by Livy Pillinger
What is Asexuality?
Asexuality is, at its simplest, the lack of sexual attraction to anyone of any gender.
A key thing to note is that, like with every other LGBTQ+ identity, it is not a choice. It should not be confused with celibacy or abstinence. In fact, many asexual still engage in sex and physical intimacy. What makes them asexual is the lack of sexual attraction.
Asexuality and the ancient world
When we look at the ancient world through the lens of our modern view on sexuality and identity, it is important to remember that the terms and definitions we have now did not exist then. Of course, that does not mean that these identities did not exist, it just means that they are harder to find in the literature.
There is very little scholarship which exists on asexuality in the ancient world, but what little there is seems to focus on the idea of the virgin goddess. This is the argument that I will be following, using my experience as an asexual to judge its validity.
The first virgin goddess to tackle is Athena. We all know Athena as the goddess of wisdom, war and crafts but what is not talked about is her identity as a virgin goddess.
Athena’s identity as a virgin goddess is not commonly referred to but the most famous temple – the Parthenon – atop the acropolis in Athens, is dedicated to Parthenos Athena. Parthenos means maiden/virgin and was a frequent epithet of the goddess. Additionally, the Panathenaic festival in Athens was dedicated to Parthenos Athena.
What is important for the other two goddesses I will be discussing is the rejection of suitors, and this is not present in Athena and her surrounding mythology. Therefore, I do not think that she is asexual. Her oath of virginity seems more of a choice than something that she feels is necessary.
Hestia as a goddess does not get much attention and I think that she is criminally underrated. She is goddess of the hearth and the home and, of course, is a virgin goddess. Unlike with Athena it is a key component of her identity as a goddess and the practices surrounded her worship. Additionally, Hestia is the oldest child of Kronos and Rhea, making her one of the oldest gods and Zeus’ big sister.
For example, her hearth is always tended by unmarried girls and her priestesses take an oath of virginity. Think the Vestal Virgins, which are the priestess for Hestia’s Roman counterpart.
Furthermore, her virginity was something that she asked Zeus for. There are two versions of the story of how she became a maiden goddess. The first version goes like this, she was being pursued by both Poseidon and Apollo for marriage. Hestia refused both of them and then went to Zeus and swore an oath to remain a virgin forever. The second version is that after Hestia aided in defeating the Titans, she went to Zeus and asked if she could remain a virgin forever.
The problem here is the asking for permission. Of course, once again it makes more sense within the ancient context, but it makes the problem of judging whether Hestia is asexual or not harder. I am inclined to say that she is, for two reasons.
Firstly, she rejected the marriage proposal of two gods in the first version. This is not to say that asexuals do not want relationships or to get married but in the ancient world marriage was more about the physical aspect and the need to produce an heir. Nowadays, marriage is much more about the emotional intimacy something which many asexuals, myself included, still look for. Therefore, it seems to me at least that Hestia is rejecting the idea of sex with Poseidon and Apollo, which is more in line with the definition of asexuality established at the start.
Artemis is perhaps most known as a virgin goddess. It is an attribute highlighted in both modern scholarship and ancient texts when she is discussed. In fact, the Homeric hymn to Artemis opens with her being called “the virgin profuse of arrows” (Hom. Hymn. Artemis 1 – 2). This is equally evident in the hymn by Callimachus who constantly refers to her as the maiden, another word for virgin.
Additionally, as with Hestia, Artemis actively rejects sexual advances, or anyone who tries to encroach on her modesty. The most famous example of this would be the story of Actaeon. The hunter who came upon Artemis bathing in the forest and decided that he would watch her. In retaliation she turned him into a stag, and he was torn apart by his own hunting dogs. This version of the myth appears both in the Hymn by Callimachus and in the Bacchae by Euripides. This is a very aggressive response to this but in the context of the asexual spectrum it seems to fit into the sex-repulsed end.
There is also the case of Orion, one of the only men that Artemis tolerated and allowed to hunt with her. There are many different versions of this myth, but the one relevant to this discussion is the one where Orion tried to violate either Artemis or one of her followers. This appears in both Apollodorus and Callimachus. Further evidence that Artemis was an asexual goddess.
Finally, there is the idea of her followers. Unlike with Athena, and sometimes Hestia, Artemis’ devoted followers also seemingly stayed perpetual virgins. Not only where her huntresses made to take a vow of chastity, one she took very seriously as we just saw. The one problem is that there are not many mythological figures that are devout followers of Artemis. There is Orion but as mentioned he clearly did not follow this vow. However, there is also Hippolytus, whose story can be found in the eponymous tragedy by Euripides.
Hippolytus, son of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta, was a devout follower of Artemis who shunned the other gods and goddesses, much to his doom. Aphrodite, feeling slighted, makes the opening speech of the tragedy and explains how she will get revenge by making his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him. In doing so she says how he “shuns the bed of love and will have nothing to do with marriage” (Eur. Hipp. 13 – 14). Of course, this could just be celibacy but to me, given that love and marriage is mentioned, it makes sense to assume that Hippolytus follows Artemis in her asexuality. Why else would Aphrodite feel so angry?
I do believe that Artemis is asexual, simply for all the reasons stated above. Additionally, she fits into the sex-repulsed area of the spectrum. Personally, I have always felt a draw towards Artemis, and this is one of the many reasons.
Did asexuality exist in the ancient world?
We will never know the answer for sure, especially as our concept of sexuality and identity is different from what there was in the ancient world.
There are arguments that the stoics and other philosophical schools practised asexuality, but I do not believe that is the case. They chose to shun material pleasures and so they were practising celibacy or abstinence rather than being asexual.
I believe though that asexuals existed in the ancient world. There were inevitably people in the ancient world that didn’t feel sexual attraction, there was just not a term for them and so we have no empirical evidence. Instead, as I have done in this post, we interpret
the texts in a certain way and perhaps take some liberties.
Nevertheless, just as we exist today, I argue that asexuals were a part of the ancient world.
Callimachus, “Hymn to Artemis”, in Stephens, S.A., (2015), The Hymns, Oxford.
Euripides, Bacchae; Children of Heracles; Hippolytus; Andromache; Hecuba, trans. Kovacks, D., (1995), Cambridge.
Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocrypha, lives of Homer, trans. West. M.L., (2003), Cambridge.
Hard, R., (2019), The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, London.
Petrovic, I., (2012), “Artemis”, in Bagnall, R.S., (2013), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Oxford.
Stonewall article, Six ways to be an ally to asexual people