BMCR 2020.10.51

Sex in the world of myth

, Sex in the world of myth. London: Reaktion Books Limited, 2018. Pp. 240. ISBN 9781789140347 £15.99.

Sex in the world of myth looks like a title designed to attract readers’ attention, which might lead many academics to argue that it does not deserve our time and energy. But if we are to make classics a more accessible discipline with increased impact in the wider world, I think we should also engage with popular works of this sort. Leeming is considered an authority on comparative mythology: he has published over a dozen books on mythology in various world traditions (some academic and some popular), and the current title under review is equally wide-ranging. The book is divided into chapters on Mesopotamia, Egypt, Canaan and Israel, Greece and Rome, India, Northern Europe (Celts and Norsemen), China and Japan, Sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. In short, it is a colourful mosaic of myths from all over the world. The author contrasts and compares various mythologies and their representations of sex with links among the different chapters. The text is easily readable and accompanied by numerous illustrations in colour.

The obvious problem with casting such a wide net is the difficulty in addressing individual traditions on the level of study and analysis that they deserve. This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that the book has no citations (neither footnotes nor endnotes) making it difficult to trace the author’s sources. There are only four pages of bibliography followed by a useful index rerum at the end. Despite the overall lack of reference Leeming occasionally refers to the theories of individual scholars, for example Joseph Campbell, Marija Gimbutas, and Robert Graves. Many of these, however, would be considered antiquated from the perspective of contemporary scholarship. For example, Gimbutas’ theory of matriarchy has been repeatedly criticized and has been supplanted by newer approaches, and Graves’ poetic interpretations of Greek myth (though influential) have long been recognized as poetic mythmaking of its own.[1]

I can only speak from a limited position as a classicist with strong anthropological interests in comparing Roman mythology with those of other cultures. The chapter on Greece and Rome presents a whole range of cases that are familiar to classicists: Achilleus and Patroklos, Pasiphae, Oedipus, Tiresias, Herakles and Hylas, Hermaphroditus, Priapus, Dionysus, Zeus’ love affairs, etc. This reads like a standard list of familiar items that has yet to be investigated beyond the traditional methods, and it lacks awareness of the innovative approaches to sex and gender that have been advanced in recent decades.[2] Rome gets short shrift almost as though the Romans lacked a mythology, and so there is no mention of Inuus, Faunus, Lupercalia, Floralia, Venus, Bona Dea, Anna Perenna, Magna Mater, Antinous, and many other sexual elements in Roman myth and religion. The wonderful and mysterious world of Etruscan myth is not mentioned at all (perhaps understandably due to limitations of space).

I have noticed several factual errors: the Greek for a young boy in a pederastic relationship is not “eremos” (p. 77) but erōmenos (beloved), Bacchus is not “the Roman version of Dionysus” (p. 89), Liber is. The claim that “Orgiastic bacchanalia rituals in Rome celebrated the phallus from its early days” (p. 89) presumably refers to the phallic processions of Liber in the Italic countryside (Augustine C.D. 7.21) and conflates this with the Bacchanalia which were famously banned by the Senate in 186 BC. The “flying phalli featured in Mars’ festivals” (p. 215) are probably a result of a confusion with the Liberalia, which is a festival of Liber. The flaming phallus that appears on the royal hearth (p. 90) is one alternative version of the conception of the twins in the Roman foundation myth (ascribed to Promathion), but certainly not the main one where Mars is famously the father of the twins.

To conclude that whenever Greek gods have sex with humans the humans always suffer (p. 99) seems exaggerated. It is certainly the fate of mortals to suffer, and it is generally true that having sex with a god leads to tragedy, but there are exceptions. Odysseus’ love affairs with goddesses/nymphs Calypso and Circe may have retarded his return to Ithaca, but one could hardly say that they were not both enjoyable and helpful. If Odysseus suffered, it is not because he had sex with these women.

The chapter on Israel and Canaan presents the multifaceted ancient history of the area in a very interesting way stressing that sexuality plays a great role in many stories which found their way into the canon of the Bible. But again several myths are treated superficially. The author writes that “Satan, in the garden of Eden” tempted Adam and Eve (p. 50). This is now widely accepted in Christian retellings but is in fact a later interpretation (in the New Testament) that finds no basis in the original Hebrew. Satan rarely makes a direct appearance in the Old Testament books (the Book of Job is an exception), and the first potential hint of his involvement in Eden is in the Book of Wisdom 2.24 (composed in Hellenistic Alexandria, probably as late as the 1st century BC). Originally, the snake is only a snake (which could be interpreted in a number of different ways) in the same way that the fruit of the tree that Eve picked was not an apple until the similarity between mălum (evil) with mālum (apple) in the Latin version gave rise to this idea.

The infamous story of angels visiting Lot just before the demise of Sodom and Gomorrah gave rise to the old term ‘sodomy’. The author erroneously supports it on p. 59, giving the impression that the story is actually about sex between men. The Hebrew tradition and commentaries make it clear that the theme of the story is in fact hospitality, and the sin of Sodom is one of arrogance and pride. A gang of Sodomites ask to have their way with Lot’s two heavenly guests (referred to as ‘men’), but Lot refuses and offers his daughters instead. The angels then intervene and blind all the attackers. The point of the story is not that Lot is concerned about maintaining heteronormativity but that guests are considered sacred. The fact that homosexual relations were banned in ancient Israel (famously in Leviticus) is true but irrelevant in this context. Lot would rather give up his own daughters than break the sacred law of hospitality, which the Sodomites do not respect. Their threat of gang rape indicates an act of aggression and arrogance that is irrespective of the angels’ gender. The Jewish tradition discussed hospitality as the main issue of the story for centuries. The first negative reference to same-sex attraction in the story of Sodom appears in Philo of Alexandria (1st century AD), and it will take another several centuries for this interpretation to become the prevailing one with the Christian authors of late antiquity.[3]

The book ends with a conclusion discussing patterns and larger themes that reappear in many different cultures. The separation of Earth and Sky is a universal motif that seems to reflect anxieties about procreation and family: the great mother and father need to stand apart in order for their progeny to gain full freedom and have families of their own. But Leeming’s reading draws attention to the unusual Egyptian case where Geb (Earth) is male and Nut (Heaven) female but provides little explanation of this unique case (usually Earth is female and Heaven male). I think the unique importance of the Nile may have influenced this vision of the cosmos as the river fertilized the dry land of Egypt with water and minerals. In this environment the nourishing maternal role was ascribed to heaven because it could produce water, whereas the land beyond the Nile was mostly desert. The Egyptians believed that the Nile flows through heaven and the underworld before descending to earth.

Another universal motif appears to be that of the femme fatale and the depiction of women as dangerous alluring figures that seek to seduce men in order to destroy them. Leeming rightly points to patriarchal anxieties as the source of such negative representation of female sexuality. Yet his conclusion: “It can be argued that the femme fatale myth has had more of an effect on human societies than any other myth” (p. 219) seems exaggerated, even though the author is right that this myth has had a great role in supporting male domination over women. Leeming points out that there are also examples worldwide of the Great Mother type reflecting a more positive perception of the feminine, such as the Native American Pachamama, and, I would add, arguably the Christian figure of the Madonna with whom she has been identified.

Sex is frequently tied to feelings of shame and anxiety, but there are many exceptions: for example, Leeming repeatedly comes back to the unique approach to sex as sacred in India, pointing out that traces of this can be detected in other cultures but that none can claim to rival the many artistic and religious celebrations of sex for which India is so famous. Although the author repeatedly (and rightly) returns to the role of Christianity in changing sexual mores in Europe, one should more clearly state the historical context, that it was only in late antiquity that the Church made this radical transformation that turned many forms of sexuality into sin.[4]

Leeming also sees homosexuality as a universal motif that naturally appears in many different cultures of the world. His conclusion that sex between young boys and older men is found in many different cultures may be useful in investigating Greek pederasty in a comparative light. He is careful to discuss cases where a relationship between two men may be homosocial or homoerotic (Achilleus and Patroklos, David and Jonathan, Gilgamesh and Enkidu) rather than homosexual in the modern sense of the word. Lesbian and transgender sex seems more difficult to find. Leeming concludes that gender reversal is often portrayed as comical or divinely forced rather than motivated by a desire to change gender. But he makes no mention, for example, of Ovid’s Iphis (Metamorphoses book 9), which makes one suspect there are many more cases missed.

In summary, this is an enjoyable read with lots of interesting material which is insufficiently studied and analysed in many places. I am always in favour of cross-cultural comparison, as it enables seeing phenomena from novel and different perspectives, but careful attention needs to be paid to individual cultures lest we miss the trees for the woods.


[1] Sheila Murnaghan (2009). “Myths of the Greeks: The Origins of Mythology in the Works of Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves.” Classical Bulletin 84.1, 81-89.

[2] For example, see the essays in the collection edited by Thomas Hubbard (2014). Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. Blackwell, Oxford, and see now J. Surtees and J. Dyer (eds., 2020). Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

[3] Michael Carden (2004). Sodomy: A History of a Christian Biblical Myth (Equinox, London), 42–78.

[4] Kyle Harper (2013). From Shame to Sin. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.