Friday, 2 December 2011

Sex, Swans and Yeats

Ancient Greek mythology has always been synonymous with the graphic representation of sex. There are countless myths depicting sex be it between deities, mortals or both. Artistic renditions of more risqué myths are very prevalent, it seems the ancient Greeks found depictions of sex as sensational as we do today. However, ancient Greeks certainly had a sense of shame just as we do today as Aesop describes this in his fable 'Zeus and Shame'.

"After he had created people, Zeus immediately implanted in them all the possible human character traits, but he forgot about Shame. Since he didn't know how to get shame inside the human body, he ordered her to go in from behind. At first Shame protested, considering Zeus' request to be beneath her dignity. When Zeus kept insisting, she said, 'All right, I will go in there, on the condition that if anything comes in there after me, I will leave immediately.' As a result, people who engage in sodomy have no sense of shame." (Fables, 528)

This passage contradicts the view that ancient Greeks where particularly sensational and hedonistic in their attitudes towards eroticism, particularly homosexual relations. Although the practise of anal sex was widely accepted they remained controversial. It also serves as a valid comparison between ancient Greek attitudes towards sodomy and the widely stigmatised attitude held by people today.

However one way Greek attitude towards sex differed from modern practises was that, according to S.B. Pomeroy, couples only shared beds about once a month. Adultery, whether with a slave or free woman, was looked down upon as other, more socially acceptable, alternatives where available in Greek society. R.S Morton writes that "Older men having regular sex with a "friendly companion"-regular mistress, concubine or courtesan-was acceptable behaviour" (p61) this role was often performed by young boys. Morton continues, discussing the term "paeserastia" which has been used increasingly to describe homosexual relations between Greek men and "beardless youth" (p63). These relationships where not only tolerated but accepted, Morton likens the relationships between young boys and grown men to the "hero/warrior worship of Homers poems".

I would argue that the promiscuous nature of the gods was a reflection of the attitudes of Greek society as a whole, I feel that the Greeks wrote gods in the image of themselves. The Olympian gods are represented as a nuclear family, with a clear patriarchal structure which is in itself very 'human'. However, according to Morton The relatively liberal attitude towards sex in Greek society 'no doubt owed itself in part to the behaviour of gods and goddesses' (p61). There is some very compelling evidence for this hypothesis, Zeus for example features in countless myths where he engages in sexual liaisons, whether heterosexual, homosexual or bestial (which I will discuss further later). The Greeks even had a personification of bi-sexuality in Hermaphrodite, son of Hermes and Aphrodite. Sex featured prominently not only in the physical, but metaphysical lives of the Ancient Greeks; an example of a link between the two can be seen in the cult of the phallus. Morton writes on this subject in the passage "The cult of phallus initiated religious practises similar to those associated with the Egyptian god Min and Indian god Siva. Representations of the phallus where carried in religious processions, to the temples to Priapus, as the sacred organs of generation. They signified power. fruitfulness and fertility." (p61) Here the concept of Sex transcends the physical and becomes symbolic, as the phallic representation of fertility is also interpreted agriculturally; for example Priapus, the god of fertility born with a huge phallus, is also associated with agriculture and plants.

There are many such examples of the representation of Sex in Greek society, however I have decided to focus on one myth in particular, 'Leda and the Swan'. In this myth Zeus falls in love with a mortal woman called Leda who is the wife of the king of Sparta, Zeus proceeded to assume the guise of a swan and rape (or seduce depending on the source, which I discuss further below) Leda on the same night as she sleeps with her husband. Leda then Laid two eggs, one containing Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra and the other Castor and Polydeuces, deities commonly associated with war. There are many Interesting points about this myth, perhaps the most obvious being the form Zeus adopts in order to rape Leda. 'Leda and the Swan' mirrors a similar myth 'Europa and the Bull' where another anthropomorphic-animal representation of Zeus, in the shape of a bull, abducts and in some sources rapes a Phoenician woman named Europa. The myth is also parallelled in the Hindu tradition in the myth of Brahma and Saraswati where the swan is actually twin brothers Ham and Sa united as one entity. Here not only is the bestial copulation theme the same but also the association of the Swan with twins.

I first came across this myth in my English literature A level course in a poetry class. The Nobel prize winning William Butler Yeats wrote a poem titled 'Leda and the swan' which retells this myth. Yeats employs the literary technique most commonly associated with odes and love poems, the sonnet, with a certain degree of irony as in his version Leda is most certainly raped. Yeats also skillfully employs this poetic form by utilising the separation between the octave and sextet, typically the 'climax' of a sonnet, to bring attention to the line "A shudder in the loins engenders there"; Here the 'climax' of the poem mirrors the climax during the rape of Leda. Directly after Zeus' climax, Yeats also makes references to the Iliad in the lines "the broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead." here Yeats is interpreting the myth of Leda and the Swan as the direct cause of the Trojan war, not only due to the birth of Helen but also in the birth of Castor and Polydeuces who symbolise war. Yeats is deliberately brief and concise in referencing the Iliad and Agamemnons' death; suggesting that in that very moment, that climax, his fate is sealed. The artful use of structure, historical and mythological reference combined with Yeats' use of powerful language (words like 'staggering' and 'helpless' in the first stanza paired with words like 'mastered' and 'power' in the last) make for a very blunt and brutal depiction of sex in Greek mythology, and most certainly one of my favourite poems from my A level class.

In this vase painting one can see a more classical representation of the myth. Zeus in the body of the swan kisses Leda which certainly contradicts Yeats' rendition. In some more modern renditions of the myth Zeus is also putting his beak into Leda's mouth suggesting consensual sex. In fact I found it very difficult to find classical versions of the myth, and interestingly could not find any which depicts the myth as a rape. Apollodorus 3, 10 for example:

"Zeus in the form of a swan consorted with Leda, and on the same night Tyndareus cohabited with her; and she bore Pollux and Hellen to Zeus, and Castor and Clytaemnestra to Tyndareus. But some say that Helen was a daughter of Nemesis and Zeus; for that she, flying from the arms of Zeus, changed herself into a goose, but Zeus in his turn took the likeness of a swan and so enjoyed her; as the fruit of their loves she laid an egg, and a certain sheppard found it in the groves and brought and gave it to Leda" (3, 10)

Also a later source, Hyginus wrote in Fables 77 (~0AD):

"Jupiter [Zeus], changed into a swan, had intercourse with Leda near the river Eurotas, and from that embrace she bore Pollox and Helen; to Tyndareus she bore Castor and Clymenestra" (77)

This is a completely different story to Yeats' interpretation of the myth. Zeus 'enjoying' Nemesis, or 'consorting' with Leda is far less shocking depiction than him 'mastering' her. Yeats' misreading of the historical text also raises some other questions. For instance, why would Zeus need to conceal his identity to rape Leda, a mortal, this suggests that Yeats thought Zeus had sex with Nemesis rather than Leda who was an immortal which would warrant trickery. But if one reads the mating with Nemesis to be true there is another inconsistency; when two gods mate in Greek mythology the result is normally a mortal hero, but Helen is almost the antithesis of a Greek hero as she is female and her birth will only bring death and destruction to true Greek hero's.

Helen Sword wrote about Yeats' misrepresentation of the myth in her article 'Leda and the Modernists':
"Pastoral depictions of Leda as the swan's acquiescent lover characterise woman as "other-than-human" creatures who, craving still the "animal pleasures" that men have transcended, are to be despised as well as feared; at the same time, the swan god's "assertive act of rape" allows male artists to control such dangerous femininity by returning Leda to woman's supposedly "predestined position of abject submission to male authority". Writers of the period who where attracted to the myth might have been similarly motivated: either they express a male anxiety toward a femme fatale who, so long as her bestial desires remain unfulfilled, can be nether fathomed nor possessed by mortal man" (p.307)

Helen Sword. (1992) Leda and the Modernists PMLA vol. 107 Modern Language Association

Hyginus. Fables, 77

Apollodorus. Book III, 10

Aesop. 'Zeus and Shame'. Fables, number 528, Gibbs' translation (2002)

R.S Morton. (1991) Sexual attitudes, preferences and infections in Ancient Greece: has antiquity anything useful for us today. Genitourin Med.

S.B. Pomeroy. (1973) Selected Bibliography on Women in Antiquity. Arethusa

W.B Yeats. (1928) The Tower: Leda and the Swan

F.Buret. (1891) Syphilis today and among the Ancients. F.A. Davis: Philadelphia

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