People have worshiped queer gods and deities for millennia. Mortals throughout history looked to the gods for guidance, love, and acceptance regardless of sexuality. In this dive through history, we explore 52 immortals who enjoyed same-sex relationships.
A gay cupbearer on Mount Olympus? Male lovers in the Trojan War? While tolerance is often presented as a sign of civilization’s advancement, a reading of Greek mythology reveals greater acceptance of homosexuality in ancient Athens than can be boasted within today’s world religions. These LGBT Greek gods and demigods prove gay culture is no modern invention.
The Greek hero Achilles was invulnerable excepting his famous weak heel, but a male shieldbearer broke through the warrior’s romantic defenses. While Homer never explicitly states a gay relationship between Achilles and sidekick Patroclus, many scholars read a romantic connection between the two, as only Patroclus ever drew out a compassionate side to the famously arrogant warrior. Patroclus’s death at the hands of Trojan Prince Hector sent Achilles into a rage in which he killed Hector and dragged his body around Troy. Other myths also disclose Achilles was struck by the beauty of Troilus, a Trojan prince.
While a famous philanderer who sired countless demigods by every peasant girl in need of an explanation to her parents, Zeus famously selected the young mortal Ganymede to serve as his cupbearer on Mount Olympus. The relationship provided the foundation of the custom of paiderastia, the practice of Greek men at the time maintaining erotic relationships with adolescent boys on the side. Above: Zeus and Ganymede, artist and date unknown.
A figure mostly known for his obsessive vanity, this son of a nymph and a river god would spend his last days gazing at his own reflection, but the first man he showed affection for was not himself. A myth traced in origin to the Boeotia region mentions a relationship between Narcissus and the smitten Ameinias, whom Narcissus would eventually grow tired of before sending him a sword as a kiss-off. Ameinias, desperately depressed over the rejection, killed himself.
The sun god, one of the most important in all literature, was also quite the libertine. Besides dalliances with numerous nymphs, Apollo was also lover to Macedonian Prince Hyakinthos, who died catching a thrown discus, then turned by the god into the hyacinth flower. The Pseudo-Apollodorus also said Apollo had been with Thracian singer Thamyris in the first man-on-man relationship in history. And for those who think same-sex nuptials are a 21st-century invention, Apollo also was in a relationship with Hymen, the god of marriage. Above: Alexander Kiselev, Apollo and Hyacinth (1884)
Euripedes wrote that this divine Peloponnesian hero was on the way to compete in the Nemean Games when his Theban tutor Laius ran off with him and raped him. The incident drew a curse upon the city of Thebes. Above: Chrysippus, kidnapped by Laius, looks for his father Pelops running behind the chariot; Volute Krater image (320 B.C.)
The wing-heeled messenger of the gods was said in multiple myths to have male lovers. In a variation of the Hyacinth myth, it was Hermes’ lover Crocus who was killed by a discus thrown by a god before being turned into a flower. Some myths suggest a romantic relationship between Hermes and the hero Perseus. And while some stories list Daphnis, the inventor of pastoral poetry, as the son of Hermes, other sources claim him to be the god of speed’s favorite lover.
Of course, many mythological texts and artworks connect Daphnis to the satyr Pan, god of music. Pan frequently was depicted in sculpture chasing both women and men around with his always-erect penis and oversized scrotum. Half man. Half goat. Bisexual. Size queen. Above: Rossi Domenico, Pan and Apollo (circa 1704), engraving
Best known as the Greek god of wine, Dionysus was also the god of intersex and transgender people. Male lovers of the god included the satyr Ampelos and the famously handsome Adonis. He also once made a journey to Hades and was guided by the shepherd Prosymnus, who led the way in exchange for the chance to make love to the party god. When Prosymnus died before that deal would be consummated, the god created a wood phallus to ritually fulfill the promise, according to research by a number of Christian historians, including Hyginus and Arnobius. Above: Diego Velázquez, The Triumph of Bacchus, a.k.a. Dionysus (1629)
The famous hero had a number of male companions through his many trials. Among them: Abderos, who kept the mares of Diomedes for Heracles but was eaten by the beasts; Hylas, Heracles' companion when he sailed on the Argo, who was eventually kidnapped by nymphs in Mysia; and Iolaus, who help cauterize the necks of the hydra when Heracles famously chopped off the beast’s many heads. Indeed, the relationship with Iolaus was enshrined in Thebes, where male couples of the day could be found “exchanging vows and pledges with their beloved at his tomb,” according to historian Louis Crompton. Above: Hans Sebald Beham, Heracles and Iolaus dispatching the hydra with club and fire
According to Pindar’s First Olympian Ode, Pelops, the king of Pisa, once shared “Aphrodite’s sweet gifts” with the ocean god himself. Pelops for a time was taken to Olympus by Poseidon and trained to drive the divine chariot. Above: Felice Giani, The Marriage of Poseidon and Amphitrite (1802-1805)
The legendary poet and musician may be best known for the story of his journey to the underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice; he failed to do so when he succumbed to temptation and looked at her before both had returned to the world of the living. According to Ovid, he never took another female lover after that — but did love other young men in Thrace. Spurned, Ciconian women would eventually tear Orpheus apart during a Bacchic orgy. Above: John Macallan Swan, Orpheus (1896)
Perhaps the earliest literary reference to an intersex person concerns this child of Hermes and love goddess Aphrodite who as a youth encountered the nymph Salmacis, who attempted to seduce the youth and asked the gods that their forms be permanently joined. The creature of both sexes was frequently depicted in classical art as a figure with womanly breasts and form but with male genitalia.
This nymph follower of Artemis took a vow to remain a virgin and could not be tempted even by Zeus, at least in male form. But when Zeus disguised himself as Artemis, she was lured into the goddess’s embrace. Hesiod wrote that after this tryst was discovered, Callisto was turned into a bear before she gave birth to son Arcas. Callisto and Arcas were later put in the stars as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Twin sister to Apollo, the goddess was by differing accounts a nearly asexual virgin or a lesbian with many nymph lovers, including Cyrene, Atalanta, and Anticleia as well as moon goddess Dictynna. By some accounts, she was Callisto’s lover before the nymph was raped by Zeus. Researcher Johanna Hypatia-Cybelaia writes that lesbian and gay devotees worshipped her as Artemis Orthia, and that lesbian port Pamphilia referred to the goddess in hymn as Artemis Pergaea.
15. The Amazons
The original race of warrior women, the Amazons of myth lived in a society free of men, one where the powerful women would only have heterosexual sex once or twice a year — for reproductive purposes only — with male slaves abducted from neighboring villages or taken prisoner during wars, according to Strabo. So what happened the rest of the year? Well, many scholars suggest the idea of a lesbian culture is just modern fantasy, though there is art from the time that depicts Amazonian Queen Penthesilia accepting a love gift from a Thracian huntress. Above: Johann Georg Platzer, The Amazon Queen Thalestris in the Camp of Alexander the Great
The blind prophet of Apollo was most famous in Greek myth for being transformed from a man into a woman for seven years. During his female years, Teiresias became a priestess of Hera, married, and even had children, according to Hesiod. Call him mythology’s original transgender person. After the gods changed him back, Zeus asked who enjoyed sex more, men or women. Teiresias revealed the ladies had it roughly 10 times better than the lads. Reporting this earned him a blinding by Hera. Above: Pentheus Scorns The Prophecies of Tiresias
The goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens was a virgin by nearly every mythological account but did express a romantic attraction to the Attic maiden Myrmex. However, that ended poorly when Myrmex pretended to have invented the plow, one of Athena’s creations, and Athena turned the girl into an ant. Above: Athena, center, in a mural by John Singer Sargent
While the goddess of love is not identified prominently as lesbian herself, the Greek poet Sappho (as in sapphic) of Lesbos (yes, as in lesbian) told many homoerotic tales and named Aphrodite as the greatest patron and ally of lesbians and homosexuals within the Greek pantheon of gods. Above: Enrique Simonet, El Juicio de Paris (1904)
While the best-known myths of Eros depict the son of Aphrodite as a fertility god — the version that proved inspirational to the popularized Roman god Cupid — later Greek myths portrayed Eros as one of several winged erotes, and the one regarded as a protector of homosexual culture, according to research in the scholarly book Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World.
The Egyptian goddess, also worshipped by Greeks, is known for solving a gender identity issue of yore. Iphis was born female but raised male by his mother, who concealed the truth because her husband wanted a male heir. Ultimately, Iphis fell in love with Ianthe, a woman, and was betrothed to her. Before the wedding, Iphis prayed in the Temple of Isis for a solution, and voila! she became a he. As noted on Owlcation, this may have been a heterosexual ending, but the love story was laced with LGBT themes. Above: Isis (seated right) welcoming the Greek heroine Io as she is borne into Egypt on the shoulders of the personified Nile, as depicted in a Roman wall painting from Pompeii.
While the level of tolerance for LGBT people in ancient Egypt remains subject to debate, the truth can be found in the ostraca. Mythology depicted in hieroglyphics and history revealed on pyramid walls confirms same-sex relationships existed within the culture and lore along the Nile. Many scholars today suggest that while all matters of sex were treated as somewhat taboo, intolerance of homosexuality seemed such a foreign concept that no records show the practice as forbidden. In addition, several intersex figures were not only recorded but celebrated. Here is a review of their stories as well as the other Egyptian deities who fall within the LGBT spectrum.
The storm god associated with many natural disasters, Seth was among the more colorful figures in the Egyptian pantheon. Researcher Mark Brustman says Seth, while married to his sister Nephthys, is depicted as engaging in sexual activities with other male deities such as Horus. Seth is also described as having impotent testicles, and he never had a child. This may not be a sign of great tolerance in the culture; Seth was cast in a terribly negative light in many stories. And while his childbearing siblings Osiris and Isis represent life, he represents the desert. This may indicate a certain negative sentiment about gay identity. But many stories show that while Seth could be called a villainous figure, his homosexuality was not what made him so.
Many tales about Seth focus on his envy of his nephew Horus, the child of Isis and Orisis. In one tale documented well in Richard Parkinson’s Homosexual Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature, Horus is either raped or seduced into a sexual encounter. Seth intends to embarrass Horus by showing others Horus was the receptive partner in the act. But Horus gets the upper hand, because he secretly captured Seth’s semen, then had his mother Isis feed it back to Seth in his lettuce. When the semen is called forth by Seth in an attempt to humiliate Horus, it comes from Seth instead. Interestingly, the tale shows that ancient Egyptian culture didn’t look down on homosexuality — something heroic Horus engaged in himself — so much as it held being subjugated in low esteem.
This resurrection figure holds ties to ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. Antinous was a real historical figure and the male companion of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The pair would take journeys around the Mediterranean. And on one trip, Antinous drowned in the Nile on the same day that Egyptians commemorated the watery death of Osiris. Deeply affected by the death of his lover, Hadrian encouraged the deification of Antinous, and cults sprung up around the Mediterranean honoring him. In some tellings, Antinous rose from the Nile after his death and was then revered as a form of Osiris reborn. Indeed, the god and the Roman cult that followed him still have devotees today.
In the creation story for the Egyptian gods, the first deity, Atum, was both male and female, according to studies by researcher Mark Burstman. The ancestor to all self-produced two offspring, Shu and Tefnut, through either a sneeze or his own semen, and it wasn’t for a few generations that the archetypal male and female gods of Isis and Osiris were born.
While there are fewer tales in Egyptian history and mythology about female than male homosexuality, many considered the goddess Nephthys to be a lesbian. The sister and constant companion of Isis, she married brother Seth but bore him no children. Scholars have debated whether the stories of Nephthys, who did bear one son by Osiris, show that the culture held lesbians in greater esteem than gay men, because they could still be fertile despite their sexual orientation. Then again, others express skepticism about her lesbianism altogether.
Isis was among the few goddesses worshipped both by the Egyptians and their Mediterranean neighbors in Greece. The mother goddess and a protector of children, she also cared for society’s downtrodden, which may be why gay priests in ancient Egypt worshipped the deity. In one tale documented at Isiopolis, Isis appeared in a dream accompanied by an Egyptian retinue to calm the pregnant Telethusa, who feared she would deliver a girl against her husband’s wishes. Isis told the mother to carry the child, Iphis, who was born a girl but raised as a boy. Later in life, Iphis called on Isis to change his gender to male, an ancient gender affirmation granted by divine means.
While the sun god Ra in most mythological accounts was regarded as the father to the major gods, Sir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge wrote of clear indications of a double-gender nature to the deity. As early as the fifth dynasty, Budge wrote of Ra’s female counterpart Rat, who was considered the mother of the gods.
28. Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep
The clearest evidence that bisexuality was acceptable in ancient Egypt may be the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, two men laid to rest in the necropolis of Saqqara. Hieroglyphics indicate that the men were married with children but also show them in intimate embrace. The two men apparently worked as overseers to manicurists in the palace of King Nuiserre. There is some scholarly debate as to whether the men were brothers, but virtually all depictions of the pair show a commitment that looks far more than fraternal.
The first documented transgender figure in history may have been the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut. Deidra Ramsey McIntyre of Red Ibis Publishing notes that unlike other female Egyptian rulers, Hatshepsut was always depicted in ancient art wearing men’s clothing, and she frequently was drawn with a male body. Her descendent Thutmose III would later try to eradicate nearly all historic reference to her.
30. Neferkare and Sasenet
The Egyptian King Neferkare, who many scholars believe rose to become Pharoah Pepi II, would make conspicuous midnight visits to his favorite general, Sasenet, according to tales dating to the era of the Middle Kingdom. According to German scholars Gunter Burkard and Heinz Thissen, some ancient texts state Neferkare would do to the military leader “what his majesty desired,” a phrase they interpret as clear innuendo of sexual congress.
Hapi, the god of the Nile, is depicted in hieroglyphics as an intersex person with a ceremonial false beard and breasts. While generally referred to as male, the god also was also considered a symbol of fertility. According to Richard Parkinson’s Homosexual Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature, the deity was portrayed to suggest both male and female reproductive power, a topic that has incited debate among scholars.
Another male god widely associated with fertility was Wadj-Wer, a deity depicted at a pyramid site in Abusir. Sometimes referred to as the "pregnant god," Wadj-Wer held the same type of station as river gods in Greek mythology, representing the Mediterranean Sea in some accounts or rivers and lagoons of the northern Nile Delta in others. An association with water seems the greatest distinguishing feature separating iconography of Wadj-Wer from that of Hapi.
The Egyptian god of fate Shai sometimes was depicted in male form,and other times presented as the female Shait. Related to both birth in the world and rebirth in the afterlife, Shai was born with each individual, constantly starting life anew but also an immortal god, according to ancient Egyptian belief. Wallis Budge suggests the deity was viewed in parts of Egypt as combining the facets of a male Shai, decreeing what should happen to man, and a female Renenutet, the goddess of good fortune. “Subsequently no distinction was made between these deities and the abstract ideas which they represented,” Budge wrote in The Egyptian Book of the Dead.
The notion of gender as a spectrum may feel to some a modern revelation, but Hindu literature and mythology for centuries has taught of the figures who defied the binary. And while the reproductive connection between man and woman has always been revered in the faith, Hinduism, unlike most Western faiths, historically treats homosexuality as a natural behavior, one documented in folk tale and religious text alike. Behold, this incomplete list of Hindu deities and divine descendants who defied gender and sexual norms back in the day.
34. Shiva and Parvati
The supreme god of Shaivism, Shiva has often been held as the ultimate embodiment of masculinity, but as far back as the Kushan era, there have also been depictions of Shiva in the Ardhanarishvara form, an androgynous composite of Shiva and his wife, Parvoti. The form originated when Parvoti, desiring to share Shiva’s experiences, asked for their forms to literally be joined. “What is being said is that if the inner masculine and feminine meet, you are in a perpetual state of ecstasy,” explains Hindu scholar Sadhguru. Most often, the Ardhanarishvara is depicted with the female form of Parvoti on the left and the masculine attributes of Shiva on the right.
A major deity of the religion regarded as protector of the world, Vishnu is clearly depicted in the faith as gender-fluid. This major Hindu deity frequently took on the female avatar of Mohini. Vishnu even procreated with Shiva in the Mohini form, resulting in the birth of Ayyappa, a major figure still worshipped by millions who make pilgrimages to shrines in India. The avatar Mohini frequently gets describes as an enchantress who maddens lovers.
An incarnation of Vishnu, the popular deity Krishna also took the form of Mohini in order to marry Aravan to satisfy one of the hero’s last requests, according to the Mahabharata. After Aravan’s passing, Krishna stayed in the form as the hero’s widow for a significant period of mourning.
This warrior in the Kurukshetra war in most tellings of the Mahabharata was female at birth but changed gender later in life. Born Shikhandini, the girl in one version of the story was raised as a male by King Drupada, the girl's father. The king even had her married to the princess of Dasharna. Upon complaints from the new bride, Shikhandini fled into the forest and met a Yaksha and exchanged genders. Now taking the name Shikhandi, he remained a man until his death at the battle of Mahabharat.
38. Bahuchara Mata
Bahuchara Mata was traveling with her sisters and threatened by the marauder Bapiya. After she and her sisters self-immolated their own breasts, Bapiya was cursed with impotence until he began to dress and act as a woman. Today, the Hindu goddess is worshipped as the originator and patron of the hijras, trans and intersex Bangladeshis considered in the faith to be of a “third gender.”
Another origin story for the hijras comes from the Ramayana, which tells the tale of Rama gathering his subjects in the forest before his 14-year adventure. He tells the men and women to return to their appropriate places in Ayodhya, but upon his return from his epic journey, Rama finds some have not left the place of that speech and instead merged together in an intersex fashion. He grants hijras the ability to confer certain blessings, the beginning of the badhai tradition.
40. The Khajuraho Temples
These medieval temples famously include depictions of people in sexual congress, a demonstration of the importance of sexual interaction within the Hindu faith. Included in the carvings are a number of depictions of gay sex, sometimes in orgy situations where several women are involved in intercourse with a single man, but there also are images of men having sex and engaging in fellatio with one another.
The god of fire, creativity, and wealth is depicted in the Hindu faith as married both to the goddess and Svaha and with the male moon god Soma. Connor and Sparks relate that Agni importantly received Soma’s semen orally. British scholar Phil Hine says Agni gave a divine blow job to Shiva as well, resulting in the birth of Skanda, the god of war.
42. Mitra and Varuna
These sons of Aditi from Vedic literature are depicted frequently as icons for brotherly affection and intimate friendship between men, according to the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association. Ancient texts of the Brahmana in fact depict the two as alternate phases of the moon who join in same-sex relations. On nights of the new moon, Mitra injects his semen into Varuna to start the moon cycle, with the favor returned upon the full moon.
43. Budha Graha
In addition to providing a pivotal role in Hindu astrology as one of the planets, specifically Mercury, Budh Graha also represented a huge blow to the paradigm of gender roles millennia before the current vogue. Raised as the child of Sage Brihaspati and Tara, Budha was actually the product of adultery between Tara and the moon god Chandra. Sage Brihaspati, angered at this revelation during Tara’s pregnancy, cursed that the child would be born neither male nor female, and established the tradition that the husband of a child’s mother would be considered its father.
The chief progenitor of the lunar dynasty, Ila appears in many stories alternately as female or male. In the Ramayana, a meeting with Shiva and Parvati results in Ila alternating between genders every month. Ila ultimately marries Budha, producing the offspring Pururavas during one of the months when anatomy allowed, thus producing a lunar dynasty. In the Vishnu Parana, it is said Ila’s manhood was ultimately made permanent, upon which he took the name Sudyumma.
A Vedic sage and a Job-like figure in Hindu myth, this devotee of Vishnu once boasted he was above being a victim of maya. Vishnu encouraged Narada then to take a dip in a pool, which erased the sage’s memories and turned him into a woman. In that state, Narada would marry a king and produce several sons and grandsons doomed to die in war. While Narada was in mourning, the sage’s gender was restored to male, and he had a greater understanding of the power of maya.
One of the 12 alwar saints of Tamil Nadu, this mystic poet often expressed as female and wrote as many as 1,000 devotional songs in the persona of a woman pining for her lover, Lord Vishnu. Indeed, at an annual festival, an icon of Nammallvar in drag is brought into a sanctum of Vishnu to unite to the literary lover with her lord.
The Radha Krishna are collectively known within the Hindu faith as the aspects of the male and female facets of God. Radha is regarded as the supreme goddess in control of the god Krishna, and members of a Vaishnava sahajiya sect of the faith that identified with Radha dressed and lived as women as a way of perfecting their love of Krishna, according to Vedan literature. In fact, a 15th-century leader, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, claimed to be a manifestation of Krishna in union with Radha. As in, “I am Chait”? OK, maybe that’s a stretch.
48. The Kama Sutra
Want proof to show your homophobic uncle that same-sex unions have been recognized by faith leaders for thousands of years? Tell him to grab that copy of the Kama Sutra he keeps in a dresser drawer and read Chapter 9, which in addition to offering instruction on fellatio makes clear that this skill can also be used acceptably in homosexual interactions. It’s even been cited by the Human Rights Campaign. Of note, the Kama Sutra existed as a religious text celebrating the union of individuals in sexual interaction.
A protagonist in the Mahabharata, Arjuna spent a year in exile, cursed by a rejected Urvashi to live as a eunuch. But on the request of King Indra, that sentence was reduced and Arjuna lived just a year as a woman, taking the name Brihannala and teaching princesses to dance.
The son of Krishna today is considered the patron of eunuchs and transgender people, but his history sounds like modern myths about Target bathrooms. Connor and Sparks write that Samba, or Shamba, would dress in women’s clothes to more easily sneak into the company of women in order to seduce them.
51. The mothers of Bhagiratha
The Hindu king Bhagiratha was credited with bringing the Ganges River to Earth, but his arrival on Earth originated in the sapphic and the divine. Historians Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kiswai note the king’s name indicates he was born of two vulvas, and discovered a story of Maharaja Dilipa, the king of the Sun Dynasty, dying with no heir. Shiva declared the king’s two widows could make love to one another to produce a true offspring, and Bhagiratha was conceived.
Bhagavati-devi is considered today to be the goddess of cross-dressing, and more than 5,000 male worshippers dress as women each year for the ritual Chamayavilakku festival in Kollam. Temple leaders say the tradition has been in place for hundreds of years.