Cures for Impotence
- Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality by Simon Goldhill
Cambridge, 194 pp, £30.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 521 47372 1
An unusual feature of the topography of ancient Athens was the strange half-statues, which the Athenians called Hermeses and we call herms: a representation of the god of travel, trickery and luck, abbreviated to a pillar, a head and a penis. They were to be seen all over the city, on street-corners, at cross-roads, by doors and gates, and midway on roads from the country into town, providing points of reference in a city with few street-names and little interest in town-planning. On the eve of ventures or on receipt of gains, Hermes attracted ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-yous’ in the form of cakes and flowers, his penis conveniently erect for hanging gifts on. In 415, however, during preparations for a great voyage of conquest into the western Mediterranean, the Athenians woke up to discover their lucky herms vandalised: disfigured and (perhaps) unmembered. Panicked and outraged, they set up an inquisition to find the culprits. Informers were forthcoming and a list of ‘Hermokopidai’ was drawn up, the majority of whom did not hang around long enough to test the equity of Athenian justice but abandoned their property to the public auctioneers, who catalogued it carefully and inscribed it on stone for the benefit of posterity. The expedition itself went ahead as planned. It was a disaster.
What possessed the ‘herm-bashers’ that night remains obscure. Traditional opinion divides between jinx and high-jinks, between an oligarchic conspiracy to scupper the fortunes of the democracy and a drunken prank at a spectacularly ill-judged moment in Athenian imperial history. In 1985, however, Eva Keuls published a book which opened up a new line of inquiry. The Hermokopidai were innocent, she suggested. The real culprits were the women of Athens, striking a blow against phallocracy by hitting Athenian men where it hurt.
The penis was everywhere in the ancient world. Apart from the herms, there were giant ceremonial dildoes carried in procession for Dionysus, satyriassic satyrs on vases and in plays, priapic actors in comedy and naked men in gymnasia or in stone. Priapus himself arrived rather later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods: a fertility god of orchards and gardens, he sometimes doubled as a guardian, threatening scrumpers with impalement on his elephantine organ. This array of virilia bore many symbolic associations. Big ones seem most often to have indicated obscenity and buffoonery, lust, luck and fertility; others were used to mark senility (when pendulous), otherness (when circumcised) and self-control. They were a symbol as much for women as for men and figured in a number of women-only festivals in the form of phallic costumes and phallic cakes. Some care was taken to distinguish different kinds of penis in art, and a strong contrast seems always to have been drawn between the gross members of satyrs and comic actors in Dionysus’ entourage and the very modest manhood of heroic and civic ideal. Sometimes the phallus seems even to have a life of its own. It appears as a bird, with eyes and wings, or with four legs and a tail as a phallus-centaur. Disembodied and re-embodied in this way, it had little to do with what most Greek men found between their legs.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 17 No. 21 · 2 November 1995
In his review of Simon Goldhill’s Foucault’s Virginity, James Davidson (LRB, 19 October) takes Kenneth Dover to task for insufficient sobriety in the section of his study of Greek homosexuality entitled ‘Dominant and Subordinate Roles’: ‘Dover abandons his painstaking philology, turning instead to pornographic vase paintings elucidated with the help of anthropology and zoology.’ (Post-Modernist classics seems to abominate analogy.) Earlier in the review Davidson renders himself liable to a similar charge by claiming that ‘historians of phallocracy’ are forced to turn to images because abusive sexual language ‘is conspicuous by its absence in ancient Greek’. This is a staggering mis-statement which a glance at the index of Dover’s book would be sufficient to refute. The Greek for ‘get stuffed’ is ou (ouchi) laikasei, which literally means ‘accept a cock down your throat’. There are plenty of instances in the ancient Greek world of sexual language being used aggressively and self-assertively, with the implication that the act denoted has humiliated or will humiliate the object of the abuse. There is a large amount of evidence for this in the form of abusive graffiti. Does Davidson think that the person or persons who incised the following onto a pillar in Karnak intended to remind Ptolemy of some pleasurable casual sex he had recently enjoyed? ‘Ptolemy – they fuck him in the street. Ptolemy the son of Abdaios – they buggered him in the same street.’ What was the intention of the men who inscribed walls in, respectively, Gela, Thasus and Ostia with the words ‘the writer will bugger the reader,’ ‘I have buggered the passer-by,’ ‘I bugger all those who write on the wall’? How are we to explain the type of graffito laying claim to possession of an object and warning off potential thieves (‘whoever steals Olympas’ bowl will be buggered’) except in terms of self-assertive male aggression and of the assumption that penetration is a humiliation for a man? While I agree with Davidson (and Goldhill) that Greek sexuality is a complex matter and that many of those who write on it tend towards heavy-handedness, and while I am far from happy about concepts (or indeed words) like ‘phallocracy’, I cannot see how it can be gainsaid that in the ancient Greek world the phallus was on occasions thought of as a weapon rather than a generative organ or an instrument of pleasure.
University of Manchester
Vol. 17 No. 23 · 30 November 1995
In the course of taking James Davidson to task for thinking that the ancient Greeks did not share our present use of phallocratic expletives (Letters, 2 November), D.M. Bain quotes some abusive graffiti and the Greek equivalent of the nicety ‘accept a cock down your throat.’ Now one understands why Liddell and Scott evaded a literal translation, calling it simply a ‘vulgar form of execration’, and also why Michael Heseltine, when confronted with the same expression in Petronius, lets the cold go to the devil and nowhere else in his Loeb translation of 1913. But an interesting question remains. Why is it that such phallocratic expletives can never be traced to the ancient Greeks? They all seem to belong to a period of Romanised Greeks and Graecised Romans who lived much later and compensated for their distance from the ancient Greeks with what one could call experimental sensationalism in sexualibus, a field then as widely exploited by (quasi) literary means as it is again nowadays.
Vol. 17 No. 24 · 14 December 1995
James Davidson (LRB, 19 October) claims that aggressive sexual slang is ‘conspicuous in ancient Greece by its absence’, overlooking the strong sexual and scatological invective of Aristophanes and the other poets of Old Comedy. Vase paintings even break their usual muteness on this issue to speak directly on a vase portraying a Persian archer bending over as a Greek approaches from behind holding his erect penis in hand, penetration clearly in mind; its inscription ‘Eyrymedon eimi’ (‘I am Eurymedon’) makes a coarse play of the name of the river Eurymedon, site of a contemporary Greek naval victory, as well as the words ‘Euryproktos’ (‘wide-arsed’) and ‘Medos’ (‘Mede’, a synonym for ‘Persian’, which also has a homonym meaning ‘genitals’). It is fully analogous to the modern sexual ‘to scud’, which Davidson mentions.
Indiana University-Purdue University,
I must correct the implication behind the question posed by J.R. Evenhuis: ‘Why is it that such phallocentric expletives can never be traced back to the ancient Greeks?’ (Letters, 30 November). It is simply not the case that such expressions are uttered only by Romanised Greeks or Graecised Romans. Laikazo is at home in Aristophanes and one of the epigraphic examples of buggering the reader I adduced in my previous letter dates from the early fifth century.
Vol. 18 No. 1 · 4 January 1996
I am relieved that an authority on ancient sexual images like Robert Sutton and an expert on sexual graffiti like David Bain have between them been able to come up with only such meagre and familiar evidence for the connection between power and penetration in classical Athens (Letters, 14 December 1995). The well-known vase that is supposed to commemorate the victory at the river Eurymedon in southern Turkey crops up so repetitively in accounts of sex and power at Athens that I am becoming convinced it is the only evidence there is. It is nevertheless not very good evidence. It does not in fact depict penetration at all, but someone, ‘Eurymedon’ (?), bent over, waiting to be serviced by a strange running figure on the other side of the vase. It seems, therefore, to indicate sexual incontinence rather than domination, like the Sicilian tyrant, Agathocles, who behaved like a common prostitute ‘putting his rear parts in front of anyone who wanted’. The gap between them cannot simply be ignored. The most that could confidently be adduced is not therefore Dover’s ‘We’ve buggered the Persians,’ but ‘Any minute now we will be buggering the Persians’ – an unaccountable postponement of the moment of triumph. But even this is wrong. Eurymedon is the site of the battle. What’s the point of buggering the battlefield? Especially when the site in question is a river and a god? All these objections, I should point out, and others on a more technical level were well made by Gloria Ferrari Pinney in 1984. She concluded that ‘the case for the patriotic interpretation’ was ‘weak’. I suppose ‘wide-ruling’ (eurumedon) might allude to ‘wide-arsed’ (euruproktos), but it must be one of the most obscure jokes in ancient literature, like expecting readers to discover in Biggles a reference to Big Fairy, for instance. Eurymedon is a normal Greek name borne by a number of people in literature and life. The vase could refer to any of them.
I was aware also of the evidence from graffiti. I make three points: 1. As J.R. Levenhuis notes, few examples are classical or from Greece. 2. The Greeks certainly considered touching the genitals with the mouth revolting, but it seems extraordinary to see this as a problem of penetration rather than of dirt and pollution – the most execrable act, after all, was cunnilingus. 3. If the buggered reader is insulted it is because he is used casually and anonymously for sex, like a prostitute; the reader of David Bain’s cup is threatened with buggery only as a substitute if the writer is frustrated in his lust for lovely Phryna.
Dover declared a long time ago that there was ‘abundant evidence’ for a distinction between dominant and subordinate sexual roles in classical Athens. As far as I can tell this evidence has never been produced, Norse sagas notwithstanding. Nevertheless the claims about these links continue to grow. Since then it has been suggested that in the ancient world the emphasis on power in penetration was so overwhelming that it eclipsed all other possibilities for ancient sexuality. If this is remotely true it should not be so hard to find a few unequivocal examples. On the other hand, no one disputes evidence that points in the opposite direction, the very strong indications, for instance, that the Greeks, unlike us, considered womanisers (who are on the positive end of the penetrating penis) womanish, that notches on the bed-post had a negative effect on an Athenian’s sense of masculine prowess. There is a real problem here for the phallocratic theory that Foucault’s notion of ‘passivity with regard to pleasures’ does nothing to resolve. I am prepared to accept that among the many classical views of sex there were some that pictured penetration as power, but I would like to see some more convincing evidence first, and I would need a great deal of persuading that this could be described as the dominant perspective, let alone an alternative to sexuality.
This debate needs, I think, to be put in perspective. Let us remind ourselves what the classicists’ doubtful allusions are up against. Apart from the banal use of swear-words, ‘up yours’, ‘get screwed’ etc which distinguish modern society most noticeably, I quote at random some of the more striking examples of our nasty view of sex for which I cannot recall any classical Greek analogy. There is, for instance, Oliver Reed, who remarked on television some years ago that ‘the thing women will never forgive is that men fuck them.’ There is also the man who assisted in Lorca’s fusillation and later boasted in the local café that he had put ‘two bullets into his arse for being a queer’. Then, courtesy of the local video shop, there is Bruce Willis in Die Hard, describing a conspicuous set-back for the authorities as being ‘buttfucked on national TV’. Of course sex meshed with power at many points in classical Greece, but the relationship between them is rather more complex than this ‘zero-sum game’ of who fucks who over.
Vol. 18 No. 2 · 25 January 1996
James Davidson (Letters, 4 January) does well, I reckon, to show just how open to over-interpretation that saucy Greek vase is – ‘well-known’ to those in the know incidentally, but not to anyone else: an illustration would have been a help. There’s still one feature of the ambiguous scene on the vase that Davidson has failed to explain, however: why is the ‘strange figure’ presumed to be approaching bent on buggery running? Was buggery an act thought by the Greeks to be more attractive or incisive when attended by a certain urgency? Or is the scene as shown perhaps a joke? I find it comic; did they?