An­tonella Gam­botto-Burke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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