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What women in ancient times really thought about sex

Getty Images Etruscan sarcophagus with reclining couple (credit: getty images)fake images

(Credit: Getty Images)

A new book tells the history of the ancient world through women. Here author Daisy Dunn explores what they had to say about their own sexuality, flying in the face of misogynistic male stereotypes.

According to Semonides of Amorgos, a poet who worked in Greece in the 7th century BC. C., there are ten main types of women. There are women like pigs, because they prefer to eat rather than clean; women who resemble foxes, as they are peculiarly observant; donkey-women, who are sexually promiscuous; dog-women, marked by their disobedience. There are stormy sea women, greedy tombs of the earth, hendas of the thieves, horsy lazy women, agents of unattractive monkeys and, the only friendly: bees of bees.

Of all the women described in this list, which pulsates with the misogyny of the time, the so-called sexually promiscuous “donkey-women” are perhaps the most mysterious.

Getty Images Ancient Greek poet Sappho gave powerful expression to female desire (credit: Getty Images)fake images

The ancient Greek poet Sappho gave powerful expression to female desire (Credit: Getty Images)

Historical accounts from the ancient world tend to reveal the cloistered nature of women’s lives. In Greece, women were generally veiled in public, and in Rome, they had “guardians” (usually her father or husband) to supervise their movements and handling of property. Was the concept of the lustful woman pure male fantasy? Or were women in the ancient world more interested in sex than is generally believed?

As I learned while researching my new book The Missing Hild, the first history of the ancient world to be written through women, we have to look hard if we want to discover what women really thought about sex.

Until now, ancient women shuddered at the sight of some being buried with her.

The vast majority of surviving sources were written by men prone to exaggerate women’s sexual habits in one direction or another. Some went to such extremes to emphasize a woman’s virtues that they made her seem almost saintly and inhuman. Others deliberately presented women as sexually voracious to blacken their character. If we took these descriptions at face value, we would conclude that women in the ancient world were all chaste or sex-crazed. Fortunately, it is possible to peek into the hearts of some classic women, who offer a much deeper insight into female sexuality.

Confessions of love

Looking at the same period as the poet mentioned above, we met Sappho, who composed lyric poetry on the Greek island of Lesbos in the seventh century BC. C. Looking at a woman sitting talking to a man, Sappho documented the intense physical sensations she experienced: heart flutter, hesitant speech, fire in the veins, temporal blindness, ears sounding, cold sweat, trembling, the paleness, all of which is familiar to anyone. Who has fallen into lust? In another poem, Sappho described to garnish a woman with flowers and melanchically remembered how, in a soft bed, she “would turn off her” of her. ” These are the confessions of a woman who understands the irrepressibility of falling in love.

Sappho’s poems are now so fragmentary that it can be difficult to read them accurately, but scholars have detected in one of the papyri a reference to the “comforters,” known in Greek as was a kid. In Greece they were used in fertility rituals, as well as for pleasure, and appear as such in several vase paintings. Later, also in Rome, phallic objects had a talisman-like quality. It would not have made sense for women to shy away from symbols believed to bring good luck.

Getty Images A sarcophagus depicting a couple reclining together, one of many examples of romantically inclined Etruscan artwork (credit: Getty Images)fake images

A sarcophagus depicting a couple reclining together, one of many examples of Etruscan artwork with romantic leanings (Credit: Getty Images)

Until now, ancient women shuddered at the eroticism that some were buried with it. In the period before Rome rose to prominence, the highly skilled Etruscans dominated the Italian mainland and filled it with scenes of a romantic nature. Numerous works of art and pieces of tomb statuary depict men and women reclining together. An incense burner with men and women touching each other’s genitals was buried with an Etruscan woman in the 8th century BC. c.

How prostitution was perceived

You only have to visit an ancient brothel, like those at Pompeii, to see that sex was frequently on display. The walls of the gloomy cellos -shaped rooms in which sex workers stepped on their trade are covered with graffiti, a large part of them written by male clients, who liked to comment on the actions of the appointed women.

Historical stories and speeches abound in descriptions of the difficulties that these workers suffered. Against Neaera, an impeachment speech given by the Athenian politician Apollodorus in the 4th century BC. C., provides a particularly surprising insight into the precariousness of these women’s lives. However, from time to time we hear a woman in contact with this world and her words surprise us.

In the 3rd century BC. C., a poet named Nossis who lives in the toe of Italy wrote in praise of a work of art and the fact that it was financed by a sex worker. A glorious statue of Aphrodite, goddess of sex and love, sung Nossis, had been erected in a temple with money raised by Poliarchis.

Polyararchis was not an anomaly. A previous that’s all (Courtesy or high-status sex worker) Named Doricha used the money she had similarly acquired to buy something for public viewing, in her case impressive spits for kitchen oxen to be displayed in Delphi.

It wasn’t sex these women accepted, but the rare possibility that it would allow them to remember after they died. The vast majority of the women they knew were destined for anonymity.

Reports from male writers

Male writers, for all their prejudices, can offer some of the most interesting insights about women and sex. In 411 BC BCE, the comedian Aristophanes made a play called Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens organize a sex strike in an attempt to persuade their husbands to agree to peace terms during the Peloponnesian War. This was a real conflict, fought between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies for three decades.

Getty Images Depiction of Lysistrata by Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley for a print edition of Aristophanes' comedy about Athenian women on sex strike (Credit: Getty Images)fake images

Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley’s depiction of Lysistrata for a print edition of Aristophanes’ comedy about Athenian women going on a sex strike (credit: Getty Images)

Many of the women in the play are less than pleased to have to give up their pleasure. They are made to fulfill the donkey woman stereotype for comedic effect. However, there is a moment when the play turns in a serious direction and Aristophanes offers a more convincing female point of view.

The main character, Lysistrata, who organizes the strike, describes what it is really like for women in wartime. They are not only excluded from the Assembly, in which the war is discussed, but they are repeatedly grieved. And although such a prolonged conflict is hell for married women, it is even worse for single women, who are deprived of the opportunity to marry completely.

It was quite common among the upper classes for marriages to be arranged, and a woman’s first sexual experience could be disorienting.

While men, Lysistrata notes, can return home from war with gray hair and still marry, the same is not true for virgins, many of whom will be considered too old to marry and procreate. These lines convey the difference between the male and female experience of war so precisely that it is tempting to believe that they reflect what women of the time were actually saying.

We can find women’s real fears surrounding sex expressed in Greek tragedy as well. Sophocles, the playwright most famous for Oedipus Rex, had a female character in his lost play Tereus describe what it is like to go from virgin to wife. “And this, as soon as one night has brought us together,” pronounces Procne, a mythical queen, “we must recommend and consider them quite charming.”

It was quite common among the upper classes for marriages to be organized. A woman’s first experience of sex could be as disorienting as Procne described.

Old sex tips

Women sometimes committed such thoughts with papyrus. In a letter attributed to her, Theano, a Greek philosopher in the circle of Pythagoras (some say she was his wife), offers her friend Eurydice timeless advice. A woman, she writes, should be put off by her embarrassment in her clothes when she enters her husband’s bed. She can put them both back together as soon as she is back on her feet.

Theano’s letter has come under scrutiny and may not be authentic. However, he echoes what many women have been told in more modern times, and his advice appears to have been followed by women in the ancient world as well.

British Museum An ancient Greek vase depicting a woman sprinkling seeds on Phalli, which were used in fertility rituals (Credit: British Museum)British museum

An ancient Greek vase depicting a woman sprinkling seeds on Phalli, which were used in fertility rituals (Credit: British Museum)

A certain Greek poet, Elephantis, was supposedly so interested in giving women sexual advice that he wrote his own short books on the subject. Unfortunately, there is no sign of his work today, but the Roman martial poet and Roman biographer and archivist Suetonius, who claimed that the emperor Tiberius (notorious for his sexual appetites) owned copies of it.

When other women are cited in other men’s writings, they tend to express themselves in terms of love rather than sex explicitly, marking them from some of their male contemporaries, including Martial and Catullus.

Lesbia, Catullus’s pseudonymous lover, tells him that “what a lady says to her lover in the moment / must be written in the wind and running water.” The phrase “pillow talk” comes to mind.

Sulpicia, one of the few Roman poetesses whose verses survive, describes her misery at being in the countryside away from her lover Cerinthus on her birthday, and then her relief that she can be in Rome after all.

These women didn’t need to describe sex with their loved one in raw detail to reveal what they really thought of him. Men can master the sources, but women, as Aphrodite knew well, could be so passionate when the curtains were closed.

The Missing Thread: A New History of the Ancient World through the Women Who Shaped It by Daisy Dunn has just been published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK and will be published by Viking in the US on July 30.

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