Start Library 3: Table of content What is new? Ipce Magazine

 [Back to Articles & Essays]     [Back to Books, General]

The Thera Inscriptions Ritual or Slander?

Edward Brongersma, JD, Brongersma Foundation

Journal of Homosexuality 20(4) 1990

Dr. Edward Brongersma, a lawyer, was Principal Scientific Officer at the Criminological Institute of University of Utrecht, and for over 18 years was a Member of the Senate (Upper House of the Netherlands States General), where he was Chairman of the Permanent Committee for Justice.

In 1979 he founded the Brongersma Foundation for research into the sexuality of youth. Correspondence should be addressed to
Dr. E. Brongersma, Tetterodeweg 1, 2051 EE Overveen, Netherlands.
[* The author has died in 1998]

[Page 31]


 Inscriptions carved in a rock on the Greek island of Thera and dating from the 6th or 7th century BC have homosexual contents. Originally considered a testimony to ritual sacred acts, they were described by Marrou (1956) and Dover (1978) as vulgar pornographic graffiti. Arguments against this view and in favor of the formal ritual interpretation are proposed. A final explanation is suggested, conforming to local customs and the general conceptions of ancient Greek boy-love.


Thera ( also known as Santorini) is a Greek island in the Cyclades archipelago in the Aegean sea, some 128 miles from Athens. On a clear day from its highest point Crete can be seen in the far distance to the south. Once an active volcano, some time around the second millennium before Christ it suffered an extremely violent eruption, covering the other islands of the group with a thick layer of pumice and causing enormous seismic sea waves. It was one of nature's major catastrophes as far as Western man was concerned: many historians (others have disputed this) have postulated that it was this explosion and these "tidal" waves that brought the Minoan civilization on Crete to its abrupt end.

[Page 32]

About 1100 BC what was left of the east side of Thera, a 300 metre high caldera wall rising out of the deep (and still hot and poisonous) waters of the Aegean, was once again occupied and fell under the influence of Sparta and its Doric culture. The chief deity was Apollo Karneios, the ram god, to which was attached a male fertility cult (Marinatos, 1976; Scholte, 1958).

Johann Friedrich Hiller von Gärtringen, an archaeologist excavating the ruins of the old city in the first years of this century, came across, in the temple district just beneath the centre of the town, a number of curious inscriptions carved into solid rock. They were some 50 to 70 metres away from the temple of Apollo and not too far from the sanctuaries of Zeus, Kures, Chiron, Athena, Ge and Artemis (Bethe, 1907, p. 450). Authorities are now in agreement that they date from the 6th or 7th century BC.

They deal, in part, with sexual activities and are quite outspokenly sexual. The most frequently quoted runs:

(ton deina) nai ton Delphinion h(o) Krimoon te(i)de ooiphe paida Bathukleos adelpheo(n) de tou deina,

which means:

"By the (Apollo) Delphinios, Krimon had sex here with a boy, the brother of Bathykles."

There are other, similar texts:

"Pheidippidas had sex,"

"Timagoras and Empheres and I had sex,"

"Krimon had sex with Amotion here" (Dover, 1978, p. 123).

Other texts on the same rock refer to dancers. Names are also carved in the rock -- it is not clear whether of an "eromenos" (a boy loved by a man), a dancer or a boy-dancer -- followed by the word "agathos" (good) (Patzer, 1982, pp. 86-87). Illustrations of some of these inscriptions can be seen in Licht (1926,11, p. 178) and in Moll (1921, p. 385).

Hiller von Gärtringen, their discoverer, interpreted the sexual inscriptions as testimony to sacred acts. Bethe (1907, p. 450) concurred, as did

Freimark (1909, p. 95), Licht (1926, Erg. p. 206), Robinson & Fluck (1937,p. 22), Jeanmaire (1939, quoted by Buffière, 1980, p. 58), Vanggaard (1969, p. 19), Bullough (1976, pp. 1.00-101), Borneman (1978, p. 601), Patzer (1982, pp. 84-87) and Sergent (1984, p. 141 ). This view was first disputed in 1948 by H.I. Marrou in his "Histoire de l'education dans l'antiquite."

With respect to the texts quoted above, he wrote,

"These seem to me to be no more than the kind of indecent wallscratchings to be found in Pompeii: Hic ego cum veni futui; fututa sum hic... None

[Page 33]

of the arguments that have been used seems to me to be sufficient to transform affairs such as these into religious ceremonies marking the ephebe's entry into the brotherhood of man" (English translation by George Lamb, 1956, p. 376).

K.J. Dover, in his scholarly work Greek Homosexuality arrived at the same conclusion:

"These utterances should not be regarded as solemn declarations of sanctified erotic relationships, but as boasts, effusions and slanders of a kind familiar to us, seven centuries later, from the walls of Pompeii; recalling Athenian graffiti, we should not imagine that Krimon, or whoever wrote no. 537, was on very friendly terms with the Bathykles over whose brother he triumphed" (1978, p. 123).

Bremmer (1980, p. 283) finds Dover's argument convincing, although he recognises the solemnity of the invocation to Apollo and its tie to the initiation ceremony -- an untenable view! The contemporary French scholar of Greek antiquity, Buffière (1980, pp. 57-59), is undecided between these opposing interpretations.

Opinions differ already about the significance of the word here translated as "to have sex with." Dover (1978, p. 123) says it "is neither as slangy as 'screw' nor as coarse as 'fuck,' for it occurs in the laws of the Cretan city of Gortyn, but it is a very blunt word for sexual intercourse." In Gortyn law, rape of a women was described as "oiphein by force. " According to Patzer (1982, pp. 85-86) however, the word "does not sound vulgar but has a purely objective meaning and could be rendered with 'to have sexual contact.' "

Borneman judges that the word was used only in the context of ritual intercourse between priests and women, or between priestesses and men and that its Attic equivalent "opuein" means "to have lawful sex" (1978, p. 601). This at least is the translation given by the lexicographer Hesychios in the 5th Century (Vanggaard, 1969, p. 19). We should keep in mind that "oipholis" and similar sounding words mean salacious or randy and that "oiphos" means penis (Vorberg, 1932, p. 406). This would seem to justify rendering "oiphein tina" as (lustfully) using his penis upon somebody.

It seems to me that this whole dispute about the degree of bluntness or vulgarity in the choice of the word "oiphein" loses its point if we realise that the distinction between vulgar and decent terms for sexual anatomy and physiology is applicable only in a civilization

[Page 34]

like ours which is hostile to sexuality. In scholarly publications such as The Journal of Homosexuality authors tend to use Latin or Greek terms because they sound less direct than the four-letter words of popular speech. 1f looking at another person was considered obscene we certainly would not talk in polite company about "an eye"; rather we would call the organ "oculus." The vulgar Dutch terms for penis (three-letter words!) were once considered quite proper and available for literary use; they only became vulgar when sex came to be regarded as something secret and indecent.

In this respect our culture is exceptional. In most societies an open, positive attitude is observed towards sex, thus there is no reason why a direct sexual reference must be avoided by educated persons. When a man of Pompeii scribbled on a brothel quarter wall, "Hic ego cum veni futui," this can only be rendered as "I came here and fucked." The writer of this "vulgar" graffito, however, used the same verb "futuere" as Martial (on 42 occasions!) and Catullus (32, 8: "novem continuae fututiones") (Vorberg, 1932, pp. 203-204; Pierrugues, 1908, pp. 232-233).

So Krimon "used his penis lustfully on a boy, the brother of Bathykles," and his declaration is preceded by the exclamation "Nai ton Delphinion": "By Apollo Delphinios." Bethe (1907, p. 450) translated this exclamation, "On this sacred spot and invoking Apollo Delphinios." Certainly this is making it sound too sacred. But must the exclamation be reduced to the rather meaningless level Dover suggests (1978, p. 123) by referring to "the Greek use of oaths" and comparing it to our common speech interjections, "God," "Christ" and "Jesus"?

Even if Dover (ibid.) is right that we must not overrate "most (Greek) people's reverence for sacred places," there is a lot to be said for not putting the Thera inscriptions on par with the erotic graffiti in Pompeii. The inscriptions are restricted to that one particular quarter of the city devoted to the cults of the gods, where the sacral element predominates. The rock into which these words are carved is a structural element of a terrace which apparently was used for sacred dances and for people attending religious services. On another rock nearby many names of the gods are chiselled. The setting, then, is quite different from the brothel quarter of Pompeii. Here, in Thera, the invocation of a deity would seem less likely to

[Page 35]

be merely gratuitous. Moreover, elsewhere proofs are also found of a steady relation between Apollo Karneios and boy initiation (Sergent, 1984, p. 140).

But the deciding argument, it seems to me, is the size and number of the characters used in this exclamation. In a letter to me (22 April, 1983), Dover, with some justice, observed,

"To us, incising words on a rock is 'strenuous,' but at the time of the Thera inscriptions, when the use of papyrus was only beginning and people did not carry ink round with them, incision was commonplace."

But even if we accept this, one cannot dispute that carving fifteen characters


in solid rock, and carving them so deeply that they are still clearly readable after 26 centuries, is quite a lot of work. The more so, since the characters are "so large" (Marrou, 1956, p. 376), "of enormous size" (Bethe, 1907, p. 450). Would any person in his right mind set himself such a heavy task just to add a senseless exclamation to a frivolous, insulting or boasting text?

The inscription does not mention the name of the boy himself: he is simply identified as the brother of a certain person. This gives us the impression of greater distance from the fact, something more official, and thus honourable. We should keep in mind that allowing a man to use his body sexually was in itself certainly not dishonourable to a boy. A boy might be too young for it, or he could give in to an unsuitable lover, or he could ask for money for sex, or he could be too old to submit to the passive role in anal intercourse, but apart from these corruptions he was not dishonoured by having sexual relations with a man. It was not demeaning to state publicly that he had done so.

The situation is nicely defined by Strato (Anthologia XII, no.228):

If a blooming boy sins at an age of inexperience, this carries more disgrace to the friend who seduced him than to himself. If a boy submits his body after his season for such things is past, his willingness is twice as disgraceful to him as to his tempter. But there is a time when it is shameful no more and not yet, and that now is exactly the case, Moiris, with you and me.

[Page 36]

It is interesting to find an equivalent attitude in one modern primitive culture. Edward L. Schieffelin, in describing boys' initiation rituals among the Kaluli of the Papua Plateau in Papua New Guinea, mentions institutional pederastic homosexual intercourse with some of the older bachelors. When a boy reaches the age of about ten or eleven, his father chooses a suitable partner to inseminate him.

"Out of fourteen youths and boys at Wogole 'bau a,' two were regarded as too small to be ready for homosexual activity, and two considered themselves too big and resisted it" (1982, pp. 162163 and 117) .

To a Greek boy of the proper age, having many suitors, many men running after him and trying to win his favours, was an honour: it increased his self respect (Koch-Harnack, 1983, p. 145). In Crete, only a short distance from Thera, a boy was considered "kleinos" (celebrated) after he had lived for some time with his adult lover; he wore special clothes to show that he had earned this distinction (Dover, 1978, p. 189; Buffiere, 1980, p. 55; Patzer, 1982, pp. 72-73; Sergent, 1984, pp. 24-53).

Likewise, practising boy-love did not dishonour an adult man. Aischines, while attacking Timarchos in a public speech, accuses his opponent of sexual debauchery and prostitution. But Aischines himself openly avows that he has loved, and still loves, boys. He hangs around gymnasia. He tells of the insults and blows he occasionally receives in the course of his pursuit of boys, which we can take as proof that his advances are not purely platonic. If he attacks Timarchos it is because Timarchos persisted in submitting to passive anal intercourse after he grew into a young man -- and moreover asked money for his favours. Aischines, on the contrary, has always been the active partner with a boy, and has never prostituted himself.

The situation is well described in a poem, mostly ascribed to the poet Theognis of Megara (end of the 6th Century BC) in his plea to a beloved boy.

"To thee that grantest it my suit bringeth honour, and to me that desire it no disgrace. I beseech thee, by my parents, fair lad, have respect unto me and grant me favour" (Fragm. 1329, transl. Loeb Edition).

The Thera texts, then, dealing as they do with a commonly practiced sexual activity between man and boy, have no intrinsic characteristics which allow us to interpret them as insult or slander.

[Page 37]

Where names, most probably of boys, were inscribed in the Thera rock without reference to any specific activity, they are sometimes accompanied by the adjective "agathos" (the good) or "aristos" (the excellent). Robinson and Fluck in their A Study of Greek Love Names point out that there is an

"astonishing agreement with the chronology of the kalos name in Athens, a synonymous and therefore logically contemporary phenomenon. The kalos name, a product of the sixth century emotional ecstasy in Athens, has the same significance as in the Theran inscriptions. ( ...)
For the most part the inscriptions consist of a proper name and the Doric adjective agathos, but in one of them (I.G., XII, 3,p. 549) we have ( ...) kalos, an occurrence of the usual Attic lover's cliche, which suggests that it has the same force as the more usual Doric agathos on the island. (...)
But here, as in Attika, there is obvious proof that both imply eroticism. ( ...)
The contemporaneity of the Thera inscriptions with the first appearance of the kalos-name on Attic vases might also be suggested by the fact that the very character of the scenes of Attic pottery of the time is in perfect accord with what we have seen to be the essentially physical significance of the island inscriptions: as, before the tone of the vase-scenes had been subdued down into the polite, non-committal, 'conversational' groups of men and boys, prevalent in the fifth century, that same sentiment had first been expressed in the actual paederastic symplegmata so common on vases in the first decades after the middle of the sixth century and so hinted at on Thera's rocks at the same time" (1937, pp. 22-24).

On the Attic vases, "kalos" (beautiful) was written in praise of a boy, while at the same time these vases depict erotic scenes, such as a man with an erection touching the genitals of a boy, or a man having inter-crural or anal intercourse with him. (Reproductions are to be found in the books of Dover, Koch-Harnack, Marcade and Vorberg.) "Kalos" was evidently meant as an appreciation of the boy's qualities as "eromenos," the boy who is loved by a man. On Thera the inscription might also refer to the boy's dancing skill, for the terrace by the rock was the scene of ritual dances {Patzer, 1982, p.85).

[Page 38]

The Spartans brought to Thera their "gymnopaideia" in honour of Apollo Karneios (Scholte, 1958, p. 995). Athenaios writes in his fourteenth book that all boys ("paides") participating in the gymnopaideia danced completely naked ("gymnos") -- hence the name -- and that the boys made graceful leaps with their bodies, interrupting their motions with soft gesticulations of their hands and enchanting movements of their feet in imitation of fighting and wrestling. One inscription reads, "Enpedokles inscribed this and danced for Apollo" (Freimark, 1909, p.95 -- who gives an incorrect translation). Here the invocation of Apollo's name is indisputably pious.

Hundreds of years later someone added to the inscriptions on the rock "pornos" (male prostitute) and "Demetrios kinaidos" (Demetrios is passive in anal intercourse). Both are clearly intended as  insults (Robinson & Fluck, 1937, p. 22).

But the original inscriptions of the sixth century seem only intended to acclaim and praise the boys as lovers and dancers and not to vilify or slander them. When, centuries later, a boy's wrestling school was constructed at this spot, the builders took no pains to obliterate these large sexual inscriptions which must have been clearly visible to all the young male students.

There is another dissimilarity between the Thera inscriptions and the Pompeii graffiti with which Marrou and Dover seek to compare them. In Thera there was an effort to beautify the script, make it elegant. Sometimes the engraver is not the same person who proclaims his exploits but is a more or less experienced stone-cutter whose name is also legible, as "X engraved this," just as sometimes today we see the name of a stone-mason in small characters on a tombstone or monument upon which he has chiselled the commemorative text (Patzer, 1982, p. 86). This, again, is difficult to reconcile with the concept of a spontaneous "dirty joke." It suggests a more monumental interpretation of the inscriptions.

If we regard "Nai ton Delphinion" of the Krimon inscription not as a senseless interjection but as an invocation to the god for whom the locality was sacred, it becomes possible to suggest an additional motive for the carving of this famous text.

On a rock beside Thera's only well, an inscription has been discovered which reads,

"Aglotheles, son of Enipantidos and Lakarto, was victor in the first staphylodromos" (Scholte, 1958, p. 995).

[Page 39]

This shows that Thera, a colony of Sparta, had adopted the Spartan ritual of the Staphylodromos to close its gymnopaideia.

The gymnopaideia took place once a year, after the wine harvest in September, in honour of Apollo, protector of all that is good and beautiful (Scholte, ibid.). At Sparta it was the one occasion at which foreign visitors were admitted, and they came in multitudes to see the naked boys perform their dance (Schlimmer & de Boer , 1920, p. 295).

At the end, on a full moon night, a young boy, naked but for a garland of raisins ("staphulis"), sprinted away. He was allowed a head start, but then a group of older boys (ephebes) came after him in a foot race ("dromos"). If they managed to overtake the boy, this was seen as a happy omen for the city (Sergent, 1984, p. 143). The first ephebe to catch up with him and bring him down possessed him on the spot (Scholte, ibid.).

Could not Krimon have been the winning ephebe in such a contest, proud to proclaim his victory over the staphylodromeus, a boy, the brother of Bathykles? And all under the aegis of Delphinian Apollo, the god presiding over this ritual?

Positive proof we'll never have, as so often in archaeology. But this conjecture at least covers all known facts.


Since I wrote these lines, I have visited the spot: a steep and arduous ascent over very rough ground, amidst a howling wind, brought me to the top of the promontory at an elevation of over , 1100 feet. Here lie the ruins of the temple of Apollo Karneios, the terrace where the naked boys once danced, and the rock wall with the inscriptions.

I wonder whether Marrou or Dover ever were there. Examining the site and considering the setting as a whole, it seemed to me quite unlikely that this place -- at the time when everything was intact -- would have been chosen for engraving obscene or insulting graffiti. At some distance from the temple district are the ruins of the ancient town. Its inhabitants were not prudish. One of them adorned the façade of his home with the engraving of a big phallus and the text "for my friends."

Start Library 3: Table of content What is new? Ipce Magazine

 [Back to Articles & Essays]     [Back to Books, General]


Bethe, E. (1907).

Die dorische Knabenliebe - lhre Ethik und ihre Idee. Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie 62: 438-475.

Borneman, E. (1978).

Lexikon der Liebe - Materialien zur Sexualwissenschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein.

Bremmer, J. (1980).

An Enigmatic Jndo-European Rite: Paederasty. Arethusa 13: 2, 279-298.

Bullough, V. L. (1976).

Sexual Variance in Society and History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Buffière, F. (1980).

Eros adolescent - La pédérastie dans la Grece antique. Paris; Les Belles Lettres.

Dover, K. J. (1978).

Greek Homosexuality .London: Duckworth.

Freimark, H. (1909).

Okkultismus und Sexualität. Leipzig: Leipziger Verlag.

Koch-Harnack, G. (1983).

Knabenliebe und Tiergeschenke. Berlin: Mann Verlag.

Licht, H. (1926).

Sittengeschichte Griechenlands. Dresden: Paul Aretz Verlag.

Marcade, J. (1965).

Eros kalos. Genève: Nagel.

Marinatos, S. ( 1976).

Kreta, Thera und das mykenische Hellas. Muchen: Hirmer.

Marrou, H. I. (1956).

A History of Education in Antiquity (translated by G. Lamb). London: Sheed and Ward.

Moll, A. (1921).

Handbuch der Sexualwissenschaften. Leipzig: Vogel.

Patzer, H. (1982).

Die griechische Knabenliebe. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner.

Pierrugues, P. (1908).

Glossarium eroticum linguae latinae. Berlin: Barsdorf.

Robinson, D. M., and Fluck, E. J. (1937).

A Study of the Greek Love Names. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press.

Schieffelin, E. L. (1982).

The Bau A Ceremonial Hunting Lodge. In Herdt (ed.) Rituals of Manhood. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schlimmer, J. G., and Boer, Z. C. de (1920).

Woordenboek der Grieksche en Romeinsche Oudheid. Haarlem: Bohn.

 Scholte, H. (1958).

Gids voor Griekenland. Amsterdam: de Lange.

Sergent, B. (1984).

L 'homosex:ualite dans la mythologie grecque. Paris: Payot.

Vanggaard, Th. (1969).

Phallos. Köbenhavn: Gyldendal.

Vorberg, G. (1932).

Glossarium eroticum. Stuttgart: Julius Puttmann.

 [Back to Articles & Essays]     [Back to Books, General]

Start Library 3: Table of content What is new? Ipce Magazine