31 Days of Devotion, day 31

Any suggestions for others just starting to learn about this deity?

antinousportraitThere are two good ways of getting to know Antinous better–or getting to know any god better, for that matter. One is to do some research. Antinous is a historical figure as well as a divine person; books and articles on Hadrian and the Antonine emperors are going to include some information about him. The Aedicula Antinoi has an excellent bibliography on the site, as well as a list of PSVL’s own books and articles on Antinous, from the point of view of someone who is both a scholar and a devotee.

The other way of getting to know him is simply to light a candle, pour out a cup of cool clean water or some wine, perhaps burn some incense, and address the god directly. It helps to have an image of Antinous; if you have money to spend, you can find reproduction statuary, but it’s not necessary to do that right away. There are an abundance of images online which can be printed out and framed or used as wallpaper on your devices. (The god graces my smartphone and my laptop, and sometimes my tablet, too.) Place the image where you can gaze on it, place your offerings before him, and recite a prayer, even if all you say is, “Ave, Antinoe!” Approach him, and see what happens.

31 Days of Devotion, day 28

What is the worst misconception about this deity that you have encountered?

As today is the observance of Antinous’ death, I will keep my remarks brief, especially since my answer involves topics that have already been covered in other posts. The worst misconception about Antinous is that he was deified by the will of Hadrian, and thus, by extension, is not really a god. Today we commemorate the encounter with the Nile waters that meant the end of his mortal life and the beginning of his godhood.

Tied with this notion, which appears in supposedly authoritative sources about the ancient world, is the misperception that he is a god of gayness, as if most of the male gods of Greece (and many other cultures) were not queer or bisexual in 21st-century terms. Antinous is a god, truly; he was and is the lover of Hadrian, but Hadrian is not his only beloved, nor are they all male.

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.

31 Days of Devotion, day 15

Are there any mundane practices that are associated with this deity?

Unlike, for example, Hephaistos and Athena, Antinous was not associated with any particular profession or activity, nor with a stage of life like Hera with marriage, Artemis with women in childbirth. We do know that Hadrian enjoyed hunting and Antinous hunted with him. Three major hunting expeditions are attested by Hadrian’s sections on the Arch of Constantine and appear in the calendar of Antinous’ festivals: The Venatio Ursae or Bear Hunt on April 21st, the Venatio Apri or Boar Hunt on May 1st, and the Venatio Leonis or Lion Hunt on August 21st. Hadrian dedicated the skin of a bear he had hunted to Aphrodite and Eros in Thespia, with a prayer for a lover; soon after, the young Antinous came to court and captured Hadrian’s affections. The Boar Hunt is associated with the sensual and sexual pleasures of May Day, and the Lion Hunt, where Antinous nearly died in confrontation with the beast, is an occasion of examining one’s failures and then making a fresh start, inspired by the red lotus that bloomed from the lion’s blood.

31 Days of Devotion, day 13

What modern cultural issues, if any, are closest to this deity’s heart?

After repeated assertions in my postings here that Antinous is not simply a gay god, or a god of being gay, or a god for gay men, I must now seemingly reverse myself and say that the welfare of gay men is a cultural issue with which he is very much concerned. Antinous’ relationship in mortal life with Hadrian is not something that simply vanished or became insignificant upon his deification. He was involved in a sexual relationship with another, older man which we believe to have been a loving one, sanctioned by classical Greek customs; he was eromenos to Hadrian’s erastes. He continues to be concerned and involved with men who love other men.

However, it is not only men who love men who concern the god, but women who love women, and people who love people. Antinous is a champion of sexual freedom, of equality in loving relationships, of justice for all genders, all sexualities, all expressions of eros. He is as much a defender of the battered wife who leaves her abusive husband as of the queer teenager banished from their home by abusive parents. Queer people, whether gay or lesbian, asexual, transgender, nonbinary, bisexual, or whatever, are Antinous’ people, whom he loves and protects.

31 Days of Devotion, day 12

What are some places associated with this deity and their worship?

POEM: An Antinoan Geography

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Born in Bithynia by the river Rhebas,
in Rome by the Tiber you won the favor of Hadrian;
with him you saw the Mystery in Eleusis
and won a place amongst the happy dead.
In the Nile in Egypt you met death and destiny
and became Osiris, a god in truth. There
Hadrian raised a city in your honor, between
the town of Thoth and the village of Bes,
where the water yielded your body,
holy Antinoopolis, and in his villa at Tibur
he enshrined your memory, youth that he loved.
Where were you buried? We do not know.
But you live as god, Antinous of Bithynia,
and wherever rivers flow, the Nile is remembered,
your presence is felt, your name is praised.

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.