Almost 125 years before the birth of Jesus a handsome youth named Antinous was declared a god by the Roman emperor Publius Aelius Hadrian.
Antinous was born to a Greek family in Bithynion-Claudiopolis, in the Roman province of Bithynia, now northwest Turkey. Extraordinarily beautiful – as existing statues have testified for centuries – he joined the entourage of the emperor Hadrian as a cup bearer.
Hadrian fell in love with Antinous when the boy was 13, an age when many post-pubescent males married. (Life span average was 35 years.) They were ruler and consort lovers for six years, touring Greece and Egypt in search of initiation into the Goddess Mysteries of Demeter, Persephone, and Isis.
Legend says that an Egyptian priest warned Hadrian that unless an extraordinary sacrifice was offered on his behalf Hadrian’s reign would fade “like incense on a starry night.” Antinous, in devotion to emperor Hadrian, gave the deep waters of the flooding Nile his youth, beauty, and life.
So doing, Antinous joined those pre-Christian gods who provided atonement and resurrected death for humankind: Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Mithra – whose birth date celebrated by humble shepherds was Dec. 25 – Dionysus, Hermes, Bacchus.
(Recommended reading: “The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘original Jesus’ A Pagan God?” by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy; Harmony Books.)
Hadrian glorified his lover/god with statues, coins, temples, paintings, a city bearing his name. Antinopolis. The youth was worshiped until the emperor/convert Constantine in 324 CE mandated Christianity as the state religion of Rome.
Antinous drowned in the Nile in October 130. Hadrian “wept for him like a woman” and lost no time in deifying Antinous, a ritual sanctification – not unlike, one supposes, Catholic canonization – reserved for imperial family members rather than friends or lovers of non-Roman origin..
The grief of Hadrian was intense, causing the most extravagant veneration. Coins and medals were struck with Antinous’ likeness, and cities throughout the east commissioned godlike images of the dead youth for their shrines and sanctuaries. (Hadrian was following the example of Alexander the Great, who sought divine honors for his beloved general and paramour, Hephaestion, when he was killed in battle.)
One of Hadrian’s attempts at extravagant remembrance failed, when his proposal to create a memorial constellation of Antinous being lifted to heaven by an eagle (the constellation Aquila) was ignored by the Roman Senate.
In the 18th century Cardinal Aliesandro Albani and the gay German art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann joined a secret cult centered in Rome that worshiped Antinous, along with lust-monger Pan and ever-erect Priapus added for good measure.
More recently the Belgian writer Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) devoted 20 years to researching and writing about the lovers. Her novel “Memories of Hadrian” was published in 1951.
Yourcenar came to America in 1940 with her partner and translator Grace Frick. She became a U.S. Citizen in 1947. Yourcenar had impeccable sensitivity for writing about homoerotic love. Her other gay affirming novels are “Alexis” and “Coup de Grace.”
“The books I like best are those where there is intelligence, goodness, and no injustice,” she said. “They are very rare. I never write anything I have not chosen myself.”
Yourcenar’s 40-year relationship with Grace Frick ended with Grace’s death in 1979. In 1981 Yourcenar was elected to the French Academy, the first woman so honored in the society’s 350-year history.
“I am rootless,” Yourcenar summed up her life. “To quote Hadrian, ‘I am at home everywhere and nowhere.'” But like fair Antinous she too dwells among those poetic gods of gifted gender and two-spirited persuasion.
“Long silent now/ That brutal rush of wings./ In vain each waits his Holy Flight:/ Acolytes of fleet-limbed day/ Penitents of malformed Night.”