Gods teach capacity for love and sexual connection

How Ovid Supported a Woman’s Right to Orgasm by Vicki León

Although most Americans would strenuously deny that we slavishly follow European trends, the U.S. is straining to become more secular. We talk a good game. We abandon church sermons and services to devour S&M novels, which become blatant bestsellers, openly reviewed and discussed. We scrap the squalid adult stores of yore to erect “romance emporiums,” which become sexy shopping magnets for couples and young women.

Unlike the Europeans, however, we remain manacled to Puritanical ideals and to earlier Judeo-Christian traditions regarding sexuality and gender. Believers, nonbelievers, or “decline to state,” we are still under the thumb of an ancient deity who thunders, “Thou shalt not!!” to a whole array of sexual actions, beliefs, and thoughts.

Ever wonder what the world of sexuality and sensuality was like before Judaism and Christianity laid such a heavy imprint on human behavior?

To start with, cultures around the Mediterranean Sea 2000 years ago had more comprehensive ideas of heavenly hosts and earthly life. Instead of one male god, they honored a cast of thousands: gods, goddesses, godlets, and semi-divine heroes. These deities resembled superhuman beings writ large, full of personality, special powers, and human failings.

The divinity lineup included a few perennial virgins, such as Greek Athena and Rome’s patron goddess Vesta, protectors of their respective cities. But the majority of those worshipped were robustly sensual, often consulted in matters of fertility, childbirth fears, love, lack of libido, and other biological dilemmas. Some of their gods had a Dionysian spirit, promising bliss and sexual healing. Other deities, such as Zeus/Jupiter, CEO of Olympus, couldn’t even control their own libidos. So too the behavior of goddesses, whose boyfriend problems and jealousies allegedly led to human wars.

In what ways did these imperfect celestial celebrities influence human behavior? The intensity of their passions laid bare the secrets of true intimacy. The fearless frankness of the gods and goddesses, scoffing at the notion of sexual sin or shame, were teaching moments — encouraging their human followers to follow suit. Through the widespread democracy of mythological song and story, poetically spun by human communicators, each new generation of human listeners learned about their capacity for love and sexual connection.

In turn, they expressed their collective sexuality in ways that likely exceeded our own quests for intimacy and ecstasy. Granted, it’s presumptuous to make assertions about the feelings of fellow humans, much less those of two millennia ago. What proofs could we possibly point to?

One intriguing clue comes from the poet Hesiod, who around 700 B.C. described an astonishing Greek belief about lovemaking. He told of Teiresias the soothsayer, changed from male to female after he’d wounded copulating snakes. Seven years later, Teiresias was transformed into a man again — and straight away, called upon to settle a dispute between the rulers of Olympus, Zeus and Hera. Which sex gets the most pleasure from sex? they demanded. The seer replied that mortal men had to be content with one-tenth of the ecstasy, since women enjoyed nine-tenths of the pleasure. And he/she should know! (The popular tales of Teiresias continued to be told throughout Greco-Roman times.)

More evidence about sexual experience comes from the Romans. Fond of precision, they coined not one but two Latin words for what we call orgasm. The first? Voluptas, describing the explosion of joy felt by a man at his climax. The second? Delecto, the sweet release experienced by a woman when her lover delivered it to her. Neither of these words was confined to heterosexual expression, either.

Additional clues come from Ovid, Rome’s most generous love poet, who understood that orgasm is a sacred act, allowing men and women to experience life and love in a more complete way. As he urged his readers in “The Art of Love,” “But don’t you fail your lady, hoisting bigger sails, and don’t let her get ahead of you on the track either; race to the finish together; that’s when pleasure is full, when man and woman lie there, equally vanquished.”

Ovid also made a woman’s right to derive the maximum pleasure from acts of intimacy his highest priority. For this reason alone, he should outrank other Latin poets, most of whom preferred to shock their readers with coarse, often misogynistic verses. Another passage from his “Art of Love” says it all: “Let the woman feel the sexual urgency, released from the very depths of her marrow, and let that be equally pleasing to both.”

Vicki León is the author of “The Joy of Sexus: Love, Lust and Longing in the Ancient World.”