Commentary on Hymn XXI: To Antinous and Diana

Who is the man, or who is the god, who is favored
by Diana? Who can please the white-clad huntress,
swift of foot and swift of bow, chaste and just,
aloof and severe, surrounded by nymphs and
beasts of the chase? Only the one who, like Antinous,
also follows the hunt as master of the hounds,
who does not trespass on the goddess’ privacy
nor claim that which is not his right, the male
who extends his hand in friendship and delights
in comradeship, not scorning the fellowship
of woman or goddess, not despising the love
between women. Hail, Antinous, beloved of
Hadrian, Antinous Kynegetikos, favored of Diana!
Hail, Diana, goddess of Nemi and Lanuvium,
bright as the moonlight, mistress of the forest,
friend to those who earn her trust!

The association of Antinous and Diana stems from two roots: One, the archaeological evidence for their being worshipped jointly at Lanuvium, and two, their mutual passion for the hunt. The latter is no doubt the source of the former, as her role of huntress is one that Roman Diana shares with Greek Artemis, and with the mortal, historical Antinous as well.

I happen to be writing this commentary on the 21st of August, the Festival of the Lion Hunt. Hadrian and Antinous led a party to hunt down and kill a lion which had been killing people in Mauretania, in the Libyan desert. During that hunt, Antinous made a grievous error in judgment and was nearly killed by the lion, but Hadrian’s intervention saved his life (which perhaps made it more difficult when Antinous drowned, and nothing could be done). Devotees of Antinous observe this day by acknowledging our own shortcomings and failures, with the reminder that even Antinous was human, fallible, and fragile.

As a lifelong city dweller, I have never hunted. I know that while there are wealthy people who pay obscene sums of money to go and kill exotic animals to no purpose, there are also many people in the U.S. for whom hunting is an essential activity that helps to feed their family. Last weekend I was reading the essay “Gun Country” in Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno, a book I highly recommend, which helped me to begin to understand that hunting is not only subsistence for many people, but an experience of solitude and of communion with nature that they can get in no other way. The death of something is a precondition of food and life for something, someone else most of the time; even plants die when they are harvested, insects and small animals may be killed by the cultivation of crops, and farming and animal husbandry take their toll on human laborers. Antinous and Hadrian went out and put their lives at risk for the sport of it, in one way–it was not as if the Emperor were required to do the deed–but also to protect and preserve human lives, not unlike firefighters. Antinous made a mistake during that hunt and came very close to death, but he was saved by another fallible mortal human being who loved and cared for him. We, too, may fail and falter and yet not lack the help of our gods or our friends and loved ones.

Commentary on Hymn XIX: To Antinous and Sabina

People of Antinous, let us honor Diva Sabina,
wife of Hadrian, Augusta, goddess, mother
of the Empire! Let us honor her as Antinous did,
as courtier to empress, as consort to spouse,
as a youth to a matron, perhaps even as a son
to a mother. People of Antinous, let us honor
Antinous even as Sabina did, as companion
to her husband, as beauty too soon lost, as
god by the gift of Osiris and the Nile.
Let us honor Sabina who was honored
in the city of Antinous and upon his Obelisk;
let us honor Antinous whom Sabina hymned
as god, who welcomed her upon her apotheosis.
Hail to you, Antinous and Sabina, loved
and honored by Hadrian, the new Hermes
and the imperial Ceres, Eros and Venus,
deus homo, augusta diva, avete!

I am not sure whether to say that Hadrian’s wife and empress, Vibia Sabina, gets a bad rap historically and among Antinous’ worshippers, or to say that Hadrian gets a bad rap for treating his wife so shabbily. Probably both are true in part, but in the Naos Antinoou, we do honor Hadrian’s wife, whom he publicly treated better than most of the Emperors had treated their wives since Augustus and Livia. Wikipedia helpfully informs me that she was granted the title of Augusta, was represented widely in coinage, and traveled with her husband far more than most of the Imperial wives before her. He also did not hesitate to deify her when she died several years before him.

There is no way of knowing, of course, how Hadrian treated Sabina in private. Then as now, the more powerful a man, the less he was held to any standard of fidelity in marriage. Hadrian married Sabina for political considerations and had both male and female lovers before Antinous, but Sabina had a long-standing relationship with the poet Julia Balbilla which may have been romantic and/or sexual. When their contemporaries called Balbilla a second Sappho, it was not without homoerotic implications.

While I am not a votary of the Imperial cultus in Roman religion, I honor both Hadrian and Sabina as people who shaped Antinous’ life and legacy. For me venerating Sabina, and Julia Balbilla, too, as blessed ancestors is a reminder that Antinous’ cult in the ancient world was not confined to what we would now call gay men, but flourished in three different cultural and religious milieus (Egyptian, Greek, and Roman) and was attended by women as well as men, old and young, the married and the unmarried. I believe that today, he is particularly a patron and protector of queer people of all sorts, but I don’t think he would turn away someone who came to him in good faith simply because they were heterosexual. He might, however, help them find the unexpected queerness in their own identity, as he has done for me.

Commentary on Hymn XVIII: To Antinous and Hadrian

Lover and beloved, erastes and eromenos,
emperor and favorite, Hadrian and Antinous:
For eighteen hundred years your names have been named
together. Antinous, enthroned with the gods of Egypt,
divine by the gift of the Nile; Hadrian, called divus
by the Roman Senate, divine by right of the numen Augusti.
Hail to you, Hadrian and Antinous, Antinous and Hadrian,
friends and lovers! In equal love you have traded places
again and again. Hadrian raised you, Antinous,
to imperial favor, but Osiris lifted you to godhood;
you, Hadrian, pontifex maximus, led the way
in the new god’s cult. Now Hadrian is in the court
of Antinous as Antinous once was in his, and never
shall the two be named apart: Hadrian and Antinous,
Antinous and Hadrian, hail to you, avete!

Hadrian and Antinous at the British Museum

The chief point I wanted to make in this hymn was that the famous historical lovers have undergone a kind of role reversal. While it is commonly believed that Hadrian deified Antinous on the same terms which, as Emperor, he deified members of the Imperial family, that is not the case. (It is such a common opinion that I feel a need to reiterate, frequently, that it is not the case.) Deified by his death in the Nile, Antinous is equal to Osiris and the ancient gods of Egypt. Hadrian and the other Imperials became divus or diva, not deus or dea; it might be that it was their inner genius or juno, their personal guardian spirit, that was understood to become divine, rather than their entire humanity.

Antinous, a young man whose personal history was not recorded, who might otherwise have been entirely forgotten, was beloved of an Emperor and thus, when he became a god, all the resources of an Emperor were there to promote his cult. He certainly owes to Hadrian his fame and his historical importance. Nevertheless, even if we had never heard of him, Antinous would still be a god, one with Osiris, and of a higher rank than Hadrian on the cosmic scale.

In a complementary way, Hadrian is probably as famous for his tragic gay love story as for his imperial reign. The Emperor and his beautiful boyfriend are a part of popular culture in a way that Hadrian’s contentious relations with the province of Judea and his Jewish subjects are not. In this hymn I wanted to emphasise the mutuality of their existing relationship as immortals; that while Hadrian was the erastes and thus, you might say, the dominant in historic time, when your eromenos becomes a full-blown god, you cannot expect to top all the time.

Commentary on Hymn IV: To Antinous the Lover

You have the power to set us free, and so
we hail you as Liberator. You have the wisdom
to guide, and so we hail you as Navigator.
Yet wisdom and power are not enough to satisfy
us, and so, Antinous, we hail you as Lover.
For you do love, intimately, personally,
individually, even as you loved Hadrian,
or your parents, or your friends. And you are
supremely lovable, as beautiful boy, as
faithful friend, as glorious god who is Victor
over the archons, Star of the Eagle,
Emperor of Peace.

To the powerless grant power, God Man,
and to the foolish grant wisdom, but above all,
grant love to those who are without it. May those
who are unloved know the ever-flowing waters
of your grace; may those who are unable to love
know the sting of desire, of sympathy, and of
compassion. May I, your devotee, love you
with all that I am and all that I may be, and
in your love, may I become all that I may
to be loved by and to love you forever.

The Farnese Antinous

On April 21st, the Naos Antinoou celebrates the Megala Antinoeia, the Great Games of Antinous, a cluster of festivals both ancient and specific to the Boy which ushers in the season of Antinous the Lover.

Antinous the Lover is probably the default view of the Beautiful Boy to anyone who knows his history. He was the favorite, or beloved, or in the Greek word, eromenos of the emperor Hadrian. Hadrian, a Roman of Iberian descent, had a notable love for Greek culture–one of the reasons he wore a beard when Roman men generally went clean-shaven–and it seems most likely that he conceived of his relationship with Antinous not as the relationship between a master and a slave, or between a ruler and his concubine, but as the relationship of erastes and eromenos, adult male and youth, which formed a part of a youth’s education to manhood in ancient Greek culture.

I can’t look at Antinous as Lover without looking at Hadrian and their relationship, and I can’t look at their relationship with looking, honestly, at issues of adult/youth sex and consent. We don’t know for certain how young Antinous was when he became involved with Hadrian, nor how old he was when he died–probably no more than nineteen. We don’t know what kind of sex their relationship involved, how young Antinous was when it began, or how much of a say he had. What we do know is that the erastes/eromenos relationship was held in high esteem; it traditionally required the consent of the youth’s parents and of the youth; it was an exchange of mentoring and sponsorship in return for sexual pleasure. We also know that Hadrian’s grief at Antinous’ death was so overwhelming, so openly expressed, that his contemporaries considered it unseemly and unmanly. That implies to me that it was a relationship we would call romantic as well as sexual. You don’t build a lover a city and scatter temples for him across an empire just because you had satisfying sex with him.

What I myself keep in mind when I ponder Hadrian and Antinous is, for one thing, that their relationship has not ceased; it is surely ongoing in their immortal lives, and for another, it is now Antinous who is superior in power and status. Hadrian may be divus, an honor accorded to many of the Emperors and their spouses and kindred, but Antinous is Osiris, a god worshiped for countless generations before the Latins wandered into Italy from Anatolia and began to think about building some cities.

Furthermore, I think it is a mistake to think of Antinous as merely the lover of Hadrian or exclusively the patron of gay love, homosexual love. Hadrian was what we would now call bisexual; his marriage was a political arrangement, apparently an amicable one, and he had relationships with both men and women besides his wife before meeting Antinous. Antinous, had he lived, would have been expected to marry and have children, and as another adult male, would have been seen as an unsuitable sexual partner for Hadrian (although certainly people defied that expectation and formed permanent same-sex relationships just as they still do today). Antinous to me is the patron and protector of queer relationships and queer people, of bisexuals and trans people as well as men who love men and women who love women. He is the god who proclaims all erotic love holy so long as it is founded on consent–and while his historic relationship with Hadrian may not look very consensual by our standards, personal experience with the god will prove that he is very much a champion of consent. He might borrow the words of Blessed Elua in Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline novels and bid his devotees “love as thou wilt”.

This love, erotic love, queer love, non-reproductive love and sex, is the love which brings the celestial Navigator down to earth, and whether the sex is reproductive or not, the love is generative, creative, fructifying. It is the love which expresses itself in the earth’s flowering and the Beltane-like festival of Floralia in honor of Flora. It is the love which is celebrated at the beginning of April in the Veneralia in honor of Venus. It is the love which brings the gods to make love with mortals and to make stars and flowers and goddesses of their beloveds. It is this love and beauty of which we joyfully say, “Haec est unde vita venit!

Sacred Nights: Foundation Day

Some years I write and post a lot during the Sacred Nights, when we celebrate Mystery of Antinous’ life, death, and deification. This was not one of those years. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t observing the holy days; I made some small solitary ritual at home, and I start every day with a brief journal entry that includes the phase and sign of the Moon and the holy day on the calendar.

But I was observing other things, too, this year, in the wider sense. I was observing racism and antisemitism at work. I was observing violence against elderly members of a minority religion, carried out in their place of worship on their weekly sacred day. I was observing threats to prominent members of the more liberal political party in my country, pipe bombs delivered by mail. I was observing a President who neither condemned these actions nor took responsibility for his incitement of them through his rhetoric.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious, frightened, and depressed during the Sacred Nights. I took refuge in the most positive, optimistic pop culture I could find–Supergirl and Doctor Who–and when watching those shows didn’t help, I took refuge under the covers of my bed with my stuffed animals.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, a nation which is the home of many devotees of Antinous, a national leader has been elected who is overtly a Christian fascist, eager to force his brand of Catholicism on the country. Brazil’s queer, trans, and pagan citizens are even more scared than those in the U.S., and we’re pretty scared up here.

Today is Foundation Day, when Antinous’ body was found on the banks of the Nile and the local priesthood of Osiris took charge of him, recognizing that he had become a god. It is so called because Hadrian’s response to Antinous’ death, after the first wave of terrible grief, was to declare that he would build a city on the place where his beloved’s body was discovered; the discovery of Antinous’ body was the founding of Antinoopolis. Hadrian, a great builder throughout his reign, carried out his resolution and built a thriving city in memory of the Beautiful Boy; he also promoted his beloved’s cultus throughout the Empire.

History happens. The cult of Antinous was suppressed and all but forgotten like the much older cults of so many gods. The city of Antinoopolis survives only as picturesque ruins. Yet his sacred images survive; his cultus has been revived, and his city forms the shape of our sacred space in his rituals. Every year we devotees of Antinous re-found his sacred city and make it more real in the manifest world, a place where equality and friendship are paramount values and love, beauty, good health, and the arts can flourish. That, to me, is what his cultus is about.

On many holy days, Jewish people around the world make the devout wish, “Next year in Jerusalem!”, hoping to come together one day in their own city in their own land. If I may, I will borrow that sentiment and say, “This year, this place, this is Antinoopolis. This is the city of the Beautiful Boy and we are its citizens, right here, right now.” May all of us dwell in our own holy city and worship our own god in peace and joy. May it be so.