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In ancient Mesopotamia, sex among the gods shook heaven and earth



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The “Burney Relief,” which is believed to represent either Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, or her older sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the underworld (c. 19th or 18th century BC)
BabelStone

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

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.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh


Divine sex

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.

The goddess Ishtar as depicted in Myths and legends of Babylonia & Assyria, 1916, by Lewis Spence.
Wikimedia

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.




Read more:
Friday essay: the legend of Ishtar, first goddess of love and war


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.

Love poetry

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.

Ancient Sumerian cylinder seal impression showing Dumuzid being tortured in the Underworld by the galla demons.
British Museum

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.

In ancient Mesopotamia, a goddess’ vulva could be compared to a flock of ducks.
Shutterstock.com

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.

Agricultural imagery was often used to describe the union of goddess and king. Honey, for instance, is described as sweet like the goddess’ mouth and vulva.

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.

The ConversationWhile dishonesty between lovers could lead to alienation, positive sexual interactions held countless benefits, including greater intimacy and lasting happiness.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Elite companions, flute girls and child slaves: sex work in ancient Athens



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A painting depicting a debate between Socrates and Aspasia, by Nicolas André Monsiaux, circa 1800.
Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.

When the Athenian politician Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), commemorating those who had fallen during the course of the year, a rumour emerged that his companion, Aspasia was the real author. The claim was made by no other than Socrates, whose testimony was recorded by Plato. This assertion may not be that difficult to believe in view of Aspasia’s role in Athenian society.

Bust of Aspasia, identified through an inscription. Marble, Roman copy after an Hellenistic original. From Torre della Chiarrucia.
Wikimedia Commons

Aspasia (c. 460-400 BC) was a hetaira, an elite companion or courtesan trained in the arts of pleasing wealthy, upper-class men. This training included acquiring musical skills, developing the art of conversation and, of course, being able to sexually satisfy clients.

While Aspasia may not have been a typical hetaira, but rather an exceptionally successful and fortunate one, there is ancient evidence to attest that this class of women was educated in literary arts, philosophy, and rhetoric. In this sense, they could converse with men in a way that traditional wives could not, owing to the limited access to formal education afforded Athenian girls and women of citizen families.

Yet Aspasia may not have born into the trade. From a wealthy family from Miletus (in modern-day Turkey), she seems to have acquired her extensive education through virtue of their prominence and her father’s decision to allow her tuition. The circumstances behind her arrival in Athens are debated, although as a resident alien, Aspasia had little options once there. She could not legally marry an Athenian citizen, nor could she seek legitimate work.

Other hetairai, like Neaira, were put into the trade as children and trained for a life of satisfying wealthy clients. There are comparatively extensive records for Neaira, who lived in Athens in the 4th century BC, owing to her involvement in a court case on charges of illegally marrying and passing off her daughter as a legitimate Athenian. Through the course of the proceedings, Neaira’s life was detailed, and it tells a very different tale to the comparatively glamorous accounts of Aspasia’s time with Pericles.

As a little girl, Neaira was sold to a woman by the name of Nicarete and trained as a sex worker in her brothel in Corinth (in southern Greece). Accounts of her life as a child reveal that she was working for Nicarete, along with six other girls purchased at the same time, before she had come of age (before puberty). As she matured, Neaira was sold, passed around, and finally found herself in court on charges of illegally marrying.

Kylix with a hetaira holding a large cup playing kottabos (a drinking party game where men flicked the dregs of their wine at a target), circa 500 BC.
Wikimedia images

Modifying girls to please men’s tastes

The lives of other girls and women reveal the hardships they faced. In addition to hetairai, there were those who worked their whole lives (until they were of no further use) in brothels. The price of women varied according to their age and condition and the quality (or lack thereof) of the business. As the hetairai were trained in the skills required to please men, women in brothels were sometimes modified to suit certain male tastes.

In an extract preserved from a comic play from the 4th or 3rd century BC, the lengths to which a pimp would go to alter the appearance and behaviour of new girls is recorded:

One girl happens to be small? Cork is stitched to the sole of her
delicate shoes. One girl happens to be tall? She wears a flat slipper,
and goes out drooping her head on her shoulders, thus
taking away some of her height. One girl doesn’t have hips?
She puts on a girdle with padded hips under her clothes so that
men, on seeing her beautiful derriere, call out to her.

Comedies, which regularly dealt with what society deemed as the less salubrious aspects of life, have provided historians of sex with significant evidence of brothel life. The passage continues:

One girl has red eyebrows? They paint them with lamp soot.
One girl happens to be black? She anoints herself with white lead.
One girl is too white-skinned? She smears on rouge.
One part of her body is beautiful? She shows it naked.
Her teeth are pretty? She must, of necessity, smile so that
the men present may see what an elegant mouth she has.
But if she does not enjoy smiling, she must spend the day
indoors and, like something positioned by a butcher
when selling goats’ heads,
she must hold upright between her teeth a thin stick of myrtle;
that way, in time she will show off her teeth whether she likes to or not.

In another comedy from the same era, the playwright describes the women on display in brothels. They are depicted as “sun-bathing” with their “breasts openly displayed” and “naked for action and lined up in rows.” As with the modification of the women described above, this passage also discusses the variety of women available:

From them you may select one for your pleasure:
thin, fat, round, tall, short,
youthful, antique, middle-aged, or overly ripe …

The passage also includes a statement that explains the popularity of paying for sex in ancient Greece; namely the safety-net it afforded men who could not even look at freeborn women for fear of reprisals.

Courtesan and her client. Tondo of a red-figure cup, circa. 510-500 BC.
Wikimedia images

Did temple prostitutes exist?

As a woman aged, the chances of being able to access a means living through sex work became decidedly more difficult. Turning to a comic play once more, there is a description of an aged hetaira called Lais and the difficulties and humiliations facing her, which is evoked by the lines: “it is easier to get an audience with her than it is to spit”.

Lais was an actual person who lived around the same time as Aspasia, and was reputed to have been a stunningly beautiful hetaira. Once courted by elite men, and described as having a haughty disposition, the aged Lais is depicted in this comedic passage as roaming the streets, taking on any client she could get, and having become “so tame … that she takes the money out of your hand.”

The existence of so-called “temple prostitution” in Greek, Italian and Near Eastern antiquity has been recorded by several ancient authors, including Strabo in his Geography, written in the first century BC, which details “temple slaves” in the precincts of Aphrodite at Eryx (Sicily) and Corinth. Some sources, including Strabo, imply that the women were dedicated as votive offerings to the goddess, and that they serviced clients as a form of “sacred sex.”

Nevertheless, some scholars now question the practice, offering several alternative explanations, including the possibility of brothels having been associated with such temples but not strictly related to them, and the confusion over accounts of women donating to temples of those goddesses under whose divine ordinance they practised their work.

In addition to hetairai, lower-grade sex workers who populated brothels from the slave and resident alien classes and possibly, temple slaves, there were also young men who serviced clients. Like their female equivalents, young men worked in the ergasterion (workshop) and the porneion (brothel) at the bottom end of the market, which were were dismal environments for the porne (harlot) and pornos (rent-boy) alike.

The word hetairos (male companion) is also attested in some sources but rarely in its reference to sexual activity. As with females, youthful men were the most desired, with a preference for those between the ages of 12 to 17. These young men also worked alongside the women often referred to as “flute girls” at the male gatherings called symposia. At these social events, young sex workers would entertain the guests, serve them food and wine, and if required, service them.

The ConversationOutliving Pericles by almost 30 years, Aspasia was said to have become the companion of another politician, Lysicles. She was a survivor and experienced an exceptionally long life as a hetaira. As such, she was a rarity.

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Debauchery on the fatal shore: the sex lives of Australia’s convicts



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A chain gang of convicts in Hobart.
State Library of NSW

Graham Willett, University of Melbourne

Welcome to our series on sexual histories, in which our authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.


In 1787, when Arthur Phillip was preparing to lead the First Fleet to establish the British colony in New South Wales he wrote to his superiors to sort out what powers he would have over convicts and the soldiers sent to guard them. At one point, he addressed his power of life and death. Only two offences, he thought, deserved the death penalty – murder and sodomy:

For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal until an opportunity offered of delivering him to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him. The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death.

It might not look like it, but Phillip was expressing a rather liberal point of view here. In Britain at this time, there were hundreds of offences that attracted the death penalty. In reducing his list to two he was flying in the face of all common sense. But it is striking that sodomy is on his little list.

While the administration took a dim view of same-sex desire, sex between men and between women flourished in Australia’s convict system – and thanks to the watchful eye of the colonial government, we know much about it.

Crime and punishment

Phillip’s views on sodomy were not an unreasonable position at the time. The Christian Bible was very clear that men who lay with men as with women were deserving of death; and the law – which had been instituted by Henry VIII, that great defender of the nation’s morals – agreed.

As it happened, Phillip, who served as governor until 1792, never got to put his policy into practice. There were no executions for sodomy; nor was anyone shipped off to New Zealand. Watkin Tench, a First Fleeter, opined that there were few “crimes of a deep dye” in the first four years of the colony and that “murder and unnatural sins rank not hitherto in the catalogue of [the convicts’] enormities”.

The convict ruins at Port Arthur.
Shutterstock.com

The first prosecution only came in 1796 when Francis Wilkinson, a labourer, was charged with “that most horrid detestable and sodomitic crime (among Christians not to be named) called Buggery”. We don’t know his fate. The first execution for sodomy that we know of was of Alexander Brown in 1828. This execution is perhaps the first sign of a coming storm. Historian Robert French estimates that about 20 men were executed as sodomites between 1828 and 1863.

By the 1830s, the free settlers in NSW were desperate to put an end to the transportation of convicts to the colony. There were many reasons for this, but one most forcefully put was that it was undermining the moral development of the colony. In the thinking of the time, criminality, including sodomy, was seen as a physical degeneracy passed from generation to generation. So convicts were seen by very nature to be poor stock with which to colonise the country.

And the disproportion of men to women was seen as leaving the convict classes prey to the temptation of sodomy. The Chaplain of Fremantle Prison wrote in 1854,

What will ensue when we have thousands of men cooped up in the colony without wives and unable to seek them elsewhere. Evil will be the result – too humiliating for the mind to dwell upon– too revolting to name. … That moral evil of far greater magnitude, which has of old brought down the signal judgment of Heaven, will result.

Love in plain sight

But if the anxieties of the authorities had unleashed a wave of debate and discussion about the dangers of debauchery, it is important to be aware that there is another way of looking at this – recognising that sodomy was also part of the lived experience of convict men and women, and that their experience was not at all the same as that of the horrified authorities.

Where respectable colonists saw filth and moral evil, there is evidence that convict women and men experienced companionship, affection and attachment, which included sexual love. Consider this letter, written by a convict in 1846 on the eve of his being hanged:

I hope you wont forget me when I am far away and all my bones is moldered away I have not closed an eye since I lost sight of you your precious sight was always a welcome and loving charming spectacle. Dear Jack I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you … The only thing that grieves me love is when I think of the pleasant nights we have had together. I hope you wont fall in love with no other man when I am dead and I remain your True and loving affectionate Lover.

The convicts’ barracks at Hyde Park in Sydney.
Adam Jones/Flickr, CC BY-SA

We know quite a lot about love between convicts because they were being constantly monitored by the authorities. In 1841 there was an inquiry into a riot at the Launceston female factory (prison/workhouse) which discovered that sexual relationships between women were common – “depraved” behaviour, “unnatural connection” and the like.

One witness identified six female couples by name; others suggested there were anything from eight to 30 such couples. It was said that there were cases where a woman, sent out of the factory and into private service, would reoffend, so as to be sent back to where her lover was. When the authorities tried to break up couples, women would refuse to leave their cells, or even riot.

The medical superintendent of the Ross female factory – who habitually intercepted the women’s letters – reported on “warmth and impetuosity of the feelings excited in women towards each other, when allied in such unholy bonds”. (It is highly likely that he used the term “unholy bonds” having in mind the “holy bonds” of matrimony, suggesting that these women saw themselves as married).

An 1837 British parliamentary inquiry into the transportation system heard much evidence of the extent of debauchery among the convicts. The inquiry came to be believe there was a semi-underground subculture (a “demi-monde”) in existence.

New arrivals at the Hyde Park barracks, including younger men, put themselves selves under protection of older men – and adopted names such as Kitty, Nancy, Bett. On Norfolk Island, Robert Stuart reported as many as 150 male couples, who referred to themselves openly as “man and wife”. (Same-sex marriage is not as new as we might think).

Relationships among the convicts were of course many different things: situational – a desire for sexual outlet in the absence of the other sex – or coercive, expressing power over someone lower down the pecking order.

The ConversationThey may have been about the more desirable trading sex and affection for protection and advancement. All of these applied, of course, just as much to heterosexual relationships. But as with these, love between men or between women was often enough just that – love.


Graham Willett, Honorary Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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