Adventures in Athens – Sex, Imagery, and Religion

Religion and sexuality have been closely related in most cultures of the world throughout history. As a result, the images and vocabulary of human sexuality have often been used to express, and to experience, religion.

Priorities differ. Near the end of our time in Greece, I wanted to see the battlefield of Marathon, where the Greeks defeated the Persians in 490 BC. Marathon is an hour’s drive from Athens, and all that remains is a burial mound in a large field, and a few historical displays. Anna wanted to buy presents for friends and family, admittedly a higher priority. So I went to rent a car and Anna visited the Dimotiki Agora (Public Marketplace). Anna likes to shop, and is good at it. Amidst the panoply of scarves, table runners, wooden spoons, and other treasures, Anna encountered a rack of large, brightly painted, wooden penises, also known as phallic symbols. Amused, she took a photograph, and finished her shopping. I joined her at the market, and she joined me for the drive to Marathon.

Sex is power. Sexual imagery is present in all the world’s religious traditions, and pervasive in some. Australian aborigines sang the following song to communicate sacred truths about the land, the Ancestors, and to attract young women:

Long one penis penis vulva

Labia opens sees clitoris

Copulate boy goes dizzy

Coitus vulva semen[1]

Sexual imagery is pervasive in the major Eastern religions. Hinduism sees men as fire and women as water, but simultaneously sees a man’s semen as water entering the fire pit of a woman’s vagina. Such sexual transformations suggest the religious transformations inherent in Hinduism. As Hindus represent the god Shiva with a phallus and his consort Sita with a vulva, so Daoists represent male gods like Mu Kung and goddesses like Hsi Wang Mu in the same way.[2]  Many Eastern traditions such as Daoism and Tantric Buddhism represent female genitalia with the lotus flower. Siva worship, which involves anointing a phallus-shaped rock or other symbol, often with milk or water, is common. Hinduism, Buddhism, and other eastern faiths sometimes teach that sexual intercourse itself is a pathway to perfection. Canaanite and Egyptian female figurines used in fertility rites had large breasts and prominent labia.

Sexual imagery is present, although much debated and much less prevalent, in the Abrahamic traditions. Islam forbids images, fearing idolatry, but sexual imagery describing Allah’s love for man and man’s love for Allah is widespread in the Sufi sect. Sufism is controversial, and is even considered heretical, by many Sunni jurists. Sufi mystics, such as Mansur Al-Hallaj (858-922 AD), have been executed for their beliefs. Still, Sufism remains a vibrant force in Islam. Paul described the Church as being like the “Bride of Christ.” Followers of Christian mystical traditions, epitomized by the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), took this farther, describing a “spiritual marriage” to God, often in sexual terms. Jewish commentators such as the Rabbi Aqiba (50-135 AD) interpreted the Song of Solomon as an analogy of love between Israel and God. Christian commentators including Hippolytus, Origen, Gregory of Nicea, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and others saw the Song of Solomon as an allegory of the love between Christ and the Church.[3] Modern scholars often dispute these interpretations but cannot deny their influence in the history of Christianity.

The phallus has been revered as a symbol of the divine in most cultures for millennia. The Vedas describe phallus worship as characterizing pre-Aryan inhabitants of India.[4] Later it was incorporated as a symbol of the god Shiva in Hinduism. The Aboriginal myth of the Wawalag sisters includes Yulunggur, a (generally) male and definitely phallic rock python.[5] Dionysus, the Greek Olympian god of fertility, ecstasy, and wine, was represented in festivals with wooden or metal phalluses.[6] In Egyptian mythology, Isis, goddess of fertility and wife of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, recreated a penis for her dead husband. As a result, he was able to impregnate her and his heir, the god Horus, was born.[7]  During a trip through the ruins of Pompeii in October 1993, my wife Nancy and I were surprised to find that most houses had stone or painted phalluses in entryways, courtyards, bedrooms, and altars.

Many people in ancient cultures understood human fertility in the same way they understood agricultural fertility:

  1. As the seed of a plant is contains within it all of the plant, so the seed of the man (semen) contains within it all of the baby. No contribution from the ground besides nourishment is necessary, and no contribution from the women besides nourishment is necessary.
  2. As the farmer placed the seed into the ground, so the man placed his seed into the woman.
  3. As the ground incubated and nourished the seed to produce a full-grown plant, so the woman incubated and nourished the seed to produce a full-grown baby.

These assumptions seemed consistent with the fact that men had obvious sex organs, and sex-related emissions distinct from blood and other body fluids. A woman’s sex organs and fluids were primarily internal, and were therefore largely invisible. Menstruation looked like nothing more than blood. Without modern microscopes there was no way for ancients to know about the male sperm joining with the female egg – both sexes contributing to the new life.

If this is how early man understood human reproduction, his or her thinking becomes understandable. If agricultural seed is generally good and failures in the harvest most often arise from troubles in the ground (poor soil or inadequate water), then the male semen should be generally good and failures to give birth must be due to problems in the woman. This helps explain why the onus for infertility fell most heavily on wives (examples in the Bible include Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah). Also, ancient people thought that agricultural fertility contribute to human fertility and vice versa. Sexual intercourse with temple prostitutes was intended to mimic sexual intercourse between a god and a goddess, thus gaining their favor. In response to such worship through coitus, the deities would grant reproductive and financial (usually agricultural) success. With its power to generate wealth and sire offspring, ancients found the presence of the gods in the phallus. Among some Melanesian tribes in the eastern highlands of New Guinea, a daughter-in-law had to eat the penis of her father-in-law on his death. Doing so would transfer his fertility and power to her.[8]

Conclusion

The phalluses for sale at the tourist shop at the Dimotiki Agora were not religious symbols. Those who made and sold them wanted to make people laugh and to make people buy. Those who bought them probably felt curiosity and mirth. Nonetheless, the simple fact that these phalluses were there suggests a fascination, and perhaps even a reverence, for sexual imagery. People in most cultures throughout history have used sex to understand, communicate, and experience religion. It is no surprise – the ecstasy of intercourse can seldom be exceeded by anything but the ecstasy of religion. Further, the creative power of intercourse, the ability to make a new human life, exceeds every other type of natural human creative power. Georges Bataille wrote, “eroticism is primarily a religious matter.”[9] Many people from many religions over many centuries would agree.

From a Christian standpoint, sex is a gift to mankind from God, part of common grace, but sex is not God. Further, sex is not a path to God. Believers should not fear sex, ignore it, or be obsessed by it. Our Creator intended human sexuality for procreation, for pleasure, and to provide a glimpse, albeit feeble and faint, of the rapture that followers of Christ will experience when we finally see Him as He is. In the meantime, Christians must use sex, as with everything else in life, to glorify the God and to enjoy Him forever.

[1] Tony Swain and G W. Trompf, The Religions of Oceania, The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. (London: Routledge, 1995), 35.

[2] Geoffrey Parrinder, Sexual Morality in the World’s Religions (Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, ©1996), 82.

[3] Frank E. Gaebelein and Dick Polcyn, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: with the New International Version of the Holy Bible, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1991), 1202.

[4] The Vedas: the Saṃhitās of the Ṛig, Yajur (White and Black), Sāma, and Atharva Vedas, single volume, unabridged. ed., trans. Ralph T H. Griffith and Arthur Berriedale Keith KB Classics ([United States?]: Kshetra Books, 2017), 104

[5] Tony Swain and G W. Trompf, The Religions of Oceania, The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. (London: Routledge, 1995), 37.

[6] ANTHONY EVERITT, RISE OF ATHENS: the Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization (S.l.: RANDOM HOUSE, 2017), 236.

[7] Byron E. Shafer et al., eds., Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 44.

[8] Tony Swain and G W. Trompf, The Religions of Oceania, The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. (London: Routledge, 1995), 157.

[9] Betsy Prioleau, Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), 70.

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