I’m going to break this entry down into multiple parts, posting one per day, as it is quite long, and on reflection, I think it’s too much to ask readers to spend so much time per day on a blog entry. To that end, if it seems as if there’s more to be said, tune in tomorrow because there is more to be said. So, on with the first installment in my series on myth, sexuality, and culture:
Concerning Myth, Sexuality, and Culture
Myth is common to all cultures. In fact, it seems that if there is anything inherently human, it is the formation and propagation of myths. The very fabric of how we view ourselves, our society, and reality itself, is governed largely by myths. Most of us are familiar with many of them. For instance, we all know about black cats and walking under ladders, and we’ve all heard the story of Adam and Eve, and most of us grew up expectantly waiting for Santa Claus and his reindeer to bring us presents on Christmas – a celebration of the birth of a god-figure which was adapted (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from earlier pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.
These are not the only myths, though. There are more subtle beliefs that permeate any society, and most people don’t even know they exist. We take many things as factual based entirely on the degree to which they infiltrate our lives. In the paragraphs that follow, I will attempt to identify many of the myths concerning sexuality, family, and reproduction. My aim is not to convince you that there is necessarily something wrong with your views, but rather to broaden your understanding of what is locally accepted (and acceptable) and what is objectively true in a broader sense.
Sexual mythology is rooted in our sense of self. Indeed, our sexual myths are reflections of our attitudes towards society, and even towards humanity itself, for there can be no separation between sexuality and society. Contrary to the common Western paradigm, in which sexuality is seen as something private and sacrosanct, the very core of culture is dependent on, and entirely derived from, our sense of self. As evolved organisms, we are driven to reproduce, for without sex – without reproduction – society, culture, art, literature, and everything that we hold dear, would not exist.
First, let’s look at some of the myths that have created our own society. In the Talmudic lore, the first woman was not Eve. Lilith was the first wife of Adam. She, unlike Eve, was created with Adam from the dust of the earth. She had been one of the wives of Sammael (or Satan), but because of her wild disposition, she left her husband to join Adam in Eden. This union was also doomed, for Lilith insisted on equality with Adam. After all, both of them had come from the same ground. They fought, and Lilith left Eden to live in the realm of air. Adam prayed to God to return Lilith to him, and so three angels were sent in pursuit. The Lord instructed the angels to tell Lilith that if she did not return to Adam, one hundred of her offspring would die each day. Lilith refused, and vowed vengeance against children for the destruction of her own offspring. In later lore, Lilith is a vengeful spirit who roams at night, seducing men and killing babies.
You’re probably not familiar with that myth, but when you pair it with the current reading of the Christian creation myth, it begins to make more sense. Have you ever wondered how Adam and Eve had two boys, and still managed to populate the earth? Uneducated apologists often postulate that Eve had children with Cain and Abel, or that perhaps there were daughters who weren’t mentioned in the bible. However, when we recognize that the Lilith story was originally attached to the myth, it begins to make more sense. There were quite a large number of people on earth before Adam and Eve were even wed!
As we look at the more familiar creation myth, we see Eve as a second wife. This time, the woman was created from man’s flesh, giving man authority over her. Nevertheless, Eve’s inherently naïve and gullible nature became the downfall of the entire human species.
Many pundits speak of the Christian creation myth as a cause of male domination and repression of women through the centuries, but I suggest to you that this is a narrow way of thinking. Cultural views reinforce myths which in turn reinforce cultural views. In the complex landscape that is human culture, we sometimes forget that culture and myths are mutually dependent. As a society changes, its myths also change, but it is overly simplistic to suggest that there is a strictly causal relationship between the two.
Our concepts of sexuality are not derived solely from Christianity. As many scholars have demonstrated, there was hardly anything new in Christianity. It’s uniqueness was in its virulent reproduction, not in the content of its message or beliefs. Nevertheless, it is illustrative to mention some of the prominent opinions of pre-Christian Judaism and later Christian theologians. Philo, an Alexandrian Jew born in the first century BCE, believed that Eve’s original sin was the result of sexual desire. For the sake of sex, he argued, humankind gave up immortality and bliss. Males were rational, while females represented the senses of the world, or more precisely, the very temptations that had caused man to fall. This view, while not representative of traditional Judaism, had a great impact on Christians in later centuries.
The Christian view of sexuality, and indeed human nature itself, derives largely from three traditions: Persian, Greek, and Jewish. The Persian creation myth, while similar in many ways to the Christian Genesis, differs philosophically in one particular way with regard to human nature. In the beginning, there was good and evil, existing as unique philosophical categories. Humankind was created within this framework, and as such, cannot avoid the eternal struggle which is carried on in the universe around them. Ahura Mazda, the one true god, and ultimate source of all that is good, is in an eternal battle with Angra Mainyu, the Demon of Darkness. As in the Christian myth, this struggle directly influences humanity, but unlike the Jewish/Christian interpretation, humanity itself was not responsible for all the evil in the world.
The image of Adam and Eve covered by fig leaves was popularized by Augustine, who believed that Eve, embarrassed by her genitals, had woven covers for herself and her husband. He also believed that lust was one of the curses bestowed upon humanity after their expulsion from paradise. Within pre-Christian mystery cults in the first century CE, celibacy was being taught as at least a virtue, and at most a necessity. Paul admonished people not to marry if they could avoid it. The very image of Mary as a holy virgin, sexually pure and chaste, is evidence that sexuality was looked upon as something to be avoided. Indeed, the appearance of Christ as the only human born of a sexually pure woman is a reinforcement of this concept of sexuality as a corrupting force.
This sex-negative view is not intrinsic to religion or myth, however. In relatively recent history, there are myths that involve women as independent and powerful creatures. A Vedic myth involves a sage named Agastya who formed a sublime woman from various parts of different creatures. He caused her to be born to a king who was childless. Lopamudra, as the child was called, grew in stature and beauty, and when she was old enough, Agastya took her as a wife. After her first menstruation, he took her into his bed. Before intercourse, Lopamudra spoke in no uncertain terms. She instructed Agastya to give her as much pleasure as he could. She demanded royal bedding, jewels, flowers, and finery.
This story is particularly significant when we consider the place of women in India today. Such a myth does not belong to a male dominated society in which women are little more than property. This is a story of a proud, powerful, and free woman. Though she was wed to her husband, she had a high degree of control within the marital bed, and presumably elsewhere.
Recent history is not without examples of more egalitarian cultures. When the artist Gauguin visited Tahiti, he was astonished at the boldness of the young women of the island. Unlike European women, these seemed not to care at all about saving themselves for marriage. On the contrary, they offered themselves freely, and felt no obligation or sense of attachment afterwards. What Gauguin did not realize is that, like many more primitive societies, the Tahitians viewed a virgin simply as an unwed woman, not as sexually unspoiled. The women were their own until marriage, which included the choice of offering or refusing sexual congress.
In the early 20th century, a European living in the Niger delta reported that the highest god of the residents was a mother with many breasts. They wear medals with depictions of the goddess at public ceremonies and official functions. The particular town, Ibadan, is no longer primitive. They have paved roads, multi-story buildings, and budding external commerce. Still, their religion centers around a goddess.
In a neighboring area, Dahomey (which is now called Benin), the chief god for many years has been an androgynous deity. Specifically, it is two gods in the form of one, male and female together. Even in the Bible, we find references to the Israelites turning away from their male god, to Ishtar, or Ashtoreth. Josiah destroyed a temple to Ishtar that had been in Jerusalem for three centuries. Clearly, the dominance of male deities has not been as historically ubiquitous as the myths would have us believe.
In virtually all creation myths, the god or gods perform some act of reproduction to bring forth the universe. For instance, in the Aranda genesis of Australia, the great ancestor sweated the original people out of his armpits. Though this may not at first seem sexual in nature, we should keep in mind that recent science has proven that sexual pheromones are released through the armpits in sweat. What the ancients may not have known scientifically, they seemed to know intuitively, or empirically. For some societies, vomit, excrement, and sweat have been the bodily fluids used to create the universe. For others, it has been semen. The Egyptian god Neb-er-tcher contained all opposites within himself. These aspects, somewhat similar to the eastern concepts of Yin and Yang, interacted within the god while he masturbated into his clenched hand. After ejaculating, Neb-er-tcher places his semen into his mouth and spits forth creation.
If this myth makes you cringe, or if the idea of sweat becoming humans seems completely foreign, you are beginning to understand just how wide and varied the concept of sexuality can be. We must be careful not to make the mistake of judging these myths as inferior to our own. While it is a natural inclination to hold our own myths as sacred, we must remember that so, too, does every other culture. Our disinclination to discuss masturbation, oral sex, and other sexual acts is a result of our inculcation into our societal myths. It is not an indicator of the objective nature of these acts, or of the relative value of the societies who view them differently.
It has become increasingly clear that many of the most ancient myths have been altered by a shift in gender domination. The highly esteemed mythologist, Joseph Campbell, calls it “The Great Reversal. He places it at approximately 600 BCE. From this point on, we see the earlier notions of humans and human nature as integral parts of a natural system gradually disappear, to be replaced by a negative interpretation, where human nature is a thing to be defeated. As a clear example, the term “virgin” is widely agreed to have changed meaning. In the earliest myths, a virgin was an unwed woman, not a sexually chaste one. The hierodules, sacred prostitutes in the temples of Ishtar, were known as “the holy virgins.” An archaic term for children born out of wedlock was “parthenioi,” literally “virgin-born.”
As we survey the religions of the world, we find many examples of ancient goddesses being overthrown by younger gods. This is indicative of a major shift in the perceptions of the cultures that spawned the myths. Ishtar, Gaia, Ataentsic, Awonawilona, Ilamatecuhtli, Astarte, Cybele, Isis, Anahita, Annis, Rhea, Demeter, Themis, Artemis – all of these are representative of the reverence and respect held by ancient civilizations for the power of goddesses. I do not wish to belabor the point, for it is not my intention to espouse a return to female worship. It is sufficient to show that we are not as we have always been. This is a point that must not be overlooked: Many civilizations have thrived while maintaining vastly different sexual myths than the ones we hold today.
One of the persistent western sexual myths concerns the unity of sexuality and gender. Not only have we created a mythology by which heterosexuality is normal and anything else is deviant, we have also believed that gender is the same thing as sexuality. Even though research has proven that among humans, as well as many other animal species, homosexual individuals are born at an essentially constant rate, regardless of cultural beliefs, we persist in the notion that homosexuality is an “alternate choice.”
There is an ancient Greek myth that illustrates the difference in myths. The earliest mention of it is by Plato, but he attributes it to Aristophanes. In the beginning, people did not look the same as they do today. They were not short or tall, but round. Everyone had two sides – four legs, four arms, two faces, and two sets of genitalia. There were three genders. Some people had male genitalia on both sides. Others had female on both sides. Still others were half female and half male. Sexual practice was much different than it is today, as you might imagine. Unfortunately, we do not have records of exactly what kinds of things these people engaged in, but the Greeks clearly thought very highly of their abilities.
In fact, it was pride that was the downfall of early mankind. The almost limitless potential for sexual experience made people overly proud. Zeus, the mighty and jealous god, was offended by their presumptuous arrogance. As punishment, he split each of them in half. Now, they were clumsy and gangly. They could no longer see behind themselves. Worst, they were no longer sexually complete. They were literally only half of what people were originally intended to be. This caused them to have a great internal aching and longing which had been unknown before. They were possessed of a constant desire to return to the unity they had once known.
Apollo was charged with the task of giving them relief so that the punishment would be bearable. He stretched and wrapped their skin so that their back halves were no longer exposed, and tied a knot in the middle of their abdomens – their navels. He relocated the sexual organs to where they are today. (The original positions permitted much more adventurous sex, but it was simply impossible now, so Apollo made the best of what he had to work with.)
Since then, people have been forced to search the world, looking for the half of themselves from which they were split. Males who were part of a full male search for their male counterpart, as do females who were all female. Those who were part male and part female searched for the opposite gender. It is uncommon to find the other half of ourselves. Sometimes, we find someone who is similar to our missing half, and we are happy for a time, but it is only rarely that we find our true self and are united into something that is close to the perfection that we once knew.
As you can see from this myth, sexuality was not thought of in black and white terms. Gender preference was explained in a much less judgmental way. People were not seen as acting immorally if they practiced “alternate sexuality.” In fact, they were seen as being exactly who they were designed to be!
Greek gender relationships were not perfect, though. One of the primary features of early Greek mythology is the consistency with which we observe older, female centered myths being turned around and reformed into male centered myths. For instance, the legend of the Oracle of Delphi and the ancient shrine were originally part of a goddess hierarchy, where the women were the keepers of mystery and secret knowledge. In the Greek myths, we now see Apollo reigning over the temple. We have seen many of the old goddesses relegated to positions relative to men – wives, daughters, concubines. No longer do we see a universe dominated by the mysterious power of the female creator. We see Zeus, the powerful male, dominating and subjugating the wild and dangerous females.
While the Greeks accepted the joy of sex with women, they were highly distrustful of them in any other sense. Greek morality centered around male concepts. Apollo was the embodiment of virtue and masculinity, while Dionysus, the once proud and powerfully androgynous male god, was transformed into an irrational and dangerously feminine symbol of weakness.
Young men were taught to aspire towards a concept known as areté. There is no equivalent word in English, but it conveyed a sense of perfection of both body and mind. Boxers had areté of the body. Philosophers had areté of the mind. The most revered males had a unity of areté, and consequently, a physical and temperamental realization of the male ideal. Sexuality, virility, physical prowess, and mental acuity were all part of the concept, and the phallus was the outward symbol of it. Apollo, in one myth, transfers the full power of his areté through his semen to the son of Bathycles, illustrating the Greek idealization of the power of manhood and sexuality.
Christian culture was heavily influenced by the legacy of the Greeks. Though they did not retain the same acceptance of sexual conduct, they most certainly retained the concept of feminine weakness and irrationality. As Jungian theorist James Hillman explains, “This structure of consciousness has never known what to do with the dark, material, and passionate part of itself, except to cast it off and call it Eve.” (Highwater, 86) It is incredibly telling that such a well educated scholar chose to regard these aspects of sexuality as “dark.” Even as we become aware of the way myth affects us, we are still dominated by it. We are still under the heavy influence of the shift in perception.
The 2004 Olympic Games, held in Athens, Greece, were broadcast all over the world. Before and after each commercial break, the cameras panned across many of the ancient Greek statues still standing around the city. They are a testament to the fascination with the male form that was dominant, and represented one of the integral aspects of areté. They also prominently feature anatomically correct penises. The United States was uniquely prudish in their observance of the events. The FCC received thousands of complaints from viewers who were certain that they or their children would be traumatized by this exposure to the human form.
There has obviously been a distinct change in the way sexuality and virtue are perceived. To the Greeks, and to substantial parts of the world today, sexuality and nudity are not synonymous. The body is regarded as a pinnacle of beauty, and a thing to be admired. The sex act itself was regarded as part of the human experience, with a wide variety of possible variations. Virtue included physical beauty, and the human body was proudly displayed, both in art and by the people themselves.
The United States has received some parts of the Greek philosophy and completely rejected others. While it is common for us to engage in mildly homoerotic customs such as stag parties, “guys’ night out” and the dichotomy of language (We don’t speak that way in front of ladies!), we have disregarded and demonized the more open expressions of such feelings. We have kept the distrust for females, as well as the concept of femininity as less virtuous than masculinity. We have discarded the notion of sexuality as an expression of completion between any of the three combinations of pairs, and we have kept the mythology of jealous male gods.
For Greeks, androgyny was an ideal from which man had separated. Male and female were imperfect halves of a whole, and longed to be complete and reunited. We see twisted echoes of this in the Christian creation myth. We see now the creation of a singular man. Eve is an afterthought – a solution to the imperfection of manhood. Unlike God, who is perfect in his non-sexuality, Adam needed a counterpart to be happy. Androgyny is superior, as in many of the oldest myths, but now, the joy of androgyny is completely missing. After centuries, the links to the goddess myths have all but disappeared, and man now dominates the mythology of creation. Woman is evil. She is the cause of all mischief and evil, and it could not have been otherwise, for she is by nature willful and defiant of the “natural” male authority under which she has been placed.
Jamake Highwater states the connection between myth and sexuality very succinctly. “The way the body has been envisioned and evaluated by various eras and cultures is a history of the sexual messages transmitted by social myths and the customs based upon such myths. The act of sex flows into the mythic imagination and, consequently, the mythology of a people largely determines its attitudes about sexuality.” Some myths involve self sacrifice. Some involve sexual intercourse. Some are female based, others male, and still others revolve around a couple, or a harem. When we examine the societies which propagate these myths, we discover that sexual “norms,” as well as sexual conventions, and what is considered moral and immoral, are reflections of the myths.
Consider America’s sense of gender identity. A person is male or female, and they are straight, gay, or bisexual. As with many things, we consider sexuality to be a dichotomy. Gays cannot be straight, and bisexuals choose between males and females. This kind of black and white thinking would have been incomprehensible to the Greeks, who viewed sexuality as the desire for pleasure and beauty, inherent in both the male and female forms. As adolescent boys gradually moved from infatuation with other young boys to young women, they were not regarded as “sexually experimental,” nor were they seen as an aberration. They were simply following the course of life as they moved from the joys of childhood to the responsibilities of adulthood – most notably reproduction.
In Mombasa, the concepts of gender and identity are similar to those of the Greeks. Lesbians remain women and dress as women. However, in Oman, the view is exactly opposite. A gay male is viewed as a woman, and effectively becomes one in society, dressing as one, and even affecting the mannerisms. In America, we would refer to them as transsexual, but in Oman, no such concept exists. Sexuality and gender are quite separate.
I have previously alluded to Americans’ propensity for black and white conceptualizations. Largely because of our cultural myths, we believe that there is a “normal” sexuality, and that anything else is abnormal. Heterosexuality is normal. Marital sex is normal. Monogamy is normal. All else is abnormal. The jump from normal and abnormal to right and wrong, or good and evil, is very short indeed, and we will see later that there was hardly ever a need to make the leap, for we have always had our feet firmly straddling the gap.
As a final comparison, I’d like to make a brief mention of the concepts of Yin and Yang. Eastern culture has come to dominate much of American society in recent years, with anime cartoons, video games, interior décor, and international cuisine gravitating strongly towards the east. Even so, it would be hard for us to get Yin and Yang more wrong. Most Americans view Yin and Yang as opposites – black and white, night and day, male and female. While this might be true semantically, it’s quite mistaken philosophically. Each side of the apparent dichotomy is dependent on the other for its very existence. It is not a struggle for dominance, or an arm wrestling match. Rather, it is an almost symbiotic relationship. Night is not only dependent on day, but benefits from it. Likewise, male and female, though different, are two sides of the same coin, relying on the other for completeness. In fact, using the words “male” and “female” is not entirely doing justice to the concept, for it is not the gender identity, or the genitalia, that define the concepts, but the concepts themselves that define the cultural ideas about gender and sexual identity.
It is not my purpose to survey the whole of human sexual experience, only to provide examples that are perhaps shocking enough to shake us loose of the idea that our concepts are objectively correct. Remember that in each of these cultures that I’ve mentioned, people felt as strongly about their sense of sexual self as you do today. They were as entrenched in their own myths as we are in ours. The only way to begin to look at sexuality objectively is to recognize the myths for what they are, and to attempt to judge ourselves and others based only on what we can demonstrate – not on what we instinctively feel to be true. Alas, our instincts are not nearly strong enough to overcome our socialization. To this end, we will now examine some of the historical foundations of our current sexual mythology.*
*Tomorrow’s blog will focus on the influence of Christianity on modern sexual myths. Stay tuned!