folklore, mythology, cultural studies and related disciplines
As outlined elsewhere, myths help provide a 'deep structure' or 'cosmology'. One such cosmology that is essential for human society is how we structure sexuality. Anthropological studies have revealed a great variety of approaches, all of which seem entirely 'natural' to the societies in which they are encountered. Western concepts of sexuality are, of course, deeply influenced by Christian concepts of sexuality, which makes them more problematical than many (although most Western people have, at least until recent years, regarded them as entirely 'natural').
In the Biblical account of The Fall, Adam and Eve are ejected from Eden after the Serpent entices them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. By subtle metaphors we are led to believe that 'knowledge' is specifically 'sexual knowledge'. In this respect Genesis is typical of cosmogological myths, which either prescribe 'idealised' sexual relationships, or describe scenarios that define the acceptable. Such 'definitions' may, as is often the case with Classical Greek myths, come about by describing transgressions by the gods and heroes. As examples of such transgressions consider Zeus raping various women; Aphrodite's 'free love'; Tiresias's gender-bending life; or slurs on Odin's sexuality. In various ways, myths create distinctions between 'acceptable' and 'transgressive' sexual behaviour.
Paul Friedrich has devoted a book to the myths of Aphrodite. He sees her as a liminal deity whose 'generous and carnal affection and her lack of ambivalence about sex made her... unique among the queens of heaven.' (Friedrich 1978: 134) In Greek culture extramarital sex was regarded as polluting as filth or death; indeed for Hesiod, all sex was dangerous and polluting. Yet Aphrodite's sexuality does not pollute her or her lovers. She is also liminal in seducing mortals; taking the active role; and for suggesting that sex within marriages can be passionate. She was also the exception among Greek goddesses in allowing herself to been seen naked without severe retribution (in contrast, Actaeon was turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds for seeing Artemis bathing).
Apart from Friendrich, most aspects of sexuality in myths were kept at arm's length by 'respectable' twentieth century mythologists. Presumptions about the close association between myth and religion became more than a little problematical when the concepts of religion were based rather too clearly on Judaeo-Christian foundations and Protestant 'ethics'; the underlying myth that sex was 'sinful' simply pervaded too far.
Even though sex is at the kernel of Christian cosmogony, all but the most simplistic aspects of sexuality in myths were side-stepped by major mythologists. Consequently this created distortions in both the understanding of specific myths and also the broader understanding of mythology. Sigmund Freud's views of sexuality gave a pretext for breaking this taboo, although with hindsight his premises of phallicism and penis-envy did little to enlighten and much to confuse. Freud provides a detailed insight into the chauvinism and unenlightened 'sexism' of the upper classes of Vienna in the early twentieth century. His attempts to generalise these to a universal model of human sexual attitudes can be politely described as 'problematical'. Freud perceived sexuality as a 'base instinct', a problem welling up from the unseen unconsciousness – entirely incompatible with notions of sex being 'god given', divine, an expression of humanity's higher spirituality.
Homosexuality has become increasingly 'problematical' in the last 150 years. Michel Foucault (1980) attempted to show the social construction of homosexuality during the nineteenth century. Labelling and denigrating homosexuality created a binary opposition that enhanced the 'normality' of accepted kinds of heterosexual behaviour. Homosexuals have developed a rich 'counter culture' that has its own 'cosmologies'. For instance, the perceptions of 'gay icons' often have more in common with mythical heroes and deities than their flesh-and-blood entities. Gay culture is a prime example of modern myth making although, so far, investigated academically from the broader viewpoints of 'cultural studies' rather than the more focussed perspectives of mythology. (For pioneering studies of 'transgressive' readings of Star Trek and Dr Who see Jenkins 1992; Jenkins and Tulloch 1995.)
For all the attention on gay and lesbian in the media and the arts – all of which can be broadly construed as modern-day myth-making – whole areas of 'gender ambiguity' (such as those linked with the wide spectrum of congenital hermaphroditic conditions that occur in one to five percent of births) are still entirely 'liminal' to the modern day 'cosmology' of sexuality.
Although deeply interwoven with modern Western thinking, Christian notions of sin and Freud's models of human mental processes are both entirely mythical notions. Both are substantial obstacles to understanding sexuality implicit or explicit in non-western myths. Alan Watts was closer to the mark when he noted that:
(Watts 1954: 180fn)
(Smith 1978: 115)
Another example comes from the Hindu account of creation, which holds that god was originally neither male nor female.
(Poddar 1995: 67)
The same concepts are expressed in Indian myths about Shakti, a goddess who symbolises 'the ultimate female principle of energy and motion, without which there would be no manifested universe.' (Camphausen 1991: 175) Shakti is envisaged as deriving this energy from intercourse with her consort, Shiva – a continuous cosmic 'big bang'.
Indian Tantric traditions also depict various deities in sexual intercourse with a female personification of Wisdom. This has close parallels to the Gnostic Christians' alternative exegesis of Adam and Eve, where the emphasis is on gaining the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, rather than sexual knowledge specifically.
Such myths seem seriously exotic to modern minds. Partly this is because of the religious 'fundamentalists' and secular moralists who have made sex all-but synonymous with evil. More specifically, and a bigger part of the problem of understanding non-western portrayals of sexuality, modern minds have been subsumed by sexuality in the service of commerce. Idealised nubile women frequently make eye contact as we turn the pages of magazines, drive past advertising hoardings, and watch TV; they offer not sexual gratification but the dubious benefits of consumer products and services.
All these Western attitudes eclipse the primary importance of sex – without it there would be no humans. There is no quibbling with the quip 'life is sexually transmitted'. Sexuality is far more than the mechanics of reproduction, of course, but the prudery of academe has given prominence to 'sacred' myths and myths about the origin of the universe while all-but ignoring the equally, if not more, important myths associated with societies' concepts of sexuality.
Examining the clash of modern cosmologies (in the widest sense of myths that give structure to our world) with traditional cosmologies is not for the faint-hearted, and well beyond the scope of this brief article. As might be expected, more academic mythologists have yet to be tempted to tackle the modern myths of sexuality, and have left this territory to the more 'cultural studies' approach, with its emphasis on cultural ideas transmitted by mass media. As a result the notion of 'sacred sexuality' remains somewhat alien to modern minds, but this is a chiefly a reflection of modern mythical cosmologies. These modern ways of thinking need to be addressed before the approaches to sexuality in traditional and non-western cosmological myths can be recognised 'on their own terms'.
CAMPHAUSEN, Rufus C., 1991, The Encyclopedia of Erotic Wisdom, Inner Traditions International.
Based on a section in Explore Mythology
copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003