Pierre Louÿs was born Pierre Félix Louis on 10 December 1870 in Ghent, Belgium, but relocated to France where he would spend the rest of his life. He studied at the École Alsacienne in Paris, and there he developed a good friendship with a future Nobel Prize winner and champion of homosexual rights, André Gide. From 1890 onwards, he began spelling his name as "Louÿs", and pronouncing the final S, as a way of expressing his fondness for classical Greek culture (the letter Y is known in French as i grec or "Greek I"). During the 1890s, he became a friend of the noted Irish homosexual dramatist Oscar Wilde, and was the dedicatee of Wilde's Salomé in its original (French) edition. Louÿs thereby was able to socialize with homosexuals. Louÿs started writing his first erotic texts at the age of 18, at which time he developed an interest in the Parnassian and Symbolist schools of writing.
During 1891, Louÿs helped initiate a literary review, La Conque, where he proceeded to publish Astarte, an early collection of erotic verse already marked by his distinctive style. During 1894 he published another erotic collection of 143 prose poems, Songs of Bilitis (Les Chansons de Bilitis), this time with strong lesbian themes. It was divided into three sections, each representative of a phase of Bilitis's life: Bucolics in Pamphylia, Elegies at Mytilene, and Epigrams in the Isle of Cyprus; dedicated to her were also a short Life of Bilitis and three epitaphs in The Tomb of Bilitis. What made The Songs sensational is Louÿs' claim that the poems were the work of an ancient Greek courtesan and contemporary of Sappho, Bilitis; to himself, Louÿs ascribed the modest role of translator. The pretense did not last long, and "translator" Louÿs was soon revealed as Bilitis herself. This did little to discredit The Songs of Bilitis, however, as it was praised for its sensuality and refined style, even more extraordinary for the author's compassionate portrayal of lesbian sexuality.
Some of the poems were intended as songs for voice and piano. Louÿs' friend Claude Debussy composed a musical adaptation of three of the poems as his Chansons de Bilitis (Lesure Number 90) for voice and piano (1897-1898):
- La flûte de Pan: Pour le jour des Hyacinthies
- La chevelure: Il m'a dit «Cette nuit j'ai rêvé»
- Le tombeau des Naiades: Le long du bois couvert de givre.
Debussy also published Six épigraphes antiques during 1914 as piano pieces for four hands, commissioned as preludes to a recital of Louÿs' poems:
- Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d'ete
- Pour un tombeau sans nom
- Pour que la nuit soit propice
- Pour la danseuse aux crotales
- Pour l'egyptienne
- Pour remercier la pluie au matin
During 1955, one of the first lesbian organizations in America named itself Daughters of Bilitis, and to the present Louÿs' Songs continues to be an important work for lesbians.
During 1896, Louÿs published his first novel, Aphrodite — Ancient Manners (Aphrodite — mœurs antiques), a description of courtesan life in Alexandria. It is considered a mixture of both literary excess and refinement, and was the best selling work (at 350,000 copies) by any living French author of the time. Although Debussy claimed exclusive rights to compose an opera based on Aphrodite (and Louÿs said he had to turn down several similar applications), the project never got under way.
Louÿs later published Les Aventures du roi Pausole (The Adventures of King Pausole) during 1901, Pervigilium Mortis during 1916, both of them libertine compositions, and Manuel de civilité pour les petites filles à l'usage des maisons d'éducation, written during 1917 and published posthumously and anonymously during 1927.
Inspired by Abel Lefranc's arguments for the Derbyite theory of Shakespeare authorship, Louÿs proposed during 1919 that the works of Molière were actually written by Corneille.
Even while on his deathbed, Pierre Louÿs continued to write erotic verses.