Sex in the World of Myth By David Leeming Reaktion, 256pp, $39.99 (HB)
Myths, David Leeming writes in Sex in the World of Myth, are our cultural dreams, and in them sexuality is as multidimensional and pervasive as it is in any mortal life. They involve homosexual and heterosexual acts, hermaphrodites, transgender individuals, perversions, misogyny, emphasis on penis size, sadomasochism, passion, devotion, betrayal and power struggles.
There are male anxieties about female dominance: the Samson and Delilah or Jason and Medea myths, say. There is the pre-Olympian matriarchal philosophy embodied in the Greek goddess Gaia, whose voracious erotic appetites led to her being revered as the ancestral mother of all life. As Leeming writes, “[S]exual myths are in some sense religious, pre-scientific partial answers to, or commentaries on, the nature of existence in general.”
Unrelated to the oestrous cycle that determines the sexual expression of other mammals, human sexuality centralises our sexual appetite “in our social existence, our rules of behaviour and, by extension, our mythmaking”. Spanish academics Marcos Garcia-Diez and Javier Angulo Cuesta even suggested that our sexual appetite conditions us as a species.
Leeming, an American emeritus professor of English, acknowledges that what we understand as “natural” genital sexuality is, to scholars such as Michel Foucault and Mary Douglas, no more than a cultural construct. But, he argues, if it is true that our attitude towards sex differentiates us from other mammals, it “ultimately, therefore, in part defines us as a species, [so] these myths must have a more general significance”.
To this end and with curiosity and nuance, he sifts through the mythologies of Africa, Babylon, Canaan, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Navajo, Rome, Sumeria and others.
A common motif in myths is the deliberate separation of primeval parents lest their sexual congress preclude the evolution of all other life. Another is the trickster, that lascivious manipulator who adopts infinite guises: the gods Anansi, Loki, Lugh and so on are examples of The Farewell of Hector these troublemakers who embody both the principle of chaos and damaged masculinity.
Gender identity was, to a certain extent, once determined by myths, and they continue to influence our understanding of ourselves. The Abrahamic mythologies, for example, have no reverence for the beautiful, infinitely sensitive female sex, “the only doorway into life”. Instead, it is demarcated as immodest, something to be hidden, reviled, degraded. The phallus, on the other hand, is presented to us by male mythmakers as a marvel.
This obsession with penis size was one of the indicators of a violent, misogynistic or martial culture, such as those of the Ancient Greeks and, of course, Romans, whose founding myth featured a colossal phallus that rose from the hearth of a king.
Rather than what Leeming calls “an instrument of love or even procreation”, the erect penis has always been perceived by misogynists as a weapon, something with which to hurt or assert dominance over the female. Size thus becomes synonymous with masculinity, cruelty and power, a world away from the sexual template of the mutual, integrated pleasures de- picted in Sumerian myths or the Song of Songs. The same fixation can be found in Hebrew myths and those of China and Japan, where stylised depictions of monstrously engorged penises are an artistic staple. In Japan, the Steel Penis Festival persists to this day, and African myths, Lemming notes, “almost universally suggest the superiority of men over women”.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, it is recommended that any woman who hurts a man’s genitals should have her hand severed. Predictably, the converse does not apply, if only because female genitals were perceived as utilitarian rather than sacred. The Abrahamic mythologies are riddled with what amount to imprecations against femmes fatales: those women who, through beauty or erotic charge, render men vulnerable.
This, the most acute of all patriarchal fears, led to a demand for the containment of women, and the means were varied, repugnant and institutionalised, including the “isolation of women from men other than their own family members by way of specified clothing, restrictions of movement, the exclusive control by men of material possessions and land, female circumcision to reduce the possibility of female sexual satisfaction, restrictions around the education of women and their role in politics and religious life, and the emergence of what might be called the cult of virginity”.
Mirroring the patriarchal culture of the time, most Olympian sex, which featured “highly entitled” gods and “ruthless sexual predators”, was narcissistic and misogynistic. Leeming uses philosopher Martin Buber’s relational template to illustrate the sexual paucity: “In an I-it relationship, the individual sees the object of desire as an ‘it’ who has nothing to do with spirituality or the inner self. In the I-thou relationship, two individuals relate to each other without objectification.”
In this respect, pornography has taken over from the Greek myths, if stripped of their lyricism and Jungian depth. As Leeming writes, pornography is “male fantasy involving either a strangely willing or a raped victim and a list of such possibilities as incest, bestiality, the possession of young women by older men, and the tricking of disrespected women into activities that have everything to do with male pleasure and nothing to do with what we think of as
by Carl Friedrich Deckler depicts the Trojan hero with his wife Andromache