Sunday, January 06, 2013

Butterflies and Flowers

Classical literature, heaven knows, is not for prudes.  It's not just that there's a lot of sex in it, but that there are so many kinds of sex.  Most are recognizable to us, whether we like them or not:  men and women, men and boys, slaves and owners, clients and professionals.  But other things are inscrutable to the modern mind.  Why, exactly, did the Athenians have all those great stone phalluses decorating their streets, so memorably defaced on the eve of the Peloponnesian War?

So it is that the esteemed classicist Mary Beard, reviewing a book about shopping in ancient Rome, naturally begins with an anecdote about shopping in ancient Greece -- shopping, to be specific, for dildoes.

Having as we do both a dirty mind and a zeal for original sources, we quickly looked into the Mimes (or Miniamboi) of Herodas, a little-known Alexandrian author of the 3rd century before Christ.  They're little playlets, each offering an acerbic and often raunchy slice-of-life. There are various translations on the Internet, but our favorite is this one, by M.S.Buck.  It's not an especially good translation, but it contains one almost perfect footnote, and we do so love footnotes.

In Mime 6, some women have gathered at the home of their friend Metro, and are admiring the firm scarlet dildo she has recently purchased.   The word they use of it is not the customary olisbos (meaning "slipper") but rather baubon.  Buck gives this word untranslated, and is then required to gloss it in a footnote.  Although other translators read the word as meaning "pacifier" or "sleep-aid," Buck identifies it with the various erotic statues of Baubo, an old woman who attempted to distract Demeter during her disastrous grieving over Persephone.

St. Clement of Alexandria, in his Exhortation to the Greeks, Book 2, tells the tale unsympathetically:
Baubo, having received Demeter as a guest, offers her a draught of wine and meal. She declines to take it, being unwilling to drink on account of her mourning. Baubo is deeply hurt, thinking she has been slighted, and thereupon uncovers her secret parts and exhibits them to the goddess. Demeter is pleased at the sight, and now at least receives the draught, – delighted by the spectacle! 
Please know that he is belittling the Orphic mysteries here, in a manner much like the pagans who accused Christians of cannibalism and incest.  The meaning of the story, to those who told it, may be difficult for us to retrieve.

But, be that as it may, Buck observes that some scholars simply cannot stand to admit that the object in question is what it is, so they come up with ludicrous alternatives:
Rutherford suggested the meaning ‘bodice’ or ‘head-dress’; Reinach ‘shoe.’ This is puris omnia pura with a vengeance. It is to be hoped that these scholars, realizing the grave danger lurking in references of this sort, have long since turned their attention to butterflies and flowers.

it only remains to observe that church people, even more than classicists, are inclined to prudishness, as though Jesus had somehow commanded us to look away from the nitty-gritty facts of life, and most especially from the realities of sex.  Such Christians ought best be deferred from serious matters of theology or moral discourse, and directed toward butterflies and flowers.

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