While the average high school World History curriculum may have you intent on remembering dates, names, and who won what battle, facts about everyday culture and social contradictions to modern day developed society are frequently ignored in the textbooks. I've noticed that school curricula in general take the inside-out approach: record the legacies that a culture left, instead of recording what kind of a culture made those legacies. So of course, when a famed anthropologist digs up a nugget about say, a contradictory social or even sexual practice, the information is kept hush-hush, and a new generation of kids remain blissfully ignorant the wonders of the ancient world. The time is now for learning to be less about propaganda and more about reality. What better outlet to do so than everything2... and what better subject to start on than sex? With an open mind and a cache of information to peruse at hand, my quest for the sexual Holy Grail did not come fruitless.
Sex in the Ancient World
The aftermath of our Puritan ancestors has led most references to genitalia to be light-hearted and joking in nature, and sex to be considered unsuitable dinner conversation. However this was not the case for most of the ancient world. Sex was a thing to be celebrated and triumphed! The genitals were not considered to be obscene, and in some countries they were barely covered. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all left depictions of this sexual culture leaving little to the imagination.
The decorations on Greek pottery have left us with what amounts to a film show of what life was like. Much of it is highly sexual in content: satyrs and nymphs cavort naked under the olive trees, young men and women pass by, bathing, dancing, and making love, drawn from life as the artists saw it happen. The Greeks fought their battles either naked or nearly so and saw nothing strange in it. Interestingly enough, these pictures have been conveniently omitted from most cultural references due to the idea that the Greeks are good, so they must never have done it.
The Romans were less inclined to nudity but still had their festivals at which all pretence to modesty and shyness were abandoned. In fact their Bacchanalian festivals became so bad, so obscene and violent, that finally they were banned.
Meanwhile in Egypt, under the fierce heat, the women wore little more than a shift of transparent linen, while female slaves seldom wore anything more than beads and the men of the household wore a brief pleated kilt of the same material. A woolen cloak might be added at night if it grew chilly.
Sexual practices in different nations
I consider the reverence of the polytheistic societies torwards the phallus to be interesting, as this focus became integrated in monotheistic culture as well. Consider the Phoenicians-they called their chief god Asshur, or Asher, meaning "the penis, the happy one". According to the Torah, Yahweh (God) refers to Moses as Eheieh Asher Eheieh- see the similarity? Another of their Gods was Dagon. Represented as half-fish and half-man, he was a teacher of mankind who came up out of the sea each day and returned at night. The fish was worshipped as a fertility symbol because of the female fish's ability to lay many thousands of eggs and because it lived in the live-giving ocean. The practice of young women impaling themselves on the stone phallus of Asshur prior to their wedding night was commonplace
The Greek deity Zeus was the head honcho of Mount Olympus, and he made his sexual power known by appearing to goddesses and mortals alike in the form of a bull, swan, or golden shower (okay, stop laughing- read Edith Hamilton's Mythology and you'll get the correct connotation). Zeus didn't go after women alone- his abduction of the beautiful youth, Ganymede, in the form of an eagle has been the subject of many paintings. Zeus was known as the Aegis-Bearer, and this may have some sexual significance; the aegis was a ritual goat pelt worn by a chieftain or ruler and was the totem of the Aegidae, a tribe that moved into Greece in its early history. The goat, like Zeus himself, was exceptionally prolific and this may have accounted for the aegis being part of his symbology. Consequently the goat was considered an agent of fertility according to any sea-faring culture that the Greeks came in to contact with. His son, Hermes, was quite the player himself, often wooing and seducing many mortal women with his charm and trickery.
However, the most directly sexual god was Dionysus, the god of wine, theater, and debauchery in general. Dionysus was the patron of passion and sensuality, and all Greek theaters, dramas, and comedies were built, written, and performed in his honor. His Roman counterpart, Bacchus, even had a subculture of people called the Bacchantes who would have wild, frenzied orgies in his honor.
Rome was a civilization where the prostitution trade flourished, and celebrations of the phallus and vulva were commonplace. While the sexual atmosphere was healthy at first, it gradually became more decadent to the point of collapsing along with every other aspect of Roman civilization, just another step to usher in the Dark Ages. There were many different grades and degrees of prostitution, almost to the point of there being a sort of sexual caste system. The highest grade was that of the Delicatue, the kept women of the wealthy and prominent men. Next were the Famosae, usually the daughters and even the wives of wealthy families who simply enjoyed sex for its own sake. Then there were the Dorae who habitually went naked even in the town and by contrast the Lupae, or she-wolves, who plied their trade under the fornices or arches of the old temples, bridges, and the Colosseum. It is from this word that we get 'fornication' as an expression of debased sex. It was one of these lupae, called Laurentia, who found the twins Romulus and Remus and fed them saving their lives. The Elicariae were the bakers' girls who sold the phallus-shaped cakes in the markets and earned a little extra on the side. Copae were the serving girls in taverns and inns who could be hired as bedmates for the night by travelers, and the Noctiliae were the nightwalkers. Add to these the Bustuariae, Blitidae, Forariae and Gallinae, and you will get some idea of how low Rome sank.
The Indians (as indicated by the Kama Sutra, tehe) considered sex to be the highest form of spiritual worship to their Gods. The Triple God of India (the Trimurti) each had their own consort: Brahmin (the creator), Vishnu (the protector, and Shiva (the destroyer) each had a partner for their own sexual pleasure. Six was considered a magic, sexual number to the early Hindus.
If you've read and believed in the works of Sigmund Freud, and even if you haven't, you probably realize that our subconscious desire is to have sex and propagate our own species. Getting upset every time you pass up a chance for nookie would seriously hinder our lifestyles- so we channel this energy into other passions and talents. If it wasn't for the human sexual nature and the pursuit of sex, many things wouldn't get accomplished (as contradictory as that sounds). Sex and sexuality are the foundations of a healthy culture and the meter by which we can evaluate a society's ways and mores. Studying sexual practices not only is a learning tool, but helps us understand what our viewpoints as well.