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Sex in Ancient Greece

sex in ancient greece

The sexual habits of the ancient Greeks have been greatly misunderstood. This happens because of the misinterpretation of the sources, or the biased Christian morality. People often disagree over the specific subject and that's why average readers are often torn between two or more theories, presented in such a way that each one of them can be equally convincing. Such examples of controversy are the origin of the Greeks and the Greek alphabet, as well as the alleged homosexuality of the ancient Greek society.

The sexual preferences of the Greeks were often represented in plenty of vases, dating mostly between the 6th and the 4th century B.C. When looking at these illustrations it is logical to wonder whether this is mere pornography or just a kind of symbolism or religious character hidden behind all this.

To begin with, there were vases of religious-devotional character, mostly associated with fertility (both animal and vegetable), others had the role of warding off evil, and others were indeed intended to provide sexual stimulation. There were finally some vases whose main purpose was humorous and where the artist painted his fancy, depicting mostly mythical creatures copulating in every possible way.

sex in ancient greece

The first category concerns vases of religious intention depicting the Holy Matrimony, i.e. couples of humans or animals, copulating; they were offered to shrines or temples with the supplication for the fertility of a woman, a herd or a field. The Holy Matrimony was a rural ritual aiming to ensure fertility and was associated with the cult of Dionysus. Moreover, the Satyrs and the Sileni -mythical beings, companions of Dionysus, who were always depicted with an erection- were also symbols of fertility. Let us remember here that all ancient religions were extremely concerned with fertility, as all ancient societies were agricultural.

The second category concerns vases which, through illustrations of the phallus, aimed at warding off evil. It was a common belief that the phallus and the eye possessed such powers over the Evil Eye and accordingly people used both as amulets. Athens was full of herms, marble pillars with elaborate head (of Hermes, or other gods later) and a phallus. The herm may have derived from some primordial non-pictorial representation of Hermes. On some vases we frequently see the two main symbols combined in one -a large phallus with an eye or pair of eyes! This so frequent use of the phallus, may be explained by the absolute supremacy of men (patriarchy) while, in the age of matriarchy, the symbols of fertility were statuettes of women with heavy buttocks and clearly stated the attributes of their sex.

sex in ancient greece

Finally, the last category consists of vases with genuinely erotic representations intended to arouse sexual feeling in the onlooker; we shouldn't though confuse these with pornography as they were intended for use only in the symposia and that explains the fact that most of those vases are kylikes, meaning shallow wine goblets.

The majority of the erotic scenes picture men with women, few with adult men together, even fewer with men and male youths and only one concerns women together but it is not clear if the scene has a truly lesbian character.

All the possible ways and positions of copulation are depicted: vaginal, anal, contact on the thighs, fellatio, cunnilingus, masturbation, use of sex aids, threesomes, sixty-nine, sadism, orgies, bestiality etc.

The word diadem characterizes the crowns of royal families which were basically weaved head bands. Alexander the Great received one after he won Darius the 4th and became a king. The diadems received the form given to them today a bit later and they are mainly golden and often found in tombs.

sex in ancient greece

There is differentiation between the erotic representations of the 6th century and those of the 5th and 4th century B.C. Up until approximately the end of the 6th century, the scenes depicted, initially on black-figure and later on red-figure vases, include exclusively vaginal and anal intercourse while scenes of oral sex as well as scenes of orgies are absent. By that we can understand that they weren't acceptable although they were practiced. Scenes of orgies usually involved Satyrs and the Maenads who were women followers of Dionysus. This probably shows that unrestrained sexual activity, lust and even masturbation weren't acceptable.

During the ancient times women were also masturbating with the help of a leather dildo called olisbos or baubon which was manufactured in Miletus which was a wealthy city and then exported to other countries as well. These dildos were used by the hetairae at the symposia with the help of which they performed erotic dances for the sexual stimulation and enjoyment of the audience.

sex in ancient greece

Towards the end of the 6th century some scenes of fellatio, cunnilingus and orgies made their appearance on cups used in those parties and it is evident that such conduct was only accepted during the symposiums. On one of the most famous erotic kylikes painted by Pedeius Painter we see among others a hetaira tilted on a stool, taking a man's penis into her mouth while at the same time another man penetrates her from behind. More such scenes are shown on the same vase. Scenes of cunnilingus are shown in other vases but such an act during these times of male supremacy was considered to be improper if not vulgar. This was the case of fellatio as well. Even though it is the woman who offers pleasure the man remains passive as the woman is the one who acts. But being passive was unacceptable for men and in order to balance this male passivity the artists depict women kneeling in a position of submission while their features are altered by the penetration of the penis into their mouth. The missionary position is nowhere to be seen since usually women are shown on their knees or bent forward or lying on their back with their legs on the man's shoulders. Another rare position is a woman seated on a reclined man because the female would be the dominating part in this case and this wouldn't be acceptable by males. The reason that common positions like that were not depicted is because the genitals were not visible and the aim was for the clientele to be aroused by the scenes. Second, all the erotic scenes were with the hetaerae from whom men wanted something more fancy than the ordinary way of copulation they could have with their wives.

Anal penetration used to be very popular at the time in heterosexual relations as well and it must have been a socially acceptable way of copulation. It is not known if women enjoyed having anal sex since it generally satisfies men but they surely preferred it for reasons of contraception.

If we take a closer look at the erotic scenes we will notice that there are no signs of any sentiment so it seems that it was practiced solely for pleasure but the couples are rarely shown face-to-face anyway.

sex in ancient greecesex in ancient greece

Since bestiality wasn't widely practiced by the ancient Greeks there was no law against it but such examples are mentioned in Greek mythology very often. It is mentioned that Zeus was transformed in different animals in order to copulate with mortal women such as Leda shown with a swan (Zeus). The mythical Satyrs and Maenads are also shown copulating with animals.

As far as rape against women and children was concerned, it was considered to be a criminal act and the rapist had to pay a double fine to the victim and the state as well. The fine was quite high for the time, about a hundred drachmas.

According to various plays (comedies) like Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae homosexuality and sexual relations between two adult men were unacceptable and condemned. The passive homosexual was the disgraced since he was the one penetrated, not because of moral reasons but because he had chosen to take the role of the woman. That's why there aren't many scenes showing anal intercourse between men.

To conclude, it must be mentioned that the vases with the erotic scenes in Ancient Greece were created to satisfy the tastes of a specific clientele while the artists painted them at will and in such a way as to have commercial value.

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