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Easter 2014

Again rejoicing Nature sees
Her robe assume its vernal hues
Her leafy locks wave in the breeze,
All freshly steep’d in the morning dews.
  -  Robert Burns

Easter GreetingsAs I pointed out last year, most of the holidays Christianity took over from paganism and redecorated with a Christian rationale are still pagan to the core; this is especially true of Easter, which is virtually indistinguishable from the other spring festivals which preceded it all the way back to Sumer and before.  Christians still celebrate with the ancient symbols of flower, hare and egg, Jesus’ coming forth from the tomb is just the old story of Tammuz or Attis or Adonis or Osiris with refurbished names and details, and (in English, at least) even the festival’s name is that of the goddess from whom Christ inherited the day.  Before cute bunnies and the like become the dominant iconography in the early part of the 20th century, the goddess still appeared on Easter cards and other illustrations in the guise of an angel, a young mortal girl or even the Blessed Mother; no matter how much the Church patriarchy tried to suppress her, she just kept popping up out of the spiritus mundi like spring flowers from winter soil.  And though the sheer joy of spring is severely muted due to the disconnection of modern urbanites from nature, her symbolism still persists; as this holiday reminds us, many things which have been buried are nonetheless not truly dead, and merely await the proper time to emerge into the sunlight once more.

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This is a kind of hybrid column, half Q&A and half guest post.  A reader sent me the photo below, and wanted to know if I could tell him anything about it (you’ll see why he thought I might in a moment).  Well, everything I know about art wouldn’t even make a whole column, but the essence of librarianship isn’t knowing information directly, but rather knowing where to find it.  So I asked Aspasia Bonasera, who happens to be an art historian in addition to a sex worker, and she provided the analysis below.  I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

In the early eighties I found this de-framed painting in an antique store in Wisconsin.   An older couple who ran the store said it had come up the river from Storyville to Chicago, where they got it in an estate sale, along with its anecdotal provenance.  Seems it was cut from its frame in great hurry, then later “framed” in something that was at some point painted dark brown…

Storyville painting

This painting was done in oil on canvas.  Primary colors dominate, though the palette is vibrant; the paint quality is average to maybe slightly above average.  The canvas itself looks to be average quality as well (cotton or low-grade linen), so this painting was either done by an artist without a lot of money to spend on finer, linen canvases or someone who paints as a hobby.  This says to me that it probably wasn’t a commission or if it was, it was not commissioned by someone with a lot of money for the project.  Commissions are generally done with the best materials the artist has access to, and it is not unusual for the patron to provide these finer materials.

The painting was originally larger; the female subject’s foot is clearly cut off at the bottom of the canvas where it was cut and re-framed.  There could be any number of reasons for this; for example, if the painting was commissioned for one patron but the deal fell through for reasons unknown to us, another patron may have bought it but asked that it be scaled down to fit on their walls.  More than likely, I think this painting was cut and re-sized by the buyer rather than the artist.  So far as I can tell, there is no signature of the artist on the painting, which tells me it may have been located on the bottom of the painting, which has been removed.  If the artist had re-sized/re-framed the painting in his studio, he would have re-signed his creation.

The painting shows a classic Reclining Venus, which was a popular theme in antiquity and Renaissance paintings.  For example, the Venus of Urbino by Titian is a Reclining Venus.  Naturally, this would have been an appropriate subject for a brothel.  The two young men are almost satyr-like, especially their ears, which are almost pointed and their long, drawn faces.  Satyrs were known for their lust and high libidos and were often depicted with women who were equally lusty and wild, especially Maenads.Diana and Actaeon by Camille Corot (1836)  The presence of the men in a voyeuristic pose may also be influence by the Greek myth of the virgin huntress Diana being surprised at her bath by the hunter Actaeon, whom she punished for spying on her nudity by turning him into the very animal he hunts (see also Titian’s rendering of that story).  Unlike Diana, however, the woman in this painting, as a representation of Venus/Aphrodite quite enjoys being spied on, though she doesn’t make eye contact with the voyeurs but affects an aloofness that probably only intensifies their lust for her.  Appropriate for a sex worker!

The style reminds me the most of French Rococo artists such as Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, or François Boucher.  Fragonard and Boucher are known for their erotic arts and voluptuous pastoral scenes.  This painting shows nature as full and sensual and blossoming.  The style, in my opinion, is very strongly influenced by Fragonard, which brings me to a conundrum of my own.  Fragonard was very popular among the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the French Revolution.  When the Revolution occurred, Fragonard fell out of favor (as did Boucher) and his art was forgotten for many years; this included the time period in which Storyville would have existed.  That said, however, Fragonard may have fallen out of favor in mainstream art history, but perhaps he was still remembered among those who were outside of the mainstream, such as those people who still liked the voluptuous and erotic artistic expressions embodied by the Rococo?  Certainly there would have been those among the elite classes of the French Creole in New Orleans who may have had Fragonard paintings (or at least known who he was) and also patronized Storyville.

Obviously without more to go on, this analysis is purely speculative, though based in what I have learned in my course work.  I would love to know more about it, though, as I always love investigating that intersection of sex and art.  If the reader really wants a thorough, in-person investigation, I suggest contacting a gallery that is in New Orleans itself, such as M.S. Rau Antiques; in Chicago, there are a whole bunch of places that could do the job as well.

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I’m sure regular readers already know Aspasia, who is not only a regular reader and frequenter commenter, but a blogger whom I’ve linked on several occasions.  In a recent correspondence she told me about Oshún; since I’m very interested in the subject of whore goddesses, I was immediately intrigued and asked if she would do this essay, and she graciously consented without any arm-twisting.

Like so many other young women these days, I began to research the old myths of ancient goddesses from all around the world during my early to mid twenties.  I was always drawn to sex goddesses like Oshún, Aphrodite, Inanna, etc.  We’re all kindred spirits, if you please.  Their personality traits, especially those of Oshún and Aphrodite, are very similar: graciousness and generosity (and you’d do well not to anger them), unabashed femininity, sexuality, and sensuality.  They display absolute authority over the power of sexuality, which was understood to be the complex thing it is and certainly not a frivolity as our anti-sexuality culture deems it to be.  In the pantheon of ori (divine beings) in which Oshún is a member, she is the third most powerful after the Father God Obatalá and Mother Goddess Yemayá.  Like them Oshún has a sacred color, yellow, all her own; all other orisha (spirits or gods) must share colors.  Oshún isn’t known to many people outside of the Caribbean, Brazil or the Yoruba people found primarily in Nigeria and Benin (though they can also be found in Ghana and among the Krio of Sierra Leone); however, she is known and revered everywhere in the Latin Caribbean and South America where the Yoruban people were taken during the slave trade.  In Cuba, where Oshún has been syncretized with Santa Cecilia (patroness of music) and La Virgin de La Caridad del Cobre, she is known as Our Lady of the Caridad del Cobre with a feast day of September 8th.  Cobre means copper in Spanish, and the precious metal figures prominently in the representation of Oshun.

OshunBesides copper, Oshún also favors gold and all things shiny and yellow; this is similar to Aphrodite, who also favors gold and is often (though not always) depicted with golden hair.  Tied around Oshún’s hips is a gourd filled with her honey, which she smears on the mouths of men whom she is trying (and always succeeding) to win over; she also smears it upon her own naked body, a frank reference to lovemaking.  Similarly, there are stories concerning Aphrodite sharing her goldenness with lucky men she has chosen to be hers…for a time.  Both goddesses are sea-born in some fashion with names that reflect those origins: Aphrodite (Greek for “foam-born”) rose from the sea and Oshún was named after the deep “O” sound the Earth made causing a boulder to fall into the water, which made the “shun” sound…or so one patakí (parable) of her naming tells us.  She is the goddess of the “sweet” waters and indeed has a river named after her.  Oshún is most revered as a goddess of sexuality, sensuality, beauty, love, money, joy, music… la dolce vita.  She is the “Divine Epitome” of all that is wonderful about women and femininity, and is renowned for her beauty; in Cuba she is known as La Bella Mulata (“The Beautiful Mulatto Woman”).  A patakí explaining the change in Oshún’s physical appearance in Cuba tells us that she changed her appearance to better blend in with the diverse racial mixture found there; her skin color changes from dark brown to golden honey-brown, the latter being another symbol in the representation of Oshún.

But I always noticed something missing from the typical feminist writings on sex goddesses: their whore aspect.  All of the sex goddesses, with their consummate love-making skills, also have a connection to money or money-like objects or symbols and yet somehow, following the feminist mindset, never the twain shall meet.  Not even within the same goddess!  The PC revisions of these goddesses are a disservice to them and to any who want to know about them, even if they don’t feel the same strong pull to their service that I do.  Oshún Panchagara is the whore aspect of Oshún.  As with Aphrodite, modern-day revisionists avert their eyes from her frankly sexual and overtly whorish aspects and give it a gloss and polish that is absolutely misplaced.  I only found out about Panchagara through a book I recently acquired in which a Cuban santero (a male practitioner of Santería; female santera) priest and “son of Oshún” (all followers of Oshún are considered her children) not only mentions this aspect but celebrates it.  Baba Raul Canizares writes in Oshún:  Santería and the Orisha of Love, Rivers and Sensuality:

In one of her avatars, Oshún Panchagara, she is depicted as a Holy Whore, “La Santa Puta”.  This is a controversial aspect of the orisha, rejected as a New World fabrication by modern-day Yoruba revisionists and African-American feminists who feel their goddess is being degraded by depictions of her as a prostitute.  These people are actually projecting their own prejudices and morality into the equation.  In reality, prostitution has not always been viewed as degrading or immoral.  In fact, temple prostitutes, including the famous “vestal virgins” [sic] of ancient Rome, have featured prominently in the history of ancient religions.  On and off, prostitution has been legal in Cuba until the late 1960’s.  It is only natural that, just as every other profession has a patron saint, prostitutes also enjoy this privilege.  In her aspect as Panchagara, Oshún is at her most rambunctious, coquettish, and wild.  Panchagara is La Bella Mulata on Steroids, a woman very much in control who chooses who she’ll bless with her sexual favors.  Panchagara is in no way a victim, as those who object to her claim, but an empowered female who has chosen prostitution on her own terms and for her gain.  Oshún Panchagara has been an inspiration to women who for whatever reason have had to engage in prostitution; she demonstrates that a human being’s sense of self-worth need not be affected by what he or she does for a living.

There is little about Panchagara online, at least nothing as honest as Canizares’ statement.  The PC aversion to her frank sexuality, which Canizares also hits upon, can be found here in this article where a modern-day African-American female follower of Oshún seems to have a bad reaction to the “wrong” expression of sexuality as shown by other daughters of Oshún.

Panchagara completes the totality of Oshún.  Unabashedly sexual and sensual, a love for money (she was impoverished at one time, resulting in an aversion to being poor), confident in her beauty and allure…that is Panchagara and most every other sex worker I know!  As una bella mulata myself, I have a strong kinship with Panchagara.  While I am not a santera, I worship Oshún in my own way.  She is an endlessly fascinating goddess and saint.  Baba Raul Canizares and Migene Gonzalez Wippler are both Cuban and have a wealth of knowledge of Oshún in the Santería/La Religion Lucumi tradition, which is the one that has influenced my worship of Oshun the most.  Panchagara is an aspect of Oshún that must not be left out.
Oshun by Selina Fenech

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I Lais, once of Greece the pride,
For whom so many suitors sigh’d,
Now aged grown, at Venus’ shrine
The mirror of my youth resign;
Since what I am I will not see,
And what I was I cannot be.
  -  Julian the Egyptian

Lais of Corinth by Hans Holbein the Younger (1526)As I’ve written many times before, it’s difficult to know which details of the lives of courtesans are true and which are false, and which of the latter are embellishment or exaggeration and which outright invention on the part of the lady herself, her admirers, her enemies or her biographers.  And that’s just the modern courtesans; the biographies of those of the ancient world often trail off into legend and myth.  But the problem with writing about Lais is simultaneously simpler and more maddening: there may have been two hetaerae by the same name living at almost the same time, whose biographical details became confused with one another; or, there may have only been one Lais who sometimes looks like two because stories about other courtesans became mistakenly attached to her.  So though I’ll do my best to straighten things out, I cannot promise to fully untangle a skein it has taken over twenty-three centuries to tangle.

Some sources say she was born in Hyccara, Sicily in 421 BCE, and died in Thessaly in 340.  That’s a long lifespan, but not impossible even for the time; however, if she was only one woman the legend about her death – that she was stoned by the native women out of jealousy –  would certainly have to be false, since I hardly think even the greatest beauty of her age (as she was reputed to be) would still be capable of inspiring murderous jealousy at 81.  If the story of the murder is true, she would either have to have been born at least forty years later or to have been two women.  However, I am highly suspicious that it is indeed true, because it sounds a lot more like a tall tale men would make up than actual female behavior; while women are certainly capable of murder, we generally don’t do it in big groups unless there’s some sort of ritual involved.  If the death date is accurate, I think it’s much more likely Lais died of old age in her bed…but that makes a much less lurid story.

The account of her origin is no less interesting, but far more credible: her birthplace, Hyccara, was conquered by the Athenians in 415 BCE and its entire population sold into slavery.  Lais ended up in Corinth, and as she matured into a beauty won her freedom in much the same way Rhodopis did.  Some modern authors claim that the elder Lais was born in Corinth and the younger in Hyccara, but since the town was depopulated years before the birth of anyone who was still young in 340, this hardly seems likely.  The two-Lais theory is undermined still further by the fact that though there are solid contemporary references to her in the early 4th century BCE, those which take place later are entirely anecdotal.  The philosopher Aristippus (435-356 BCE) was one of her clients and mentions her in two of his writings, and in his play Wealth (388 BCE), Aristophanes states that she was kept by a man named Philonides.  By contrast, the accounts of famous men who were said to have sought her out in the mid-4th century (such as Demosthenes and Myron) are unverified by contemporary sources; furthermore, the story that she set an absurd price for one man while giving herself to the philosopher Diogenes for free is also told about Phryne, with Demosthenes playing the part of the King of Lydia.

There is one last factor which makes the one-Lais theory far more likely than its rival: the woman who died in 340 (and was buried in a tomb decorated by a statue of a lioness holding a ram in her forepaws) was supposed to have moved to Thessaly to live with a handsome young man named Hippostratus, with whom she had fallen in love.  Now, poets adore the romantic notion of a successful courtesan giving it all up for love, but in truth this rarely happens; most often, it’s older, retired courtesans who take up with much younger men rather than young ones running off with boys their own age.

So though we cannot be sure, the facts of Lais’ life seem to be these: she spent her later childhood and early teens as a slave, and was trained as a hetaera; after a while one of her admirers bought her freedom and she quickly became popular.  She charged very high fees and indulged herself in many of the extravagances common to her profession; she even developed her own exclusive perfume.  But by her early thirties she began to slow down, allowing herself to be kept by a succession of wealthy men rather than accepting a large number of short-term clients.  As she got older still she took up with Hippostratus and moved to Thessaly, and eventually died of old age.  But her legendary beauty and reputation attracted stories as honey attracts flies (even stories that were also told about others), and eventually there were too many of them for just one woman’s lifetime to contain…so some not-quite-as-clever-as-they-imagine historians decided to split her into two.Lais in Hades by Gustave Cortos, print by Luis Falero (1902)

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The glorious gifts of the gods are not to be cast aside.  -  Homer, Iliad (III, 65)

Every June I’ve published a story of Aella, a young Amazon warrior of the mythic past; the first one was “A Decent Boldness” and the second “A Haughty Spirit”.  And though you might be able to enjoy this one without having read those, you’ll probably understand what’s going on a lot better if you get to know the lady’s previous history first.

Asteria send me guidance tonight, for I am afraid.

I who alone of this living generation travelled West to the very end of the Earth, bathed in the waters of Keto and returned to tell the tale; I who walked in the ancient places of our people, rescued my dearest friend from the hands of barbarians and protected us both from the beasts of the wilderness; I who lived among strangers for five years and brought much of the learning of the Outer World back to the Motherland:  I am more frightened than I have ever been since earning the title of warrior.  For tomorrow, I must face the Council of Elders, thirteen grey old veterans of battles fought before my mother was born, and defend my conduct before them.

stairwell ruinsBut for the life of me, O Blessed Goddess, I cannot fathom why what I did should have shocked the others so.  True, it was a new idea, but what of that?   Why was I brought home through so many dangers if not to share the knowledge and the ideas of our sisters across the sea?  Harmothoe says my mind was addled by my time in Man’s World, but she’s simply jealous because I returned from my journey with enough wealth to buy a farm and enough slaves to work it, while she’s stuck toiling on our mother’s place.  I offered to lend her my slaves this winter to clear new land, but that won’t win her the respect and admiration I’ve enjoyed since my return, nor an invitation to visit the Queen’s palace next month so that I can tell her of my adventures.  Of course, if the hearing goes against me tomorrow I may see her sooner than that, though as a prisoner rather than an honored guest.

And all this fuss over something so completely stupid.  Are not health, strength, beauty, wisdom and skill at arms gifts of the goddesses?  And are we not to use those gifts to improve our places in the world?  Don’t the more beautiful and distinguished among us have greater choice among the Scythian men at the Spring Festival?  After all, our Princess Penthesilia is the daughter of their King Arius, not of some lowly tradesman; our Queen sought out the best sire available when she was ready to bear the child who would succeed to her throne.  And though I am not of noble blood, yet my company was highly sought by the men this year for the same reason my Amazon sisters have sought it since my return: though men and women differ in many ways, we all love a good story and many of both sexes seek to borrow prestige by association when they cannot win it for themselves.

But all that attention was a mixed blessing; with so many men competing to mate with me this year, how was I to choose one?  I’m no mere girl to be impressed by a handsome face, and my experience in Man’s World taught me that many a great athlete is also a great fool.  I thought on this as I watched the games and partook in the feasting, and it occurred to me that the best approach would be a practical one.  After all, our motives for mating with the Scythian men are wholly pragmatic in the first place; it stands to reason a pragmatic means of choosing a mate is in order as well.  And one can never have too much wealth, so what could be more sensible than simply announcing that the man who gave me the most generous gift would be the one who could lie with me?  I thought it was a wonderful idea, and the men responded with enthusiasm; the winner gave me six snow-white kine and an equally-beautiful bull.  But to hear my sisters, one would’ve thought I had drunk myself silly and puked on the banquet table.  The next day it was the talk of the town, and by the end of the week…well, here I am.

mounted Amazon vs Phrygian warriorGoddess, I suppose You know all this already, but it never hurts to summarize; besides, I want You to understand how I saw the matter.  Mother says I’ve disgraced our family, and Aunt Laomache says it just goes to show why Amazons shouldn’t associate with outsiders any more than is strictly necessary.  Granny is the only one who was helpful; she says what this demonstrates is that long periods of peace aren’t good for us, because when there isn’t anything real to fret about people make a big deal out of nothing, and in the absence of an actual enemy they invent imaginary bogeys to get worked up about.  She also said that the council only summoned me to shut up the prattlers, and that if they were truly concerned I would be spending the night under guard rather than lying in my own bed.  Also, Elder Dioxippe is Granny’s best friend, and Granny told me that she had talked it over with her and at least several of the Council were equally unimpressed with the gravity of my so-called sin; she predicted they would direct me to apologize to my family and sacrifice one of the kine to Astarte, and that would be the end of it.

I certainly hope so, but I can’t help worrying.  And that’s why I’m praying about this to You instead of Themis or Metis; there’s no justice in this situation, it seems like thinking logically is what got me into this fix, and perhaps divine inspiration is what’s needed to get me out.  If my punishment is as light as Granny thinks it’ll be, I’ll make a special gift to You; I think I might have conceived by the generous one, and if it’s a girl and I name her for You, she will be a constant reminder of Your grace.

And also of the fact that most people have no respect for pragmatism.

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Easter 2013

Well pleaseth me the sweet time of Easter
That maketh the leaf and the flower come out.
  -  Bertran de Born

Eostre & bunnyAs I’ve pointed out before, all of the Christian holidays are merely pagan ones dressed up in a new garb, and though they may have some explanation derived from Christian catechism most of them are still pagan to the core.  This is true of three of them more than any of the others: Halloween is still the Day of the Dead as it has always been; Christmas is still the festival of the reborn sun, celebrated with revelry and song and greenery and gift-giving as it has been for millennia; and Easter is still the observance of rebirth, with Christ standing in for all the vegetation-gods who came before him, Tammuz and Attis and Adonis and Osiris, slain and buried to rise again from the dead.  Just as the dye which colors the shell of an Easter egg has little (if any) effect on the substance of the egg beneath, so it is with the holiday itself; the theological rationalizations and the complex religious pageantry have not changed the day’s deeper meaning one iota, and devout Christians still employ the ancient symbols of flower, hare and egg.  This is why it matters little to me that we observe the holiday on the Christian date rather than the traditional astronomical one; it’s only fitting that I bend the Christian day to my needs just as Christianity bent the ancient pagan holiday to its.

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The tribune of the people was being conveyed in an essedum, lictors with laurel preceded him; among whom, on an open litter, a mime actress was being carried; whom honorable men, citizens of the municipalities, coming out from their towns under compulsion to meet her, saluted not by the name by which she was notorious on the stage, but by that of Volumnia. A raeda followed full of pimps, thoroughly despicable companions; then his neglected mother was following the girlfriend of her filthy son as though she were a bride.  -  Cicero, Second Philippic

Roman mimeCytheris was born a slave in the latter days of the Roman Republic, about 70 BCE.  Her parents were probably Greek, and her name (deriving from Cytherea, one of Aphrodite’s bynames) may not be the one she was originally assigned at birth, but rather one she adopted (or was given) later when it became clear what her profession would be.  She was the property of the wealthy and ambitious Publius Volumnius Eutrapelus, an enthusiastic patron of the theater, who had her trained as a mime and introduced her to the theater in her early teens.  Roman mime was not the silent niche-art it is today, but rather a blend of singing, dancing and acting, much of it improvised; it is therefore more closely akin to vaudeville than to Mummenschanz or Marceau. As I mentioned in “Meretrices and Prostibulae”, most mimes – like most actresses for centuries before and millennia after – were also prostitutes, and Cytheris was probably in the group of mimes who in 55 BCE began the tradition of ending the Floralia with a striptease (the public sex was not added until imperial times).

Cytheris so excelled at both the public and private aspects of her art that her master freed her sometime in the late 50s, but his action was not motivated by altruism; though she was legally free she was still an actress and whore and thus could not hope to rise very high in stratified Roman society.  Furthermore, she was bound to her patron by a restrictive contract which kept her from choosing her employment freely, and she was obligated to give him free performances (of both kinds) when asked.  In other words he was no longer her master, but he was still her pimp; this is exactly why he freed her.  No man of knightly or senatorial rank could associate with a slave-whore unless she belonged to him, but as an ostensibly free delicata she could be hired by the noble Romans Eutrapelus hoped to influence.  Cytheris was no exploited victim, however; she remained extremely loyal to her patron for the rest of her life, and he treated her more like a modern businessman would treat an extremely valued assistant than like something out of a prohibitionist fantasy.

Mark AntonyAbout 49 BCE Cytheris became involved with Mark Antony, who openly made her his mistress after Caesar appointed him Master of the Horse (second in command) in the summer of 48.  Their relationship did not last much longer; he was forced to give her up by the end of 47 BCE, but the reason it ended is worthy of note because it reveals Antony’s two main personality flaws (politically speaking) and foreshadows his eventual downfall.  Though his family connections predestined him to high office, his heart was never really in it; as a youth he was well-known for drinking, gambling and general partying, and even as a man he was well-known for being fond of the company of theater people, especially mimes.  But the second flaw was the tragic one:  Antony had the unfortunate tendency to fall in love with his mistresses, which of course led to his doom once he took up with Cleopatra only six years later.

Nobody in Rome cared if prominent citizens had affairs with courtesans or other women of lower social class, no matter how many patricians knew about it; what was important was that it be kept out of sight of the plebeians, and given no official recognition.  But Antony seemed unable to maintain this necessary discretion, either with Cytheris or later with Cleopatra. Rather than treating his mistresses as a Roman statesman should, he acted like a young man in love who wants the world to know about his wonderful lady.  While Caesar was off in Africa wiping out the last army loyal to Pompey, Antony made administrative rounds in Italy with the great procession the conservative Cicero (who knew Cytheris personally and disliked her intensely) describes in the epigram: he essentially treated a courtesan like a wife, even to the point of having her addressed by her nomen (inherited from her former master) as though she were a matron, rather than by the cognomen under which she was famous.  When Caesar came back to Rome, he was extremely unhappy about this and insisted that Antony break off relations with her (Cicero mocks Antony by using the word “divorce”) and cultivate a more respectable image.

For the next four years Cytheris worked as a courtesan, being occasionally called upon to seduce one politician or another as her patron required; though he supported Antony until the end, he knew how to play politics and courted the favor of both Caesar’s party and the opposition.  Only one of Cytheris’ regular clients from this period has a famous name: Marcus Junius Brutus, who later became one of Caesar’s assassins.  Her next major conquest came around 43 or 42, when she took up with the soldier-politician Cornelius Gallus, who was also an accomplished poet; Gallus was so smitten with her that he eventually composed four books of poetry in her honor.  It was the tradition in Roman love poetry for the poet to use a pseudonym for his lover; the name so chosen had to have the same number and stress pattern of syllables as the real woman’s name, and so Cytheris became “Lycoris”.  The last of these books was written in 40 BCE, after she had left him; when Antony and Octavian began the first of several major quarrels Gallus supported the latter, so Eutrapelus reassigned her to Quintus Fufius Calenus, one of Antony’s generals.

The flower "lycoris" was named after her.

The flower “lycoris” was named after her.

By the time Octavian became Augustus and the Republic became an Empire, Cytheris (now in her early 40s) had largely vanished from history.  Gallus’ poetry about her was both popular and highly regarded, thanks in part to Virgil’s tenth Eclogue (published about 38 BCE), which was on the subject of Gallus’ pining away for her.  Though Virgil also called her “Lycoris” as Gallus had, her identity was an open secret and she was held in great honor among the mimae; both “Cytheris” and “Lycoris” were popular stage names for the next 300 years.  Though we do not know how she spent her later years, we can hazard a guess:  the new Imperator loved mime, so as one might expect it grew even more popular during his reign; once she grew too old to work as a delicata any longer, the former consort to a ruler probably returned to the stage, ending her days performing as an archimima (lead comedienne) to thunderous applause.

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Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share.
  -  Lee Mendelson, “Christmas Time is Here

As I said yesterday, I suspect the festival we now know as Christmas began about 3900 BCE, when the climate abruptly cooled and dried all over the world.  For about 2000 years before that, the climate had been wet and warm enough for agriculture to succeed even in areas which are arid in modern times, and with little irrigation or centralized planning.  But once the long drought set in (around the same time copper started to replace stone as the favored tool material), everyone started to crowd into the comparatively small areas of the river valleys: scattered villages gave way to large cities, wars were fought over the limited arable land, and hierarchical social structures appeared in order to keep track of which land belonged to whom and what would happen to it when he died.  Because warfare and rigid hierarchies appeal more to the male mind societies became more patriarchal, and because heredity was now important sex laws and taboos started to appear.  Now that agriculture was a bit trickier calendars were needed so people would know the best times to plant and to reap, and rituals were developed to appease the gods so as to ensure bountiful harvests.

Marduk vs. TiamatBy the late 4th millennium BCE, the most important of these rites was the one which commemorated the creation of the world by the sky-god Anu after his victory over the forces of chaos; the Babylonians assigned this role to their god Marduk, and personified chaos as the dragon Tiamat.  The battle was believed to have lasted for 12 days, so the festival (which the Babylonians called Zagmuk) did as well, and though it occurred at the end of winter (the two weeks before the vernal equinox) rather than at the beginning, this was the origin of our 12 days of Christmas.  As in many later cultures, the time between the end of the old year and the beginning of the new was a time of chaos, and the rituals were thought to help Marduk beat back Tiamat for another year.  The priests and nobles enacted a pageant (the ancestor of our Christmas pantomime) in which the king played Marduk, and he was supposed to be sacrificed so as to join the god in the underworld and fight by his side.  But because it was impractical (not to mention counterproductive) to have a new king every year, what actually happened was this:  on the first day of Zagmuk, the king abdicated his power and a condemned criminal was invested as king.  He was feted and given homage, and played the part of Marduk in the early part of the festival; he was then sacrificed and the true king resumed his station, receiving the power to rule by consummating a ritual marriage with the entu (high priestess of Ishtar).  To provide a mystical balance, another prisoner was chosen at the same time as the temporary king; instead of being sacrificed, he was set free in order to bear the sins of the nation away with him (a similar ritual was later practiced by the Hebrews using goats).  And while the ruling classes enacted all this, the common people helped by burning effigies of Tiamat in bonfires.

Sumer was the Great Mother of Western civilization, and her culture infused all which came after it.  The Zagmuk festival spread to all parts of the Near East, and though it changed as it spread its influence can be clearly seen.  The dedication of a human sacrifice to represent the death of the god, followed immediately by the investiture of another person as the reborn god, was adopted by the Ancient Greeks as part of their primitive festival of Lenaea.  And while the human sacrifice eventually vanished in a literal sense from the Babylonian festival (later called Akitu), it survived in symbolic form; during the twelve days of the festival the social order was reversed, with masters waiting upon slaves and one slave chosen to be the head of the household for the duration, just as a criminal had been made king in earlier times (but without the unpleasant conclusion).  And after the battle-pageant the common people thronged in the street, rejoicing in the victory of their god with shouted invocations and joyful songs.  The festival was extremely popular, and survived conquest after conquest for millennia; the Kassites, Elamites, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians and Seleucids each adopted it in turn.  By late classical times many of its elements (including the social reversal and the singing in the streets) had entered the Greek Kronia, descendant of Lenaea and ancestor of the Roman Saturnalia; the latter adopted its practices wholesale in 217 BCE, at the same time (and as part of the same Sibylline reform) as the Venus Erycina  was brought to Rome.

Six thousand years ago the climate shifted, driving our ancestors from a pleasant Eden where food was plentiful into a harsher world where winter was a time of crisis.  And though the elaborate ritual devised by the ancient Mesopotamians to drive back the chaos is no longer solemn or bloody, many of its elements – feasting, mumming and masking, pantomime, bonfires, caroling and even the twelve-day duration – became traditional parts of our winter holiday season, and have endured even to the present day.  From the unnamed festival of ancient Uruk to Zagmuk to Lenaea and Akitu, then via Kronia to Saturnalia to Sol Invictus, and finally to Christmas and Carnival, there runs one long, unbroken cord which none who opposed it, whether king, priest or ideologue, has ever been able to sever.An Orgy in Imperial Rome by Henryk Siemiradzki (1872)

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Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law?
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed?
  -  Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H. (LVI)

One of the reasons the “rape is not sexual” myth has such staying power despite its clear absurdity is that it appeals to both men and women; as I said in “The Rape Question”,

… the truth – that rape is a natural, though unfortunate, outgrowth of our sexual programming – is scary to men because it reduces them to the level of animals, and to women because it means there is always the risk of rape in heterosexual relations.  By ignoring the 73% of all unwanted sex which isn’t forcible, people of both sexes could pretend there was no elephant in the parlor…

Very often, humans prefer to believe a comfortable lie than to accept the uncomfortable truth that Nature is a bitch goddess who doesn’t give a damn what any of us might want, and if She had Her way human life would be, as Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish and short.”  From Her point of view, we exist for one reason and one reason only:  to be fruitful and multiply.  And both male sexual aggression and female sexual response evolved to fulfill that one goal, individual health and happiness be damned.  This is not to say that natural impulses are “corrupt” or “evil” as the Platonists (and their modern philosophical descendants) would have it, nor that they are “pure” and “good” as the idealists believe; they are amoral, and it is for the human mind, guided by the individual moral compass, to determine when to follow them, when to sublimate them and when to control them.  In order to make these determinations the individual needs understanding, and in order to understand he needs knowledge; the reason belief systems and mass movements want sexual knowledge suppressed is so that the faculties of rational decision-making are starved, and many therefore turn to the leaders of those movements for guidance.  If people understand the underlying reasons for rape, they can learn how to control it themselves rather than being forced to rely upon the morally bankrupt dogmas and paternalistic, authoritarian non-solutions pushed by governments, feminists, religions and others with a vested interest in controlling the interaction between men and women.

The most important thing to recognize is that, contrary to dogma, rape is neither an asexual act nor a result of “patriarchal culture”:  it is a type of reproductive behavior, and occurs in many species that have neither cultures nor hierarchical social interactions.  As I explained in “Ice Cream in the Hand”,  reproductive success for males depends upon spreading their sperm as widely as possible so as to inseminate as many females as possible; rape can therefore be an effective strategy for a low-status male who might not otherwise be able to pass on his genes in any other way.  Remember that concepts like law, fairness and individual autonomy are very recent arrivals on the landscape, and our sexual behaviors evolved in their absence.  The fact that we now recognize unwanted sexual contact as a violation of personal rights is no more germane to a discussion of how the behavior evolved than moral stipulations against murder are in considering the feeding habits of carnivora.

When one contemplates the big picture, human females are fortunate:  rape did not evolve as a primary mating strategy among the primates, and though it occurs in chimpanzees and some other apes and monkeys it is not the norm in any primate species.  That’s not so among ducks and geese, where sex is always violent and apparently coercive, and among a number of species of large herbivores, where it’s usually so; I can even tell you from personal observation that billy goats don’t wait for consent, and if they’re big and strong enough can sometimes force sex even with a nanny who doesn’t seem very happy with the proceedings.  Bottlenose dolphin sex is extremely aggressive, and what seem to be gang rape situations are not uncommon (we can’t be sure if they all take turns or if she’s forced to choose one, because dolphins are very averse to copulating within view of humans).  But in some species, there is absolutely no courtship at all; instead evolution has produced a sort of “arms race” between their sexes, with males evolving mechanisms to facilitate rape and females evolving mechanisms to make it more difficult.  Here’s an example from a recent news article:

A male fish from Mexico has…genitalia…equipped with four hooks…[to] allow him to grab onto a resistant female during mating…Brian Langerhans of North Carolina State University…explained that the male’s hooked genitals may be a counter-response to the female’s own defenses against undesirable mates.  “Typically, reproduction is more costly in females, so females favor ways of reducing mating with ‘lower quality’ males, but reproduction is cheap in males and so selection favors ways of mating with as many females as possible”…Females of this species have evolved to have a big ball of tissue that blocks most of the genital pore.  This means the female would have to deliberately allow the male to mate with her unless the male evolved a counter-response, Langerhans explained.  The four-hooked genitalia could help the males overcome resistance and latch onto a female’s genital pore and deposit sperm inside her…Another…species…recently discovered in Vietnam sports sex parts that jut out of its head and are equipped with a rod and a jagged hook to clasp the female during mating…

One can only imagine the thorny issues of consent and coercion which might arise if a species like this were to evolve high-order intelligence; the “War of the Sexes” would be more than just a metaphor among such creatures.  In humans, as in all other animals, conflict arises whenever the reproductive aims of an individual male and an individual female fail to coincide; the key to reducing the number of such incidents, and to mitigating the damage they cause to both parties (and to society as a whole) when they occur despite precautions, is knowledge.  Understanding why an organism behaves in the way it does may allow one to halt or divert that behavior, but the lack of understanding which inevitably results from an incorrect theoretical framework empowers nobody but those who want the conflict to continue in order to further their own self-serving agendas.

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The Christian fear of the pagan outlook has damaged the whole consciousness of man.  -  D.H. Lawrence

Yesterday was Vinalia Rustica, the oldest known Roman festival to the goddess Venus; like Vinalia Urbana in the spring, it was shared between her and Jupiter, because she was the patroness of common wine while he was the patron of fine wines.  Though some Roman historians insisted that the festival was sacred to Jupiter from the time of Aeneas (the dawn of Roman history), and that Venus only came into the celebration later, the evidence is that it was actually the opposite:  the festival was associated with Venus Obsequens, her second-oldest aspect, who was much more like the original Latin vegetation goddess than the Greek Aphrodite.  Furthermore, the more primitive rites were celebrated at her temples; the main sacrificial victim for the ritual was a ewe lamb; and the very name of the holiday indicates its original dedication to rustic wine (vinum spurcum) rather than the professionally-prepared, high-quality wine (vinum temetum) which was considered fit for religious ceremonies.

Long-time readers will probably recognize that this is a familiar pattern in the development of holidays:  they usually have their origins in very ancient times, often prior to the advent of written language, and start out as agricultural celebrations presided over by women and dedicated to fertility deities.  In their original forms, they usually involved blood sacrifice – sometimes even human sacrifice – and were often terrifying observances born of the fear that something could go wrong with sun or weather to destroy the crops on which they depended; these grisly rites were intended to propitiate the mysterious, capricious gods our ancestors held responsible for natural phenomena.  As human civilization developed and people became more certain that the seasons at least were relatively dependable, and that the sun did not need to be bribed into returning every winter, the ceremonies became symbolic celebrations of thanksgiving rather than solemn ceremonies of bargaining and appeasement.  Still later, as societies became more patriarchal, ceremonies which were originally dedicated to fertility goddesses and sacrificial vegetation gods (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, etc) shifted to the control of authoritative sky-god types like Zeus who controlled the world as kings ruled countries, by force and might, rather than having to go through that messy and embarrassing annual-death bit.  For example, starting in the 5th century BCE the primary winter solstice celebration in Greece began to shift from Lenaea (dedicated to Gaea and Dionysus) to Kronia (dedicated to Kronos); I suspect something similar happened in Rome about two centuries later, as Jupiter muscled in on the two wine-festivals which were previously considered the province of Venus.

But when Christianity installed its own interpretations on most of the popular pagan festivals in order to rededicate them to Christian purposes, it seems to have virtually ignored the warmer months.  From Samhain to Beltane virtually every pagan holiday was converted into a Christian one, but the other half of the year was nearly empty.  The Roman wine festival seems to have merged with the Celtic/Germanic festival of First Fruits (Lammas) which along with the  summer solstice and autumnal equinox persisted as popular secular celebrations into the 19th century, though none of them were officially observed under Christian guises.  But given that the day’s patron is also that of my profession, and that it’s conveniently located to herald the end of the Dog Days (we’ve enjoyed nights below 20o Celsius for over a week now), I decided to dedicate today’s column to Venus, and to recall a once-important occasion now consigned to the attic of history.

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