31 Days of Devotion, day 16

How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins?

The cult of Antinous is unusual in that it crosses the streams of three different religious cultures: Egyptian, Hellenic, and Roman. Antinous looks a little different through each of these three lenses.

In Egypt, Antinous embodies what I think of as the egalitarian strain in ancient Kemetic religion. It is likely that all the rites of mummification, the ritual Opening of the Mouth, the “Book of the Dead” that guided the deceased safely into the afterlife were originally applied only to Pharaoh and perhaps other members of the royal family. Gradually, however, over the course of centuries, they became normative for everyone, although the extent of one’s funerary rites no doubt depended, as it does today, on how much one’s family could afford to spend on it.

Yet at the same time, those who drowned in the Nile were, for centuries, perhaps millenia, accepted as gods no matter what their status in mortal life. Even a foreigner like Antinous could become one with Osiris. It is likely that his body was embalmed in the traditional way and buried according to Egyptian custom.

In Greece, Antinous’ life and death resonate with a tradition we might call “Flower Heroes”. These Flower Heroes are beautiful mortal youths, often loved by gods, who die untimely and are transfigured into flowers, such as Hyakinthos (the hyacinth), Narcissus (the daffodil), and Krokos (the crocus). The erotic love of a god for a mortal youth recalled the erotic partnership of erastes and eromenos, older man and younger man, which came to an end when the youth became a man himself.

Antinous inverts this tradition, however. His sacred flower, the red Nile lotus, blooms not from his body but from the blood of the lion which he failed to kill. His erastes Hadrian is a powerful older man, but only mortal, while Antinous in death becomes not only a hero but a god, able to bless and even divinize Hadrian by his power.

Antinous seems not to fit very neatly into Roman religious traditions. The deification of the imperial family after death was not an old tradition, as Roman traditions went, and it applied only to them; Hadrian could not simply proclaim Antinous divus on the strength of their relationship. His relationship with the younger man was, itself, one of the ways in which his temperament was more Greek than Roman, like his preference for wearing a beard.

There was, however, a class of deities called Semones, among whom were very old, very Roman gods such as Vertumnus, Faunus, Picus, and the eponymous Semo Sancus, who were held to have been mortal once and become gods. It would not be out of bounds to consider Antinous one of the Semones, a reminder that the boundaries between gods and humans were not impermeable in Roman thought. That gods and humans are not eternally distinct, that humans can become divine and gods become human, is, in my opinion, one of the chief mysteries of the worship of Antinous, as of another late-coming god in the Roman empire, a Galilean fellow named Yeshua.

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