The Confused and Chaotic Sexual Ethic of the Greco-Roman World:
In one of our recent ManClan gatherings, we discussed the Greek story about the curse of Priapus*3, who was cursed with ugliness, foul mindedness and a gigantic, perpetually erect but impotent penis. A tale whose narrative arch is a perfect picture of the emptiness of the greco-roman sexual ethic. The Christian witness stood out in stark contrast in this moral vacuum and intellectual impotence of the Greek pursuit of the ideal man. The perfectly conditioned physical body, the intellectually astute, philosophical mind, and the well trained soldier, all for the ultimate good of the godlike polis was betrayed by the depths of their moral sexual depravity and deviancy.
Lara Rutherford-Morrison: “The ancient Greeks knew how to tell a good story. Greek mythology is brimming with epic battles, melodramatic fighting between gods and goddesses, awesome creature mash-ups and some pretty weird stuff involving sex. We like to think of our own age as the originator of sexual adventure and kink, but Greek mythology offers ample proof that crazy sex stuff is far from a modern invention. I’m not sure that I would call the following stories “sexy” as much as “bizarre.” To be honest, most of them boil down to some variation of “Zeus turns himself into some nonhuman creature and seduces or rapes somebody.” (There doesn’t seem to be much of a line between “seduction” and “rape” in a lot of these myths. Zeus especially does not seem to be someone who is particularly concerned with consent.) The general lesson of many Greek myths — sexual or not — is simply that the gods are huge, immature jerks.”*1
“It was certainly the norm in ancient Greece for a man to find both sexes attractive. But the private lives of men in classical Athens – the city we know most about – were very different from anything that a “bisexual” man might experience today.”*2
Relationships between men of the same age were not at all common: rather, the standard same-sex relationship would involve an adolescent boy and an older man. Men also used female prostitutes regularly: sex could be brought cheaply in a city that was home to countless brothels, streetwalkers and female “entertainers”. As for marital relations, men seldom married before the age of 30, and apart from the wedding night, it was common for married couples to sleep apart.”*2
Below are just a few Greek stories that reflect the sexual confusion in Greek thought:
- Leda and the Swan (Beastiality) *1
Leda was the wife of King Tyndareus. One day, Zeus turned himself into a swan and came to Leda for protection against an eagle. He then seduced her (in some poems and artworks, it’s depicted as rape). She became pregnant and laid two eggs. The children were Castor, Pollux, Clytemnestra, and Helen — Yes, that Helen, the one with the “face that launched a thousand ships.”
- Zeus & Ganymede (Homosexual sex)
Zeus didn’t limit his metamorphosing-seduction techniques to the ladies. Zeus was attracted to a young man named Ganymede, so, naturally, Zeus turned himself into an eagle and abducted Ganymede to Olympus. There, Ganymede became cupbearer to the gods and Zeus’s lover, much to the angst of Hera, Zeus’s wife.
- Ixion and the Cloud (Sex with inanimate objects)
Ixion does not sound like a nice guy. When he got married, he refused to pay his father-in-law the bride price for his wife. Instead, he flung his father-in-law into a pit of burning coals, for which he was shunned by the rest of humanity. Zeus felt sorry for him and brought him to Olympus, where Ixion immediately developed the hots for Hera, Zeus’s wife. In order to test whether Ixion would actually go so far as to have sex with the ruler of the gods’ wife, he made a cloud that looked like Hera and sent it Ixion’s way. Ixion proceeded to have sex with the cloud, and impregnated it with Centaurus. Centaurus then had sex with a bunch of horses, and their offspring were the centaurs (half horse, half human).
- Myrrh & Cinyras (Aberrant affections)
After Cenchreis claimed that her daughter, Myrrha, was more beautiful than Aphrodite, Aphrodite, who was the jealous sort, cursed Myrrha to lust after her father, Cinyras. Myrrha was horrified by her desire to have sex with her father, but went for it anyway, waiting until her mother was away to seduce him in the dark, pretending to be her mother. When he discovered the truth, he chased her away, and she ran and prayed to the gods for help. They took mercy on her and turned her into a myrrh tree. Later, she gave birth to Adonis.
- Gods & Incest
The Greek gods and goddesses had no problem jumping into bed with their family members. Uranus (the sky) was both the son and husband of Gaia (the earth); They birthed the twelve Titans, two of which, Cronus and Rhea (brother and sister) married. Cronus and Rhea were parents to Demeter, Hades, Hestia, Hera, Zeus, and Poseidon. Zeus and Hera (again, siblings) married and had many children, and Zeus also fathered a daughter (Persephone) by his sister, Demeter.*1
The Radical Sexual ethic of the Christian gospel in the Greco-Roman world:
After a very shallow reading of Greek stories, it becomes apparent why chapters like Leviticus 18 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus%2018) in the Hebrew Scriptures were needed.
Leviticus 18:1-3: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. I am the Lord your God. So do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live, or like the people of Canaan, where I am taking you. You must not imitate their way of life.”
It becomes quite clear in the biblical narrative that God has a specific sexual ethic that will be at times, significantly different than the sexual values and practices of the various nations God’s people will live and interact with in life.
1 Thessalonians 4:3-8: “God’s will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor— not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways. Never harm or cheat a fellow believer in this matter by violating his wife, for the Lord avenges all such sins, as we have solemnly warned you before. God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. Therefore, anyone who refuses to live by these rules is not disobeying human teaching but is rejecting God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Minucius Felix, a roman, christian apologist from his work: Octavius, contrasts the sexual ethics of the Christian vs Greco-roman world:
“Among the Persians, a promiscuous association between sons and mothers is allowed. Marriages with sisters are legitimate among the Egyptians and in Athens. Your records and your tragedies, which you both read and hear with pleasure, glory in incests: thus also you worship incestuous gods, who have intercourse with mothers, with daughters, with sisters. With reason, therefore, is incest frequently detected among you, and is continually permitted. Miserable men, you may even, without knowing it, rush into what is unlawful: since you scatter your lusts promiscuously, since you everywhere beget children, since you frequently expose even those who are born at home to the mercy of others, it is inevitable that you must come back to your own children, and stray to your own offspring. Thus you continue the story of incest, even all though you have no consciousness of your crime. But we maintain our modesty not in appearance, but in our heart we gladly abide by the bond of a single marriage; in the desire of procreating, we know either one wife, or none at all.”
The story of Priapus is an example of the emptiness and dangers of the unrestrained sexual ethic. When a culture exalts and worships physical and even intellectual beauty, there will always be those cast out who don’t measure up to the cultural standard. There is no room for a Priapus in Aphrodite’s world. A people who are consumed with sexual pleasure and outward appearances create a physical caste system that unleashes mental, verbal, physical and sexual abuse as the story reflects.
There is a curse that comes to mere mortals caught in the throes of the gods sexual thunder and lightening appetites. A ugly and unloved, fatherless generation is born that is often doomed to wander in the parched and fruitless deserts. They end up running with shepherds, their cultures equivalent of the bad boy company. Pan, the goat-man, the companion and pursuers of Nymphs, becomes the mentor of Priapus. The gods of fertility rule and reign in a young Priapus running loose in the wilds of unguided manhood. The animalistic scent chasers, cavorting and carousing in the fields of fertility, lost in the chase, drunk on the music of eros. The sexual life of the goat hooved, beast-man is a trap that leads to precipices that men were not designed to traverse.
A Priapus is caught between unmanageable sexual power and an unquenchable sexual desire. The unrestrained sexual life is an impotent one. In Greek culture a huge penis was considered the sign of a ignorance or brute, big genitals, equalled small brain and Priapus becomes the expression of the full monstrosity of moral collapse.
Priapus was driven by the unfulfilling and unrealistic expectations of an unrestrained sexual appetite that eventually led him to attempted rape. The ultimate surrender to sexual madness, when a man or woman, attempts to take what in their mind they have come to believe they deserve. Their desires demand to be served, willingly or unwillingly. They are no longer looking for a relationship but an experience, there are no persons only parts for pleasure. It’s sexual idolatry reduced to its ugliest dehumanization of the intended Divine reflection of the image of God. It’s only response is an animal rebuke, a shout from the Ass, a baying against the insanity of destructive human desire. Such is the the end of a man in his madness, only the animals can speak sanity in such gutters of moral depravity.
The beautiful self-giving act of mutual vulnerability and loving union, becomes an addict’s moment of euphoria, a self-focused ejaculatiuon vs a life-giving act of creation. The foundational flowering of friendship, the budding of gentle romance and the sacred unfolding of the fragrant petals of beauty is replaced with the jarring violence against all that is poetic, holy and fragile. Instead of sex being the intoxicating perfumes of a tended rose given in time to the deserving cultivator of love’s most purposeful graces, it becomes the crushed smell of petals under the heel of a trespasser, intent on taking the fragrances instead of cultivating the garden from which they are grown.
Such is the end of the greco-roman sexual vision and practice. It was into this dark and unfulfilling world that the gospel shed it’s saving light. Into the moral chaos and void, the Holy Spirit hovered, bring forth the truth of Jesus, redeemer of all Eden lost, the naked Christ, born of a virgin’s womb, sanctifier of all that is flesh, human and procreative. The God-Man, restoring the way of life to those who had been groping about in shadows, searching for truth and meaning in a world that had become obese on self-worshipping, unrestrained sexual indulgence.
The way of Priapus ends in moral and spiritual death, the way of Christ, blossoms into abundant life that leads to true satisfaction and meaning and perpetuates life, respect, dignity, and other-centered love.
*1 Weirdest Sex Things That Went Down In Greek Mythology (https://www.bustle.com/articles/94692-8-weirdest-sex-things-that-went-down-in-greek-mythology)
*2 The truth about sex in ancient Greece: https://theconversation.com/the-truth-about-sex-in-ancient-greece-39025
*3 The Story: The Curse of Priapus
The mother of Priapus was the greek goddess, Aphrodite and his father was either Zeus, Hermes, Adonis, or Dionysus. Priapos was born with a huge belly, huge feet, hands, nose, tongue, and a gigantic, continuously erect penis and perpetual impotence, so unusual large was the penis that its head was said to point to the rear.
According to legend, Hera had cursed him with ugliness (most offensive to the beautiful Aphrodite) and foul-mindedness and an enormous penis(impotence), in revenge for the hero Paris having the audacity to judge Aphrodite more beautiful than Hera. Ugly and unloved, Aphrodite cast Priapus out of her realm and abandoned him in the wilderness. There he was taken in by a herdsman, who found that wherever this incredible creature went, everything grew like crazy: Plants shot up from the ground, and animals hopped upon each other, copulating furiously and giving birth.
Priapos soon became known as a fertility god. He also was the tutor of Ares, teaching the young battle god to dance before teaching him to be a warrior.
Being raised by shepherds, he spent a lot of time hanging out with Pan and the satyrs. However, all this cavorting in the forest with the fertility spirits proved frustrating for Priapus, who remained impotent. Eventually he tried to rape a nymph, but was thwarted when a braying donkey alerted her to his presence. He slew the donkey and pursued the nymph, but the other gods helped her hide by turning her into a lotus plant.
In the Greek countryside, Priapus was honored in homes and gardens, and doesn’t appear to have had an organized cult following. He was seen as a protector deity in rural areas. In fact, statues of Priapus were often adorned with warnings, threatening trespassers, male and female alike, with acts of sexual violence as punishment.