Adriaan van den Berg


Intro: Queer Joy and Companionship – the Example of Antinous and Hadrian 

February is known as the “love month” since St. Valentine’s Day falls in this month, but it also means that we celebrate queer joy and companionship at Exit during this month. And On This Queer Day for February joins the celebration of our unions and partnerships, our unique bonds and love as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, Transgender and Intersex people (yes, I write those with capital letters). This special joy which comes from Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, Transgender and Intersex relationships extends throughout our history – it was the joy of Achilles and Petroculus, here in Africa of Hadrian and Antinous – our history is full of these relationships which testify of this special companionship and joy. We therefore need to celebrate our unions, our bonds, relationships and the joy it holds for all of us. But we have reason to single out Hadrian and Antinous, since their relationship was marked by the special companionship they had offered each other and theirs was a bond which obviously encompassed that special joy that marks our relationships. Besides, they gave us the only “Queer religion” – the 1800-year-old Antinoan faith of the Queer god Antinous which is still being practiced until this day – as well as having left us the largest and oldest monument to gay love, namely the city of Antinopolis in Egypt (though it has been flattened and is in ruins).

    Around the year 112, the Roman emperor Hadrian met a youth called Antinous. Hadrian was married, but became deeply enamored with Antinous who was Greek and from Bithynia in modern day Turkey. Hadrian was a travelling emperor who visited the provinces of the Roman Empire instead of luxuriating in sedentary opulence in palaces back in Rome. He took Antinous along with him and the two frequently hunted together, visited oracles and the seats of the mystery schools and pursued esoteric studies of metaphysics and religion, astrology, magic and the secret traditions of the mystery schools. Antinous was obviously Hadrian’s favorite and lover, but he managed to stay in the good books of the Empress Sabina and the rest of the court, evading all the connivances usually associated with life at court, which was a remarkable feat. 

   Throughout history attempts have been made to denigrate and demean the love of Antinous and Hadrian, to depict Antinous as a distraction to the great Hadrian, as a vacillating, weak and moody ephebe who taxed the emperor and who were no good to him. Instead Antinous was actually a vigorous and descent young man skilled in the use of weaponry and nobody dared to openly level these former mentioned kind of charges against him.

   We actually have the famous Lion Hunt episode for insight into Antinous character: It entailed a vicious man-eating lion which terrorized communities in the Northern African province of the Roman Empire adjoining Egypt and which consequently left entire districts depopulated as people fled in fear. When the hunting emperor came touring by, the people obviously besieged Hadrian with pleas to hunt and kill the menacing lion. Hadrian and Antinous set out looking for the lion in a hunting party and soon encountered the beast. And immediately Antinous brashly, fearlessly surged ahead on his horse and flung his adamantine-tipped spear at the lion but only managed to wound it and was left without other weapons to fight the enraged lion off. It attacked Antinous and it is said that Hadrian waited until a critical point upon which to advance, to intervene and to damage the lion’s skull with an axe, saving Antinous’ life. The Arch of Constantine features a tondo showing the lovers together standing together with their feet on the slain lion’s neck. I believe Antinous would also have been the one man standing between the emperor and anyone attempting to assassinate Hadrian… 

   But this is the kind of men they were: travelling hard, exercising with soldiers, sparring often, hunting frequently, devoting time to study and acquiring knowledge, faithfully paying tribute to the gods while Hadrian constructed a number of great edifices and bestowed many facilities and amenities on local people wherever they went. Does Antinous sound like a soft, incompetent and moody catamite? Does Hadrian sound like a man who would have tolerated such a self-indulgent, pouting distraction and have taken him as his close companion on a protracted, arduous journey? I think not.

   In the year 130, Antinous was sailing up the Nile as part of the royal flotilla. Inexplicably, he somehow drowned. Hadrian was heartbroken but saw a new star in the night sky which indicated to him that Antinous had risen as a god. The Egyptians already venerated those who drowned in the Nile as godly, but it is believed that the Egyptian priests also most likely prevailed upon Hadrian that Antinous had indeed risen as a god. And so, Hadrian proclaimed Antinous a god since it was also his imperial prerogative and he decreed that a Priesthood should be founded to serve the new young god Antinous. He also established the city of Antinopolis as a center for the cult of Antinous at the place where Antinous had drowned.

   The worship and religion of Antinous was practiced across Northern Africa, Egypt, the Middle East, Asia Minor, in Greece, the Balkans, the Caucasus, across Europe, North up to the Rhine and as far West as the British Isles for 400 years until the Christians under Theodosius destroyed and suppressed it in the year 395. But the religion of Antinous has survived and is being practiced again across the world. (For more on this gentle religion with its Queer God, visit the Temple of Antinous website at www.antinopolis.org or follow the Priest of Antinous, Herenestus on Instagram at @antinousgaygod for daily posts on the Antinoan faith and join the Companions of Antinous Facebook group). The important point here is that there was a familiar joy recognizable to us and a particular type of companionship in the relationship of Hadrian and Antinous which can also be seen in our own bonds and partnerships, and so, a joy and companionship which is both ancient and ours till this day. Celebrate it. Remember Hadrian and Antinous. 


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