The Kama Sutra and the Joy of Sex were not strictly ancient sex manuals, but actual instructions on pleasing one’s wife. Ancient sex is the only stand-alone genre in ancient literature. The writing of pornographic material evolves in the 4th or 5th century BC. Ancient sex manual writing comes at the same time as aristocratic writing. It is a cultural viewpoint that seeks to classify a certain type of knowledge. It makes a science of the human body by focusing on the human body to arouse you. It also helps to intellectualize the writing of smut and sexualized material and sets it in on equal footing to the sciences and mathematics. The authors talking about sex were doing so from the female’s point of view. In antiquity, women supposedly authored the books, but in actuality men using a woman’s name wrote them.
The mythical founder of the genre was Astyanassa, but it is said that the female Philaenis was even more popular than Astyanassa. The poet Aeschrion of Samos denied that Philaenis was really the author of this notorious work. Brief fragments of the manual, including the introductory words, have been rediscovered among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. It begins: “Philaenis of Samos, daughter of Ocymenes, wrote the following things for those wanting ... life”1. When the books were produced they came with graphic illustrations. The texts don’t survive but the impact on society does. We see these sexual images at Pompeii where every type of sexual position with every type of gender is depicted.
Sex was a mythical religion and should not be discussed, but authors were beginning to classify and catalogue types of women and the types of sex you should engage with them. Lucritious was a 1st century poet and philosopher who would catalogue types of women (physiognomy). Avid defined women by certain attributes, and after that, with a specific sexual position. If old, you would have sex with her from the back, and if young, lay her on her back. Women were becoming symbols and they were stripped of their humanity. They were anatomical parts.
Another example of ancient sex was sacred prostitution. Sacred prostitutes were connected to temples and the temples of Aphrodite. Slaves were purchased on the open market and forced to work in the sex trade industry where profits went to the temple. Some women even engaged in ritualized prostitution for a short period of time before marriage. Prostitution was sanctioned by the elites, and in places like Athens; state officials enforced price controls on prostitution. This was often because the wealthy owned the brothels, but a madam ran them. You would spend time training for prostitution usually at a young age. Your career consumed your adult years and at age twenty-five you were considered old. At one time in your life you could buy your freedom. Contraception was used but it rarely worked. It led to higher pregnancy rates, and those children born to free men, were rarely acknowledged. The women often lived in the brothels with a madam, who was usually an ex-slave, who would often take care of the children. There were high rates of miscarriage and exposure to disease and pollution. Not surprising considering the work environment was often dark and unsanitary. Disease was rampant, and not just STDS.
Love MagicLiterary accounts of erotic love magic go back to Homer, however evidence for actual performance of spells, in the form of lead curse tablets aimed at rivals, does not appear until the fourth century BC. The increased popularity of magic under the Roman Empire is demonstrated in the papyri from Egypt, which contains handbooks of prescriptions and recipes into which the names of agent and victims were to be inserted. Literature, meanwhile associated them, as it had in the past, with the figure of the witch who employs her craft to exert sexual power over men. There were also servants of divine intervention in Egypt who worked with families to cast spells and charms. They were a source of sexual information, and to some, they were regarded as witches.
Traditional association between witchcraft and sexuality had become even more sinister and was now colored by the lure of the forbidden. At the same time, though much of what we loosely call "erotic love magic" can be seen to conform to Mediterranean common sense, the confrontation between actual erotic spells and the masculine literary fantasies about erotic witchcraft will illuminate some dark comers of personal anguish and interpersonal spite2. There were dozens of different spells and curses including binding spells (agogai) to inflame someone with eros for the perpetrator, curses designed to separate couples, and philia spells to strengthen an existing relationship. Because astrology allowed individuals to profit from awareness of the future and sorcery enabled the weak to control the strong, those technologies were perceived as seditious; imperial decrees forbade consultations, expelled practitioners, and punished the guilty with exile or death3.
Winkler talks about the competition between families and how magic can give you a leg up. This was true in marriage, the acquisition of a lover, and social relations. Sex lives become a means of rivalry. Social standing and power in the community is at stake. Moreover social approval is equally significant. Magic tilts the scales in your favor and agogai were designed to lead a desired person to one's house and bed. It assured success of self and failure for others, therefore belief in magic allowed for blame to be shifted. Interestingly, papyri and archaeological evidence suggests it was men who evoked a third party, whether that were the dead, spirits, or the gods. This is a projection of male fantasy and the literature inverts the fantasy.
Spells revolve around eros. Some of the most common spells are those that improve one’s place in society. They ask for improvement in physical appearance. The person asks that both women and men find them charming. The spells are invoked because the person is essentially seeking arête. The secondary part asks for protection from death or embarrassment. Third, the competition must suffer. Spells are structured and ritualized. Spell XVII states, if you are the bearer of an inscribed wormwood root that you will be charming and befriended and admired by all who see you4. One spell was even used to induce dreams of a desired object. The person, most likely a woman, would go through a suffering (sickness of eros) and longing process for the person they wanted. There was a certain degree of violence in this because control and victimization are inverted throughout the dream, and one cannot control their actions and impulses in their dreams. Using love magic the man would get control. The same spell was not invoked on men because men tend to dream while they are awake-they daydream.
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- Philip W Comfort and David P Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, (Wheaton: Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers Incorporated, 2001).
- Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).
- Ibid, p 278.
- John J Winkler, “The Constraints of Desire: Erotic Magic Spells,” The Constraints of Desire, (New York: Routledge, 1990) 71-98.