Myth and the Erotic
Nudity as a mythic theme belongs primarily to the Near East, and to the West by way of Christianity. It is not that the concept is totally unknown elsewhere; many societies believe that the genitals at least should be covered, and the Japanese disapprove of images that show pubic hair. There seems to have been no general taboo against nudity among the Indo-Europeans before Christianity. The Greeks and Celts seem to have been generally comfortable with male nudity, and the greater disapproval of female nudity probably had more to do with patriarchal control than with religious sanctions. Male nudity was not only a common subject of ancient Greek art, but the Olympian and other games were performed by nude males before a general audience. Celtic males often went into battle nude. At the far end of the Indo-European world, nudity seemed to be generally accepted in India.
It is a striking fact that, although the Greeks produced a great number of statues of male nudes, there are few female nudes, except for Aphrodite, who as goddess of love, sex, beauty, and no doubt originally fertility, was a natural for nude sculpture. Even in her case, early statues were clothed. It was not until the 4th century B.C. when the sculptor Prixiteles made a nude Aphrodite that nude statues of the Goddess became popular. The Greeks probably felt that a nude image would make her appear too like Near-Eastern fertility goddesses who were often represented as nude. Of course, she was originally a Near-Eastern fertility goddess, for she is a comparative late-comer to the Olympian pantheon. Her traditional birthplace off the coast of Cyprus, also points in the direction of the Near East. She was, however, too appealing a subject to be long resisted, and there is definite eroticism in many of the representations.
There is an obvious erotic quality in these and other statues of Aphrodite/Venus. It is said that Praxiteles made two statues of Aphrodite at the same time, one nude and one clothed, and that the clothed statue sold first. But though it may have taken some getting used to, a nude, erotically suggestive statue of a goddess of eroticism did make sense. Two of these, and countless others represent the goddess bathing, the bathing an excuse for the nudity. The late Hellenistic statue of Aphrodite and Pan, however, looks for no excuse, and shows that the Olympian religion was no longer taken with full seriousness, at least in the sophisticated circles that could afford a marble statue. Pan the goat god is a male fertility god from a more rural and primitive time. In this scene, for the statue is a scene, he is obviously making an indecent proposal to the goddess, and she is threatening him with one of her sandals. If you look carefully, you can see that she is wearing the other one. The smirk on her face shows that her indignity is more mock than real. A little Eros/Cupid is also helping the resistance by pushing on Pan's phallic horn. The other three of these statues could have been taken with at least some religious seriousness, but not this one.
The general belief that the Greek/Roman goddesses were usually pictured nude actually goes back to the Renaissance, with its discovery of the sensual and physical quality of the ancient world. Suddenly it was possible to paint nudes, and Greek/Roman myth and legend created an excuse. More Greek goddess have probably been painted and sculpted in the last several centuries than in all of ancient times.
This is not Aphrodite. How do we know that? The sexual appeal here is not to the overtly sexual, voluptuous female, but to the active, athletic female. The taut, slender body is the human equivalent to the taut, stretched bow. Both the bow and the slender and youthful form tell us that this is Artemis/Diana. We also know that this is not an ancient statue, for the ancients did not present their virgin goddess nude. This one is early 20th century, but from the Renaissance on thee has been a steady stream of nude paintings and statues of this goddess. The athletic woman has alway had a strong sexual appeal to many men and we find her in ancient Greek legend in Atalanta and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, as well as in Diana. There is Brynhild, the Valkyrie from the Medieval Norse, and from the Renaissance, Bradamante and Britomart, the female knights of Orlando Furioso and The Faerie Queene respectively.
"No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectators some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow--and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals."--Kenneth Clark (Kenneth Clark. The Nude. Princeton University Press: Princeton 1956, p. 8.
The statement above by one of the 20th century's most eminent art scholars and historians is in answer to modern art critic who states the exact opposite, accusing art that arouses any vestige of erotic feeling of being "bad art and false morals." Modern art theory, with its emphasis on abstract forms attempted to limit the kinds of response a work could evoke. Clark, however, has common sense on his side, and fortunately the era of modernism is fading into the past. The human form since the Greeks has been probably the most favored subject, and most powerful impetus to both sculpture and painting, and it is absurd to suppose that the human form is to be considered as nothing more than a visual pattern.
The 19th and 20th century preference for the female form, however, is not reflective of the whole history of western art. The male nude came first with the Greeks, and in the Renaissance, the first cast bronze statue was Cellini's famous "Perseus."
Cellini--"Perseus with the head of Medusa"
Michelangelo's two most famous figures, Adam in the creation scene, and David, one a painting, one a statue, are both nudes. The fact that none of his female figures has a similar reputation, or is even very attractive, says as much in favor of Clark's view as it does about Michelangelo's sexual preferences.
Compare the creation of Adam above to the creation of Eve from Adam's side below. It is obvious in which of these the artist had a greater aesthetic investment. If this does rouse "a vestige of erotic feeling," it is a very small one.
For the Renaissance, there was a definite male image, the god Apollo, the god of sight, light, the arts, the sciences, of reason, harmony, and order, all reflected in his physical form. As Shakespeare says, "What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals." (Hamlet II.ii) If the modern reader actually considers this description it probably seems a little strange to him. For the last two centuries we have had no generalized male ideal, and so no clear male image.
The nude is not merely a naked figure, but a concept--an archetypal vision of the male or female figure that lies behind the mostly depressing bodies people conceal with clothing. The nude was first a creation of the Greeks and continued by the Romans. It disappears in the Middle Ages, but is reborn in the Renaissance. One subject matter and justification for the nude was the creation story from Genesis. Another was the rich mine of classical mythology that so fascinated the Renaissance. The button below is to an essay on the first of these, entitled "Eve and the Apple." Read it.
For why it's not a good idea to look at Diana naked, read "Bulfinch's Mythology Diana and Actaeon. www.luminarium.org/mythology/actaeon.htm
Notice that in the ancient Greek picture, Diana has gotten fully dressed. Boucher in the 18th century finds the goddess more tittilating than scary, though even to the ancients there must have been an element of voyeurism to the story.
Myth and the Erotic
Ever since humans began to walk upright, the sense of smell has been devalued--how can we follow a scent unless we have our noses to the ground--and sight has become the paramount sense. We know our world by seeing it. We no longer find our mates by sniffing them out, but by looking at them. (Scent, at some subtle level is apparently still important, though how much so is a matter for debate.) As a result, much of the attraction of the lower body has been sublimated upward. We are attracted by the lips on the face rather than the vaginal lips. In a low-cut dress, the breasts are often pushed up and together, giving them the roundness and swell of the buttocks, and of course there are cheeks in both places. Our ambivalence about human smell has created a major industry in perfumes and colognes. People like to look at attractive people, and women especially are a subject of visual attraction. If men's magazines have pictures of nude or scantily clad women, a great many women's magazines in ads and otherwise have their share of nude and semi-nude females. Cosmopolitan always has an attractive woman on the cover, and always one showing a lot of cleavage. For anyone in the course who owns or has easy access to a copy of Vogue, compare the number of ads that show a lot of flesh to the number that do not, and report the results. All such exercises add to the student's cumulative score for the course.
The story of Actaeon probably has two sources. Diana/Artemis is a moon goddess, and therefore a fertility goddess. As such in very ancient times she would have been offered human sacrifices. The Greeks during historical times had an abhorrance for human sacrifice, and associated it with ignorant and cruel barbarians, but in fact there are several stories about this goddess that suggest human sacrifice. Second, mythic time is static and eternal. A goddess who is young and virginal for our grandparents will be no older for us. This is a difficult concept, and the rational Greeks could not help thinking that the goddess' never ending virginity suggested prudery, and therefore what seems like an over reaction to Actaeon's stumbling across her naked. Read the essay on Diana below.
With so much looking going on, it's not surprising that representing the human form began early. Below is a figure commenly called the Venus of Willendorf. It dates back to somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000 B.C., and is one of a number of such figures discovered in modern times.
What our remote ancestors called this figure, we have know way of knowing. The modern name, the Venus of Willendorf, implies that she was considered beautiful, and perhas that she was also a goddess. We don't know if they actually did think her beautiful, and we do not even know for sure that they recognized goddesses. Some commentators call her pregnant, which she could be, but maybe she is just fat. The emphasis is clearly on the center of the body, from the breasts to the upper thighs. The legs taper away to nothing, the head has no real face, and the arms are absurdly tiny. Jean M. Auel, in her novels about primative man, has the interesting suggestion that the tribe enormously fattened one young woman, so that the whole tribe by a sort of sympathetic magic would take on her abundance--an interesting idea, but not provable.
Assignment: Kenneth Clark in his book "The Nude" makes a distinction betwen the naked and the nude. Consider these terms, how they are used, and the implications of each. Write a 1,000 (approximately) word essay on the distinction.
Topics for discussion:
1. Why does the figure have no face, and what is represented there instead?
2. Did those who made her consider her beautiful? Why do you think so, or why not?
3. What was the figure for? Is its significance religious? Magical?
4. Was this carved for men, for women, or for both sexes?
In a sense, all paintings that show us situations we would not normally be intended to see could be called voyeuristic. However, we will restrict the term to two categories: pictures that put us in the position of an actual spy, or which put us in company with figures in the painting who are spying on someone nude or in a sexual situation, and pictures in which the subject realizes that she has been seen, and is looking back at us. Diana would seem to be a special situation, since seeing a virgin goddess naked is like violating a taboo; however, there are similar situations.
John Collier. "Lady Godiva." Late 19th century.
The generosity of spirit in agreeing to ride through the streets of Coventry naked to free the citizens of taxes places an obligation on the citizens not to look. The one who does so is stricken blind. Blindness is a common fate of those, like Oedipus, who have seen what in the sexual realm is taboo to them. The audience for the painting, however, has a closer view than the voyeur probably did. Read this not quite mythic, but legendary story on Wikipedia, or any number of other sites.
Here is another heroine whose virtue has a degree of divine protection. This is not the painting of Susanna and the Elders that I wanted. In childhood I saw a picture which was the very essence of voyeurism; in it a very voluptuous Susanna is towling off after her bath, while several aged men with grotesquely bugged eyes spy from the bushes only inches away. This version by Tintoretto is somewhat more restrained.
Tintoretto. "Susanna and the Elders."
This picture is from the Apocryphal story, Susanna and the Elders, which is sometimes included in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. It has a long history of popularity with painters. Here is an online translation: employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/.../susanna.html
Question for discussion: Is this strictly a moral story, or does it, like the paintings, contain an erotic element?
Here is another picture from another story popular with painters, that of Candaules, King of Lydia and Gyges. In this story, the king is so enamored of his wife's beauty he insists on secretly hiding his trusted man Gyges in the bedroom so he can see for himself that the queen is truly the most beautiful of women. She discovers what has happened and dire results for Kng Candaules follow. Read-- Herodotus (Gyges) at www.oup.com/us/companion.websites/.../-gyges/?view...
William Etty. 19th century. "Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his wife by Stealth to Gyges, one of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed."
Much of the thrill of voyeurism comes from the fact that it is usually forbidden, or at least socially very improper to be watching, and in myth and archetype, that which is unacceptable usually has unpleasant consequences. In the examples above, the sanctions are pretty severe. Actaeon gets devoured by his own hounds, Peeping Tom, who watched Lady Godiva ride, was stricken blind. (The peeper was not added to the story until the 17th century, but once discovered was too important and element of the pattern to be left out.) The Elders who spied on, and then tried to frame Susanna were executed in some unspecified, but no doubt unpleasant manner. Only Gyges is an exception, and here the story is different. The initiator is the king, and he is properly punished. Gyges, who first did not want to spy, and who afterwards did not want to kill the king was forced by the King to do one, and by the queen to do the other. The only true voyeur in the last example is the viewer of the painting who, unlike Gyges, is not forced.
Below is a somewhat different sort of voyeurism. There is no hidden spy. There is, however, someone else, for the odalisque is looking alertly over her shoulder toward someone not in the frame of the painting, who has apparently just entered. You can imagine several possibilities--her master, the harem eunuch, a slave, but the one obvious person who is coming into her line of vision is the viewer of the painting.
Ingres. "Grand Odalisque"
Ingres' mastery of realistic detail in line and texture partially disguises the abstract nature of the odalisque's body. (An odalisque, by the way, is something a step below a wife, and a step above a slave.) Her back is too long, and impossibly flexible. You cannot quite picture her standing up. But she is a Near Eastern luxury item, and standing up is not what she is all about. Notice that the soles of her feet are impossibly smooth and unwrinkled. She is surrounded by luxury--rich fabrics, a hookah for smoking hashish, an elaborate peacock feathered fan, which hides a part of her thigh, though she does not think to move it up to hide anything more intimate. She is perfectly at home with nudity, and always available--quite an attraction to the nineteenth century during which women were supposed to be moral examples, and were protected by layers of fabric, hooks, and lacings.
ASSIGNMENT--see the film Sliver with Sharon Stone, and do a 400 word review of it. Is the voyeur's punishment adequate to the crime? Or is his voyeurism as serious a matter as it would have been to our ancestors?
FURTHER: Comment intelligently on several of these stories and pictures, or on the
comments of others.
Myth and the Erotic
Selkies, Sirens, and Mermaids
John William Waterhouse. "A Mermaid"
In all times and places there have been stories of human sexual encounters with animals, or animal-men, or animal-women, and in some myths, even with plants. In the 20th century, we have added space aliens to the list. For the present, however, we are onl considering beings from the sea. The sea, or ocean, means many things at a mythic level. It is commonly thought of as the ultimate source of all life, as in the cosmic oceans of so many traditions. It is also the depths of the unconscious. Many of the stories are about sexual relations, or about wanting to have sexual relations with a being from the depths, though not many of the stories are heavily erotic in tone. The mermaid is often an image of sexual desire, but it is a bit hard to see how you would have sex with one. Some people have suggested, not very seriously, that it might work better sexually if the upper half were fish, and the lower half human, but then the face would be rather a turn-off. Further, water creatures are dangerous. If they really do desire you, and draw you into their element, you are likely to drown. The image of a mermaid sitting on a rock combing out her long, usually golden hair may be a sexy sight, but it is also an omen of storm and shipwreck.
One of the most famous stories, though a very brief one, is that of Hylas, a young friend and lover of Hercules. He was apparently a very attractive youth, and while getting water, was pulled under by the water nymphs, or niads as he bent to drink, or perhaps to accept a kiss. The best known, though not the most explicit, image is the one by William Waterhouse below:
The sense of menace in this picture is fairly subtle--a version of the idea that if it appears to be too good to be true, it probably is. How often do you have a crowd of very pretty wet and naked girls eager to lavish their favors on you? The danger represented in the statue below is far more explicit. In it, the females are larger, appear stronger, and are obviously more mature than the boy they are seducing/capturing.
This statue was not intended for an "underground" audience or clientel. It was intended as mainstream art. What do you think of it? Does it seem perverse? What thoughts, ideas, or attitudes is the artist trying to convey? How different are the implications in Waterhouse's picture, if different at all? Here is a blog entry about the picture: "Waterhouse catapults you back to a time and place of great--Innocence, Beauty and Passion." Is this your reaction? Innocence and passion are most often viewed as opposites--can they be combined? If so, does that give the picture some special appeal?
For a brief, and rather breezy retelling of the Hylas story, go to
John Gibson. 1826. Hylas and the Nymphs
Fred Appleyard. early 20th Century. "Pearls for Kisses"
With "Pearls for Kisses" we are back to the question of what you can actually do with a mermaid. Whether "innocence" is the right word for Waterhouse's painting there may be some difference of opinion. This one does not seem innocent at all. Trading pearls for kisses might seem relatively innocent if the painter had not given the mermaid an ambigous lower body, suggesting that she might be capable of human sexual intercourse. With a naked couple together, already kissing, imagining that is not much of a stretch. By the way, who is actually giving the pearls to whom?
In Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Mermaid" (1893), the mermaid seems flirtatious in a relatively innocent way. After all, as Poet Laureate and monument of English culture, we should not expect him to stray too far from respectability. These are the most memorable lines:
I would sing to myself the whole of the day;
With a comb of pearl I would comb my hair;
And still as I comb'd I would sing and say,
"Who is it loves me? who loves not me?"
I would comb my hair till my ringlets would fall
Low adown, low adown,
From under my starry sea-bud crown
Low adown and around,
And I should look like a fountain of gold.
There is also a companion piece, "The Merman," but it seems far less inspired. Mermen seem to be a less dynamic archetype. For the whole poem, go to
Frederic Leighton. mid-19th century. "The Siren and the Fisherman"
Lord Frederic Leighton was a highly respected academic painter, and president of the Royal Academy. Tennyson probably saw this picture, which could well have influenced the concept of hair like "a fountain of gold." If so, Tennyson's mermaid is perhaps less innocent than the poem seems to suggest. By the way, it is not entirely clear what a siren is supposed to look like. One ancient Greek vase painting shows them with bird bodies like harpies. They are often, as here, pictured like mermaids. The important distinction is that a mermaid is usually something you spot at a distance. A siren is a temptress, luring you to your destruction. We can be sure that the fisherman in Lord Leighton's painting will come to no good end. Remember the line from the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou: "Them sireens loved him up and turned him into a horny toad."
The concept of not-quite-human female water temptresses is universal, and older than civilization. However, the term "siren" comes to us from Homer's Odyssey. Homer's main emphasis in the story is on Odysseus' homecoming, and he only develops the traditional adventures that he can use effectively to round out his picture of the hero. The story of the sirens is not one of the better developed ones; he neither describes the sirens' appearance, or explains their motivation, or even makes it entirely clear what they do other than draw sailors to themselves by their singing. Here is the passage from Book XII of the Odyssey (Butler's translation), in which Circe explains to Odysseus how to deal with them:
First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There in a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them my hear, but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece halfway up the mast, and they must lash the rope's ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, they must bind you faster.
Odysseus' own account of what happens adds little to what Circe has already said. For an artist's conception of this scene, turn back to the first picture in Unit 1.
Another kind of, or perhaps just another name for a female water sprite is "Undine." This term was made popular by the enormous success of Friedrich Heinrich Karl La Motte's novella Undine (1811), one of the most popular works of fiction of the 19th century. To gain a human soul an undine marries a knight who, in spite of her loving and faithful nature, rejects her for an earlier lover who still wants him. Though still in love, the undine warns him that if he is unfaithful to her, honor will require that she kill him. He is, and she does. Our sympathies are fully with the water spirit who gives up so much to gain a soul, and though the demands of her honor are harshly rigid, they compare very favorably to the values of the knight who proves neither loving nor honorable.
In 1814 the story was made into an opera, the first of several, based on this story. It has also been the subject of film, drama, music, and ballet. In the early 1950's Audry Hepburn starred on broadway in a version called Ondine.
Hans Christian Andersen's long story, "The Little Mermaid," follows much the same pattern, though the mermaid, who suffers greatly to gain her soul and love, is more fully a victim, since her faithless lover is not so adequately punished. A softer version of Andersen's story is the Disney movie, The Little Mermaid.
In both La Motte's and Andersen's stories we sympathize with the water sprite, because however dangerous, such beings do have a kind of innocence, just as animals do, because they lack a soul. And even when they get one, they still retain much of their earlier nature.
Arnold Bocklin. late 19th century. "Mermaids at Play"
As we have seen, mermaids can be treated mythically, erotically, and romantically, but they probably shouldn't be treated realistically. Bocklin's "Mermaids at Play" appears to represent a German middle class family of mermaids having a day at the beach. The effect is just a little distressing.
Finally, seal-men. Here is one category in which males cosiderably outnumber females. By far the most famous seal-man is the minor sea god Proteus who, like many sea beings of the deep has the power of prophecy, and is able to tell Menelaus, in the Odyssey, what he must do to make it home. This story is told in more detail in the essay on "Seals and Seal-Men" by Jim Doubleday. Go to the link below for the essay.
Proteus is not the only divine seal. In Norse mythology Loki and Heimdall fight it out in the form of seals, an appropriate role for Heimdal, whose mother was the the nine waves of the sea. Most seal men, however, are less than divine, though sometimes impressive, as Dr. Doubleday's essay will show.
On the matter of prophecy, read "Hogni and the Water Sprites" from the page "Heroic Poems." The link is below.
Finally, for a modern selkie (seal-man) story, watch the film The Secret of Roan Inish. (1994)