , Frankfurt/M., l98l, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, No. 3814.

3. Wilamowitz-Möllendorf, U.v.: The Greek State and Society, in Present-Day Culture, Berlin and Leipzig, 1910.

4. Bethge, E.: Doric Boy-Love: Its Ethic and Its Idea, in The Rhine Museum Classical Philology, N.F., Vol. 62, l907, Iss. 3, Frankfurt/M.

5. Jaeger, W.:  Paideia: The Molding of Greek Men, Vol. 1, Berlin and Leipzig, 1934, Verlag de Gruyter.

6. H.-I. Marrou:  History of Education from Antiquity, Paris. l948, Ed. du Seuil.

7. Lesky, A.:  On the Eros of the Hellenists. Gottingen, l976, Vendenhoeck and Ruprecht.

E8. Vangaard, Th.: Phallos, Eros, and Power, Frankfurt/M., l979, Fachbuchverlag fur Psychologie (Repr.), 2, 1979.

9. Dover, K. J.:  Greek Homosexuality, London, 1978, Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd.

10. Patzer, Harald: Greek Boy-Love, in: Minutes of the Science Society of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University, Frankfurt/M., Vol. XIX, No. 1, Franz Steiner Verlag GmBH, Wiesbaden, 1982.