Presented below is a chapter from Paul Chrystal’s In Bed with the Ancient Greeks, which has just been published by Amberley Publishing. Paul is a regular contributor to history magazines, an author and broadcaster. His recent books include In Bed with the Romans, and Women in Ancient Rome; his Women at War in Ancient Greece and Rome is to be published in February 2017.
Two affectionate men at a symposium (480 BCE, Paestum)
For one reason or another, to the ancient Greeks bed was an important place to be. For a man it was where he discharged his important duty as a citizen to maintain his oikos, his household and family line, and replenish and increase the citizenry of his polis, his city state, by having many children, ideally boys. It was also where he might commit adultery with impunity when he entertained his female slaves, prostitutes or concubines in pursuit of sexual gratification when his wife was heavily pregnant or had just given birth, or if she was being unadventurous or just not interested. Alternatively, he might take his boy lovers there in his role as a pederast, or he might consort there with an effeminate adult male or two. For a woman, it was where she had sex with her husband in order to mother as many children as possible, again ideally boys, in order to fulfil her responsibility to provide citizens to populate the army and the state machinery. Doctors, poets, historians and philosophers had all ordained that sex, and therefore bed, was neither a thing nor a place of pleasure for a woman.
As wife of Zeus, Hera was the queen of heaven; she had a responsibility to protect wives and wifehood. Surprisingly, Hera was not the mother of other gods: Zeus flexed his omnipotence when he circumvented the normal biological process by installing a womb in his penis and gave birth to his progeny that way. By circumventing the normal biological process he also circumvented Hera and her role as wife and mother; this led to centuries in which male dominance in human reproduction was enshrined in the work of such philosophers, scientists and medical scientists as Aristotle and Galen. Usurping Hera had other implications: it was a slight from which she never recovered: she bore an eternal grudge commencing with the asexual birth of disabled Hephaestus. Her reputation as a ‘difficult’ woman was emphasised further when Homer shows her dressing up glamorously and provocatively to distract Zeus from the all-important man’s business that was the Trojan war:
There she perfumed her lovely body, and she combed her hair, and plaited the bright tresses, fair and divine, that flowed down from her immortal head. Then she put on a heavenly robe, which Athena had skilfully made for her covered in embroidery; she pinned it on her breast with golden brooches of gold; her belt had a hundred tassels, and in her pierced ears she put ear-rings with three clustering drops which shone gracefully. [Homer Iliad 14, 175-85]
Woman as a disputatious and duplicitous schemer, deploying sexual power was born.
Pan, god of the great outdoors, shepherds and sheep, nature, hunting and country music, and friend to all the nymphs, is closely associated with sexuality and fertility. He is often depicted sporting an erect phallus. Diogenes the Cynic (412 BCE- 323 BCE) relates a myth in which Pan learns how to masturbate from his father, Hermes, and then teaches the habit to shepherds. Pan’s greatest conquest was that of the moon goddess, Selene, whom he seduced by wrapping himself in a sheepskin to hide his hairy black goat-like appearance, and drew her down from the sky into the forest. Duris of Samos (c. 350 BC – after 281 BC), a historian, and the Vergilian commentator Servius scandalously report that Penelope slept with all 108 of those shark-like suitors circling around her while Odysseus was carousing around the Mediterranean, and gave birth to Pan as a result.
Echo was a nymph who was an accomplished singer and dancer; she scorned the love of any man, much to the annoyance of Pan who ordered his people to kill her. Echo was, accordingly, torn to pieces, her body parts spread all over earth. Echo was doomed by Hera to repeat words that had been said by someone else, so she could never speak for herself.
We have Tiresias, the seer, to thank for answering an age-old question which many of us have pondered: is sex better for men or for women ? When Tiresias came across a pair of snakes copulating, he killed the female with his staff. An angry Hera turned him into a woman as a result. Obviously ‘she’, Tiresias, learned a lot of interesting things about women in this time, but when, eight years later, ‘she’ happened on another pair of mating snakes, ‘she’ trampled on the male and promptly turned back into a man. A curious Zeus and a ‘curioser’ Hera asked him which of the two sexes enjoyed sexual intercourse more: the man, as Hera claimed or, as Zeus insisted, the woman ? Tiresias, with the unique insight born of having experienced sex from both sides, as it were, divulged that he found sex more enjoyable as a woman: ‘Of ten parts a man enjoys one only’. This was not quite what Hera wanted to hear, so she punished him with blindness as a heretic; Zeus, however, inclined to the opposite and invested in Tiresias the power of prophecy and the gift of longevity.
Priapus was a rustic fertility god, who looked after livestock, fruit plants, gardens and -male genitalia. Priapus is easily recognised by his oversized, permanent erection, which gives us the medical term priapism and is the subject of the obscenely enjoyable collection of verse called the Priapeia. He was a victim of Hera’s who cursed him with impotence, ugliness and a filthy mind even while he was still in Aphrodite’s womb; this was in revenge for Paris judging Aphrodite more beautiful than Hera. The other gods him from Olympus, abandoning him on a hillside to be found by shepherds and raised by them. Body image and self esteem must have been at an all-time low for Priapus.
Priapus, a wall-painting from a brothel in Pompeii
Nevertheless, statues of Priapus popped up everywhere in ancient Greece, erected in gardens or at doorways and crossroads. To propitiate Priapus, the traveller would stroke the statue’s penis as he or she passed. According to Ovid, Priapus tried to rape a sleeping Hestia but was thwarted by a donkey, whose braying caused him to lose his erection at the critical moment and woke the goddess. Naturally, this led to a lifelong Priapic hatred of asses.
Satyr Plays and Mime
Satyr plays were a type of tragicomedy, similar to burlesque and, as the name suggests, starred choruses of satyrs acting out their obscene, sexually charged parts replete with filthy jokes and erect phalluses. The form was developed by Pratinas of Phlius in around 500 BCE to provide some light, intermittent relief from the doom and gloom of the tragedies on the bill.
A rampant satyr (6th century BCE black figure vase, Staatliche Museum Berlin)
Sex and male-female relationships have a big part to play too in the scurrilous mimes of Herodas, who was active in the 3rd century BCE. Typically, mimes were coarse, vernacular and replete with sexual references. In Mime 1 the old nurse, now the local bawd, calls on Metriche, whose husband is away in Egypt, and tries to interest her in an eligible young man who has fallen in love with her at first sight. Metriche declines with dignity, but consoles the old woman with a generous cup of wine – Mrs Sarah Gamp in Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit springs to mind. In Mime 5 the jealous Bittina quizzes Gastron, in a wonderful turn of phrase
Just tell me, Gastron; have you grown so satiated that you are no longer satisfied to shake your thighs with me but must be having sex with Menon’s Amphythæa?
Female buttocks (and indeed male) have always been an erogenous zone and a symbol of fertility and beauty. Statues created as early as 24,000 BCE, such as the Venus or Woman of Willendorf found in Austria, have exhibited exaggerated buttocks, hips, and thighs. Pygophilia is the name for sexual arousal caused by the buttocks.
Athenaeus tells the engaging story of the well-read hetaira Mania, mistress of Philip II, quoting Sophocles:
Mania once was asked, by King Demetrius, for a good look at her fair buttocks; and she, in return, demanded that he should grant her a favour. When he agreed, she turned her back, and said,- “O son of Agamemnon, now the Gods grant you to see what you so long have wished for.”
There is more buttock-revealing, or at least a request for it, and an exquisite put-down, with Gnathaena:
‘They say that one fine day a youth from Pontus was sleeping with Gnathaena, and in the morning he asked her to show her buttocks to him. But she replied, ” You have no time for that now, it’s time for you to feed the pigs”’.
Demophoon, a friend of Sophocles’, was also partial to his hetaira’s buttocks:
‘And it is said this woman had fine buttocks, And when Demophoon tried to hold them, “A pretty thing,” said she, “that what you get From me, you may present to Sophocles.”’
Kim Kardashian and Callipygian Venus
In the endless pursuit of the acme of physical beauty the buttocks were very important, as indeed they were in social intercourse. The ideal was portrayed on a Greek bronze, now lost, but a fine 1st century BC Roman copy in marble called the ‘Kallipygean Venus’ can be seen in the Naples Archaeological Museum. Athenaeus tells the story of a Syracusan farmer who had two daughters who could not agree on which had the best buttocks so they enlisted the opinion of a young boy passer-by. He preferred the bum of the older sister and fell in love with her. His inquisitive younger brother fell likewise for the younger sister; the two married their callipygian girls who commissioned a temple to the ‘Kallipygean Aphrodite and erected a cult statue. The Christian Clement of Alexandria was later to describe the masterpiece as ‘shamefully erotic examples of pagan religious art’.
Agalmatophilia, from the Greek agalma ‘statue’, and -philia φιλία love, is a paraphilia involving sexual attraction to a statue, doll, or mannequin which may embrace a desire for sexual contact with the object, viewing such sexual encounters, or sexual pleasure from thoughts of being transformed or transforming another into the desired object. Athenaeus describes such an instance, albeit unfulfilling:
Cleisophus of Selymbria…fell in love with a statue of Parian marble then at Samos, and shut himself up in the temple to gratify his affection; but when he found that he could make no impression on the coldness and unyielding nature of the stone, then he lost all desire.
Another man got away lightly, perhaps, for his ‘transgression’:
At Delphi, in the museum of the pictures, there are two boys wrought in marble; with one of which, the Delphians say, a visitor fell in love so strongly, that he made love to it, and shut himself up with it, and presented it with a crown; but when he was discovered , the god ordered the Delphians, who consulted his oracle about it, to let him off .
Agalmatophilia first became a subject of clinical study with the publication of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in which he recorded the case of a gardener in 1877 falling in love with a statue of the Venus de Milo and being discovered attempting to have sex with it.
Hittite law from the 16th century BC to the 13th century BC explicitly permitted sexual relations with the dead. According to Herodotus, necrophilia was a bit of a problem in Egypt:
‘The wives of [Egyptian] top brass, when they die, are not handed over immediately to be embalmed, nor are such women who are very beautiful or sexier than others; it is only on the third or fourth day after their death (and not before) that they are delivered to the embalmers. They do this in order that the embalmers may not abuse the women, for they say that one of them was caught doing so to the corpse of a woman lately dead, and his colleagues blew the whistle on him.
Herodotus alludes to Periander ‘baking his bread’ in Melissa’s ‘cold oven’ in that superb euphemism. The Babylonian Talmud relates that King Herod of Judea (73 BCE – 4 BCE ) was besotted by a virgin girl who killed herself to avoid marrying him; he preserved her body in honey for seven years in order, some say, to have regular sex with her corpse. Xenophon of Ephesus leaves us with the odd and unedifying story of the poor Spartan Aigialeus and his common-law wife Thelxinoe who died; Aigialeus kept her body at home embalmed Egyptian-style. ‘I speak to her as though she is still alive,’ he says, and ‘I lie down next to her and have my meals with her’; Diodorus Siculus reminds us that poorer Egyptians would keep mummies at home rather than placing them in tombs because they believed that the dead could enjoy ‘earthly pleasures’ such as food and drink. Aigialeus says of Thelxinoe’s corpse, ‘I’m forever kissing her and passing the time with her’, with the strong suggestion of necrophilia. In Roman times Nero, of course, is reputed to have been romantically connected with his dead mother.
Miletus was dildo-city; the manufacturing and exporting centre of the olisbos, from ὀλισθεῖν (olistheîn, to slip, glide) and known to us as the dildo. The world’s oldest known dildo is a twenty centimeter phallus from the Upper Palaeolithic period some 30,000 years ago found in Hohle Fels Cave near Ulm in Germany. What can only be described as dildo-like breadsticks, known as olisbokollikes (singular olisbokollix), were known in ancient Greece before the 5th century BCE. More often, dildos were made either of wood or pressed leather and, were, mercifully, liberally smeared with olive oil before use.
A woman watering some phalloi (red figure vase from 430 BCE, British Museum)
The pursuit of love often led to recourse to the dark arts. The popularity and ubiquity of this usually evil and sinister form of ancient hate mail is illustrated by the fact that 1,600 or so curse tablets alone – defixiones or katadesies – curse tablets or binding spells – have been found. Katadesies reach back as far as the fourth century BCE in Greece. Around one quarter of the tablets show erotic magic, deployed to wreak bitter revenge on duplicitous lovers, bind an object of desire to love and sex with the dedicator for the rest of his or her days. Typical is the defixio which rains down every kind of disaster on the recipient, made all the more exotic with the addition of the usual inexplicable mumbo jumbo:
May burning fever seize all her limbs, kill her soul and her heart; O gods of the underworld, break and smash her bones, choke her, arourarelyoth, let her body be twisted and shattered, phrix, phrox.
There are, though, examples of love defixiones – binding spells – where a lover will invoke underworld deities in a heartfelt bid to win the love of his life. A man called Successus dedicates his wife in a bid to see his love for her requited:
May Successa burn, let her feel herself aflame with love or desire for Successus.
Let us hope that Successus was successful in winning Successa over. Plenty of fire here but none of the brimstone we often meet in these spells.
Extracted from In Bed with the Ancient Greeks: Sex & Sexuality in Ancient Greece by Paul Chrystal (Amberley 2016). © Paul Chrystal