31 Days of Devotion, day 9

What are some common misconceptions about this deity?

There are two answers that come to mind immediately on considering this question. The first, which one sees even in some academic sources, is that Antinous was divinized by Hadrian out of grief and devotion for him. This is simply not the case. Antinous was divinized because he drowned in the Nile. Osiris had become lord of the underworld by dying in the same way, so anyone who shared his death shared his divinity. Many humble ordinary people over the millennia had been deified in that way; Antinous would have been just another of them, served by a local priesthood until his memory died out, if he had not happened to be the beloved of an extremely powerful and wealthy person.

What Hadrian did do was build a city where his beloved’s body was found, endow his priesthood, and promote his worship. It seems to have spread rapidly, even allowing for Hadrian’s influence. It’s because of Hadrian that we have so many surviving images of Antinous, all of them recognizably the same person. It’s because of Hadrian and those who chronicled him that we have Antinous’ name and birthplace, know about their relationship, and know how intensely Hadrian mourned his death. But he did not simply declare his beloved divine, or compel the Senate to do so, in the same way that deceased emperors and their spouses and other relatives were declared divine. Antinous was sometimes called a hero, sometimes a daimon (that is, a spirit), and most often a god, deus or theos, but not divus, like Julius, Augustus, or Hadrian himself.

The second very common misconception about Antinous is that he was and is “a gay god”, or “the gay god”, or “the god of gayness”. I think this is largely a misunderstanding of how sexuality was perceived in the ancient world. Heterosexual and homosexual are concepts not more than 150 years old. Gay as a sexual identity and a subculture is newer than that. From our 21st century perspective, a great many men in ancient Greece and Rome were not gay, but bisexual; they married and fathered children, but also carried on intense emotional and sexual relationships with other, normally younger men. Hadrian entered into a political marriage as part of his rise to Emperor; he remained married to Vibia Sabina, but he was known to have affairs with both women and young men. Whether a great many women followed in the footsteps of Sappho and had passionate affairs with other women while also being dutiful wives and mothers is not recorded (but I like to think they did). The important thing, from the dominant male standpoint, is that the wife was not presenting her husband with children he had not fathered to inherit his name, status, and property.

Certainly Antinous blesses erotic and romantic relationships between men and supports the legal and social acceptance of those relationships. But he seems to have a broader interest in honest erotic and romantic relationships generally, no matter what the combination of genders, and in issues of social justice and equality, whether confined to gay men or queer people or not. Like Dionysus, he is interested in personal and social freedoms, joy and ecstasy, theatre and performance. Like Hermes, he is interested in language, communication, and connection; he also, like Hermes, can be a psychopomp and guide of the dead. Like Apollo, he is interested in healing, in music and poetry, and in oracles and prophecy.

You do not have to be a gay man to worship Antinous. He will not turn you away if you are not. He has much to offer devotees who are interested in any or all of the things that concern him, to anyone who is moved by his beauty. Come to him with a prayer and a simple offering, and he will show you that he is not only beautiful, but benevolent and just.

31 Days of Devotion, day 6

What other deities and entities are associated with this deity?

To answer this question with, “All of them” would be easy and not wholly incorrect. Antinous has the gift of making connections among gods and between gods and mortals. He is often described as a “gateway god”, someone who attracts people to polytheism by their worship of him.

However, a facile answer doesn’t make for a very interesting read. Therefore, I’ll offer my opinion on the deities and entities that are definitely associated with Antinous.

First and foremost, of course, there is Hadrian. Without Hadrian’s relationship to Antinous, we would likely know nothing of the Greek youth from Bithynia, even if he had travelled to Egypt and drowned in the Nile under other circumstances. Antinous still would have been deified, but his cult would have been confined to a small locale instead of promoted around the Empire. Without Hadrian, we would have no statues to immortalize Antinous’ beauty, and one less model of an erotic, even romantic relationship that in some ways broke the rules for such relationships by its intensity.

Along with Hadrian I must mention his wife, Sabina. That may seem strange to our sensibilities, if we are thinking of Sabina as the wronged wife of a man having an affair with a younger man. A few considerations have helped me to understand Sabina’s importance. First, that categories like heterosexual and homosexual really do not apply in the ancient world; in both Greek and Roman culture, adult men could take whatever partners they wished, male, female, slave, free, as long as they were appropriately dominant. The double standard wasn’t a hypocrisy, it was simply a fact; men were not under the same sexual constraints as women.

Second, that it would have been simple for Hadrian, once established as Emperor, to divorce Sabina and replace her with another wife, or no wife. He did not. And third, he ordered her divinization, which along with their continued marriage leads me to believe that he had affection and respect for her and found value in their partnership. The Obelisk of Antinous portrays the divinized youth praying for Hadrian and Sabina together as rulers of Egypt and the Empire; I think his worshippers should do no less than honor them together in the same way.

After Hadrian and Sabina, Antinous’ closest connections are with the four deities with whom he was most often syncretized: Osiris, Dionysus, Hermes, and Apollo. He became Osirantinous upon his death in the sacred river. The Greeks had already syncretized or equated Dionysus with Osiris, and much of Antinous’s iconography borrows from the traditional depictions of Dionysus. Antinous was syncretized with Hermes as a messenger, communicator, interpreter among the gods, and with Apollo as an oracle, healer, and inspirer. With the exception of Osiris, these gods are all portrayed as youths, the children of Zeus rather than the first generation of Olympians.

Besides Sabina, the goddesses with whom Antinous has the closest connection are Diana, especially at Lanuvium, where a burial society was dedicated to both of them, and Juno, who was also worshipped at Lanuvium. I find it interesting that both of these goddesses support female sovereignty, Diana the virgin huntress, refusing the ties of marriage, and Juno the queen of heaven who gave her name to the divine spirit within every woman.

Those are my choices for the deities most closely associated with Antinous. But I still stand by my original answer: The deities connected to Antinous? All of them.