How Long Has Bisexuality Been Around?

By Garrett Jones, part nine

The basic problem about hard evidence for something’s having been around for a long time is that, before people learned to write, or even to use some kind of pictograph, the only evidence to survive is their tools, rudimentary dwellings, and so forth. These obviously tell us nothing about the sexual activities of the people who made them.

The problem that people are in any case not very forthcoming about their sex lives is not acute in the ancient world, since the concept of sex as an intimate, personal, private affair is a much later arrival. It is the prudery of later ages which has broken phalluses off ancient statues or relegated them to a ‘restricted’ collection in a museum.

Phallicism of one sort or another was everywhere in evidence in the ancient world. The most extensive ancient structures in the world are those at Karnak, near Luxor, in Egypt. They range in date from around 1950 BC right up to the Christian era, when no further additions to the complex were made. Modern archaeological study of them began with a French team led by Napoleon in 1797. The Victorians were decidedly embarrassed by their findings and did their best to censor or suppress them.

Only recently has it become generally known this vast complex of temples centred around a secret series of rites dedicated to the god Amun, who was regarded as the creator of the entire cosmos. These rites included one which was performed annually by the Pharaoh himself in strict privacy; even his high priest, normally in charge of the temple cultus, was excluded from it.

The remarkable thing about the Amun cult was imaging the act of creation as an act of solitary wanking on Amun’s part or, alternatively, of auto-insemination – as in a stone carving depicting the god with his head and shoulders on the ground and the rest of his body curved up and round so he can swallow his own semen. Hands and pricks adorn parts of the temple on all sides, except where they have been defaced or broken by outraged Christian invaders after the fourth century A.D. The only parts of war victims’ bodies to be retained by the Egyptians were their hands and their genitals – the parts which were especially sacred to the god Amun himself [<>I owe this information to a TV documentary, Amun and Hidden Phallic Rites, which detailed recent archaeological discoveries at this site].

One can say this preoccupation with the male organ was just part of a sacred cultus which was not regarded as sexual in the ordinary sense, but this is hardly convincing. However sacred a cultus, if sex is at its heart, it cannot cease to be sexy. In this instance, the ethos is decidedly homosexy. It was presumably men who depicted all these pricks and balls on the temple walls. They seem to have done so with considerable enthusiasm and without any inclination to set them in a heterosexual context.

What follows is only the barest summary of the evidence. Those in search of more detailed information should consult the massive seven-volume work of Havelock Ellis, which, thanks to the admirable Project Gutenberg, was made available on the Internet in September, 2004. [This is the 1927 edition, a much extended version of the work originally written during the 1890s although organized in just five volumes.] After a court case the original edition was judged to be obscene and banned in Britain. Although published in the United States, it was only legally available to the medical profession until 1935. Now it has become generally accessible it will be increasingly recognised for what it is – a monumental, awesomely erudite trail-blazing study. The whole work is titled Studies in the Psychology of Sex. It is the second volume which deals with male homosexuality and bisexuality, including a historical and geographical survey of the whole field.

The bisexuality of ancient Greek civilization is now so well-known it need not be dwelt on. It has, in any case, been carefully documented by the Cambridge historian James Dover in his book, Greek Homosexuality [<>published jointly by Cambridge and Harvard University Presses in 1989]. This covers the six centuries between the eighth and the second BC. In a subsequent television documentary, Dover admitted ‘bisexuality’ is a much less misleading description of the Greek phenomenon than ‘homosexuality’, since most of the men who were such fervent lovers of their boy-pupils were also respectably married men, regarded as pillars of their society. [AUGUST 2007: Doubters should read Lovers' Legends - the Gay Greek Myths as restored and retold by Andrew Calimach, Haiduk Press, 2002. There you will learn things you were never told at school about such heroes as Orpheus and Hercules and also you will catch the flavour of Greek ideas about sex, love and beauty]

It is worth remembering that in Greek society athleticism and eroticism were very much twinned. Our word ‘gymnastics’ derives from the Greek gumnos, meaning ‘naked’, a reminder that all Greek sport was done in the nude. A Greek male could and did contemplate the male form at leisure, with no holds barred, as is evident in Greek vase paintings and sculpture, to say nothing of the homo-erotic literature.

Roman culture was largely imitative of the Greek model so this too attached high significance to male/male friendships and sexual relationships. But since the Roman male was more aware of his role as custodian of imperial power than the Greeks were, he tended to have a harsher temperament and a more down-to-earth set of priorities. Yet Cicero, in his high-minded dissertation on Friendship, concedes:

It must be observed that love is a leading and essential principle in constituting that particular species of benevolence which is termed amity; and although this sentiment may be feigned, indeed, by the followers of those who are courted merely with a view to interest, yet it cannot possibly be produced by a motive of interest alone. There is a truth and simplicity in genuine friendship, an unconstrained and spontaneous emotion, altogether incompatible with every kind of and degree of artifice and simulation [<>Cicero, Laelius: an essay on Friendship, tr. W. Melmoth (electronic version)].

With due respect to Cicero and his kind, it has to be said, if Roman sex was rarely as ‘straight’ as a Roman road, it did often seem to lack heart and grace when compared with the Greek model.

India is heir to one of the oldest and most stable civilizations on earth and one which has, from the very earliest times, shown a lively preoccupation with sex, especially male sex. Shiva, with Vishnu, the most venerated of all the gods, is symbolised by his lingam [prick], sometimes in stylised form, but sometimes very naturalistically, as on the statue of Shiva now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. [<>This can be seen as Plate 54 in J.C. Harle?s Gupta Sculpture, Oxford University Press, 1974]

Dr. Trilik Chandra Majupuria gives an entertaining account [<>quoted from his web-page entitled Brahma the god of creation] of the origin of the lingam myth in the Puranas:

…..In the beginning, the legend goes, the universe was a vast ocean, with the earth immersed in its depths. There was total darkness. At that time a dispute arose between Brahma and Vishnu. Brahma claimed that he was the creator and protector of the world. Vishnu said that he was the creator and destroyer of all beings. The debate became heated, each arrogantly trying to establish his superiority over the other. At that time a lingam (the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva) appeared between the two, in the form of light. The lingam was dazzling and beautiful, and soon started growing longer, stretching into the water and into the sky. Brahma and Vishnu started to run away, but a celestial voice spoke, saying that he who would find the beginning or the end of this glowing lingam would be superior of the two.

Brahma flew up to the heaven of Golok, where he met Kamdhenu, the celestial cow. Brahma told her that he sought the origin of the lingam of light. Kamdhenu said it was impossible to find the source of such greatness. In despair, Brahma decided to tell a lie, and persuaded Kamdhenu and three deities to serve as his witnesses. Vishnu drove into the netherworld to find the root of the celestial light. Reaching the depths, he met Anant, the Lord of Serpents. Anant said that the celestial light was the lingam of Shiva and one could never find its root.

When the gods returned, Brahma claimed he had found the top. Kamdhenu supported Brahma’s statement by nodding her head, while at the same time shaking her tail, saying no. Vishnu frankly admitted his inability to find the root of the lingam.

In spite of the fact Shiva’s lingam is probably the most prominent feature of popular Hinduism, especially in the South and Centre, as is evidenced by the fact the famous Lingaraja temple at Bhubaneswar in Orissa has its central tower, and all its subsidiary towers, in the shape of gigantic pricks, each capped by a stylised glans, it was possible for Dr. A.L.Basham to say:

The erotic life of ancient India was generally heterosexual. Homosexualism of both sexes was not wholly unknown; it is condemned briefly in the lawbooks, and the Kamasutra treats of it, but cursorily and with little enthusiasm. Literature almost ignores it. In this respect ancient India was far healthier than most other ancient cultures [<>A. L. Basham, The Wonder that was India, Fontana Ancient History, 1971, p.173].

This is an interesting statement from a few points of view. First, it concedes homosexuality was very much in evidence in ‘ancient cultures’; second, it contains a typical Western value judgement about ‘homosexualism’; third, it overlooks the fact India has always been reticent about any aspect of sex in its literature and polite conversation but singularly without hang-ups when it comes to its practice, provided certain caste guidelines are not infringed.

What the Kamasutra actually says about sex between males is:

The male servants of some men carry on the mouth congress with their masters. It is also practised by some citizens, who know each other well, among themselves. Some women of the harem, when they are amorous, do the acts of the mouth on the yonis [<>yoni is sanskrit for cunt] of one another, and some men do the same thing with women. …… there are some men, some places and some times, with respect to which these practices can be made use of. A man should therefore pay regard to the place, to the time, and to the practice which is to be carried out, as also as to whether it is agreeable to his nature and to himself, and then he may or may not practice these things according to circumstances. But after all, these things being done secretly, and the mind of the man being fickle, how can it be known what any particular person will do at any particular time and for any particular purpose? [<>Vatsyayana?s Kamasutra (trans. Richard Burton), part 2, chapter 9].

This passage is totally non-judgemental and typical of the Indian genius for relaxed under-statement in these matters. A modern example of it occurs in Vikram Seth’s hugely successful novel, A Suitable Boy. Ostensibly, the theme of the novel is the search of a well-to-do Indian mother for a suitable husband for her daughter. But the undercurrent, running right through the novel is the friendship between Hindu, Maan Kapoor, and Muslim, Firoz Khan.

This is a massive novel, running to well over 1300 pages, but only at one point do we learn this is actually a sexual friendship. The two friends are in bed together when Maan’s former friendship with the Rajkumar of Marh is mentioned and provokes a hostile reaction from Firoz:

‘Firoz!’ laughed Maan, turning towards him. ‘All that is over. We were just kids. Don’t tell me you’re jealous.

‘Well, as you once said, I never tell you anything.’

‘Oh?’ said Maan, rolling over on his side towards his friend, and taking him in his arms.

‘I thought you were sleepy,’ said Firoz, smiling to himself in the dark.

‘So I am,’ said Maan. ‘But so what?’

Firoz began to laugh quietly. ‘You’ll think I’ve planned all this.’

‘Well, perhaps you have,’ said Maan. ‘But I don’t mind,’ he added with a small sigh as he passed a hand through Firoz’s hair

[<>Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy, Phoenix House/QPD, 1993, chap 14.20, p.1006].

That is all. We are left to read between the lines. Vikram Seth himself, incidentally, has always been quite open about his own bisexuality.

It would be impossible in a book of this compass to go the rounds of the world’s cultures in order to demonstrate how, from the earliest times we can know about, there has been a perennial fascination with the male organ, often in conjunction with the female organ in the context of fertility cults but sometimes, as at Karnak and Bhubaneswar, in solitary splendour – and put there, not by women, but by men. One could give examples of this preoccupation in classical Chinese and Japanese culture, as in most remote tribal cultures, some of which have persisted, with very little change, right up to the present [<>For a brief survey of many African tribal patterns of bisexuality, see Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roskam (accessible on the Internet). As with James Dover's book about Greece, the title is misleading since much of the material deals with bisexual rather than exclusively homosexual situations].

One of the most striking examples was quoted by Germaine Greer in her book about the politics of human fertility entitled, Sex and Destiny. She refers to an anthropological study of the Etoro peoples of New Guinea by Raymond C. Kelly [<>'Witchcraft and Social Relations', published in Man and Woman in the New Guinea Highlands, Washington, 1976, pp.40-45]. Amongst these people, heterosexual sex is prohibited for between 205 and 260 days each year, whilst sex between men and boys is positively encouraged. As Greer explains,

…mature men help boys to develop manly characteristics by ‘inseminating them’, which is a rather prudish way of saying that they have the boys swallow their semen:

‘A youth is continually inseminated from about age ten until he reaches his early to mid twenties.’ [Kelly]

There are no prohibitions of any kind upon this altruistic form of intercourse which has clearly beneficial effects, for the beardless boy of ten becomes bigger and stronger, as long as he continues to consume the semen of his elders.

‘Man and boys may properly engage in sexual relations in the men’s section of the longhouse (and in gardens) on any day of the year.’ [Kelly]

What is not clear from Raymond Kelly’s account is whether the practice of insemination is carried out in a perfunctory way or whether there is any erotic context or any celebration of intimacy or homosexual incest prohibitions or any attachment to one boy in particular, but what emerges with great clarity is that …. for the Etoro it is heterosexual contact which effeminises, homosexual contact which masculinises [<>Germaine Greer, Sex and Destiny, Secker and Warburg, 1984, pp.122f].

The most visible manifestation in Britain of this universal preoccupation with prick in the ancient world is the famous chalk giant at Cerne Abbas. This figure is outlined by a trench, one foot thick, cut into the underlying chalk. The man depicted is 180 feet tall and, in his right hand, he brandishes an enormous knobbed club, which is itself 120 feet long. His central feature however is a huge erection, towering above two equally impressive balls. It is interesting, amidst the other dimensions given for the figure, we are given no information about the precise size of this brazenly rampant prick. Everybody admits it is the giant’s dominant feature, but it seems nobody wants to admit to having actually measured it!

There is no certainty about the age of the giant. According to one theory, he depicts the Roman god Hercules and dates back to the second century A.D. Another theory suggests a less reputable origin. In the civil war of 1644-60, the local estate was apparently badly mismanaged by the owner’s steward and it is suggested his servants cut this figure to mock their master during this period of general chaos. The giant’s first appearance in the records is in 1694, when the local churchwarden was paid the sum of three shillings in payment for re-cutting the figure.

It has even been suggested the figure was cut by monks from the local abbey as a joke against their abbot. At any rate, the figure has been re-cut a number of times since the seventeenth century and his phallic dimensions altered (or even totally censored) from time to time. Mercifully, the giant is now in the safe keeping of the National Trust and his endowment restored to what is thought to be its original dimensions.

How long, then, has bisexuality been around? All we can say with certainty about the earliest known period of human history is, wherever we care to look, there is evidence of considerable male preoccupation with cocks, more especially pricks, and balls, often in a context which seems unrelated to fertility cults.

In the monotheistic cultures – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – but most clearly in the Christian tradition, and in all the other cultures which have been colonised by nations within the monotheistic tradition, the dogma has been: sex is the divinely ordained means of procreation.

There has been a sliding scale of condemnation for sexual practices which divorce sex from this divinely ordained function, the greatest condemnation being reserved for anything of a homosexual nature, especially anal sex, which is still often referred to by the biblical term, sodomy. The whole non-reproductive aspect of sexual life has thus been driven underground throughout most of the period when the monotheistic traditions held sway.

There is abundant evidence the Church had a constant struggle trying to maintain its position and resorted to all kinds of strange arguments, even the rules of grammar, to try to reinforce it. The twelfth century French monk, Alain of Lille, in his Complaint of Nature [<>De Planctu Natura trans. D.M. Moffat, Yale 1908, pp.37,51] first pictures Nature bewailing the shocking immorality of the times:

And many other youths, clothed by my favour with noble beauty .. have turned their hammers of love to the office of anvils. Such a great body of foul men roam and riot along the breadth of the whole earth by whose seducing contact chastity itself is poisoned. Of some of these men who profess the grammar of love, some embrace only the masculine gender, some the feminine, others the common or indiscriminate.

Alain then proposes Nature’s grammatical remedy:

For if the masculine gender by some violent and reasonless reasoning should demand a like gender the relation of that connection could not justify its vice by any beauty of figure, but would be disgraced as an inexcusable solecism. …. my command enjoined that [one should].. have regard to the ordinary rules for nouns and adjectives, and that ..organ which is especially marked with the peculiarity of the feminine sex [be appointed] to the office of noun and .. that organ characterized by the signs of the masculine sex in the seat of the adjective. Thus should it be that neither the adjective should be able to fall into the place of the noun, nor should the noun move into the region of the adjective.

In spite of these scholastic and ecclesiastical attempts to uphold the strict, monogamous, heterosexual principle, many of the most illustrious names in British literary history – Shakespeare, Byron and Wilde spring to mind – were bisexual, though of these three, Byron fled to Europe in order to escape censure and a possible death sentence and Wilde settled in France when he was released from prison. In recent years, it has also emerged that many great British men of science, philosophy and music have nourished a more-than-passing fondness for their own kind, including Alan Turing, the ‘father of the computer’ and the man most instrumental in cracking the German ‘enigma’ code in the 1940s. Turing was found dead with a poisoned, half-eaten apple beside his bed. Nobody can be certain about how he died.

Until homosexual acts between consenting adult males in private were taken off the statute books in 1967, and especially before the Labouchère Amendment of 1885, whenever homosexual acts were taken to court, they tended to be acts of ‘sodomy’ or ‘buggery’ (a term which appears to have some obscure connection with Bulgaria).

As we have so insisted, anal sex is NOT homosexual sex since it does not necessarily involve two persons of the same gender and, even when it does, the genitals of one of the parties are redundant; they may come into play, but they are not essential to the act itself. In spite of this, there is almost a conspiracy in some quarters to make the practice of anal sex almost synonymous with the word ‘gay’.

The truly homosexual impulse, whether between men or between women, centres on the genitals of their own gender and seeks, by genital interaction with others of the same gender, to develop a same-sex intimacy which often goes on to include every other aspect of personality.

It is this preoccupation with same-sex genitals which is so strikingly evident at Luxor, Bhubaneswar, in classical Greece and Rome, in ancient China and Japan, at virtually every point in Africa where ancient traditions and customs survive, in the Pacific Islands, in Latin America – virtually anywhere we care to look, just so long as evidence has survived.

Whenever we know enough about the lifestyles of the people who left us this evidence, we know they were, overwhelmingly, bisexual. Most people in the ancient world got married and had children, although a few seem to have opted for an exclusively homosexual lifestyle. But most of the men who got married made no attempt to disguise their sexual interest in other men and were not censured by their societies when they did something about it.


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