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Sexuality and the Gods

In both Greek and Roman culture, myths and rituals attest belief in a dynamic relationship between human sexuality and natural fertility. In Archaic Greek thought, creation is established and maintained through reproductive processes analogous to human sexual relations and birth. The gods embody archetypal masculine and feminine sexual qualities (beauty, chastity, seductiveness, sexual jealousy, sexual prowess, and so on) that can be seen in humans. Zeus, the ‘father of gods and men,’ embodies a male fantasy of supreme power and unlimited access to sexual partners. Zeus even goes so far to exert this supreme power when he gives birth to Athena and Dionysus, thus taking away the claim that only women can give birth.

While certain Greek beliefs clashed with Roman beliefs, deities and their stories were adopted from Greek culture and formulated to Roman preference. Priapus, a phallic god, was adopted from a Greek city to Italy and became popular in Roman Italy. Priapus was a fertility god who protected gardens and threatened rape to any thieves. His phallicism was tied to the popular Italian concept of the penis as a talisman to ward off evil. Early in Roman history, the Romans had fused Priapus’ worship with a native phallic deity, Mutinus Titinus, and employed his statue in a ritual meant to ensure a bride’s fertility. 

Sexual desire was perceived as a cosmic principle and personified in deities of primordial power (Venus, Cupid) who were responsible for sexual desire not only in humans, but the entire natural world. There was a specific deity for a specific function. Venus is the goddess of love and helped mortals fall in love, but Cupid was the god that instigated love and desire. The Greeks often speak of sexual desire as an overwhelming external force that physically and mentally wears out its victims.

The Romans, however, examine desire by exploring the thrill of pursuit, joys of requited love and sexual gratification, pain of separation, and agonies of rejection or unrequited love. Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things in Book 4 describes a rationalist view of sexuality and love, describing the physical processes that lead to desire and their psychological and social outcomes. Elegies, especially by Catullus or Propertius, have themes of love and sexual relationships. Propertius used the genre of elegy to play with gender expectations and depict the might of Amor. One of Ovid’s early works, Amores, was a collection of love elegies, mostly focusing on a lover called Corinna:

Bashful girls must have that type of light

To shield their modesty in shadows.

Here came Corinna, her flowing dress loose,

Hair parted to reveal her white neck…

Not a single flaw met my eyes.

What shoulders, what arms I saw and touched…

Her stomach lay flat beneath her slender waist;

What sharply hips, and long legs!

 

Ovid gives detailed account of an attractive and ideal female body shape.

Roman goddesses were typically associated with fertility, the home life, or a craft of sort that was considered a female occupation. Venus, for example, was the goddess of fertility and beauty, Diana, while she was goddess of the hunt; she was also the goddess of childbirth, along with Lucina, the goddess of childbirth during labor. Other goddesses of fertility include Ceres (goddess of agriculture), Pax (goddess of Peace), Proserpina (goddess of Spring), Juno (goddess of marriage), and many more. Another goddess, Minerva, was worshiped as the goddess of wisdom and war, but also the goddess of crafts, especially weaving. Vesta, goddess of the hearth, was the most important goddess in ancient Rome when it came to home life. The burning hearth was a symbol of everlasting vital force of the community and absolutely necessary for the preservation and continuity of the Roman Senate. Vesta shared held the title of Mater (Mother) due to ritual concern for agricultural cycle and good harvest. Terra Mater, Mother Earth, is the most prominent of all the fertility goddesses because she is the first reigning earth goddess, who not only sustains the earth, but gave birth to the Titans, who gave birth to the Olympians, essentially, she is mother of all living beings.

The Romans views on marriage was that it was a rite of passage by which a young woman forgoes her previous identity and devotes herself to her husband and his family. This was not necessarily the case with the gods. Jupiter exerts his right as a dominant male to be sexually active, by risk of Juno's anger, and Venus, while married, is known for her many love affairs. Of all the goddesses, Venus is the only one who commits adultery, an indiscretion considered mildly censurable in a love goddess who is sacred to prostitutes. Much of Venus's seductiveness lies in her frivolous and deceitful character, for these appear to be the qualities of sexually attractive females. 

The goddesses are archetypal images of human females, as envisioned by males. Minerva is an intellectual warrior and judge, who was born solely from a male, she is masculinized and thus denied sexual activity and motherhood. Diana is a hunter and warrior, but also a virgin. Vesta is a respectable old maid.  Venus is a frivolous sex object. Juno is a respectable mother-wife and powerful queen, yet she must remain faithful and suffer the promiscuity of her husband. The distribution of desirable characteristics among a number of females is appropriate to a patriarchal society, rather than desirable characteristics be concentrated into one being. A fully realized female tends to engender anxiety in the insecure male, so virginal females are considered helpful and easy to control, while sexually mature women, like Juno, are destructive and evil.