Myth and the Erotic
Course Outline
Unit 1: Introduction

Myth, the Erotic, and "Myth and the Erotic"
     Nearly everyone knows in a general way what myth is.  It becomes more difficult if one must be precise.  How do we know something is a myth, and not some other sort of story?  What's the real difference?  Where do myths come from?  Do they actually tell us anything about reality?  Are they just very outdated science?  What are they really about?  Where do they come from?  Read the essay below:
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      The erotic is a little simpler.  It is works of literature or of the other arts designed to arouse sexually, or at least to appeal to the reader's or viewer's interest in the sexual.  The one big complication is the concept of pornography.  How does pornography differ from the erotic?  The answer to that is made difficult by the fact that many people consider anything with even a hint of sexuality pornographic, while others do not actually believe there is such a thing, and use the word as a positive.  Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous "I know it when I see it," as a response to the difficulty in defining it is especially unhelpful, since people looking at the same thing respond so differently.  People who write on the subject, are universally unhelpful.  The vast majority have a hostile agenda already in place, whether social, political, moral, or religious, and therefore are not to be trusted.  Ideology has no respect for truth.  On the other side are people in the business of producing works that push the limits of social mores, and though some such material may be socially serious in intent, most of it is produced by people whose concern is financial.  By comparison, the courts can at least be given credit for trying, though little has come from them that is really coherent.  Until 1959 the post office determined what people could read, by confiscating any works sent through the mail that it decided was obscene.  Then, in 1959 the Supreme Court created the "redeeming social value" test.  This got D. H. Lawrence's book through the mail, but created a criteria so vague it is meaningless.  "Redeeming" has a specifically Christian meaning, giving the standard a very doctrinaire implication.  And, one has to ask, redeem from what?  The term only makes sense if one accepts the idea that sex itself is somehow evil.  Besides, one could easily say that Gilligan's Island has no redeeming social value, and yet no one is censoring it.  Personally I find de Sade's work to be nasty and obscene, and without social value, and yet there are others who treat it as philosophy.  A few years later the standard was refined considerably, but established another vague phrase, "community standards," without defining community, or giving any real definition of standards or any way of determining what those are.
     Is there such a thing as pornography at all, as opposed to mere sexual content?  I think there is, though we would need a better standard than "I know it when I see it."  One clue to its nature is the fact that considered by any other appeal than the sexual, it is very poor stuff.  One might have supposed that the badness of pornography was the result of it being underground, persecuted, and cheap.  Now that the Hollywood porn industry has grown comparatively rich, and is largely free from persecution, it is still bad.  Technically it is a little better, but the story lines are still skimpy and absurd, the dialogue is stilted, the acting is mediocre at best, the humor is painful.  The films are still made in a matter of days.  There is a law of supply and demand, and if there was a demand for quality works, someone would have filled it long before this.  Apparently badness is a part of the mistique.
     Another aspect of pornography is that there are no real emotions other than negative ones--hate, fear, anger, embarrassment.  There are basic drives such as lust, but no one is really in love. Even the "good" characters behave in a manner we would not accept in real life, and if they change at all, it is always for the worse.  If a positive emotion or attitude appears at all, it is ridiculed or destroyed.  Pornography does not celebrate sex, but makes it appear dirty.  Perhaps one reason for these qualities is the traditional attitude that sex is dirty.  If sex is dirty, then dirt becomes sexy.

      Perhaps, if one felt for the characters, became involved in the story, thought the humor was actually funny, or anything else, that would interrupt the single minded nature of pornography, which is only about sex.  People in pornography tend to get turned into things--I don't mean in the cliche sense that feminists use the term, but literally.  People are often reduced to something like automotons, and sex with mechanical devices is a favorite theme.  Perhaps, considering the complex nature of being human, and the endless issues of real human sexuality, some people find a kind of liberation from descending to a less than human state where there is no guilt, obligation, loyalty, love, but only the most basic drives.

      This subject deserves treatment in far greater depth, but it is not the subject of either this course or this unit; it simply could not be totally avoided.  As a final note, though the Supreme Court has not dealt with the issues with much insight or depth; it could have done worse.  D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover is nothing like the kinds of works described above, and the Court did a useful service in making the distinction.
      As opposed to pornography, the erotic is a thing in itself, not merely a conduit to the sexual content.  The erotic treats the sexual as an important part of life, but does not make it the only element, and the only value.  But why myth and the erotic?  For on thing, humans are by nature myth-making creatures, and are also sexual beings.  Many of the myths, though not explicitly erotic in their earlier forms, touch on a wide range of sexual themes.  And they may have seemed more erotic to an ancient audience less drenched in media than we are.  Further, artists throughout the ages have brought the two together.  We think most immediately of the many stories, statues, and pictures from the Greek/Roman world that have treated myth erotically, and their many imitators in more modern times.  But there is also the temple sculpture of India, with its supple, and well-endowed female figures.

     The picture below is from Homer's Odyssey.  Odysseus' ship is being assailed by sirens, supernatural female creatures that lure men to their destruction with their singing.  All the men but Odysseus, who is tied to the mast, have their ears stopped with wax.  Homer does not describe the sirens or say exactly what they do, though the clearly kill, and probably devour sailors.  Homer does not develop the erotic possibilities of the scene, but the painter clearly does.  Why choose this scene to paint?  What thoughts does the scene inspire?  What might it have meant to a 19th century audience?  Does it mean something similar to us?  Something different?  Or anything at all?

Art review of Mythology and Erotica, Pitti Palace, Florence

ERATO:  Greek goddess, Muse of erotic poetry & mime: mythology

New Book:  Like a God's Kiss. Erotic Mythology/ Circlet Press
Myth and the Erotic
Unit 2

Love and Lust
      For many of us, our acquaintance with the myths, and the gods and heroes of antiquity comes from childhood reading, and even if we read as adults, it is likely to be Bulfinch's Mythology, which is today thought of as adult reading, but was intended for the young.  As a result we tend to think of the past as comparatively chaste and moral, and that sex wasn't really discovered until the Victorian pornographers.  Or if we are ignorant of them, some time in the 1960's.  In fact, the gods and heroes of myth were entirely as sexual as we are, and nowhere nearly as inhibited about sexual kinks.  They did not have the advantage of modern psychology to tell them what was "normal," and therefore proper.

      Still, for the modern reader the most erotic versions of the stories, whether written, carved, or painted are likely to be comparatively modern, or at least from the Renaissance on.  Our remote ancestors were not drowned in media like we are.  We are like people who are continually overfed; we need more and more spices and elaborate preparation to make our food interesting.  Our remote ancestors viewed any story as a rare treat.  They did not have a lot of them, and they valued each one for its many nuances.  The dynamism of the stories is indicated by the fact that they are still the models, however distorted, of the countless films, tv shows, paintings, and so on that we experience today.
    Love, and to the ancients love always included sex, was important.  All pantheons of gods had a goddess of love, sex, and fertility, and therefore of lust and adultery as well.  The oldest pantheon we know of is that of the ancient Sumerians (2500-3500 B.C.).  Their goddess was Inanna (later, Ishtar).  She is identified with the planet Venus, which is also identified with the goddess Venus (Aphrodite in Greek).  In the world's oldest surviving literary work, The Epic of Gilgamesh , she propositions the hero Gilgamesh, who turns her down on the grounds that she has had other human lovers, and they have all come to bad ends.  Of course this doesn't really help him either, since goddesses don't like to be rejected.  But obviously there must have been a great many stories of Inanna and her love affairs that we no longer have, or won't have until a great many more tablets are deciphered.
     Isis was the love goddess of the Egyptians, wife of her brother Osiris.  Incest, a universal human taboo was permitted for the gods, and their human relatives, the Egyptian royal family.  Among the Germanic gods, one of the two groups of gods, the Vanir, incest was also permitted.
Until he joined the Aesir, Njord one of the Vanir, was married to his sister.  The sources do not name her, but she was probably the goddess Nerthus, described by the Roman writer Tacitus in his Germania.  Njord's daughter Freya is also a love goddess, and like all love goddess, rather free with her favors.  In Lokasenna, one of the poems from the Poetic Edda, Loki accuses her of sleeping with all the gods, including her brother Frey.  Her father Njord comes to her defense with the surprising argument that its no big deal if a woman has a few lovers on the side.
      There is no doubt that the Norse looked upon Freya as a goddess of eroticism, though the stories we have do not attempt to be particularly sexy.  Her necklace, the Brisengamen, she got from four dwarfs (the dwarfs are great metalworkers in Norse tradition) by agreeing to sleep a night with each of them.  The giants, or Jotuns are always trying to get their lustful hands on her, but in none of the stories do they succeed.  In one, they steal Thor's hammer, and demand her as a ransom price.  Thor is quite willing to marry her off to regain so important a weapon against the Jotuns, the hereditary enemies of the gods.  Freya, however, flatly refuses, and so Thor is reduced to dressing in drag and, heavily veiled, passing himself off as Freya until he can get his hands on his hammer again.  The Giants are quite impressed at the prospective bride's huge capacity to eat and drink.  Obviously this story is more comic than sexual.
Arthur Rackham.  Freya and Giants
      The picture above is not from any actual Norse story, but from Richard Wagner's set of operas, The Ring of the Niblungs.  The 19th century seemed to have been particularly fond of the archetype of beautiful woman as victim, something we will hear much more about later.  Thus he makes his version of Freya far more timid and demure than the forceful goddess of Norse tradition.  There is not a single story or episonde from actual Northern tradition in which Freya is a victim.  The fact that she can absolutely refuse marriage to a Giant even at the cost of great danger to the gods says much about the status of women in Northern pre-Christian society.
      We know very little about the rites and celebrations devoted to the Vanir, except that they sometimes involved transvestite priests, a feature that appears elsewhere in fertility religion.  It is a little hard to picture Vikings in drag, but anything that people do now, we can be sure they did in the past as well.  We also know that whatever went on, the Christian missionaries found them very objectionable.

      It is not until we get to the Greek/Roman world that we find the erotic elements presented in a way that seems explicitly erotic to us.  Part of this is because we inherit their literary and artistic tradition, so their images are presented much the way we would present them.  Also, Greek/Roman religion is dominated more by poets than by priests, and so naturally they play up the sexy elements more.
      Another factor, however, is the origins of Greek religion.  The Greeks were Indo-Europeans, and probably arrived in Greece with very few goddesses, but a male trinity of gods--the god of the sky, god of the earth (and later the sea as well), and god of the underworld, appropriate diviinities for a nomadic, warlike, herding people.  What they found when they arrived was a world dominated by goddesses.  The most powerful area of Greece in early times was the Argos-Corinth-Mycenae area where the goddess was Hera.  She naturally became the wife of the Greek sky god, Zeus.  But there were other goddesses to account for as well, and for many of them Zeus was identified as the father, so that he gained the reputation as quite a philanderer, and Hera the reputation of a jealous wife.  Aside from women and goddesses seduced or raped in the normal way, Zeus takes Europa in the form of a bull, Danae as a golden shower (no tacky modern implications intended), and Leda as a swan (much more on this event later).  And according to Olympia, Alexander the Great's mother, he impregnated her in the form of a giant serpent.  Apparently having the most powerful king in Europe as a father wasn't good enough for her Alexander.
Gustav Kimt. 1907 "Danae"
      Of course the other gods are having various sorts of  relationships too, and every time a new divinity is brought into the pantheon there is another round of sexual activity.  Every stage of development for the cosmos, the earth, and human existence on it is represented sexually.  And so are basic natural phenomena.  Imitating the ancient poets, Spenser writes in The Faerie Queene:   (Book I, Canto 1, lines 50-53)

                                   The day with cloudes was suddeine overcast,
                                   And angry Jove an hideous storme of raine
                                   Did poure into his Lemans lap so fast,
                                   That every wight to shrowd it did constrain

Jove is Jupiter, or Zeus, the sky god.  His leman (lover), therefore is the earth, and a rainstorm is a kind of sexual assault.
      The handsomest of the gods is Apollo, the sun god, who is also the god of reason, rationality, restraint, consciousness and therefore of self-consciousness.  Somehow the women seldom seem to warm to him.  His few consensual relationships turn out badly, and his attempts at rape work no better.  The nymph Daphne preferred to change into a laural tree than be caught by him.

Bernini. 17th century. "Daphne and Apollo"
      The truly sexy divinity, of course, was Aphrodite (Venus in Latin).  The word aphrodesiac comes from her Greek name, and venereal disease from her Latin name.  She was the one goddess that the Greeks pictured naked, but more on that later.  In fact, one of the most famous paintings of antiquity, now lost like all major ancient paintings, was of her rising from the sea.  The fame of this picture inspired several Renaissance efforts on the same theme, particularly the famous painting by Botticelli.
Botticelli. "Birth of Venus"
Skipping over several centuries of paintings of Venus rising from the sea, here's Ingres from the mid-ninteenth century.  The painting was a great success, and critics claimed that it was Apelles' "Venus Anadyomene" reborn.  Quite possibly they were right, in the sense that this is how ancient Greek art looked to them, though to us it looks more like a French academic painting of the 19th century, than like anything ancient.  It is one of the great mysteries of art how radically what we see changes from one age, or even one decade to the next.
Ingres. mid-19th century. "Venus Anadyomene."
      Venus was taken quite seriously as a divinity--for most of us our love life is important--and at least one city, Aphrodesias, had her as its patron divinity.  Love and sex, however, are also favorite topics of humor, and the goddess comes in for her share as well.  In the Iliad, which is a grim and bloody business with lots of scenes of slaughter, when Homer needs to lighten things up a bit he brings in the gods.  Aphrodite (Venus) puts on a particularly unimpressive show on the battlefield.  In the Odyssey, Book VIII, when Odysseus is clearly distressed at hearing a story about the Trojan war, the king tells the poet to lighten things up, and so the poet tells a story about the gods, specifically about Aphrodite's extramarital affair with Ares (Mars).

      Aphrodite's husband, the lame blacksmith god Haephestus (Vulcan), knowing of his wife's affair with the god of war, prepares an invisible net in his bed, then pretends to leave on a trip to Lemnos.  Aphrodite and Ares are very shortly in bed  together, the trap springs, and Haephestus summons all the gods as witnesses, though the goddesses are too modest to show up for such a tacky scene.  Apollo makes a side remark to Hermes (Mercury) that it wouldn't be quite so much fun getting it on with Aphrodite if it involved being caught in a net and having all the gods watching.  Hermes replies that he'd gladly put up with three times as much netting and the goddesses too if he could get golden Aphrodite to bed.  Hearing him, the other gods all burst out laughing.
      To my mind at least, the one who comes out looking the worst in this scene is Apollo.  Like all the other gods, he'd like to get Aphrodite to bed, but not badly enough to be embarrassed in the process.  No wonder he has problems with women.  No matter how badly they act with wiping out whole cities and temper tantrums gods,except for Apollo, never get embarrassed about anything.  There is an almost breathtaking freedom in that quality, and lacking it seems to make Apollo a smaller divinity.  Being a god of self-knowledge and consciousness, however, necessarily also makes him a god of self-consciousness.
    Extra-marital affairs are not only commen to the Greek gods, especially Zeus and Aphrodite, they also happen with the Norse gods.  Odin has a number of children by other women, divine and mortal, and Freya's husband Od leaves her because of one of her indescretions.  Loki, the trickster god, claims in Lokasenna to have slept with all the goddesses, including Sif, Thor's wife, who makes a big issue of her virtue.  Thor, by the way, is her second husband.  Who the first was, none of the sources say.
      Over time materialistic philosophy replaced the primitive animism that made every stream and breeze and mountain a living being, and the emphasis of poets, painters, and sculptors on sexual indescretions undercut the seriousness of classical religion, making its themes and images more a matter of decoration and worship.  In fact, the more animism was rejected as belief, the more it was emphasised in stories.  Olympian religion was made even more absurd by the cynical exploitation of emperors who declared themselves gods, and had altars and temples put up in their own honor, and sometimes that of their wives or female or male lovers.  By the time Christianity appeared on the scene Olympianism was nearly dead.
     For the Renaissance, however, after a thousand years of Christian asceticism, the sensuality and animism of Olympianism was a welcome awakening, and they embraced its last and most decadent elements, and passed them down to us.  For classical animism, see the winds in Botticelli's Venus.  The Renaissance was dead by the 19th century, but by them middle class prudery and inhibitions made the sexual openness of classical images a welcome escape.

      In America, the 1920's were the ultimate rejection of Victorian prudery and seriousness, and the liveliest spokesman of the era was the once widely popular author Thorne Smith, best remebered today for his book Topper, and the films and tv series based on it.  One of his more entertaining works is a story called The Night Life of the Gods.  In this novel, Hunter Hawk, an eccentric inventor creates a device that turns flesh to stone.  He tries it out on statues in the museum to see if it works in reverse, and finds himself surrounded by a group
of naked and Greek gods bored with long inactivity and ready for a night on the town.  It is lucky for him that Venus has no arms, or he would be in even worse trouble.  One might think that Smith had made the gods into cliches, but he is actually little worse in that respect than much Renaissance painting, and the book is lively, funny, and sexy..
Visit:  The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith on flickr-Photo Sharing!
     Aside from the great gods, or course there are the lesser gods of nature, and these are even more about sexuality.  The best known of these is the goat-god, Pan, inspirer of lust as well as panic.  He is more about raw, primal sexuality than about love, and if he doesn't seem to have much resonance for you, try out the site below, with Pan and Barbara Eden in a lot hotter, in every sense, scene than she ever had in I dream of Jeanie.  Actually it would not be a bad thing to see the whole movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, it puts the scene more into context, and the movie itself is an odd but wise commentary on the human condition. 7 Faces of Dr. Lao--Great  God Pan and Barbara Eden
Finally, here is the god Odin using himself as an example of how even the wise can be made fools by love, and how women can be tricky.  The poem, "Odin and Billing's Daughter" is fairy short.  Read it.