Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review: The Joy of Sexus by Vicki León



Vicki León has been out collecting ancient trivia again and this time her subject is sex.  In her latest collection of the obscure, she has assembled anecdotes about ancient aphrodisiacs, wandering wombs, practitioners of erotic mysteries and victims of doomed love.

By reading her book I learned about Callipygia worship - a fixation on a person's derriere - and divine gender-bending that affected such ancient prophets as Teiresias the Seer.  I think my favorite passage from the book, though, was a retelling of the story of Pherenike of Rhodes.

I have not studied ancient Greece as extensively as I have studied Republican Rome so, although I knew that the ancient Greek Olympics were conducted in the nude and that women were not allowed to attend, I had never read any background material to explain why.  León provided me with all the information I could have hoped for in her passage about Pherenike of Rhodes.

Diskobolos (discus thrower) 2nd century CE Roman copy of  450-440 BCE 
Greek bronze by Myron recovered from Emperor Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, 
Italy.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Body Beautiful exhibit at the 
Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR.
It seems that Pherenike was a young woman born into a family of Olympic victors.  Her father was a champion boxer at the Olympic Games in 464 BCE.

"Her big burly brothers continued the winning streak.  In boxing and the ferocious boxing-wrestling event called the pancratium, Pherenike's brothers swept six different Olympic Games." - Vicki León, The Joy of Sexus

León goes on to surprise me by observing that Pherenike probably watched her athletic family compete in the games when she was a young girl and later before her marriage.  Apparently, young virgins were allowed to watch the games - just not married matrons!

Then León continues saying Pherenike also married a famous athlete named Callianax and bore two sons who also trained for the Olympics.  Pherenike's older son, Eucles, won his boxing event but, because Pherenike was now married, she was not able to witness his victory.

A few years later, Pherenike's younger son Pisodorus entered his name as a contender for the boys boxing competition but before he could complete his ten months of training, Pherenike's husband died.  So, secretly Pherenike took up the mantle and resumed training her son dressed in the male garb of an official trainer.  When his time came to report for the 388 BCE Olympics, his mother went with him disguised in the full length robe of a trainer and carrying the traditional wooden staff.

Boxer Resting 1st century BCE Roman copy of 3rd century 
Greek original by Apollonius.  Photographed at the Palazzo
Massimo in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch.

When her son was ultimately victorious, Pherenike, forgetting her precarious situation since a woman attending the forbidden event faced the death penalty of being thrown from the Typaeum cliffs, let out a high-pitched whoop and jumped over the fence to run and kiss her son.

"Either the high-pitched sound of her voice, or perhaps what her jump over the fence revealed, blew her disguise." - Vicki León, The Joy of Sexus

Fortunately for Pherenike, the ten Olympic judges decided not to punish her because of her illustrious family's contributions to the games, but forever after both trainers and athletes were decreed to appear in the nude.

So now I know why athletes are always depicted in the nude on all of those red and black-figure vases!

I also learned about Koan silk, a sheer see-through fabric.  I guess I hadn't kept up on all the latest discoveries and still thought silk worms were a closely guarded secret until much later in history than ancient Greece.  León reveals that some silk worms were purloined by the ancient Persians and made their way to the Greek islands of Amorgos and Kos.  Unlike the Chinese, who killed the worm to harvest the silk from their cocoons, the Greeks let the worm emerge naturally, breaking the threads as it went.  Then, using the same method they used with flax known as hackling, the women produced a gossamer silk that commanded a premium price.  The silk was so popular that Aristophanes referred to it in his play Lysistrata where women go on a sex strike to keep their men from going to war and sexually tease their husbands by prancing around "naked in their Amorgian chitons."

Apparently, in a surviving letter from Plato, the famous philosopher (and León questions "cheapskate?") orders three tunics for the daughters of a host but says "not those expensive Amorgian ones!" (I always love little tidbits that reveal what kind of person  a famous ancient was!)

The fashion eventually reached Rome and León found a quote from Pliny who called Koan silk "the vestments that cover a woman while at the same time revealing her naked charms."

These wonderful little glimpses about the truly personal lives of the ancients is what makes León's book so enjoyable.

There were only a couple of missteps that made me say "What?"  In her chapter about Alexander and Hephaestion, León explains that the Macedonians defeated the Persians at the battle of Issus. Then in the next sentence she says Persian King Darius was killed and his queen Statira captured. (p. 69 - 70) She may have been simply trying to condense the chapter but it makes it sound like Darius was killed at the battle of Issus and, of course, he wasn't.  Darius was killed some time after he fled the battle of Gaugamela and was assassinated by his own officers, who hoped to impress Alexander.  Alexander was not impressed with their treachery and ordered their execution.

Roman emperor Caracalla by Italian sculptor
Cavaceppi 1750 CE after ancient original.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the
J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA

León made another confusing statement about the Roman emperor Caracalla.  She alluded to his death being the result of too many mistresses and a gladiator.  Although Caracalla may have dallied with too many mistresses and maybe a gladiator, too, this sounded much more like Commodus.  Caracalla was killed by a member of his own body guard when he stopped to relieve himself while marching with his army near Carrhae during a war with Parthia.  Historian Cassius Dio said the assassin, Martialis, was disgruntled for not being promoted to the rank of centurion.

But, I salute Vicki for such a revealing and fascinating look at lust, love and longing in the ancient world!

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