Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

In short, the Greeks saw in generative power not only a vitally important force, upon which man, and indeed all life, depends, but a positive miracle — something which could exist only by virtue of the presence of deity in its purest form. The procreative miracle was the ever repeated proof of the existence of God, and the sign that His aim and nature was to create life and to dispel the forces of darkness, decay and death. It was the one solid reason for optimism in a world which must have seemed to them as dangerous and destructive as our own. They approached this recurrent demonstration of God’s bounty and goodwill with holy awe, and, like Cerinthus, who replied to the Fathers’ horror of the phallic by saying that man should not be ashamed of what God had not been ashamed to create, they carried in religious procession symbols of phallus and pudenda in all innocence, and called the sexual parts a name meaning that which inspires holy awe. (160)

The Jews, of course, being father-worshippers, never accepted this sacramental view of sex, nor was their religion a sacramental religion. They bitterly opposed the mother religions which were popular among the surrounding tribes, and which, in the time of the early kings, threatened to engulf Judah also. Nevertheless in these early times, they also seem to have operated as a shame culture, and to have been free of unconscious sexual guilt. As far as the regulations governing sexual behaviour were concerned, Jewish law differed in only two material respects from the position as I have described it in the Graeco-Roman world. Jewish law was, in any case, derived from the Babylonian code of Hammurabi, but Moses has had the inspiration of obtaining divine sanction for it. Before he climbed Mount Sinai, Jahweh had been a local mountain deity interested only in the smoke of burnt offerings: a god of the living not of the dead. The only sexual injunction in the ten commandments is that against adultery, or the coveting of a neighbour’s wife. It must be understood that in this period, just as in Rome and Greece, adultery was a property offence and meant infringing the rights of another man. It did not mean that a man should restrict his attentions to his wife: indeed when a wife proved barren, she would often give one of her handmaidens to her husband that she might bear children for him. (172) Moreover, as the Bible often reminds is, men were free to maintain mistresses (“concubines“) in addition to their wives: and on the number of wives a man night have there was no restriction.

Nor was there any ban on premarital sex; it is seldom appreciated that nowhere in the Old Testament is there any prohibition of non-commercial unpremeditated fornication — apart from rape, and subject to the father’s right to claim a cash interest in a virgin. Once a girl had reached the age of twelve-and-a-half years, she was free to engage in sexual activity, unless her father specifically forbade it. Prostitution, though frowned on, was common and in Jerusalem the whores were so numerous that they had their own market place. Nor in the pre-Exilic period was sodomy a crime, except when committed as part of religious worship of non-Jewish gods. (172) As we can see from Genesis xix. 5 and Judges xix. 22, it was regarded as a natural, if rather vulgar, form of debauchery. The ban in Deuteronomy xxiii. 17 refers only to the religious form, and the word translated as sodomite in the King James version of the bible is ‘qadhesh‘, which means a priest concerned with temple prostitution. Indeed, in the time of the early kings, even the “qedheshim” became common in Judaea.

Such was the position in the first half of the millennium before Christ, but in about the year 500 B.C. a remarkable psychological change seems to have crept over the Classical world. It was a change marked first, by an increase in the amount of guilt felt, and second, by a sudden preoccupation with the after-life.