In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
Sexuality was central to life in ancient Mesopotamia, an area of the Ancient Near East often described as the cradle of western civilisation roughly corresponding to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey. It was not only so for everyday humans but for kings and even deities.
Mesopotamian deities shared many human experiences, with gods marrying, procreating and sharing households and familial duties. However when love went wrong, the consequences could be dire in both heaven and on earth.
Scholars have observed the similarities between the divine “marriage machine” found in ancient literary works and the historical courtship of mortals, although it is difficult to disentangle the two, most famously in so-called “sacred marriages”, which saw Mesopotamian kings marrying deities.
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh
Gods, being immortal and generally of superior status to humans, did not strictly need sexual intercourse for population maintenance, yet the practicalities of the matter seem to have done little to curb their enthusiasm.
Sexual relationships between Mesopotamian deities provided inspiration for a rich variety of narratives. These include Sumerian myths such as Enlil and Ninlil and Enki and Ninhursag, where the complicated sexual interactions between deities was shown to involve trickery, deception and disguise.
In both myths, a male deity adopts a disguise, and then attempts to gain sexual access to the female deity — or to avoid his lover’s pursuit. In the first, the goddess Ninlil follows her lover Enlil down into the Underworld, and barters sexual favours for information on Enlil’s whereabouts. The provision of a false identity in these myths is used to circumnavigate societal expectations of sex and fidelity.
Sexual betrayal could spell doom not only for errant lovers but for the whole of society. When the Queen of the Underworld, Ereshkigal, is abandoned by her lover, Nergal, she threatens to raise the dead unless he is returned to her, alluding to her right to sexual satiety.
The goddess Ishtar makes the same threat in the face of a romantic rejection from the king of Uruk in the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is interesting to note that both Ishtar and Ereshkigal, who are sisters, use one of the most potent threats at their disposal to address matters of the heart.
The plots of these myths highlight the potential for deceit to create alienation between lovers during courtship. The less-than-smooth course of love in these myths, and their complex use of literary imagery, have drawn scholarly comparisons with the works of Shakespeare.
Ancient authors of Sumerian love poetry, depicting the exploits of divine couples, show a wealth of practical knowledge on the stages of female sexual arousal. It’s thought by some scholars that this poetry may have historically had an educational purpose: to teach inexperienced young lovers in ancient Mesopotamia about intercourse. It’s also been suggested the texts had religious purposes, or possibly magical potency.
Several texts write of the courtship of a divine couple, Inanna (the Semitic equivalent of Ishtar) and her lover, the shepherd deity Dumuzi. The closeness of the lovers is shown through a sophisticated combination of poetry and sensuousness imagery – perhaps providing an edifying example for this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction nominees.
In one of the poems, elements of the female lover’s arousal are catalogued, from the increased lubrication of her vulva, to the “trembling” of her climax. The male partner is presented delighting in his partner’s physical form, and speaking kindly to her. The feminine perspective on lovemaking is emphasised in the texts through the description of the goddess’ erotic fantasies. These fantasies are part of the preparations of the goddess for her union, and perhaps contribute to her sexual satisfaction.
Female and male genitals could be celebrated in poetry, the presence of dark pubic hair on the goddess’ vulva is poetically described through the symbolism of a flock of ducks on a well-watered field or a narrow doorway framed in glossy black lapis-lazuli.
The representation of genitals may also have served a religious function: temple inventories have revealed votive models of pubic triangles, some made of clay or bronze. Votive offerings in the shape of vulvae have been found in the city of Assur from before 1000 BC.
Happy goddess, happy kingdom
Divine sex was not the sole preserve of the gods, but could also involve the human king. Few topics from Mesopotamia have captured the imagination as much as the concept of sacred marriage. In this tradition, the historical Mesopotamian king would be married to the goddess of love, Ishtar. There is literary evidence for such marriages from very early Mesopotamia, before 2300 BC, and the concept persevered into much later periods.
The relationship between historical kings and Mesopotamian deities was considered crucial to the successful continuation of earthly and cosmic order. For the Mesopotamian monarch, then, the sexual relationship with the goddess of love most likely involved a certain amount of pressure to perform.
Some scholars have suggested these marriages involved a physical expression between the king and another person (such as a priestess) embodying the goddess. The general view now is that if there were a physical enactment to a sacred marriage ritual it would have been conducted on a symbolic level rather than a carnal one, with the king perhaps sharing his bed with a statue of the deity.
A love song from the city of Ur between 2100-2000 BC is dedicated to Shu-Shin, the king, and Ishtar:
In the bedchamber dripping with honey let us enjoy over and over your allure, the sweet thing. Lad, let me do the sweetest things to you. My precious sweet, let me bring you honey.
Sex in this love poetry is depicted as a pleasurable activity that enhanced loving feelings of intimacy. This sense of increased closeness was considered to bring joy to the heart of the goddess, resulting in good fortune and abundance for the entire community — perhaps demonstrating an early Mesopotamian version of the adage “happy wife, happy life”.
The diverse presentation of divine sex creates something of a mystery around the causes for the cultural emphasis on cosmic copulation. While the presentation of divine sex and marriage in ancient Mesopotamia likely served numerous purposes, some elements of the intimate relationships between gods shows some carry-over to mortal unions.
While dishonesty between lovers could lead to alienation, positive sexual interactions held countless benefits, including greater intimacy and lasting happiness.
Eighty-five years ago, on April 5, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order allocating US$10 million for “Emergency Conservation Work.” This step launched one of the New Deal’s signature relief programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. Its mission was to put unemployed Americans to work improving the nation’s natural resources, especially forests and public parks.
Today, when Americans talk about “big government,” the connotation is almost always negative. But as I show in my history of the Corps, this agency infused money into the economy at a time when it was urgently needed, and its work had lasting value.
Corps workers planted trees, built dams and preserved historic battlefields. They left trail networks and lodges in state and national parks that are still widely used today. The CCC taught useful skills to thousands of unemployed young men, and inspired later generations to get outside and help conserve America’s public lands.
The spiritual value of outdoor work
Roosevelt had sketched out much of his concept for the CCC well before his inauguration on March 4, 1933. Proposing the corps on March 21, he asserted that it would be “of definite, practical value” to the nation and the men it enrolled:
“The overwhelming majority of unemployed Americans, who are now walking the streets and receiving private or public relief, would infinitely prefer to work. We can take a vast army of these unemployed out into healthful surroundings. We can eliminate to some extent at least the threat that enforced idleness brings to spiritual and moral stability.”
Congress enacted the bill on March 31, and Roosevelt signed it that day. Although there was no precedent for such a vast mobilization, enrollment started a week later in New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and other major cities, then fanned out across the country. By midsummer, some 250,000 men aged 18 to 25 had signed up. Their six-month term might be spent at one camp or several; it might be located across the continent or, rarely, just across town.
Another day, another dollar
CCC recruits came from families on relief. Agents from local welfare offices screened prospects, then passed them along to the Army for a physical examination and a final decision. The Army also managed the huge task of transporting successful applicants to hundreds of work camps. The corps established operations in all 48 states and the territories of Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, as well as a separate American Indian division.
Most enrollees were young unmarried men, but the CCC also created special companies of war veterans. This policy was Roosevelt’s response to the 1932 Bonus March, in which thousands of World War I veterans camped out in Washington, D.C., demanding early payment on promised military service bonuses, only to be evicted at gunpoint by order of then-president Herbert Hoover. (Some scholars believe this debacle helped clinch Roosevelt’s election later that year.)
CCC recruits could only bring a single trunk; tools were provided on-site. Many Corps members packed musical instruments, and some brought their dogs, which became company mascots. At the start many recruits slept in tents and bathed in nearby rivers. Those without experience in the great outdoors learned key lessons fast, such as how to avoid using poison ivy for toilet paper. Some succumbed to homesickness and dropped out, but most adjusted, forming baseball teams, music combos and boxing leagues.
Although the CCC was a civilian organization, the camps were run by the Army and bore some of its hallmarks. Dining facilities were called mess halls, beds had to be made tightly enough to bounce a quarter off them, and workers woke to the sound of reveille and went to sleep with taps. Commanding officers had final say over most issues.
At work sites, the Agriculture and Interior departments – custodians of U.S. public lands – were in charge. CCC members planted 3 billion trees, earning the nickname “Roosevelt’s tree army.” This work revitalized U.S. national forests and created shelter belts across the Great Plains to reduce the risk of dust storms. The corps also surveyed and treated forests to control insect pests and created forest fire prevention systems. Over its decade of operation, 42 enrollees and five supervisors died fighting forest fires.
Corps members created and landscaped 711 state parks, and built lodges and hiking trails in dozens of national parks and monument areas. Many of these facilities are still in use today. Attractions including the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg and Shiloh bear signatures of CCC work.
For their labors, corps members received $30 a month – but as a condition of enrollment, the CCC sent $22 to $25 each pay period home to their families. Still, at Depression prices, $5 was enough to visit nearby dance halls and meet girls once or twice a week. These forays sometimes ended in fights with jealous local men, but also led to many lifelong marriages.
In total, close to 3 million workers and their families received support from the CCC between 1933 and 1942. The corps also provided jobs for well over 250,000 salaried employees, including reserve military officers who ran the camps and so-called “local experienced men” – unemployed foresters who lived near the camps and were hired mainly to help supervise enrollees on the job.
Camps also hired unemployed teachers to offer informal evening classes. Some 57,000 enrollees learned to read and write during their CCC stints. Camps offered many other classes, from standard subjects like history and arithmetic to vocational skills such as radio, carpentry and auto repair.
Like other New Deal programs, the CCC had flaws. Party patronage heavily influenced hiring of salaried personnel. Although the law creating the CCC banned racial discrimination, black enrollment was capped. Many African-American enrollees were housed in “colored camps” and could only go into town for recreation and romance if black communities existed to serve them.
The CCC also discriminated socially, enrolling young men with families but excluding rootless transients who wandered from town to town in search of work and food. These men could have reaped great benefits from the CCC, but its leaders imagined an unbridgeable cultural gap between young men who came from families and others who came from the byroads. And the corps only enrolled men, although Eleanor Roosevelt convinced her husband to let her and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins organize a smaller network of “She-She-She” camps for jobless women.
Congress terminated funding for the CCC in 1942, after the United States entered World War II, although Roosevelt argued that it still played an essential role. Many men who had gained physical strength and learned to handle Army discipline in the CCC later entered the armed forces.
The tree army’s legacy
Beyond its physical impact, the corps helped to broaden public support for conservation. In the 1940s and 1950s, youth groups such as the Oregon-based Green Guards volunteered in local forests clearing flammable underbrush, cutting fire breaks and serving as fire lookouts. Others, such as the Student Conservation Association, advocated for wilderness protection and conservation education. Hundreds of former CCC enrollees helped lead these efforts. Today many teenagers work in national parks, forests and wildlife refuges every summer.
Although it is hard to picture a CCC-style initiative winning political support today, some of its ideas still resonate. Notably, the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan and some proposals for upgrading U.S. infrastructure present federal spending on projects that benefit society as a legitimate way to stimulate economic growth. The CCC combined that strategy with the idea that America’s natural resources should be protected so that everyone could enjoy them.
When Carmen Miranda sashayed her way into the hearts of Britain’s war-weary population in films such as The Gang’s All Here and That Night in Rio, her combination of tame eroticism and tropical fruit proved irresistible. Imagine having so much fruit you could wear it as a hat. To audiences suffering the strictures of rationing, Miranda’s tropical headgear shouted exoticism and abundance – with a touch of phallic sensuality thrown in.
In 1940s and 1950s Britain, bananas represented luxury, sunshine and sexiness. But entranced cinema-goers might have been surprised to learn that the bananas in Miranda’s tutti-frutti hat were in all probability descended from a strain developed in a hothouse at a stately home in Derbyshire, in England’s picturesque – but decidedly non-tropical – Midlands.
England got its first glimpse of the banana when herbalist, botanist and merchant Thomas Johnson displayed a bunch in his shop in Holborn, in the City of London, on April 10, 1633. He included the woodcut you see at the top of this article in his “very much enlarged” edition of John Gerard’s popular botanical encyclopedia, The herball or generall historie of plantes.
Johnson’s single stem of bananas came from the recently colonised island of Bermuda. We don’t know what variety it was – but these days the chances are that any banana you will find in a British supermarket will be descended from the Cavendish banana. This strain was developed in the 19th century by the head gardener at Chatsworth House, John Paxton. His invention is called the Cavendish, rather than the Paxton, after the family name of the owners of the Chatsworth estate, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
Paxton spent several years developing his banana. In 1835 his plant finally bore fruit, which won him a prize from the Royal Horticultural Society.
The Cavendish slowly gained popularity as a cultigen, but its current dominance is the result of a calamity. The genetic uniformity of commercial banana plantations is a hostage to ill-fortune. During the 1950s a virulent fungal pathogen wiped out the previously ubiquitous Gros Michel variety. The Cavendish stepped into the space left by the attack of Panama Disease. There is no reason to assume the fate suffered by the Gros Michel will not befall the Cavendish. What then will adorn our bowls of cereal and add volume to our smoothies?
Taste of the tropics
Europeans have long associated bananas with the exotic pleasures of distant, island paradises. When the exhausted Ilarione da Bergamo arrived in the Caribbean in 1761 after a long sea voyage, the sight of the local fruit convinced the Italian friar that the travails of his protracted journey had been worthwhile. “Thus I began enjoying the delights of America,” he noted in his diary. Travellers marvelled at the exuberance of new-world nature, which – unlike her more parsimonious European sister – offered ripe, sweet fruit all year round.
The opportunity to gorge on sugary fruits became part of the European image of the tropics. The historian David Arnold pointed out that, in English: “One of the earliest and most enduring uses of the adjective ‘tropical’ was to describe fruit.”
And of course these juicy, succulent treasures quickly became associated, not only with the tropics, but also with the sexual allure travellers projected onto women in the torrid zone. Women and tropical fruits merged into one delightful commodity in the overheated imagination of the US journalist, Carleton Beals, as he travelled through Costa Rica in the 1930s. “And the women,” he wrote breathlessly in Banana Gold, “their firm ample flesh seems ready to burst through the satin skin—like ripe fruit!”. Carmen Miranda’s provocative wink and her banana hat played masterfully on this centuries-old association.
Bananas originated in South-East Asia and were brought to the New World by European settlers – who, by the 19th century, were growing them on vast plantations in the Caribbean. Labour conditions on banana plantations were often atrocious. When underpaid workers at a plantation on Colombia’s Caribbean coast struck for better working conditions in 1928, they were gunned down by Colombian troops probably called in at the behest of the United Fruit Company.
The novelist Gabriel García Márquez immortalised this tragedy in a memorable scene in his One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Look at the mess we’ve got ourselves into,” one of his characters remarks, “just because we invited a gringo to eat some bananas”.
Far worse messes were to occur in Guatemala in 1954, when the United Fruit Company cooperated closely with the Guatemalan military and the US State Department to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, who had made the mistake of nationalising some of the unused lands owned by the fruit company. The coup ushered in decades of military rule, during which the government, locked in a struggle with the guerrilla movement that inevitably arose in response, engaged in what many scholars have described as genocide against the Maya population.
Today, bananas are so commonplace – thanks, of course, to industrial-scale production and working conditions that continue to attract critique – that they scarcely conjure up the delight they once inspired in the travel-fatigued Ilarione da Bergamo and weary postwar cinema goers. Since April 10 2018 marks the 385th anniversary of the day in 1633 when bananas were displayed for the first time to Londoners, it’s worth pondering the complex history behind the everyday banana.