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This column first appeared in BTL Oct. 2012.
Almost 125 years before the birth of Jesus a handsome youth named Antinous was declared a god by the Roman emperor Publius Aelius Hadrian.
Hadrian fell in love with Antinous when the boy was 13, an age when many post-pubescent males married. 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 told Hadrian that unless a special sacrifice was offered on his behalf Hadrian’s life 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 birthdate celebrated by humble shepherds was December 25 – Dionysus, Hermes, and 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, and a city bearing his name, Antinopolis. He was worshiped in an ancient world until Constantine in 324 CE mandated Christianity as the state religion of Rome. Hadrian was following in the sandled footsteps of Alexander the Great* who had his battle-killed lover Hepaestion deified for community adoration.
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 gods Pan and ever-erect Priapus added in for good ejaculatory, et-cum-spiritus-a-go-go measure.
Last century Belgian writer Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) devoted 20 years of her life 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 US 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 the fair Antinous she too dwells among those poetic gods of gifted gender and two-spirited persuasion.
*RE ALEXANDER, ABOVE: No relationship to present PG writer. None that I can vouch for credibly. Also: there are two-dozen photos of Antinous available for viewing on Wikipedia. Two off them do bear an uncanny resemblance to me. Worshipers welcome!