Sex—A Freak of Nature
The lion raised as a pet in the house.
Posted Jul 11, 2016
"Sex" — this word is everywhere and can mean anything.
A few days ago, I was in a cafe and I heard a guy saying to his friend: “Hmmm… your coffee looks sexy."
A coffee, seriously?
As an Italian, I’m always impressed by such expansive use of this word. I still remember the sense of panic I felt when a colleague of mine used this word during a lecture I gave at a conference. He described my paper as “sexy." What? I blushed and smiled nervously.
Now I know. This word is nearly synonymous today with all that is spicy, juicy, vital, dynamic.
Yet if we look at its origin, this very "sexy" word was born in a dusty bureaucratic office.
“Sex”, sexus in Latin, comes in fact from the verb secare, “to divide or cut," and is related to “section,” or that which is divided. Latin used this word to point to the quality of being male or female in order to group the population and make the census.
Thus, the contemporary use of this word is relatively recent. D.H. Lawrence seemed to be the first to use this new sense of the word, in 1929.
1000 ways to say "I want you!"
So then what are the words that the Greeks and Romans used to indicate sexual love?
For sure, Greeks, more than Romans, were not at a loss for words when it came to saying, “I love you," or in this case “I want you."
They used the verb agape to indicate a spiritual, unconditional love; stergo to mean affection; phileo to indicate a kind of a mental love relating to friendship; or finally, erao for intimate love—yes, that kind of love accompanied by passionate desire and longing.
It is so fascinating! In the Greek world, Eros stands for nature. Eros is that natural power that impinges on human existence and calls us to what our natural body needs in order to be in harmony with nature, or better, to be one with Nature.
A case in point is the satyr.
The satyr, half man and half animal—as Aristophanes described him—was gifted with boundless sexual energy that he tried to satisfy in any possible way, with animate and inanimate erotic (so to speak) “partners." If you happen to wander into a museum somewhat yawning and bothered by your back that keeps on aching, pay closer attention to their pictures. They are a cold shower.
Those vases were the adult magazines of antiquity. Greeks liked them so much that on one of these vases, kept in Palermo (V, 651) you can see a group of satyrs mating with amphoras and pots themselves. Lissarague, a philologist, explains this somewhat questionable choice, saying that the wine amphora was the necessary accessory of the kōmos (a ritualistic drunken procession) and the symposium. Wine and sex are what make a satyr happy! Thus the famous saying “Afrodite kai Dionysos met’allelon eisi,” “Aphrodite and Dionysus are with each other.”
Certainly, satyrs loved women as well. Women, though, did not return the affection. (This explains the amphoras.) As MacNally wrote, the relationship between satyrs and maenads (the followers of Dyonisos, who were, by definition, a little bit wacky) started out friendly between 550 and 500 BC, and then, like many friendly relationships, "changed" between 500 and 470, becoming clearly hostile after 470. Maenads, according to Plutarch (Virtuous Women 12.249 e-f), were inviolable—I guess, especially if it was a bunch of half-goats coming on to them.
Well, satyrs did not get discouraged: They loved men too, of course. And in this case, they were more successful. Unlike the rest of Greek society, they were not worried about the difference in age. It did not matter if the guy, the beloved one, was younger (in fact, as a rule, they preferred this way) than they (the lovers). There is a cup in Berlin (1964.4)—another “adult magazine,” that shows a group of five satyrs in a full erotic frenzy.
To their defense, satyrs were not alone in this consuming desire. There were human beings that shared that devouring hunger. The most well-known were philosophers and poets.
They both despised Eros but found it irresistible. In his Erotic Essay Pausania named these refined class of gentlemen “monsters of appetite."
Socrates and sex
In particular, the clique of Socrates and his followers had a lot to say on the topic.
Xenophon, the second most famous disciple of Socrates, relates a conversation the philosopher had with him about a super sexy young boy. Socrates was irritated with him because he was using his beauty to exploit people, in particular Socrates’ favorite disciple, the young Critobolus. The boy stole a kiss from Critobolus, and after that Socrates was so "philosophically" furious that he warmly invited the boy to leave the city for one year. His kiss, mumbled Socrates, was as poisonous as the bite of a spider and he commanded Xenophon to avoid him at any cost.
Socrates, agreeing with Plato and Aristotle, considered erotic pleasure fun and necessary, but it was to be handled carefully. Pure sex is meant for the beasts, or half-beats—the satyrs again. Satyrs were invented to make people see how clumsy a man was who had been completely converted to nature. The bestial passion—as Aristotle, the super-balanced thinker who fell desperately in love with the virile king, Alexander the Great (Plutarch, The Parallel Lives) said—is “slavish and brutish.”
Sex, a creeping thing
Sappho (a wonderful female poet) called eros a “creeping thing.” She knew very well what erotic love was. There is one lyric of hers, "Glittering-Minded deathless Aphrodite," in which she wrote:
“If she runs now she’ll follow later,
If she refuses gifts she’ll give them.
If she loves not, now, she’ll soon
Love against her will.”
“Love against her will.” Pretty clear: Do you love someone? Just wait. None can withstand the passion of being loved. Love is stronger than anything. Some centuries later in Inferno, V, 103 Dante will write “Amor ch’ha nullo amato, amar perdona;” adding three lines after “Amor condusse noi ad una morte certa” v. 106. “Love is Nature and Nature is Death. This is the equation. You cannot resist your nature, but somehow you have to find a way to do it.”
In the Phaedro Plato’s metaphor of the two horses is a sort of manual to learn how to succeed in this attempt. For Plato, our life is always driven by two horses, the black and white, our passion and our reason. We cannot drive just one of the two horses, or our trajectory would be crippled. Our task is to determine the right balance, or as Aristotle put it, ‘the golden mean.’
"Desire doubled is love; love doubled is madness"
As Prodicus (a sophist of the Vth century) said: “Desire doubled is love; love doubled is madness.”
Love between animals was still considered cool, and the love with vases was still fine, but when it comes to women, be careful! Women’s love was considered insane, destructive, dangerous. “The memorable disaster,” Hesiod writes.
Do you know what the gods’ punishment was for men after Prometheus gave them the gift of fire, which was stolen from the immortals? It was the gods’ creation of woman and her desires! I am still laughing. I think this can give us an idea of how much the Greeks were frightened by women!
According to Hesiod, after Prometheus stole fire from the gods, Zeus set about his terrible revenge, the creation of the woman in the “likeness of a bashful maiden.” Three other gods schemed in this plot. Athena taught her the housework art of needlework and weaving (boring). Aphrodite gave her Persuasion and the power to arouse “cruel longing and limb-devouring cares.” (Now it begins to get interesting!) Finally, Hermes, the god of thievery and deceit, gave her a “bitch’s mind and deceptive character…lies and wily words.”
The nightmare was ready. This beautiful scary creature, this “sheer trap,” Pandora, was created as the ancestress of the “race of women,” the “plague to men who eat bread” (Hesiod, Op. 105-120). Pandora, the prototype of women, is the pure Nature, untamable and attractive. Hesiod writes that her sexual beauty (reminiscent of the lost paradise) returns each spring and her passions (destructive like nature’s inhuman forces) necessitates the “technology” (yes, this is the word he uses!) of marriage in order to control her.
Along with Pandora, there was Helene. She is the symbol of the essential ambiguity of woman and sexual beauty divinely embodied in her patroness Aphrodite, and equally as destructive as hers. Byron calls her “the Greek Eve,” the cause of masculine Greece’s “fall.” Homer even calls herself twice “bitch-faced,” adding once the honorable adjective “evil-plotting.” Why? Her sexual appetite could not be easily satisfied and controlled by men. It happens….
Her half-sister, Klytaimestra, was another interesting character. She embodied — as Aeschylus (Oresteia) says — “the relentless havoc of unleashed female passion that attacks from within the orders of household and state.” She was “the lion raised as a pet in the house…child-loving, and a joy to the old” while young, but ultimately defiling the house with blood, a “priest of destruction” when its savage nature surfaces.
I will spare you the number of times Homer calls her “bitch-faced.” This woman, driven by the female’s most potent force, a sexual energy magnified by a sense of injustice and dishonor, killed her rival Kassandra and her spouse Agamenon with a “man-minded heart," Aeschilus says. She is even more dreadful than other women because she is a male woman! She appears to be the combination of “man’s will-driven mind” and “woman’s sexual passion” colluding to bring destruction and death.
Maybe “the technique of marriage” did not work so well in her case.
However, the list of merciless examples of female erotic power is long. I will stop here in order to discourage further misogynist feelings.
The word “sex” has traveled a long way, from the dusty office of sleepy bureaucrats all the way to the blood that flows in our human veins.
Books on the topic:
B. S. Thorton, Eros. The Myth of Ancient Greek Sensuality, Oxford: Harper Collins Publisher, 1997.
D. Halperin, J. J. Winkler, F. I. Zeitlin, Before Sexuality, Princeton University Press, 1990.