The Enduring Legend of the Bisexual Hero

Game of Thrones tapped into a storytelling tradition that dates back thousands of years

Season 4 of HBO’s smash hit Games of Thrones was arguably the height of its 8-season run, and that’s at least part due to the arrival of the suave, charismatic Prince Oberyn Martell in King’s Landing. Unfortunately, Oberyn only lasted that single season (his shocking demise was ranked the “Most Epic Death” in a 2019 poll), but his roguish nature and unrivaled skill in combat left millions of viewers pining for him long after he was gone.

One of the few truly principled characters in all of the GOT series, Oberyn is clearly a man who lives by his own code, rather than by the rules or expectations of those around him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this stubborn independence extends to the bedroom: when a male lover asks Oberyn whether he likes men and women equally, he responds by saying that “he doesn’t choose sides” when it comes to romance and that everyone else is “missing half of the world’s pleasure” (you can view the full uncensored scene here).

Oberyn with one of his lovers.

Although Oberyn’s open bisexuality may have seemed like a novelty to viewers in the 21st century, peoples of the ancient world would hardly have batted an eye. In fact, the earliest and most prominent heroes of mythology enjoyed lovers of both sexes without any shame or second-thoughts.

The most notable example of the “bisexual hero” is Achilles, the mythological Greek warrior and protagonist of the masterpiece epic poem the Iliad. The greatest warrior of the generation of heroes who fought in the Trojan War, Achilles is known for his speed and skill in battle, his beauty, and his unrivaled rage. He’s also remembered for his especially intimate relationship with his male companion Patroclus.

Patroclus accompanied Achilles to the Trojan War and famously took his place in battle when Achilles refused to fight on behalf of the Greek leader Agamemnon. When the Trojan hero Hector kills Patroclus in battle (mistakenly thinking he was Achilles, because he was wearing his famous armor), Achilles experiences overwhelming anguish and anger, which serves as a catalyst for his return to the the war.

Given that by then Achilles knew his life would end soon if he fought again at Troy (his goddess mother Thetis shared this prophecy with him), his actions were an admission that a long life back in his homeland would not be worth living without Patroclus by his side. While Patroclus was still alive, Achilles expressed his wish that he and Patroclus alone could conquer Troy together. After his closest companion’s death, Achilles requests that his bones be mixed with those of Patroclus in a shared grave for eternity.

Whether Homer intended to portray Achilles and Patroclus as lovers is up for debate (he never explicitly refers to them as such), but there’s no doubt that the Greeks of Classical times and others long after believed they were a romantic pair. Classical writers and philosophers of ancient times, including Plato, portrayed them as lovers, as did Shakespeare approximately two thousands year later. In modern times, their romance has inspired countless works of art (like the one below) and notable depictions in popular media, including the award-winning novel The Song of Achilles.

Illustration of a young Achilles and Patroclus singing songs of past heroes. Credit: awanqi | angela wang

The parallels between Oberyn Martell and Achilles are numerous. Both are princes who have earned a fearsome reputation as the most deadly fighters of their era. Both are handsome, masculine, highly principled (some would say to a fault), fixated on revenge, and they both ultimately die tragic deaths in combat. Both are also bisexual (although they would likely scoff at our modern obsession with labeling sexual orientations).

While the love between Achilles and Patroclus may be the most iconic example of bisexuality among heroes in ancient myth, it is far from the only one. The most powerful and prolific Greek hero of all, Heracles (who is better known by his Roman name Hercules), allegedly had more male lovers than the Olympian god Apollo, who is considered the patron of same-sex love. Suffice to say, male bisexuality was common among both the gods and mortal heroes throughout Greek myth.

Statue of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Naples. These are Roman copies of the Athenian originals, which were lost.

And it wasn’t limited to the realm of fiction. The historical figures (and lovers) Harmodius and Aristogeiton, known as the “Tyrannicides”, were idolized for assassinating the tyrant Hipparchus in 514 BC, an act which ultimately helped usher in a new democratic era in Athens. The pair was so revered by the ancient Athenians that statues of them were commissioned and placed next to one another in the Agora as a constant reminder of their courage and sacrifice (both heroes were killed for their actions at the time)*.

*It is worth noting that male homosexuality in ancient Greece weren’t often between two adult males of the same age and status. Typically, they were between a young adult male (usually in his twenties) and an adolescent boy (usually in his teens). Historians debate the prevalence and specifics of these pederastic relationships, which varied among city-states, but it’s safe to say that many of them would violate today’s legal and ethical standards.

Later, in the 4th century BC, the supremacy of Sparta was brought to an end by the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite fighting force which allegedly consisted exclusively of 150 pairs of male lovers. I say “allegedly” because some modern historians are skeptical about whether such a troop formulation would have been practical and how it could be enforced. It’s possible the Sacred Band included an abnormally high number of pairs of lovers and this aspect was simply exaggerated, or emphasized, by the ancient historians and philosophers. According to Plato, the especially intimate bonds between soldiers of the Sacred Band were its secret to success, as a soldier would always fight valiantly to the very end in the presence of his romantic partner.

The seemingly invincible Sacred Band was eventually defeated by the next rising power of ancient Greece, the Kingdom of Macedon. However, even once all hope for the Sacred Band had been lost and they were surrounded by Macedonians at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, the Thebans refused to surrender and opted to die honorably at the hands of their enemy.

The Lion of Chaeronea was erected to honor the fallen Sacred Band of Thebes after the Battle of Chaeronea.

Afterwards, the Macedonian King and commander Philip II was so impressed by the Band’s heroism that he wept at the sight of their bodies laying next to one another on the battlefield and cursed anyone who judged their love for one another as shameful. Philip’s far more famous son, Alexander, was also present at the Battle of Chaeronea and is coincidentally our next example of a historical hero who was openly bisexual.

During the unprecedented 12-year rule of Alexander III of Macedon, known today as Alexander the Great, the young king conquered peoples on three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and vanquished the mighty Persian Empire, all without losing a single major battle. During his campaigns, Alexander compared himself to the heroes Achilles and Heracles, who he believed he could one day surpass through his achievements. He even extended this comparison (and rivalry) to his personal life.

Ancient historians wrote that when Alexander led his troops to the site of Troy, which was by then a popular tourist attraction and shrine, he paid homage to Achilles while his childhood companion and top general Hephaestion did the same to Patroclus. The implication is that they shared a bond as deep as the mythological heroes but, like Achilles and Patroclus, we don’t know the true nature of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion. What we do know is that among all of Alexander’s army and wives, it was Hephaestion who he admired above everyone else.

When Hephaestion died of a fever in 324 BC, Alexander had a complete mental breakdown and seems to have modeled his immense grief after that of Achilles from his favorite story the Iliad. He asked the Oracle of Delphi to officially honor Hephaestion as an immortal hero (which the Oracle did) and presided over a funeral proceeding that cost hundreds of millions of dollars when adjusted for today’s value. Like Achilles, Alexander did not outlive his beloved companion for very long, dying himself just 8 months later. Some have speculated that the death of Hephaestion contributed to a general decline in the conqueror’s physical and mental health, which ultimately contributed to his death.

A depiction of the elaborate and costly funeral pyre constructed for Hephaestion.

Debate rages on about whether Alexander and Hephaestion were a romantic couple, however Alexander’s bisexuality is not in question. He had multiple lovers of both sexes, including the male eunuch Bagoas, who is memorably featured in the 2004 Oliver Stone film Alexander and stars in Mary Renault’s historical novel The Persian Boy. For this reason, Alexander the Great is regularly included in lists of history’s most prominent bisexuals and his personal life continues to be a point of fascination and controversy today. In 2017, Musician Sufjan Stevens referenced Alexander and Hephaestion in his hit single “Mystery of Love”, which was part of the soundtrack for the critically-acclaimed film Call Me by Your Name.

When given proper historical context, one can see that Prince Oberyn’s bisexuality as depicted in Game of Thrones is not some rare aberration or eccentricity, but rather a perfectly common behavior of heroic warriors. Before the Abrahamic religions came to prominence, which led to the stigmatization of same-sex relations, it was the norm in many ancient cultures to be attracted to members of both sexes. Mythological warriors like Achilles and Heracles, as well as historical ones like Alexander the Great and the soldiers of the Sacred Band of Thebes, occupied places of high status and were expected to indulge in both male and female beauty.

In today’s world, as bisexuality gradually becomes more accepted, we are beginning to once again see more fictional depictions of heroes who don’t neatly fall into the straight or gay categories. Female comic and film superheroes Wonder Woman, Valkyrie, Haley Quinn, and others have been confirmed as bisexual, although similar male examples are few and far between. It appears major film and television studios are still hesitant to follow the example of Games of Thrones, which reminded us what the Greeks and others knew thousands of years ago: there’s no contradiction between heroism and bisexuality. In fact, the two appear to go hand in hand quite naturally.

I’m using this account to explore bisexuality in history, politics, culture, music, and my own life experience.

Writing about bisexuality

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