I've been reading through a fraction of Ancient Greek literature, lately, and an odd thought occurred to me. In nearly every work of Greek literature that is tangentially related to sexuality (which, we've gotta admit, is quite nearly most of the well-known ones), sex is treated as universally desirable, and is a locus of control and power. Most of the discussion around women in Greek culture seems to revolve solely around sexuality.

As another example, Eros is often referred to as being one of those omnipresent entities in male interactions in Greek culture. The Symposium goes into some manner of detail on this point about Eros, describing maleness and sexuality as effectively identical concepts with no real distinguishing factors. Still, beyond this, many of the Greek gods are described as sexually promiscuous. No emphasis seems to be placed in any writings on the absence of sexuality in the Greek gods.

Here, I mean asexuality to be the total absence of sexual attraction, with anyone. This is a concept distinct from both celibacy (not having sex for a particular reason) and abstinence (not having sex by choice). For example:

  • Dionysius is, based on what I've read, abstinent due to indifference to sexuality. There doesn't seem to be anything to suggest that Dionysius doesn't experience sexual attraction, irrespective of whether he partakes in it.

  • Artemis would count as an example of celibacy, because she's a sworn virgin. (Note: "virgin" means "no sexual relations with men" in ancient Greek works. There's some discussion about whether Artemis was lesbian, but either way, not asexual.)

  • While there isn't a whole lot of evidence either way, the speculation I've read about whether Athena had sex with anyone seems to have trouble differentiating between Athena as an asexual figure or an abstinent one. (This might make it hard to demonstrate asexuality through the absence of sexual writings.)

The quintessential example, the way "asexuality" is used nowadays, would be if someone in some situation were to turn down a sexual situation - not because they didn't want to have sex with them, but rather because they just didn't feel like having sex, as a whole, with anyone.

Did asexuality as a concept ever appear in Greek writings? If so, is there both asexuality in the Pantheon and asexuality outside of it, or is it just one of the two? I don't expect that the ancient Greeks shared our modern conception of asexuality to a T; however, if it's possible to identify that ancient Greek writings reflect an idea of asexuality comparable to our modern one, that would probably count as an example.

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    Are you asking if asexuality can be read into the texts through a modern understanding of sexuality, or are you looking for evidence that asexuality in the modern sense is a concept we share with the ancient Greeks? – BESW Feb 4 '17 at 1:17
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    @BESW I suppose the former. I don't expect that the ancient Greeks shared our modern conception of asexuality (though I'd definitely be open to an answer discovering that they did). The real question, then, is whether old Greek writings reflect an idea of asexuality similar to our modern one. Should I clarify that with an edit? – user80 Feb 4 '17 at 1:21
  • I think so, yes. And maybe re-check your parenthetical about Dionysian asexuality; by my understanding you've got your "former" and "latter" mixed up. – BESW Feb 4 '17 at 1:26
  • I'm going to assume "Artemis" isn't a sufficient answer, so you might want to dedicate a little space to why it's not; that'll help folks get pointed in the right direction with an example of what you've tried but hasn't helped. – BESW Feb 4 '17 at 1:37
  • Thanks for the help! I've heavily restructured the question to hopefully be a little clearer about what, exactly, I'm looking for. – user80 Feb 4 '17 at 1:55

There are a few gods and goddesses in ancient Greek mythology (assuming you count that as part of literature) who lead virgin lifestyles. Athena, Artemis, and Hestia come to mind as examples. Now of course, being a virgin doesn't necessarily imply being asexual - Artemis, for example, seems to recognise the idea of sexuality, and some stories even have it that she was in love with her hunting companion Orion. But I'm going to focus specifically on Athena.

First of all, even the manner of her creation hints at an unusual distance from sexuality. She wasn't born in the usual way, but sprang fully formed and armoured from the forehead of her father Zeus. Some versions of this myth say that Zeus slept with Metis before swallowing her in fear of her prophesied offspring, and that Metis then gave birth to Athena within Zeus, but this is not universally agreed upon. Justin Martyr's Apology says (emphasis mine):

They said that Athena was the daughter of Zeus not from intercourse, but when the god had in mind the making of a world through a word his first thought was Athena.

Obviously, by itself this doesn't tell us anything about Athena's own sexuality, but symbolically it connects her with the idea of asexuality from the very beginning of her life. A study of Athena by Karl Kerenyi links her virginal nature to her relationship with her father.

At least one version of the origin story of Erichthonius, born from the earth after Hephaestus's attempted rape of Athena, certainly makes her sound asexual. I don't have an original or 'noteworthy' source for this, but I found it here (emphasis mine):

There is one story in which the god [Hephaestus] was told by Ares that Athena wanted to make love to him, so when she asked him to make her some new weapons, he said that the only payment he would need was her love. Athena didn't catch the innuendo. As far as she was concerned, love didn't equal sex. For her, love was what most people feel for their brothers and their sisters

Finally, Athena is the goddess of wisdom and strategy. Her whole nature revolves around being calm, rational, and unemotional. Again, of course, this doesn't necessarily correlate with asexuality in the real world, but since we're talking about an idealised or even caricatured figure, from millennia ago to boot, it makes sense that the people writing about her might connect the two concepts.

Either romantic love or sexual desire would be, in some sense, a departure from the pure reason which characterises Athena. She is always an advocate of rationality, and neither love nor sexuality are entirely rational impulses. While Artemis, for example, could have sexual desires without contradicting her status as the goddess of the hunt (or even the goddess of virginity - she was abstinent, not necessarily asexual), the whole concept seems to go against Athena's essential nature.

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  • I like this answer - I really do - but I think I'm going to abstain from voting, because I'm not sure it's a strong enough case for her representation of asexuality. Also - isn't "Athena wanted to make love to [Hephaestus]" something of a direct counterexample to her asexuality? – user80 Feb 4 '17 at 2:01
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    @Emrakul That's fair; I'd also like some stronger evidence, e.g. a more solid source for that version of the Erichthonius story. And no: it only says Hephaestus "was told by Ares" that she wanted to make love to him. Presumably Ares was lying, since she certainly didn't accept Hephaestus's advances. – Rand al'Thor Feb 4 '17 at 2:04
  • Right, I just realized I misread that. Yeah, this is still a very interesting answer. I'm going to have to poke through the sources you linked, too. Thanks! – user80 Feb 4 '17 at 2:05

Perhaps a case can be made for Hermaphroditus. The son of Hermes and Aphrodite, he was a remarkably beautiful youth, but uninterested in sex. Or at least, the way Ovid tells it, "he did not know what love was"; and when the water nymph Salmacis offers herself to him, he spurns her. Salmacis hides until he strips to bathe in her lake. She then jumps in. Despite his strong protests and attempts to throw her off, she forcibly entwines herself around him. She prays that the two of them will never be separated, and as a result, Hermaphroditus becomes a hermaphrodite. He prays to his parents in turn:

O my father, and my mother, grant this prayer to your son, who owes his name to you both: if any man enter this pool, may he depart hence no more than half a man, may he suddenly grow weak and effeminate at the touch of these waters.

His prayer too is granted, and the pool of Salmacis was reputed to take away the virility of men. (From Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Mary M. Innes; Penguin Books, 1955, p. 101–104)

Ovid is Roman, not Greek, of course. But the story is of Greek origin. I am not familiar with the Greek sources enough to know whether the detail of Hermaphroditus being uninterested in sex with Salmacis is them. Online retellings of the myth (such as this one) don't cite sources, and might well be taking that detail from Ovid. So this is more an avenue for research than a definitive answer.

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There is a case to be made about the humanity itself (or some of it) being asexual at first. In some myths, Pandora is the first woman, created by Hephaestus for Zeus to punish humanity. Pandora's arrival and the subsequent disasters mark the end of the Golden Age of Man.

What exactly were all those men doing before she came? While homosexual love was definitely not news to the ancient Greeks, would all of humanity be involved in homosexual love until the first human woman came? It is possible that some might have been asexual.

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  • In the Golden Age, mortals and gods mingled freely. The only difference between men and gods was that the latter were immortal. We don't even have any evidence that the men outnumbered the gods significantly. There are plenty of instances of goddesses sleeping with mortal men. Lines 960–1022 of Hesiod's Theogony is a catalogue of such. – verbose Mar 3 '17 at 9:20

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