Review: Sex in History by Reay Tannahill

Sex in History - Tannahill

So I last added to this loooong post in October 2013 - and along with many others I forgot to update it when I finished it. And now (May 2014) the book's in storage. However the up side of this is that are now a massive amount of quotes for you to read below, that will give you a very good idea of what the writing is like and the types of anecdotes and examples the author uses.




The weird thing about going through old books is realizing that you're really vague about how you ended up owning them in the first place. This is one of those books - and I'm just going to guess it was a used book store purchase. Because I somehow doubt the book spontaneously generated itself on my bookshelf - or that two other books somehow mated and it was the result. (Though that last theory would explain a lot about why my bookshelves are always full.)


I should mention that the publication date on this is 1982, and the resources cited are older than that, so it's quite possible that there's more recent research in the field that would cause some of the facts to change. (I always assume this when reading anything scientific or historical.) And of course the author herself knows that she's tossing around a lot of theoretical stuff - but then that happens, especially when you're writing history about the time period before writing existed.



The following are quotes, added bit by bit as I read. Warning, it's a bit lengthy!



Chapter 1 thoughts: I really wouldn't have thought it would have taken so long to figure out that sex resulted in babies. In theory it was some time before people figured out men had something to do with the process and it wasn't something that women just magically did by themselves.


p 41 - "Even in the twentieth century, however, there have been tribal peoples whose ignorance [that sex creates children] remains profound."

- then examples are given from the 1930s and 1960s.


p 42 - "Some anthropologists regard most of these cases as pure fiction, a succession of willful misunderstandings, or a gigantic legpull on the part of tribal peoples testing the extent of Western naivety. In the dying decades of the twentieth centruy, they argue, sex is an open book."

- Tannahill goes on to cite more recent examples of teenagers who were unaware of some of the basics.



It was extremely amusing that, on discovery that he had an integral role in creating life, that men apparently became er, overly empowered:


p 47 - "...The men who emerged from the neolithic into the period of recorded history had the kind of assurance, arrogance, and authority that spring not from useful toil, not from knowledge of a good job well done, but from the kind of blinding revelation - beyond argument, beyond questioning - that was later to be experienced by the prophets of the Old Testament and the saints of the New. Was it that, discovering their own crucial role in an area where man's potency had always been denied [birth, creation of life] they had (very humanly) overreacted?"

- that after this point in many societies women became property of the male head of the house (father then husband) seems to say yes.



The idea that there was a female, mother goddess in the past:

p 54 - "There is a common misapprehension that, in Classical times at least, there were goddesses who reigned supreme, a theory based on the shaky foundation of Minoan Crete, whose art indicates the existence of a mother goddess of great significance, but about whose religious structure very little is really known. Later there was Demeter, the Earth Mother, though she rated no higher than Corn Goddess, Adonis being the true fertility diety. In imperial Rome, too, Cybele and Isis attracted enormous followings. But the general concept of the Great Goddess owes as much to the Victorian imagination as to historical truth. The men of the nineteenth century, rewriting early history with the new disciplines of anthropology and archeology as guides and a highly flattering view of women and motherhood always in their minds, adjusted their image of polytheistic religions to suit their own intellectual needs. In fact, the goddesses in question seem to have had a good deal in common with the ladies of Victorian times, rejoicing in just as much glory and just as little power."



I may have started this book because I had the idea that there'd be some amusing quotes to share. We'll see how that works out...


p. 58: "Recently scholars working on the first comprehensive dictionary of the Sumerian language were disconcerted to find that, even after weeks of analysis and re-analysis, one phrase persisted in coming out as, "He put a hot fish in her navel."


Mistranslation? Perhaps. But lovers throughout history have used the human navel as repository for a wide range of erotically stimulating objects, and, on balance, a hot fish seems no more improbable than the ice cubes fashionable in some circles today."


...yes, there might be some amusement here.




I love books where the author uses footnotes for this sort of "no, really, you think that bit was weird, check out this!" commentary. I'm really enjoying the kinds of facts Tannahill shares.


p 66:  "For 30 days after giving birth the Babylonian woman was ritually unclean, as she was during her monthly period. For the regulation six days during which she wore a sanitary towel (in Sumarian tug.nig.dara.ush.a, or "blood bandage"), she contaminated everything she touched, whether the bread she made or the man who "approached" her*.  ...After her period, she was instructed to purify herself either by taking a bath or washing her hands, which casts some doubt on the Egyptians' reputed enthusiasm for daily hygiene. (So does the fact that the pharaoh Rameses II was noted not only for the number of his children - he fathered upwards of 170 - but for the number of his blackheads.)


[The English major in me wanted to add to that last sentence "but also" but I restrained myself and left the text as is.]


Footnote for the *:  Nineteenth-century European doctors still believed that the touch of a menstruating woman would turn a ham rancid. (See page 352.)


I should add here that because I typed this when I was tired Rameses became a "pharoach" until I edited it. And now I'm going to wonder if anyone actually did any experimental research on the "women turning ham rancid" question. Will have to see if p 352 has any answers.



One of the weirder histories is how the Christianized west demonized sex. Especially when you dig around in the primary texts and don't really find the answer. It all comes down to early church theologians and their interpretation. One of the early problems for them was answering the question:  "what did Onan do wrong?" - which had different answers depending on what your religion was. The biblical story of Onan (Genesis 38: 8-10) short version: when his brother died he was supposed to marry his brother's wife and have children with her. Which would then be his brother's children, or so they'd be seen in his society. Rather than do this, Onan "spilled his seed on the ground" and the Lord kills him.


p 75 -"What precisely was it that displeased the Lord? Coitus interuptus? Masturbation? Or refusal to obey the law of levirate? Catholic theologians in later times, determined to outlaw all forms of contraception other than abstention, were to come out strongly in favor of the first. A Lausanne physician, S. A. Tissot, in 1760 decided on the second and wrote a book entitled On Onanism, or a physical dissertation on the ills produced by masturbation, with the result that later generations blamed Onan for originating the horrible sin of "self-abuse.*" The rabbis, however, decreed that this downfall was a result of willful disobedience to the levirate law - a necessary conclusion, for disobedience to the law was not desirable, whereas coitus interruptus sometimes was."


Footnote *: In 1976 the Vatican, leaving Onan out of it, still condemned masturbation (in language of majestic obscurity) in its Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics because "the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty."


So if you were Christian you had the lesson of not practicing masturbation and/or contraception, and if you were Jewish you had the lesson on the importance of obedience to law.


(I suppose I should add here that my own background is Presbyterian. Which I've stuck with mainly because they're big on questioning everything and continually reading and studying, and usually come around to admitting areas in which their interpretations were wrong.)



I've always loved reading about Egyptology and Egyptian history - but somehow this particular theory of the Oedipus myth escaped me.


p 77, Akhenaten: "...His first wife appears to have been his mother, Tiy, a strong-minded lady from Nubia. They had one daughter. Then he married his maternal cousin, Nefretiti, and fathered three more daughters."


p 78: "...Yet he was to achieve immortality not only as one of the interesting but irrelevant eccentrics who litter the pages of the past, but as the prototype of Oedipus, central character of Boeotian myth, great tragic figure of Sophoclean drama, and symbol of the particular type of parent-fixation neurosis...


Akhenaten, unlike Oedipus, did not kill his father; instead he obliterated all traces of his rule. ...It seems unlikely that Akhenaten suffered from the guilt in which Sophocles (and Freud) enshrouded him, but there appears to be little doubt that it was, indeed, his own curious tale that was carried across the Mediterranean almost 3,000 years ago to become enshrined in Western literature and tradition."


I don't think I'd ever say "little doubt" about a theory like this - but it's definitely an interesting theory. For those wanting to dig up more on this the footnote refers to The Evolution of Man and Society, by C.D. Darlington.



There's a lot of fascinating stories about temple prostitutes that I'm trying to refrain from quoting too much - because I almost always end up quoting too much when it comes to interesting tidbits, but I just can't seem to help myself.


p. 80, a story of temple prostitution from Herodotus (who was writing of a society 1,000 years prior), about every woman having to serve once at the temple and giver herself to a man: "...Characteristically unable to resist improving on a good story, he added, "Tall, handsome women soon manage to get home again, but the ugly ones stay a long time before they can fulfill the condition which the law demands, some of them, indeed, as much as three or four years."


Tannahill could find nothing in Babylon law or scholarship that this sort of thing happened - apparently the only temple prostitutes were professionals, not amateurs.



Here's a reading check for you - if you don't remember the birth of Aphrodite/Venus in this way, then you've read a version of the myths that's been tamed/edited.


p. 84, Homer, Hesoid, Plutarch, Pausanias: "These were the authors who served as reading primers for children of the Classical world, and the children learned not only their letters from them, but tolerance and a realistic callousness as well. Aphrodite, for example, goddess of sexual intercourse, was born from the foam, but not the foam that so innocently caps a Botticelli wave. According to Hesoid's Theogony, Cronos, son of earth and heaven, castrated his father with a billhook and hurled his testicles into the sea. They drifted away in the foam of their own semen, and it was from this that Aphrodite was born."


I was unsure which Pausanias is referred to - because none of these seem to fit. Hmmm.



Random quotes! Neither Greeks nor Romans had much use for women, except for creating heirs. (This doesn't change for much of history - and is the same in many other cultures. So, no huge surprises.)


p. 93, Greece: ""Women are by no means inferior to men," Socrates remarked kindly - then spoiled the effect by adding, "All they need is a little more physical strength and energy of mind." He was, however, being generous, for the Greeks had no very high opinion of women, and during the period when pederasty was in vogue the feeling was reciprocated."


p. 104, Greece:  "There were streetwalkers too, with a novel soliciting technique that worked very well on unpaved surfaces. One streetwalker's sandal has survived the centuries. Studded in reverse on the sole is a message that would print itself on the roadway for the next passerby to read. The message, of course, is "Follow me."


p. 114,  Rome: "...It was they who invented the half-cup brassiere, not quite as scientifically structured as the modern kind, but satisfactory enough. They had girdles too, usually worn by hetairai to conceal pregnancy. And for girls whose figures were underdeveloped, the hips could be "fitted with a quilt, so that people exclaim: 'There's a well-turned rump for you!' "



p. 137-8 church fathers in a time of illiteracy:

"The Church Fathers, outstanding though they were in their generation, were no more than human and their experience was limited. In a period of general literacy, their conclusions would have been contested, modified, and modified again. But literacy and learning were two of the most important victims in the collapse of the Classical world.

...As a result, the words and conclusions of the Church Fathers remain unassailed, and so, in time, became unassailable.  ...It is undoubtedly a tribute (if an ambiguous one) to such men as St. Jerome and St. Augustine that much of what the modern still understands as "sin" stems not from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or from the tablets handed down from Sinai, but from the early sexual vicissitudes of a handful of men who lived in the twilight days of imperial Rome."


p. 141, church fathers: Arnobius, Methodius, Jerome, Tertullian, Augustine (so I'll remember who to blame!)

"...They were not bloodless natural ascetics, but men who had led full lives (and full sex lives) before being converted to celibacy, and they had reacted with sometimes morbid revulsion against the sins they now abjured.

...It was Augustine who epitomized a general feeling among the Church Fathers that the act of intercourse was fundamentally disgusting. ...In fact there was an unstated consensus that God ought to have invented a better way of dealing with the problem of procreation."

And they also refused to consider sex as being an important part of marriage - it was only for making children and otherwise shouldn't be done. If it was, it should be without passion. This argument now seems both illogical and weird - but that has a lot to do with the century I live in, as this was accepted for centuries.




p 155, sodomy statutes - ever wonder why we have so many definitions of what sodomy is? Church fathers originally defined sodomy as specifically homosexual, but:

"...Many centuries later, however, Western lawgivers - perhaps out of innocence, perhaps out of understandable confusion - again began to use the word "sodomy" in a less restricted sense, treated it as a compendium of all they understood by "unnatural vice. Today, in such states as Virginia, for example, the so-called sodomy statutes do not specifically ban homosexuality but anal and oral intercourse, regardless of the sex of the persons involved."


p. 168, from the chapter on China (the book takes us to various counties/cultures):

" was the Chinese who produced the world's earliest known, most comprehensive, and most detailed sex manuals. ...they were intended as much for the woman as for the man, and indeed were frequently given to a bride before her wedding."

Compared to Europe at the time China is a much better place to be. For sex without the Big Guilt at least.


p.170, again in China:

""Clouds and rain" is still, today, the standard literary expression for the act of intercourse, an echo of nature beliefs far more primitive than those of Taoist times."

Which is a good thing to know before visiting that country and asking innocent questions about the weather.


Also I'm very sad that I can't find out more about Lady Pan Chao (mentioned on p. 186). A bit on her here: Pan Chou, Woman Historian