L02 Ancient Religons: Sex as Sacred
The view of sex as sacred had a number of components. As you read through this section, be sure to compare this conception of sex to contemporary views.
The Divine as Female
Photo of an ancient statue of a female. From about 25,000 BCE to 500 CE, many religions were based on the belief in divinity and creator as female. These religions existed before the classical age of Greece and well before many of our contemporary religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
These religions flourished in the Near and Middle East in what has been called “the cradle of western civilization” or “the Fertile Crescent” that is, in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Phoenicia, Egypt (in areas currently known as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt). But goddesses have been and continue to be worshipped in all areas of the world.
Creation myths are a valuable way to understand the values and beliefs of cultures. They are one of the ways people make sense of the world. They provide narratives through which people understand how the world was created and often include an explanation of both how and why humans came to exist. Creation myths are often a way people understand the nature of the divine and describe the relationship between the world and the divine. Is nature, for example, divine, that is, inherently valuable? Was nature created for a purpose, such as to provide the foundation for meaningful human existence? Creation myths often provide a sense of human purpose—for example, to serve the gods—or offer information about the nature of human existence—for example, created in the image of the divine.
L02 Hesiod’s Theogony
Hesiod was a Greek poet who was writing in the period of 700 BCE. Not all of his works survive, but one that does is the Theogony in which he chronicles the history of the gods. While these are called ‘myths,’ they were taken as true accounts, that is, as a narrative form of what is experienced or apprehended as basic reality. These myths have also had a significant influence on Western art and literature. In other words, for the people for whom these were their creation stories, they are no less mythic than is the creation myth found in Genesis in which creation is depicted as ex nihilo, as out of nothing.
What follows is a selection from the Theogony in which Hesiod describes the creation of the world:
Chaos was born first and after her game Gaia
The broad-breasted, the firm seat of all…
Chaos gave birth to Erebos (shadow/underworld) and black Night,
Then Erebos mated with Night and made her pregnant
And she in turn gave birth to Ether and Day.
Gaia now first gave birth to starry Ouranos (sky),
Her match in size, to encompass all of her,
And be the firm seat of all the blessed gods.
She gave birth to the tall mountains, enchanting haunts
Of the divine nymphs who dwell in the woodlands;
And then she bore Pontos, the barren sea with its raging swell.
All these she bore without mating in sweet love. But then
She did couple with Ouranos to bear deep-eddying Okenaos, Koios, and Kreios, Hyperion and Ispetos, Theia and Rheia, Themis and Mnemosyne,
As well as gold-wreathed Phoibe and lovely Tethys.” [123-136]
Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days, translated M. L. West. Oxford University Press, 1988.
Creation from the Body
In Hesiod’s Theogony, the primordial creator gods, Chaos and Gaia, are female. And in both cases, creation happens through birth. Even Chaos and Gaia are born, and they in turn give birth, initially parthenogenetically (from the Greek παρθένος, parthenos, ‘virgin’ + γένεσις, genesis, ‘creation), from the female alone. Later they create through mating.
What we see with a creation myth like this is reproduction and creation from the body as divine. The body of the goddess is not only the source of original creation, but it is often seen as a continuing source of life and fertility. Consider, for example, this image of the Goddess Nut, Goddess of the sky and all heavenly bodies, which is depicted on the ceiling inside the temple of Hathor, the Goddess of Love, in Dendera, Egypt.
Photo of the ceiling of the temple of Hathor.
Here you see the body of Nut arching over the earth, the sun emerging from and protected by her pelvic area and the moon emerging from her mouth, milk flowing from her breast toward the earth.
In her role as “She who Bore the Gods,” Nut was depicted as lying on top of earth (Geb, God of earth) where they continually had sex and through which many of the Gods were born. The body of the Goddess was not only depicted as the source of the original creation but continuing source of life, of nourishment.
Egyptians believed that during the day the sun and the moon would travel across or through her body, each swallowed by her, at dawn and dusk respectively. The sun god Ra would enter her mouth after the sun set in the evening and be reborn from her vulva the next morning. She also swallowed and rebirthed the stars and the moon each morning and they would pass through her body to be reborn again each night. Because of her daily rebirthing of the sun, she became known as the keeper of the secrets of the afterlife and the protector of the dead.
Here the sexual act is one that the Gods practice and do so in order to create. There is a clear link between sex and the sacred, and a particular emphasis on the body of the Goddess.
L02 The Cycle of Life/Death
Demeter was a Goddess worshiped for life, agriculture, and fertility. She was often linked to Persephone (her daughter). The Eleusinian Mysteries (1500 BCE), which were held in Eleusis in ancient Greece each year are emblematic of the worldview typical in regions in which Goddesses were worshipped.
The myth of Persephone involves her abduction by Hades, the god of the underworld. During Persephone’s sojourn in the underworld, Demeter’s anguish resulted in the land becoming fallow and all plants dying off. The reuniting of Persephone with Demeter, her rebirth, symbolized the connection of life and death. Just as the fields begin to die off after the summer flourishing, new growth spring forth from the fallow land as the season turns to spring and makes way for the summer flourishing. So too does all life follow this connection of life and death.
Rather than a linear conception of life and death, the underlying worldview is one of a cycle of life, where death becomes life and life turns to death in an eternal movement.
L02 The Sacred Marriage from the Song of Songs
Recitations of sacred marriages can be found in many regions and in many texts. One that is often familiar in the United States is the Song of Songs, from one of the scrolls found in the last section of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which is also the textual source for the Christian Old Testament.
(Song of Songs 7: 10-12)
Think about the images found in this text and consider how they compare to those found in the hymn of Inanna.
L02 The Sacred Triangle
Photo of a statue most likely to be Inanna
There is another component of the story of Inanna that provides an interesting perspective for philosophical reflection, in this case how we think about female genitals.
Inanna had to face a huge challenge. She had to travel to the underworld. That is, she had to learn the secrets of death and find the passage from life to death and back to life. To show her power and her strength:
“Inanna placed the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, on her head.
She went to the sheepfold, to the shepherd.
She leaned back against the apple tree.
When she leaned against the apple tree, her vulva was wonderous to behold.
Rejoicing at her wonderous vulva, the young woman Inanna applauded herself.”
Vulva were often highlighted as can be seen in this part of Inanna’s journey. The vulva were stylistically depicted in many of the images of Inanna as well as on other of the Goddess figurines.
Female genitals were seen as symbolic of the sacred triangle, a sacred area, the gateway between life and death, heaven and earth.
Indeed, one can find carvings of female figures, called Sheela Na Gigs, displaying their vulvas in Romanesque churches (twelfth century). No one knows for sure what they were intended to represent, but some believe that they were vestiges of sacred triangle beliefs that represent the cycle of birth and death. You can see some of these carvings and read about them at “No One Knows Why (Links to an external site.).”
Conclusion: Sex as Sacred
We have considered religions in which sex was seen as sacred. It was seen as the way in which the creation of the world happened. The power of sex and its sacredness was linked to creation and to fertility. In the early religions this power was more strongly associated with females—female divinities and the vulva. Sex might even have been seen as at times a form of prayer, a way to call down the Gods to ensure the rebirth of the earth, the fertility of the land.
Most importantly, there was no conception of sex as harm.
L02 The Ancient Greeks and Sex
Sex as a Natural Bodily Function
The Ancient Greeks viewed sex as a general bodily function, like eating or drinking, exercising or sleeping. They followed a principle of moderation regarding all bodily activities. In ancient Greece, the temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription Meden Agan (μηδὲν ἄγαν) which means, “Nothing in excess.” The Greeks believed that one’s ability to live in moderation, that is to properly manage one’s self, was a sign of good character.
In viewing sex as a natural bodily function and following the principle of moderation, the Greeks believed that, like food, sex was important to a healthy and well-functioning body. But like food, one could consume too much sex or the wrong kind of sex. But it was equally unhealthy and a sign of a bad character if one had too little sex. Take a look at how this view is represented in the speech of Pausanias in the Symposium (180d ff.)
Sex was believed to warm and wet the body and thus they viewed having sex, in a balanced way, as important to maintaining health. However, which activities one practiced was seen as correlated to such factors as the time of the day, the season of the year, the age of the individual, etc. They viewed having the proper amount of sex at the proper times as a sign of a good character—of a person who had self-control and could properly direct desire.
One way to appreciate the Ancient Greek view of moderation and self-control is the allegory of Plato’s chariot in the dialogue, Phaedrus. Plato uses this allegory to represent the various aspects of human being. The chariot is being pulled by two horses, one lighter and one darker, and is driven by a charioteer. The charioteer represents human reason, the lighter horse represents spiritedness, and the darker horse represents appetites. One way to think about these three elements would be to label them the lover of wisdom or contemplation (the charioteer), the lover of victory or honor (the lighter horse), and the lover of gain or pleasure (the darker horse).
The charioteer must successfully lead and guide the two horses so that they proceed in harmony and balance. If there isn’t balance, then the flight will be turbulent, indeed the two horses might even pull in opposite directions and end up not going anywhere. Plato’s point is that the only way we can have knowledge is for reason to balance the other aspects of human nature. The Greeks saw these elements of human nature as forces that cause us to act and think in certain ways. Each element has its own motivations and desires: reason seeks truth and knowledge; the appetites seek food, drink, sex, and material wealth; and spiritedness seeks glory, honor, and recognition. While Plato arguably believed reason has the highest aims, with spiritedness following behind, and the appetites being lower aims, he believed that all three forces, when properly balanced would lead to a good life.
That means that reason needs to understand what aims to pursue and that reason must be in harmony with spiritedness and appetite and work together toward those goals. It won’t work to suppress appetite and or spirit, for that is not a balanced approach. But neither is it good to overdo appetite or spirit. All three must be in harmony.
L02 Sex as Moderation
The allegory of the chariot entails that it is important for a person to have control over their passions, including their sexual passions. And in order to do that, they must have a good character. But having control over sexual passions doesn’t mean abstinence or denial. The charioteer’s task is not to repress or eradicate the desires, but to learn from them and integrate the whole soul by allowing these desires to find their proper place within them. That means desire must be properly directed.
What this means is that sex itself is simply a natural bodily function. It is neither good nor bad, helpful or harmful in itself. Rather harm or benefit comes in the balance of sexual desire. That is, to ensure that one engages in the proper amount of sex, at the right time, and in the right way.
For the Greeks, how we manage our desires is a reflection of a good character. A person who practices moderation in sex, as well as with the other passions such as eating and drinking, is a person of good character. Overindulging or suppressing desire is a sign of a bad character.
Moreover, the Greeks believed that who we love influences our character. If we befriend or come to love someone of bad character, we risk damaging our own character. So it is important to only befriend and love those of good character.
L02 Ancient Greek Views of Women: Tiresias
To understand the Symposium it is helpful to appreciate Ancient Greek views of the character of women and of men. One of the best ways to get a sense of these views is through two myths, the story of Tiresias and the story of Pandora.
You likely know about Tiresias the blind prophet who could foretell the future. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus travels to Hades to learn from him how to return home with his men successfully. And in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, it was Tiresias who told Oedipus that he had in fact unwittingly killed his father. In Sophocles’ play Antigone, Tiresias also informed the king, Creon, that the Gods disapproved of his having entombed his daughter alive. But the first part of the story is less well known.
According to one version of this myth, the young shepherd Tiresias was walking along a path on Mount Cyllene, the home of Hermes. Upon approaching a crossroad, he saw two snakes copulating. He raised his staff, struck and killed the female snake, and in that instant turned into a woman. Tiresias became a celebrated courtesan, known far and wide for her enjoyment of sex and her ability to bring her partners great pleasure. Seven years later, Tiresias was walking along the same path and, upon approaching the crossroad, once again came upon two snakes copulating. She raised her staff, but this time struck and killed the male snake, whereupon she was turned into a man.
One day, years after this, the married Gods, Hera and Zeus, were arguing about Zeus’s sexual exploits. Zeus was famous for his sexual affairs—with goddesses, nymphs, and humans. Hera, angry with Zeus’s affairs, charged him with infidelity. Zeus defended himself by saying that women enjoy the sexual act far more than men. Zeus explained that in order to get the same amount of pleasure from sex as did Hera, he had to have sex more frequently and with other people. Hence his affairs were justified. Hera did not think much of this “justification” and denied that woman’s sexual satisfaction were greater than those of men. In order to resolve this dispute, they agreed to call in Tiresias as arbitrator, since he had known the pleasures of sex both as a man and as a woman. In response to their query, Tiresias responded: “If the parts of love’s pleasures are divided by ten, thrice three go to women, one only to men.” (Apollodorus The Gods and Heroes of the Greeks 3.6.7)
Hera was so angered by Tiresias’s response, that she blinded him. But Zeus, thankful for his support, granted him prophetic vision. Thus Tiresias became the blind soothsayer.
L02 Ancient Greek Views of Women: Pandora
You very likely know the story of Pandora, the young woman who opens the lid of a forbidden jar, releasing evil onto the world, shutting the lid when she has seen what she has done, only to trap hope within. The story of Pandora is one of the many myths that explain the reason there is evil in the world. The problem of evil is one that has vexed humans for millennia. Why would good Gods allow there to be evil in the world? Most explanations fault humans. The story of Pandora is one of those explanations. But there is a version of the myth that provides a clearer explanation of why, in this case, woman is the cause of evil.
According to the older version of the myth, which is found in Hesiod’s Theogony, woman is created by Zeus in order to punish man. Zeus’s anger was catalyzed by the actions of Prometheus. Prometheus is the God who is said to be responsible for the creation of mankind, forming them from clay. And as their creator, Prometheus became their champion, working to improve their lot. When Prometheus created humans, he created only men. Their lot in life was difficult; they worked hard and had to sacrifice the best of the fruits of the labor to the Gods.
Prometheus in an attempt to better mankind’s situation devised a trick to fool Zeus. He arranged it so that the ox which mankind was about to sacrifice to the Gods would be divided into two piles. In one he placed all the parts of the ox that were not beneficial to mankind—the bones and the gristle—but he artfully covered it with fat to make it look attractive. In the other pile he placed all the meat, but this pile he covered with the cow’s stomach to make it look disgusting. When Zeus came to earth to receive his offering, he saw the piles and bellowed: “Prometheus, you are trying to trick me.” Prometheus insisted that he was not for it was Zeus’s choice which pile he would select. Zeus reached down out of Mt. Olympus to pick the pile that looked most attractive. But when he realized that he had been tricked, he vented his anger by removing fire, leaving mankind without its warmth and protection.
Prometheus once again tried to protect mankind by stealing fire and returning it to earth. When Zeus saw the flash of fire, he knew he had been tricked once again. He punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock where he would be tormented by a giant eagle that would tear at his liver causing him unending pain.
But Zeus punished mankind as well. According to Hesiod’s retelling in Works and Days, “he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire” (571). Remembering Prometheus’ first trick, Zeus decided to punish mankind by creating a similar trick—woman. He commanded Hephaestus, the God of fire, metalworking and masonry, to make woman beautiful on the outside. To mold from earth a woman with the body of a modest maiden and a face was like that of a goddess and who was to be clothed by Athena in beautiful garments and garlands. But he commanded that like the trick with the oxen, she be worthless within. He had the God Hermes gave her “shameless mind and a deceitful nature.” And to punish mankind for the trick of fire, he had Aphrodite bestow on her “stinging desire and limb gnawing passion” that could roast a man long before his time. So mankind was given as a price for fire “an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.” Woman is mankind’s punishment. With the appearance and charms of a goddess, animated by uncontrollable passion, woman would be a trap no man could resist.
L02 A Sexual Double Standard
While the phrase “a sexual double standard” is a very modern phrase you can trace its lineages back into Ancient history. We talk about a double standard in part because we believe in the equality of women and men. We don’t think that one sex is inferior and thus should act and/or be treated differently than the other. But this has not always been the case. The Ancient Greeks did not see all people as equal and, in particular, viewed women as different from men. Different in ways that supported what we would now call a sexual double standard.
While there are differences between Ancient thinkers concerning the nature of women, the views of the philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), are illustrative. As his writings were very influential to the development of Western thought as well as to Islamic thinkers, considering the impact of his views on the differences between the sexes is a good way to understand how the double standard developed and remains so pervasive in contemporary society.
Aristotle believes that social roles must be assigned according to an individual’s nature. Aristotle finds women fit only to be subjects of male rule. For example, he claims that “as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject” (Politics (1254b13–14). Indeed, in comparing Greek women to slaves, he said: “The slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority; the child has it but it is incomplete” (Politics 1.12). What we see here is a centuries long tradition of seeing women as lacking in authoritative deliberative capacities, that is, as having rational capability, because they are less capable than men of mastering their emotions. It was for this reason that women’s proper role was seen as the rearing of children and the maintenance of the household.
L02 Women’s Roles in Greek Civilizations
Women’s roles in Ancient Greek civilizations were different than options for women’s roles in the US. In ancient Greece a woman’s options depended on her place of birth (Greek or non-Greek) and family circumstances (wealthy or poor).
The different roles of women are epitomized in this quote from the Athenian politician, Apollodorus of Acharnae c.394BCE – 343 BCE: “We have hetairai for pleasure, pallakai (slave women) for the body’s daily needs and gynaekes (wives) for the bearing of legitimate children and for the guardianship of our houses.” (Pseudo-Demosthenes 59.122.)
The roles open to women include wives, sex workers, and slaves.
The roles available to women in Classical Athens were very limited, typically limited to raising children and running the household. These women were not educated and played no role in politics. Indeed, women were not granted full citizenship in Ancient Athens. They were under the rule of their fathers until they married, upon which their husbands would become their guardians. View the Penn Museum (Links to an external site.) for additional information about the lives of Ancient Greek women.
What we now call sex work, was accepted and even for some, respected in Ancient Greece. There were two classes of sex workers, hetaeras and porne.
Hetaera were professional women who, unlike women who were to become respected wives, were educated as part of their role was to provide intellectual stimulation and witty conversation. They were often skilled musicians, such as the flute-girls that are mentioned in Plato’s Symposium. They were generally foreigners, slaves, or freedwomen. They had far more freedom than married woman. They could live alone and were able to move freely in society. They were also able to own wealth and received protection from the state. They were often hired as entertainers for symposia and family sacrifices. Hetaera typically enjoyed longer term relationships with men for whom they provided companionship and who would, in turn, provide them with gifts and financial support. They were well regarded as individuals and as professionals.
Porne were also typically foreigners. Unlike hetaera, they often worked in what we would now call a brothel and provided sex for a fee. They were typically uneducated and did not develop long-term relationships with clients. They were often owned by a male, who was sometimes a citizen, who received part of their earnings. Additional information is available about sex work in ancient Greece (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_ancient_Greece ) on Wikipedia.
As noted above, the roles available to women included marriage, sex work, and slavery.
There were both male and female slaves in ancient Greece. Some of the slaves worked as porne or hetaera, but many others were laborers, typically in agriculture, manufacturing, household labor, and in mines. For more on slavery in ancient Greece (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_ancient_Greece#Terminology)
A sexual double standard was clearly in play in Ancient Greece. Although men were free to have sex with hetairai without social disapproval, wives were expected to limit all their sexual relationships to their husband. This view was reflected in the following quote from the Greek statesman, Demosthenes (384-322 BCE): “The law has declared that our women may be inspired with a fear sufficient to make them live soberly and avoid all vice and, as their duty is, to keep to their household tasks. For it teaches them that, if a woman is guilty of any such sin [adultery] she will be outcast from her husband’s home and from the sanctuaries of the city.” (Demosthenes, Apollodorus Against Neaera, 59.86-7)
Greek men, including married men, were prohibited from having sex with the wives of other men or yet unmarried daughters of good households. But having sex with hetairai or porne was not prohibited.
It is important to realize here the disparity in age of marriage. Marriages were arranged by parents. Daughters were typically married just after they reached puberty, meaning that most young women were married by the time they reached the age of fifteen. While young men were not expected to marry until they were in their early thirties, so that their education and training for their profession would be complete.
The Male as the Superior Character
One justification for women’s different roles was women’s inferior character in comparison to men. As Aristotle noted, women’s deliberative capacity lacks authority. Hence, women were less capable of managing appetite and desire. This meant that men as a group were more capable of good character than women. But as good character was key to a good relationship whether it be one of friendship or one involving sex, the ancient Greek view was that relations between men were superior to those between men and women. Given the view of women as having a higher sexual desire than men—Pandora—this meant that women, in general, would not be as good a companion as men as they would be more likely to be of poorer character.
As previously noted, moderation in all things is a sign of a good character. That means that one needed to have the ability to moderate and control ones desires. As men were more capable of moderation and self-control than women, men would not only be of better character, but because who we love influences our character, men as a group would be better companions than women.
L02 Active and Passive Roles in Sex
We often talk about sexual identity or sexual orientation. As Halperin, in Is there a History of Sexuality? explains, the ancient Greeks did not conceive of sexuality in this way. One chose a partner based on both character and proper role. In “the social landscape of classical Athens,” he says, “was the great divide in status between this superordinate group, composed of citizens, and a subordinate group, composed of women, children, foreigners, and slaves all of whom lacked full civil rights (though they were not all equally subordinate). Sexual relations not only respected that divide but were strictly polarized in conformity with it” (260).
The ancient Greeks conceptualized sexuality within an active/passive frame. The active role was associated with masculinity, maturity (adulthood), and even a higher social status. The passive role as associated with femininity, youth, and a lower social status. Halperin explains it as follows: “Sex is portrayed in Athenian documents not as a mutual enterprise in which two or more persons jointly engage but as an action performed by a social superior upon a social inferior. Consisting as it was held to do in an asymmetrical gesture—the penetration of the body of one person by the body (and, specifically, by the phallus) of another—sex effectively divided and distributed its participants into radically distinct and incommensurable categories (“penetrator” versus “penetrated”), categories which in turn were wholly congruent with superordinate and subordinate social categories. For sexual penetration was thematized as domination: the relation between the insertive and the receptive sexual partner was taken to be the same kind of relation as that obtaining between social superior and social inferior” (260).
Given this, the proper objects of sexual desire for a Greek adult male would be women of any age, free males past the age of puberty who were not yet old enough to be citizens, foreigners, and slaves of either sex. As you can see, what is relevant is not the gender of one’s partner, but rather the roles that are proper to each partner.
However, since males, particularly Greek males, were more capable of good character than all women and non-Greek males, the ideal partner would be a Greek male. And, indeed, in the Greek worldview, the highest relationship would be a friendship between two adult Greek males.
Given the active/passive framing of sexual relations, it was always considered improper for two adult Greek males to engage in sex, for to do so would require that one of them be in the subordinate, feminized role. And to allow oneself to be so treated, would be a sign of a bad character.
That said, one of the idealized sexual relationships in ancient Greece was between an adult Greek male and a youth. Since the male is a superior partner, capable of better character, the relationship between an adult male, the lover and active partner, and a young male, the beloved and passive partner, was seen as a superior relationship to that between husband and wife, as the youth would be educated, and capable of far better character. Indeed, one aspect of such a relationship in addition to love and sexuality, was the education and mentoring of the young man into an adult of good character. One of the lover’s roles was to teach the beloved moderation in all things.
Beloveds were typically between the ages of 16 (post-puberty) and mid-20s (first full beard). Once the youth was moving into adulthood, the sexual component of the relationship was viewed as no longer proper as it would be improper for him to continue to be in the passive role in the relationship. The expectation was that the relationship would shift from lover/beloved to friendship, so the love would continue, but not the sexual component. Indeed, the youth, upon reaching adulthood, would be free to develop a lover/beloved relationship with a youth himself.
An adult male was expected to marry, but would continue his close, loving friendships with other males, as well as being free to have a sexual and companionate relationship with hetaera.
The active/passive conception of sex carried with it a number of meanings:
L02 Overview: The Ancient Greek Conception of Sex
The ancient Greek conception of sex viewed it as a natural bodily function, analogous to eating or drinking or exercise. And just like all bodily functions, the ancient Greeks believed that a man of good character would exercise moderation regarding all bodily functions, engaging them only as appropriate to such aspects as their age or their political station. In this sense, sex was neither sacred nor sinful, but simply a natural aspect of human life. It was rather how one ordered one’s life that determined whether the amount of sex was harmful. But this connection between sex and harm—too little or too much—was no different than the connection of food or drink and harm—too little or too much. However, what we do see is one way in which one’s selection of a sexual partner could be harmful, namely, if one picked a person of poor character, one’s relation with that person, whether a sexual or a love relationship, could be harmful to one’s character.
Because of the ancient Greek conception of men, or at least, Greek citizen males, as superior to women in character, relationships between men, lover and beloved, as well as friendship between men, were seen as superior in character to relations between men and women. These relationships between men, however, cannot be properly referred to as homosexual, for, as Halperin explained, in contrast to our present culture there was no such conception of a sexual identity in ancient Greece.
One component of the ancient Greek view of sex was the distinction between the active and passive partner. This distinction was correlated with various views about superiority and inferiority. We will see this distinction emerging in contemporary US conceptions of sex.
L03 Jewish Perspectives: Introduction
The various lineages that influence our contemporary conceptions of sex and love are complex and evolving. Understanding a tradition, the early Jewish tradition (600 BCE-100 CE), for example,, that was emergent at a similar time as the above two worldviews provides another window of insight into our contemporary views. As you compare the Jewish views to those of the ancient Greeks and the earlier traditions that view sex as sacred, also think about both how our contemporary views reflect some of these same conceptions as well as diverge from them.
The early Jewish perspectives concerning sex had three components: sex as sacred, sex as natural, and sex as sin.
L03 Jewish Perspectives: Sex as Sacred
In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told that the first words God addresses directly to humanity are: “Be fruitful and multiply.” This same blessing is reiterated after the flood.
Generation as a blessing, as a mitzvah, is reflected in these passages, as well as in God’s blessing on the Israelites: “The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:6)
We find here a conception of sex as a mitzvah, a sacred coming together of the male and the female: like God the “all at once.” From this conception, a view analogous to the sacred marriage of ancient worldviews, sex, and, indeed, the joys of sex, is a component of the sacred.
Shabbat or Sabbath, which commences just before sunset on Friday, is a time of celebration and joy, a separation from the worldly distractions of the work-world to more sacred concerns. While there are many activities that are to be put aside on this holy day, sex between spouses is not one of them. Indeed, sex on the Sabbath is encouraged as it creates and strengthens the bond between spouses and a way in which married couples can experience the harmony of the spiritual and the physical.
L03 Jewish Perspectives: Sex as Natural
In addition to the blessing to be fruitful and multiply, a second blessing, or mitzvah, is for the husband to ensure he sexually satisfies his wife (Exodus 20.10). The sexual impulse, indeed the pleasure of sex, is seen as given by God and thus as a natural part of human life, but only within the context of marriage.
Like the ancient Greek view, the sexual impulse was natural, but one that was in need of balance. It was a source of pleasure and companionship, but an impulse that should be appropriately moderated. Sex in the marriage relationship was not limited to reproduction. Indeed, when sexual desire is satisfied between a husband and wife at the proper time and out of mutual love and desire, sexual relations are actually a mitzvah (a Biblical commandment, see Exodus 21,10 referring to “conjugal rights” and the commentary on it). Sexual pleasure itself, when experienced in the right context, is a mitzvah, one that strengthens the relationship between spouses.
The conjugal rights referred to in Exodus are encapsulated in the laws of onah. The laws of onah were based on the assumption that women, like men, feel sexual desire, but since they are more passive and less free to express or initiate sexual activity, it was seen as a husband’s responsibility to initiate sex at regular times proscribed by law. Sex is the woman’s right, not the man’s. A man has a duty to give his wife sex regularly and to ensure that sex is pleasurable for her. He is also obligated to watch for signs that his wife wants sex, and to offer it to her without her asking for it.
The woman’s right to sexual intercourse is referred to as onah, and is one of a wife’s three basic rights (the others are food and clothing), which a husband may not reduce. The Talmud specifies both the quantity and quality of sex that a man must give his wife. It specifies the frequency of sexual obligation based on the husband’s occupation, although this obligation can be modified in the ketubah (marriage contract). A man may not take a vow to abstain from sex for an extended period of time, and he may not take a journey for an extended period of time, because that would deprive his wife of sexual relations or his obligation to ensure her pleasure in sexual relations. In addition, a husband’s consistent refusal to engage in sexual relations is grounds for compelling a man to divorce his wife, even if the couple has already fulfilled the halakhic obligation to procreate.
As can be seen from the Ketubot in the Talmud (61), the frequency of onah correlates to a man’s profession: (The Jewish Man’s Profession and the Frequency of the Onah)
The laws of onah include the following:
A husband could not change his trade to one that would reduce the frequency of onah without his wife’s permission.
A husband was never to force himself on his wife, for sex was to be a mutually rejoiceful act. He should speak words of tenderness to her and give her pleasure.
Sexual relations should only be experienced in a time of joy. Sex for selfish personal satisfaction, without regard for the partner’s pleasure, is wrong and evil. A man may never force his wife to have sex.
A couple may not have sexual relations while drunk or quarreling.
Sex may never be used as a weapon against a spouse, either by depriving the spouse of sex or by compelling it.
It is a serious offense to use sex (or lack thereof) to punish or manipulate a spouse.
The laws of onah were a requirement even if a woman was pregnant, infertile, or past childbearing age. In other words, procreation was not seen as the sole purpose of sex.
There were not prohibitions on particular sexual actions between spouses as long as the husband’s semen was eventually deposited in his wife’s vagina
L03 Jewish Perspectives: Sex and Sin
The theme of sex and harm, indeed the beginning of the conception of sex as sinful was another thread in the Jewish conception of sex. While sex in the context of marriage was a blessing, any other practice of sexuality was sinful. Sex outside of marriage, adultery, same sex relationships (sodomy), incest, and bestiality were all sins and were punishable by death. Masturbation or sexual fantasy were also forbidden though not punishable by death.
Sex was seen as a dangerous force that had to be carefully regulated. The following guidelines give a sense of the prohibitions regulating sex outside marriage:
- A man was not to hold his penis while urinating unless his wife was in town and clean, that is, not menstruating, a time when sex between spouses was to be avoided. The point was that a man touching his penis might lead to an erection which could lead to the desire for sex, which if his wife were not available for sex, could lead him to sinful actions.
- Men are forbidden to bring on an erection or to think about women. Even sexual fantasies were sinful.
There was an expectation both of virginity at the time of marriage for both men and women and fidelity throughout the marriage. However, the demand for virginity for the bride was more carefully monitored. For example, in Deuteronomy, we are told:
If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.”…if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (22:13-21)
Tokens of virginity you might ask? These were the blood on the sheets of the marriage bed. In other words, the blood that results from the hymen being penetrated at the time of intercourse. Given that the hymen can rupture due to reasons other than sex and given that not all women bleed at the time of first intercourse and given the severity of the consequences for not bleeding, it was not uncommon for older women to counsel young brides and urge them to create a little bladder from the intestines of a small animal and fill it blood. A bladder that was to be inserted into a women’s vagina to ensure the proper “tokens of virginity.” Indeed, this same idea, albeit modernized, can still be found today.
L03 Sexual Double Bind for Women
What we see depicted in Proverbs is the sentiment that a sexually active women is a whore. This was often interpreted to mean that a women who has the active role in sex, who initiates sex or immodestly takes the lead in sex, is a bad woman.
The problem with this view is what we see in the Watcher myth, namely that when it comes to the “power of sex” there is “activity” even in “passivity.”
We find this conception of activity in passivity still circulating in contemporary culture. Consider the Disney movie, The Little Mermaid. The mermaid, Ariel, having fallen in love with a prince, makes a deal with the sea witch, Ursula. For the cost of her voice, Ursula makes Ariel into human form, but she can remain human only if she receives the “kiss of true love” from the Prince within three days, can she remain as a human. Otherwise, she will transform back into a mermaid and belong to the sea witch.
During the three days as a human, Ariel is accompanied by the crab, Sebastian. Knowing that she needs the prince to kiss her, but also knowing that it will not suffice for Ariel to simply kiss him herself, Sebastian urges her to “bat her eyes and pucker up her lips.” In other words, Sebastian is urging Ariel to use the “weapons” the Watchers gave to women to get the prince to kiss her. Here we see again the activity in passivity that we see in the Watcher myth.
At the end of this scene, after the boat is overturned by the sea witch Ursula’s accomplices, the eels, Ursula says: “That was close. The little tramp.” In other words, Ariel is being depicted as a “bad women” simply because of her allure. What we see here is the complexity of women’s passivity in sexuality: on the one hand, people see women as manipulative in scausing men to want to have sex with them and, on the other, they see women’s role as properly passive. But even when women are passive, even that passivity is seen as manipulative.
L03 Conclusion: Jewish Conceptions of Sexuality
The early Jewish conception of sexuality was a complex conception that included a view of sex and the pleasure of sex as a blessing from God, as well as a natural act within the relationship of marriage. It also included a conception of sex as sin when sex occurred in any context other than marriage.
Like ancient Greek conceptions of women, early Jewish views of women often included a distinction between good women and bad women, typically a distinction related to their passivity or activity regarding sex.
As we consider the emerging Christian views about sexuality, compare them to the conceptions you have learned about up to this point.
L03 Early Christian Views: Semen/Soul Connection
One of the themes that is key to understanding early Christian views about sex was the growing acceptance of the connection between sex, and in particular male ejaculation and the emission or transmission of soul. To some extent this view was influenced by ancient Greek beliefs that the male ejaculate contained the form of what was is created, while the female contains only the material out of which the fetus emerges. Conferring form was viewed as superior to, more perfect, than that which confers matter, and this view contributed to later views that it was the male ejaculate that provided the soul that was passed from parent to child.
The link between ejaculation and emission of spirit/soul was key to early Jewish prohibitions on masturbation, on spilling seed. This set the stage for viewing ejaculation as problematic, as the loss of vital energies/soul and thus constituted the basis for significantly limiting the amount of sex individuals should have, along with an increasingly negative view of sex.
L03 Early Christian Views: Women as the Ultimate Temptation
The view of women as having sexual power over men shifted to a view of women as the ultimate temptation for those who wish to live a spiritual life. This reinforced the connection of a sexual woman with evil.
Jerome 347-420 and early church father best known for his translation of most of the Bible into Latin and his commentaries on the Gospels writes:
“How often, when I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude which gives to hermits a savage dwelling-place, parched by a burning sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone because I was filled with bitterness. Sackcloth disfigured my unshapely limbs and my skin from long neglect had become as black as an Ethiopian’s. Tears and groans were every day my portion; and if drowsiness chanced to overcome my struggles against it, my bare bones, which hardly held together, clashed against the ground. Of my food and drink I say nothing: for, even in sickness, the solitaries have nothing but cold water, and to eat one’s food cooked is looked upon as self-indulgence. Now, although in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to this prison, where I had no companions but scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself amid bevies of girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled with fasting; yet my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me when my flesh was as good as dead. (Letter 22.7)”
For Jerome, the human body was a wild beast that could only be controlled by rigid codes of diet and strict avoidance of occasions for sexual attraction. His is a conception of sexuality that is shifting away from a view of sexuality as amenable to self-control, and that is even starting to question the earlier Jewish view of sexuality within marriage as a blessing.
L03 Early Christian Views: Denial
As we can see within the quote from Jerome there is a rise in the early Church of a life without passion of any kind, including sexual passion, that is, a life of celibacy. As stated by Clement of Alexandria: “our ideal is not to experience desire at all.”
In the early decades of the rise of Christianity, many theologians believed that the universe itself had shattered with the rising of Christ from the grave. By renouncing all sexual activity the human body could join in Christ’s victory. The body could wrench itself free from the grip of the animal world. For those who held this view, and who believed that Christ’s return and the end of the world were immanent, bringing children into the world was seen as a violation of faith in Christ’s resurrection.
L03 Early Christian Views: Celibacy vs. Marriage
The commitment to celibacy was already prefigured in some Jewish communities. We see, for example, in the Dead Sea Scrolls that many of the male members of the Essene community were to live under a vow of celibacy as warriors of Israel. Celibacy was seen as a way to live a more sacred life.
This view shifted to Christianity particularly in the earlier years when the world was seen soon ending. The Apostle Paul, for example, saw celibacy as the highest state for humans, for in it one is anxious only about the affairs of the Lord and thus better prepared for the Second Coming. He saw sex within and only within marriage as the only other acceptable alternative. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul explains: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (1-2) The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (32-35)”
This view of celibacy as higher than the marriage state, was nonetheless offset by a view of marriage in terms of the undivided union of Adam and Eve. “Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, Having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” (Ephesians 5:25-28) Alongside the view of celibacy as the more spiritual state was the recognition that God had created woman as a companion for man—the union of Adam and Eve.
L03 Early Christian Views: Sex and Sin
Augustine (354-430) was an early Christian theologian whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity. In his texts, City of God and Confessions, we find an image of sexuality that was to influence Christianity for many years to come.
According to Augustine, in the original state, in the Garden of Eden before the fall, there would be no desire or lust. Indeed, he believed in the original state, bodies would have been fully obedient to the will. Given this belief, he argued that even the sexual organs would have been aroused only by the will.
Augustine contended that the relationship between Adam and Eve in the original state would have been a faithful partnership without passion. Procreation would have happened without passion or pleasure, but through a willed ejaculation.
Key to Augustine’s thought was of fall of humans. Here Augustine interpreted the story of the fall as it appears in Genesis 3.
Genesis contains the myth of the creation of humans. In one version man and woman are created at the same time—“male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). In another version, man is created first and woman created from his rib. But in both instances, God commanded them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:13)
The myth of the fall continues in Genesis 3: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither hall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Genesis 3: 1-7)
Augustine’s interpretation of the story of the fall is that it led not only to humankind’s expulsion from the original state of grace, but resulted in the curse of original sin. For Augustine, the marks of the fall remain with men and women in their current state. A key mark of the fall, and why sex gets associated with sin, is that sex is accompanied by lust and pleasure in sex. To the extent that one experiences desire or even pleasure in sex, to that extent, one is sinning. Here is how Augustine explained the occurrence of sex in the original state:
In Eden, it would have been possible to beget offspring without foul lust. The sexual organs would have been stimulated into necessary activity by will-power alone, just as the will controls other organs. Then, without being goaded on by the allurement of passion, the husband could have relaxed upon his wife’s breasts with complete peace of mind and bodily tranquility, that part of his body not activated by tumultuous passion, but brought into service by the deliberate use of power when the need arose, the seed dispatched into the womb with no loss of his wife’s virginity. So, the two sexes could have come together for impregnation and conception by an act of will, rather than by lustful cravings (City of God, Book 14, Chapter 26).
According to Augustine, the transmission of original sin occurs due to lustful desire. So the sin of Eve and Adam is passed down from generation to generation, so that all humans live in sin, with sexual desire being the mark of that original sin. For to the extent that humans are in the force of bodily desire, to that extent they live apart from the original state of humans where all actions would have been governed only by reason and obedience to God.
In addition, Augustine argued that women fell from her original state of equality with man to a state of inferiority to man due to her culpability in first violating God’s command. Post-fall woman’s mark of original sin is the loss of her Edenic equality: now subordinate to male authority, now giving birth in pain, and now the lesser partner in marriage. Indeed, in Augustine’s early writings and a theme often repeated in later theological works, woman’s greater carnal desires is a sign of her inferiority to man.
Augustine’s interpretation of lust as a sign of the fall of humans is a common theological theme even in the contemporary world. For example, Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body, argues as follows: Lust is the fruit of the breach of the covenant with god; With original sin—the “man of lust” took the place of the “man of original innocence.”; Lust is a powerful force that is difficult to resist (…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [Matthew 5:28]; lust of the flesh as a permanent element of man’s sinfulness (status naturae lapsae))
L03 Early Christian Views: Strict Regulation of Sex
One of the consequences of the linkage of sex and sin was the careful regulation of sexuality by the Church in the sixth century and following years. New codes of sexual behavior were set up to regulate and control the sexual acts of individuals.
You can get a sense of the gravity of certain sexual acts from considering the types of sexual “sins” and the degree of penance associated with each.
Note regulation primarily of male behavior. Women were to be passive, without sexual agency or if not, they were fallen women. The sexual double standard.
It is also important to note that this is a list of sinful acts. There was no conception of a fixed sexuality or a sinful sexual identity. As we’ve seen with the Halperin, and what the Dean readings next week will elaborate, the notion of a fixed sexual identity is a relatively modern conception.
As you reflect back over this historical discussion of attitudes concerning sex, it is important to recognize that beliefs about sex are neither transhistorical nor transcultural.
Think about the important changes in attitudes regarding sex and the role of sex in human lives from the ancient view of sex as sacred, to the ancient Greek views of sex as a natural act, the early Christian view of sex as in many contexts sinful, and the early Jewish view of sex that includes all three of these components.
Reflect too on how these different beliefs and attitudes have affected human desire and sensibilities concerning what is normal or natural regarding sexuality.
And as we work through the different themes of this class, think about the ways in which contemporary views compare to these. Do you see any similarities? Any differences? And be sure to trace possible lineages of contemporary beliefs and attitudes in these older conceptions.
Augustine of Hippo. The City of God. Translator, Marcus Dods
. Jazzybee Verlag, 2015.
1 Enoch: A New Translation.. Translated by J.C. Vanderkam. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
Heinrich Kramer & James Sprenger. Malleus Maleficarum. 1487.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2011.
Jerome. Letter 22: To Eustochium
Pope John Paul II. Of the Unity and Indissolubility of Marriage
. 5 September 1979.
Pope John Paul II. The Theology of the Body Human Love in the Divine Plan
. Pauline Books and Media, 1997.
Testament of Rubin. From The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament
.. R. H. Charles, vol. II, Oxford Press.