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The Invention of (Thracian) Homosexuality: The Ovidian Orpheus in the English Renaissance

Ingleheart, Jennifer




The Ovidian Orpheus, who, after the death of his wife, Eurydice, rejects women, turns to the love of boys, and teaches his fellow Thracians to do the same is an exceptional and problematic figure, not only because his exclusive gender-based sexual tastes (after losing Eurydice) are unusual in antiquity, but also because of his concomitant misogyny, and the fact that he teaches others to share both his gender prejudices and erotic preferences, as he founds a pederastic Thracian tradition. The aspects of this Orpheus that have troubled Ovid’s readers have varied over time, but one indication of the challenge represented by the pederastic Orpheus is the fact that, the huge cultural prestige of Ovid’s Metamorphoses notwithstanding, post-classical representations of Orpheus depict him as a boy-lover much less frequently than, for example, as the archetypal poet-musician with uncanny powers over nature, the grieving widower, or hapless victim of a crazed assault by the women who tear him to pieces after he scorns them. Such facets of his myth have appealed to countless artists, as Jane Davidson Reid’s massive compendium of the reception of classical myth demonstrates: Reid (1993) 2.773-801. Despite Reid’s omission of responses to the pederastic Orpheus among the different strands she analyses in Orpheus’ reception history, Ovid’s portrayal of Orpheus’ turn to the exclusive love of boys, proselytisation of that love, and simultaneous teaching of the rejection of women has not gone unnoticed by later readers, particularly in the English Renaissance, where it inspired the two epyllia of the 1590s that provide this chapter’s focus. Such depictions are worth close attention, not least for the way in which they respond to Ovid, a topic which has not fully been brought into focus by earlier scholarship on the poems. Although the two poems examined here take ostensibly very different approaches, they are alike in affording greater significance to Orpheus’ turn away from women than his rather more famous turn back to look at Eurydice, and, strikingly, both also focus and expand upon Ovid’s account of Orpheus’ misogyny and his teaching, including the reception of his lessons. This chapter aims above all to demonstrate that the Ovidian pederastic Orpheus is a more suggestive figure, for the student of both classical reception and queer studies, than has previously been recognized.


Ingleheart, J. (2015). The Invention of (Thracian) Homosexuality: The Ovidian Orpheus in the English Renaissance. In J. Ingleheart (Ed.), Ancient Rome and the construction of modern homosexual identities (56-73). Oxford University Press

Acceptance Date Oct 15, 2015
Publication Date May 1, 2015
Deposit Date Oct 15, 2015
Publisher Oxford University Press
Pages 56-73
Series Title Classical presences
Book Title Ancient Rome and the construction of modern homosexual identities.
Publisher URL