Pederasty is a term coined by the ancient Greeks to describe a type of relationship between an adolescent boy and an adult man outside of his immediate family. The word derives from the combination of paides (Greek for 'boy') with erasteio (Greek for 'to long for'; cf. eros). The Greek term originally defined a Greek moral and educational institution. In a wider sense it refers to erotic love between adolescents and adult men. In those societies where pederasty is prevalent, it appears as one form of a widely practiced male bisexuality. In antiquity, pederasty was practiced in Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as among the Celts (as per Aristotle, Politics, II 6.6. Athen. XIII 603a) and among the Scythians (as per Herodotus 1.105). More recently, it was widespread in Tuscany and northern Italy during the Renaissance. Outside of Europe, it was common in pre-Modern Japan until the Meiji restoration, in India until the British colonization, and in China and Central Asia until the early 20th century. It persists to the present day in Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Africa, and Melanesia.
The word first appears in the English language in the Renaissance, as pæderastie (e.g.: in Samuel Purchas' Pilgrimage.), in the sense of sexual relations between men and boys. The modern restriction of that definition to the sexual component of such relationships is due on one hand to the primacy of sexological discourse in contemporary western culture, and on the other to the demise of pederasty as a social institution. Thus in its contemporary sense, pederasty figures as a sub-category of what some sexologists term ephebophilia, the attraction of an adult towards adolescents, regardless of sex. Nonetheless this medicalization of desire is not widely accepted, and these categories do not figure in any international catalogue of mental disfunctions.
Sexual expression between adults and adolescents is not well studied, and since the 1990's has been often confused with pedophilia. Such relationships raise issues of morality and functionality, agency for the youth, and parental authority. Though they have been deemed beneficial by, for example, ancient philosophers, Japanese samurai and modern writers such as Oscar Wilde, today many disapprove of them and claim that they have a negative effect on the psychological development of the youth. A study contradicting both positions, authored by Bruce Rind and others, was published by the American Psychological Association in 1998.
The Ancient World
The pederastic Greek city-states
The ancient Greeks seem to have been the first to describe, study, systematize, and establish pederasty as an institution. The ethical views held in those societies (such as Athens, Thebes, Crete, Sparta, Elis, and others) on the practice of pederasty have been explored by scholars ever since the eighteen hundreds. One of the first to do so was John Addington Symonds, who wrote his seminal work A Problem in Greek Ethics in 1873, but had to wait twenty eight years to be able to publish it (in revised form) in 1901 . Edward Carpenter expanded the scope of the study, with his 1914 work, Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk. The text examines homoerotic practices of all types, not only pederastic ones, and ranges over cultures spanning the whole globe.
The existence of pederasty was not without controversy. Plato was among those who spoke up against the decadence in which traditional pederasty was sinking in Athens. In his early works (the Symposium or in Phaedrus) he does not question the principles of pederasty, and states, referring to same-sex relationships:
- [...] generally in countries which are subject to the barbarians, the custom is held to be dishonourable; loves of youths share the evil repute in which philosophy and naked sports are held, because they are inimical to tyranny; for the interests of rulers require that their subjects should be poor in spirit, and that there should be no strong bond of friendship or society among them, which love, above all other motives, is likely to inspire, as our Athenian tyrants learned by experience; for the love of Aristogeiton and the constancy of Harmodius had a strength which undid their power. Plato, Symposium; 182c
However, in his later Laws he blames them for promoting civil strife and driving many to their wits' end. (Plato, Laws, 636D & 835E) and goes as far as to recommend its prohibition, laying out a path whereby this may be accomplished. His strategy predicts closely the one that was eventually used by the various Christian sects to drive same-sex relationships underground.
Other writers, often under the guise of "debates" between lovers of boys and lovers of women, have recorded other arguments used for and against pederasty. Some, like the charge that the practice was "unnatural" and not to be found among "the lions and the bears," applied to all relationships between men and youths. According to Lucian (a late author, writing 700 years after the apogee of the Classical period), in his Erotes, "neither the birds who ride the winds, nor the fishes fated to their wet element, nor the animals on land seek dealing with other males." Lucian also expresses the concern that the reproduction of the species will suffer: "If everyone did like you there would be no one left!" They also mock philosophers' claims that it is the "soul" that they love. Again, Lucian: "How come your love, so full of wisdom, lunges avidly for the young, whose judgement is not yet fully formed, and who know not which road to take?"
Others charges do not involve traditional pederasty, but practices devised for the sexual satisfaction of the strong at the expense of the weak. Chief among these is denouncement of the castration of captive slave boys. As Lucian has it, "Effrontery and tyrannical violence have gone as far as to mutilate nature with a sacrilegious steel, finding, by ripping from males their very manhood, a way to prolong their use."
Pederastic relationships were dyadic mentorships. These mentorships were sanctioned by the state, as evidenced by laws mandating and controlling such relationships. Likewise, they were consecrated by the religious establishment, as can be seen from the many myths describing such relationships between gods and heroes (Apollo and Hyacinth, Zeus and Ganymede, Heracles and Hylas, Pan and Daphnis) and between one hero and another (Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades). (It is interesting to note that the Greeks tried to project a semblance of pederasty (read: "propriety") onto these last two pairs, despite a great deal of evidence that the two myths were originally intended to symbolize egalitarian relationships.)
Historical as well as mythographical materials suggest that pederastic relationships also had to be approved by the boy's father. As Xenophon claims in his Symposium, "Nothing [of what concerns the boy] is kept hidden from the father, by a noble lover." This is consistent with the paramount role of the Greek patriarch, who had the right of life and death over his children. It is also consistent with the importance that a son would have had for him. Besides the bond of love between them, a son was the only hope for the survival of a Greek man's name, fortune and glory.
Boys entered into such relationships in their teens, around the same age that Greek girls were given in marriage – also to adult husbands many years their senior. There was a difference between the two types of bonding: Boys usually had to be courted and were free to choose their mate. Girls, on the other hand, were used for economic and political advantage, their marriages contracted at the discretion of the father and the suitor.
The function of the relationship seems to have been the introduction of the young man into adult society and adult responsibilites. To that end the mentor (known as erastes, lover, in Athens, or eispnelas, inspirer, in Sparta) was expected to teach the young man (known as eromenos, beloved, in Athens, or aites, hearer, in Sparta) or to see to his education, and to give him certain appropriate ceremonial gifts (in Crete, an ox, a suit of armor, and a chalice (from kylix, Greek for wine cup), signifying his empowerment in agriculture, war and religion). The bond between the two participants seems to have been based in part on mutual love and desire – usually sexually expressed – and in part on the political interests of the two families. The relationships were open and public, and became part of the biography of the person. Thus when Spartan historians wrote about a personage they would usually indicate whom it was that he had heard or whom it was that he inspired.
For the youth – and his family – one important advantage of being mentored by an influential older man was the social networking aspect. Thus some considered it desirable to have had many older lovers / mentors in one’s younger years, both attesting to one's physical beauty and paving the way for attaining important positions in society. Typically, after their sexual relationship had ended and the young man had married, the older man and his protégé would remain on close terms throughout their life. For those lovers who continued their lovemaking after their beloveds had matured, the Greeks made allowances, saying, You can lift up a bull, if you carried the calf.
Pederasty was the idealized form of an age-structured homoeroticism that, like all social institutions, had other, less idyllic, manifestations, such as prostitution or the use of one’s slave boys. However, certain forms were prohibited, such as slaves penetrating freemen, or paying free boys or young men for sex. Free youths who did sell their favors were generally ridiculed and later in life were prohibited from performing certain official functions.
A speech given by an Athenian politician, Aeschines, in 346 B.C.E., Against Timarchus , is an example of how effective these regulations were. He argues against allowing Timarchus his political rights, based on his having spent his adolescence as the kept boy of a series of wealthy men. Aeschines won his case, and Timarchus is said to have taken his life upon having been deprived of his political rights. But Aeschines is careful to acknowledge what seemingly all Athens knows: his own dalliances with beautiful boys, the erotic poems he dedicated to these youths, and the scrapes he has gotten into as a result of his affairs, none of which — he hastens to point out — were mediated by money.
Even when lawful, it was not uncommon for the relationship to fail, as it was said of many boys that they "hated no one as much as the man who had been their lover". See Death of King Philip II of Macedon Likewise, the Cretans required the boy to declare whether the relationship had been to his liking, thus giving him an opportunity to break it off if any violence had been done to him.
In talking about the Cretan rite, the historian Ephorus (quoted in Strabo of Amaseia's Geography X.4.21) informs us that the man (known as philetor, befriender) took the boy (known as parastathentes, one who stands beside) into the wilderness, where they spent several months hunting and feasting with their friends. His account does not discuss the educational aspects of the sojourn. However, this is clearly a coming-of-age rite culminating in a major ceremony upon the return of the pair from the mountains, and a process of acculturation into male society is implied. (See  for Athenian practices and philosophy)
The various mythographical materials available suggest religious training (see story of Tantalus, Poseidon, and Pelops) as well as military training (Hercules and Hylas). The theme of learning to drive a war chariot occurs repeatedly (Poseidon and Pelops, Laius and Chrysippus). Apollo is said to have taught Orpheus, one of his beloveds, to play the harp. And Zeus had Ganymede serve nectar, a theme with religious connotations.
It is thus plausible to assume that even as the loves of the gods paralleled and symbolized those of the mortals, their pedagogy pointed to aspects of the educational process that took place between a lover and his beloved.
Some research has shown that ancient Greeks believed semen, more specifically sperm, to be the source of knowledge, and that these relationships served to pass wisdom on from the erastes to the eromenos within society.
Ancient sources suggest a range of sexual activity. The majority of ceramic paintings depict the older partner importuning the younger, in a variation of the Greek gesture for pleading. Normally the supplicant embraced the knees of the person whose favor he sought, while grasping the man's chin so as to look into his eyes. Pederastic art usually shows the man standing, grasping the boy's chin with one hand and reaching to fondle his genitals with the other. The boys are shown in varying degrees of rejecting or accepting the man's attentions. Less frequently, intercrural intercourse is depicted, where the erastes is shown inserting his penis between the thighs of the younger one. Only very rarely is anal sex suggested or shown, though there are literary and epigraphic indications suggesting it was more common. All this was claimed (quite implausibly to some modern historians) to be endured by the youth without physical excitement.
Literary sources are a lot more graphic, especially ancient comedy which is downright scatological. For example, Aristophanes, in 'Peace', his parody of Ganymede riding on the back of Zeus in eagle form, has his character ride to Olympus on the back of a dung beetle.
K. J. Dover claims it was considered "improper" for the eromenos to feel desire, as that would not be masculine. In recent times, his conclusions have been questioned in light of extensive evidence of love poetry and paintings on ceramic vases, which suggest reciprocation on the part of the younger partner.
Historical and religious aspects
See also Mythology of same-sex love
One school of thought, articulated by Sergent, holds that the Greek pederastic model evolved from far older Indo-European rites of passage, which were grounded in a shamanic tradition with roots in the neolithic. Mythographic material suggests that the initiate experienced ecstatic states of spirit journey leading to mystic death and transfiguration, analogous to practices still reported today in shamanic work. If so, by the fifth century the Greeks had forgotten the connection. In 476 BC, the poet Pindar, in his Olympian Ode I, claims to be horrified by suggestions that the gods would eat human flesh – in this context, an obvious shamanic metaphor. An opposite theory (discussed by Murray in his Homosexualities) gives credence to the texts that credit (or blame) the Cretans with its origination (Aristotle et al.) and notes the anomaly of an apparent path of diffusion radiating from Crete, while the areas (in the north of Greece) closest to the Indo-European sources are not known to have institutionalized the practice.
Pederastic relationships were known throughout ancient Greece. The Cretans, a people described by Plutarch as renowned for their moderation and conservative ways, practiced an archaic form of pederasty (described by Ephorus in Strabo's Geography 10.21.4) in which the man enacted a ritual kidnapping of a boy of his choosing, with the approval of the boy's father. The practice seems to have been reserved for the aristocracy: In maturity the beloved was known as kleinos, glorious, and enjoyed high status. Not surprisingly, these same Cretans were credited with introducing the myth of Zeus kidnapping Ganymede to be his lover in Olympus – though even the king of the gods had to make amends to the father. (Plato, Laws)
In Thebes, another renowned center of pederasty, the practice was enshrined in the founding myth of the city. In this instance the story was meant to teach by counterexample: it depicts Laius, one of the mythical ancestors of the Thebans, in the role of a lover who betrays the father and rapes the son. For his crimes the gods meted out exemplary punishment, visited not only upon him, but upon his own son, Oedipus and his children. (In an apparent attempt to emphasize Laius' criminality, ancient artistic convention had his victim depicted not as an adolescent – the usual representation of beloved boys in Greek paintings on ceramic – but as a child.) See  on the protection of Athenian boys against unlawful acts. Theban pederasty, however, was not the result of the "disaster of Laius," but it was the Theban lawgivers who instituted pederasty as an educational device for boys, in order to "soften, while they were young, their natural fierceness," and to "temper the manners and characters of the youth." (Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas)
The Spartans required all their adult men to engage a boy in a pederastic relationship, a law given to them by their quasi-mythical founding legislator, Lycurgus, who fashioned the Spartan state into an idealistic community that lasted hundreds of years. However, unlike in Crete, in Sparta, Athens and most other Greek city-states the man first had to win the affection of the boy he sought.
The state benefitted from these relationships, according to the statements of ancient writers. The friendship functioned as a restraint on the youth, since if he committed a crime it was not he but his lover who was punished. In the military the lovers fought side by side, with each vying to shine before the other. Thus it was said that an army of lovers would be invincible, as was the case until the battle of Chaeronea with the Theban Sacred Band, a batallion of one hundred and fifty warriors, each aided by his beloved charioteer. Pederastic couples were also said to be feared by tyrants, because the bond between the friends was stronger than that of obedience to a tyrannical ruler. It was a pederastic couple, the Athenians Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were credited (perhaps symbolically) with the overthrow of the tyrant Hippias and the establishment of the democracy. Others, such as Aristotle, claimed that some states encouraged pederasty as a means of population control, by directing love and sexual desire into non-procreative channels.
In Roman times, pederasty largely lost its status as a ritual part of education – a process already begun by the increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan Greeks – and was instead seen as an activity primarily driven by one's sexual desires and competing with desire for women. The social acceptance of pederastic relations waxed and waned during the centuries, reaching its last zenith during the time of emperor Hadrian, who erected statues of his beloved and prematurely deceased Antinous throughout the Roman Empire.
The rise of Christianity led to the suppression of pederasty, as it was one of the mainstays of a classical pagan culture which the church fathers saw as an obstacle to their proselytizing. This campaign was rationalized by quotations from the Old Testament, where Leviticus condemned homosexual activities, as well as by appeals to long-standing Israelite tradition.
Post-classical and modern forms
Before the 20th century, relationships with a more or less pederastic element were the usual pattern of male same-sex love. In Japan, the practice of shudo, the "Way of the Young" paralleled closely the course of European pederasty. In the Edo period (1600-1868) kabuki actors (known as onnagata when playing female roles) often worked as prostitutes off-stage. Kagema were male prostitutes who worked at specialist brothels called "kagemajaya" (kagema tea houses). Both kagema and kabuki actors were much sought after by the sophisticates of the day, who often practiced nanshoku, or male love.
In the South Pacific, many native cultures employed boy insemination rites as part of their coming-of-age rituals, as documented in the writings of Gilbert Herdt . In the Muslim lands pederastic relationships were widespread, and amply documented in the poetry and art of the cultures involved. Arab literature in particular displays a rich homoerotic tradition, featuring such luminaries as the 8th century Baghdadi poet Abu Nuwas and surfacing even in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.
Patterns of adult/adolescent male relationships have been documented in Kandahar in Afghanistan  and for Pakistan . The above-average incidence of homosexual relationships in Kandahar and other Pashtun areas has been explained by some as a behavior resulting from the strict gender segregation  and without any moral or educational value.
The social, artistic and literary history of pederasty in the west is quite rich. It has become inseparable from that of homosexuality, in that a number of artists with pederastic leanings have been absorbed into gay culture. However, modern categories do not map well onto earlier constructs of homoerotic expression, and until the beginning of the twentieth century the love of youths and the love of men went hand in hand.
The Renaissance, with its re-discovery of the ancient world, was a fertile time for such relations. Florence in particular was famous for the popularity of pederasty, becoming even a by-word for the practice (in German, the term for having relations with a youth was florenzen). Among the luminaries of the time who had romantic liasons with youths were Théophile de Viau , Benvenuto Cellini, Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. At the same time, the Catholic Church, working through the Inquisition courts as well as through the civil judiciary, used every means at its disposal to fight what it considered to be the "corruption of sodomy."
In England, Shakespeare's sonnets and Marlowe's poetry, among others, defied religious proscriptions, flaunting love for beautiful boys and celebrating their androgynous beauty. At least in Shakespeare's case the object of that passion is thought to have been one of the boy actors, youths who played all the female parts on stage (and sometimes off).
In the 19th century, the gradual re-discovery of the sites of antiquity in Italy and Greece fueled a new interest, if not almost a hysteria, in these old civilizations, particularly in Britain and Germany.
Accordingly, pederastic relationships again became en vogue in the life and work of artists, for example in poetry (Walt Whitman, Lord Byron, Paul Verlaine, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), literature (Oscar Wilde), paintings (Henry Scott Tuke), and photography (Wilhelm von Gloeden).
In contrast, pederastic love was at times featured by artists who in all likelyhood were not pederasts themselves, such as Johann Sebastian Bach in the air of Phoebus-Apollo dedicated to young Hyacinth, in his secular cantata BWV 201, Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde (Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan) [The contest between Phoebus and Pan].
The end of the 19th century, marked by the trial against Oscar Wilde, more or less brought the end for the social acceptance of pederasty. This is exemplified by the Young Wandervogel movement, an organization similar to the Boy Scouts, but emphasizing a more romantic view of nature. Young Wandervogel was itself spawned by the Wandervogel movement, which took flight in 1896, the same year that the journal Der Eigene went to press. It was published by a twenty two year old German, Adolf Brand (1874-1945), and it advocated classical pederasty as a cure for the moral flabbiness of German youth. Influenced by the ideas of Gustav Wyneken, the Wandervogel movement was quite open about its gay / pederastic tendencies, although this kind of affection was supposed to be expressed in a mostly nonsexual way. The founding of Young Wandervogel happened largely as a reaction to the public scandal about these erotic tendencies, which were said to alienate young men from women.
Nonetheless, the twentieth century saw its own share of artists with pederastic leanings. André Gide, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Mann, Henry de Montherlant, Eric Satie, Benjamin Britten, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Fernando Vallejo, and Allen Ginsberg were insipred in various degrees by their pederastic attractions — even if these may at times have been denied or hidden.
In the modern age the term has been appropriated to describe any sexual relations between an adult male and a boy, or sometimes (as in France), two adult males. In the English-speaking world the term is now used to describe sexual relations between adults and boys below the age of consent in their respective community. In the news media, the term tends to be used incorrectly as a synonym for pedophilia, even though the latter designates the sexual obsession of adults with prepubescent boys or girls.
The gay liberation movement was in part inspired by, and included, prominent pederasts such as Oscar Wilde, André Gide, Paul Goodman and Allen Ginsberg. However, progress in several countries in having the laws against sodomy lifted coincided with a separation between the pederast and egalitarian camps of the gay liberation movement (though, as part of the sexual revolution, the legal age of consent was lowered somewhat and usually set equal for heterosexual and homosexual sex). In the late 1970's the defense of pederasty appeared to have been picked up by NAMBLA, an organization that also supports pedophiles and militates for the abolition of age of consent laws. The expulsion of this organization from the International Lesbian and Gay Association in 1994 seemed to create a definitive break between the egalitarian and age-structured homsexualities camps. In concert with this shift, gay male archetypes continued their change from boyish to masculine, and relationships to become more equalized in terms of age difference. A progression from pre-modern pederasty to modern homosexuality has been hypothesised, but is not fully accepted (see first external link).
At the present time no society is openly making use of liminal same-sex love – relations with young people who have just reached legal age – to accomplish social goals. Though the laws of many countries (such as those in the European Union, Canada, and other jurisdictions granting erotic emancipation to adolescents sixteen years of age or even younger) would seem to have created a space within which lawful pederasty could manifest, the lack of a social framework, as well as the stigma still attached to same sex love in the minds of many, has prevented the establishment of any institution resembling pedagogic pederasty. Likewise, parental control, a key element of the traditional practice, is also rare. Only one modern country, Holland, experimented with a statute granting parents a measure of oversight over their offsprings' early sexual lives by not prosecuting adults in relationship with adolescents between the ages of twelve and sixteen unless a parent (or social worker) filed a formal complaint. That law was in effect from the 1970's to 2000 when it was repealed in favor of a blanket proscription of sexual contact between adults and youths under sixteen.
Sexual liberation and the presence of media like the Internet cause gay youths to discover their sexuality and have their coming out at a much younger age than before, and frequently they enter first relationships with males significantly older than themselves.
Though instances of spontaneous legal pederasty are occasionally reported, the traditional social structures have been lost. Thus many present-day intergenerational relationships either involve youths below legal age, or remain on a physical level, or both. Currently, intergenerational relationships have a difficult, polarized social status. On one hand, the media, playing to a presumed public fascination with illicit sexuality, capitalize on sex scandals (such as the one involving the Catholic Church) that may also involve pederasty, conflating it with pedophilia. The Catholic Church itself is also conflating pederasty with pedophilia and child abuse, and working for its suppression. In 1992, the Church organized an international congress in Bangkok on "The Abuse of Children in Prostitution and Pornography," but used the occasion to call for pederasty to be declared a "crime against humanity."
Satyricon, dir. Federico Fellini (1969)
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Les amitiés particulières [This Special Friendship], dir. Jean Delannoy (1964)
Morte a Venezia [Death in Venice], dir. Luchino Visconti (1971)
Il Fiore Delle Mille e Una Notte [The Flower of the Thousand and One Nights, more generally known as The Arabian Nights, last part of his Trilogy of Life], dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974)
- Un enfant dans la foule [A Child in the Crowd], dir. Gérard Blain (1976)
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Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes [Water Drops On Burning Rocks], dir. François Ozon (2000)
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La virgen de los sicarios [The Virgin of the Assassins], dir. Barbet Schroeder (2000)
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- Casey R. Williamson. Where did that boy go? - the missing boy-beloved in post-colonial Persian literature.
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See also: Abu Nuwas, Hafez.
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Last updated: 05-23-2005 09:31:25