“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,” wrote Philip Larkin wryly. Antiquity thought otherwise.
Gods and mortals, men and women, satyrs and nymphs, all kaleidoscopically fell into and out of lust. Across the Mediterranean in the classical world, sexual norms were radically different to those in contemporary Western society. The phallus might well contend with the Parthenon as the symbol of classical civilization.
Ancient Athens was not only the brightest cultural light of antiquity, but also, as Eva C. Keuls puts it in The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens, “a society dominated by men who sequester their wives and daughters, denigrate the female role in reproduction, erect monuments to the male genitalia, have sex with the sons of their peers, sponsor public whorehouses, create a mythology of rape, and engage in rampant saber-rattling.”
Nor was Athens an exception. In Alexandria, in 275 BC, a 180-foot-long gold-plated phallus was paraded through the streets of the city, flanked by elephants, a rhinoceros, and a giraffe — and decorated, as the Greek Athenaeus noted, with ribbons and a gold star. Those who failed to join in such festivals enthusiastically were more likely to attract criticism than those who did:
Someone at the court of King Ptolemy who was nicknamed ‘Dionysus’ slandered the Platonic philosopher Demetrius because he drank water and was the only one of the company who did not put on women’s clothing during the Dionysia. Indeed, had he not started drinking early and in view of all, next time he was invited, and had he not put on a Tarantine wrap [women’s clothes], played the cymbals, and danced to them, he would have been lost as one displeasing to the king’s lifestyle.” (Lucian, Calumnies, 16).