Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a fondness for the ancient world. I have invested considerable time and energy over the years studying the cultures and languages of antiquity, but it has to be said that I’d make a pretty shoddy historian. My idea of instructing my students in the Battle of Actium would be to toss them into the Ionian Sea, minus floats, and tell them to petition Neptune for their lives. Look, it wasn’t much different for Octavian and that hunk of prime Roman manflesh, Mark Antony. But while I do have a thing for all things old and crumbly (especially cheese), if there is one thing I am not guilty of, it’s idealising the past. Not anymore.
A few days ago I had a couple of houseguests who tore through my larder like rabid wildebeest. While sharing a jug of the good stuff one frightfully cold evening, they launched into a curiously sentimental ode to the ancients and singled out sex, of all things, to illustrate their point. The ancient world, they said, was a perpetual and indiscriminate bacchanal. Right. It is a miracle they managed to build Stonehenge and raise the Parthenon amidst all that incessant merrymaking. Ay dios mío. Where do I start. Perhaps with the Greeks, whose idea of sexual indiscrimination was to shut women out of the governing strata of their city-states and confine them to their homes (and yet we perceive the ancient Greeks to be enlightened). Those depictions of carousing women on Grecian amphorae? Hetaera, a type of highly skilled prostitute or courtesan. The situation wasn’t much better in Rome, especially if you were not a member of the Patrician class. But at least in Rome women could come and go as they pleased. Hail Claudiuvs!
But not so much if you were a slave. Or, you know, just a regular Pleb shovelling shit on the Palatine Hill. So yeah, I’m not a scholar, but let’s put things into perspective. The “ancients” did not expend their lives in a state of orgiastic frenzy. For the majority of them life was a brief spell of hardship.
Still, it is not difficult to understand why the sex lives of our ancestors are shrouded in magic and mystique. Sex is a force both powerful and misunderstood, a drive so strong that it has ignited both great battles and intimate passions. The earliest written accounts of sex appeared on the clay tablets of the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia. It was a society of great contrasts, of barbarity, wisdom and exoticism. We may never know the date in pre-history when the war of the sexes began, but one thing is certain, not all things were created equal. It is clear that it was a patriarchal class society; a system in which women were subservient to men. There was certainly no expectation that a husband would be faithful to his wife. Much like in ancient Greece, a woman’s reproductive capacity was the property of her husband. But the King, too, had a performance clause in his contract. It was his duty to have intercourse with a priestess of Ishtar, or Inanna as the Sumerians knew her. This was done to ensure successful and triumphant outcomes. Temple priestesses, who were sacred prostitutes, symbolised the Mesopotamian belief in the healing properties of sex. This ‘alternative medicine’ was used to great effect in the epic Sumerian myth Gilgamesh.
In this story, Gilgamesh must subdue the beast Enkidu. In lieu of hand to hand combat, where he would face a certain death, he finds the flesh is mightier than the sword. Gilgamesh resolves to send a sacred prostitute from the city of Uruk to seduce the wild man. Thus ensues one of the most erotic scenes from the ancient world, where woman and beast lie together for 6 days and 7 nights. Enkidu is lulled and sated from his relations with the prostitute. Sex has soothed the savage beast. The epic of Gilgamesh beautifully illustrates that sex was not only the means of fertility and procreation, but more importantly, a powerful pleasure-giving force that helped men and women transcend their baser instincts and achieve spiritual healing and peace.
Back to the Greeks and the Romans. They have a reputation for being lustful societies, and this is partially due to the wealth of archaeological evidence we have in the form of orgiastic scenes on dinner services, bestial action on tombstones and countless tales of sexual rites that were often entwined with religious and military initiations. But the deliberate cover up of sexualisation in the ancient world was aided by the historians themselves and subject to heavy censorship. In Italy and other Catholic countries, the Pope decreed that all genitalia be covered up in fig leafs. Similarly, in the Victorian era, this was not something that the public wanted to see. We therefore have many examples of strategically damaged statues that were not, in fact, a result of shoddy conservation, shipping or corrosion, but a deliberate defacing of sculptures in a bid to spare our sensitivities. A classic example is the statue of the Egyptian god Min (above), in the British Museum, whose phallus was removed in the name of Christian propriety.
In Luxor there is a 3000 year old archaeological site that is closed to the public. Few academics have been granted access and a host of permissions are required before anyone is admitted. There, in a darkened limestone cave, is one of the oldest illustrations of Egyptian erotica. It is deemed controversial not only due to the nature of what it depicts, but because of whom it is thought to depict. Hatshepsut, Egypt’s legendary female ruler. It is possible that this is the oldest sexual graffiti in the world. Fascinatingly the cave is on the site of a temple erected in honour of Hatshepsut, where, legend has it, the creation myth of Egypt would be reenacted in a performance ritual designed to birth the next generation of ruling heirs. The mind boggles. It probably went something like this: priest of Atum would masturbate into the life-begetting Nile, whereupon a priest of Shu and a priestess of Tifnat would emerge like obelisks from the misty currents and consummate their union. As the sacral progenies of the Great Rite, Geb and Nut would define the boundaries of the cosmos, and by implication the mysteries, their union giving rise to the principal gods and architects of the ancient Egyptian race: Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys.
Though their beliefs and practices originated nearly 5000 years ago, the Egyptians approach to sex and spirituality achieved a harmonious balance between the pleasures of the flesh and the longing of the soul. The civilisations to follow would tip that balance to the extreme, however, and it’s been downhill ever since. “Do me a favour,” I said to my houseguests, “don’t romanticise the past.”
And to those who share my love of all things arcane, I will tell you this: may you delight and revel in what was, while staying firmly grounded in what is.