Shame and Sexuality in Ancient Greece

[Note: This post includes Greek rules on the physics of homosexuality, justifications for having a child with a bull, and Ancient Greek physicians talking about sex in graphic (and ultimately incorrect) detail. The Ancient Greeks were a strange people. You have been warned.]

So, in many ways, Hippolytus is about the suppression of sexuality. Despite the Nurse’s beautiful speech in which she points out that lust and love are not only natural but also often divinely inspired, Hippolytus is ultimately a story about how lust destroys all. A Freudian might even entangle the title character in that maxim, suggesting that the prince might protest too much his hatred of women, particularly his stepmother. Could it be that Hippolytus himself wants Phaedra just as much as she wants him, has felt that way for a long time, and in order to prevent himself from betraying his father he then made his vows to Artemis?

This is what Freud would say because a lot of Freud’s work on the mind was based on understanding how hidden desires are suppressed by the brain and punished by the outer world. Unlike the Victorians of Freud’s era, the Greeks were actually pretty good about admitting the existence and almost inevitability of sexual desire and pleasure. In the 4th Century B.C., Hippocrates (of Hippocratic Oath fame) wrote that

In the cases of women, it is my contention that when during intercourse the vagina is rubbed and the womb is disturbed, an irritation is set up in the womb which produces pleasure and heat in the rest of the body. […] Once intercourse has begun, she experiences pleasure throughout the whole time, until the man ejaculates. If her desire for intercourse is excited, she emits before the man, and for the remainder of the time she does not feel pleasure for the extent; but if she is not in a state of excitement, then her pleasure terminates along with that of the man. What happens is like this: if into boiling water you pour another quantity of water which is cold, the water stops boiling. In the same way, the man’s sperm arriving in the womb extinguishes both the heat and the pleasure of the woman.

Strange boiling water metaphor aside, Hippocrates is pretty much wrong on most counts. It seems like he’s been taken in by the myth of the simultaneous orgasm as well. The main thing to glean from this passage is that he saying that women enjoy sex. (Although what he’s describing as the cause is probably not going to work for most women.) Greek physicians tended not to deal with female genitalia. That was left to midwives. They did however make generalizations like Hippocrates, suggesting in so many words that the womb got lonely sometimes, and that upped sexual desire in women.

So sexual desire is fine. It’s where you direct it that gets you in trouble. Homosexuality was fine, even institutional, as long as the independent and dependent roles of young men and older men remained clear. (The older [married] man was not allowed to be on the receiving end of affections or of sex.)

You must remember, also, that in Euripides’ Athens, women were excluded from most elements of public life. Adultery in this case became a double sin. Not only were you putting the line of succession from your husband to his son into question, but you were fraternizing with an outsider. Thanks to the public trial of a courtesan named Neaera and her lover (and probably pimp) Stephanus, we know a lot about the expected punishments for sexual infidelity and promiscuity.

If a husband caught his wife in the act of the adultery he was legally ordered to cast her out of his house. No open relationships here. Female adulterers were prevented from participating in rites and sacrifices, including those that even slaves and foreigners were allowed to take part in. (Think of this as a kind of Ancient Greek excommunication.) If she was discovered to have snuck into religious services, she was subject to “any ill-treatment whatsoever, short of death, and impunity…”

In general, one of women’s most important values was moderation. This was especially true in sexual matters, where deference was most important. In Medea, Medea and Jason spend a lot of time arguing about whether Medea has a right to be upset that she and Jason are no longer sleeping together or in love [depends on the charity of the translator.] “Is that such a small thing to a woman?” she says. “To a wise woman it is, but to you it’s everything.” Or in the hands of a more cruel translator: “It is to a woman who has sense, but you are completely evil.”

Evil and lust are wrapped up together. Medea murders the princess and King Creon because Jason dissolves their marriage. Phaedra condemns her object of lust Hippolytus to death along with her (if we are to believe it’s her who actually left the suicide note.) Yet there’s one more element of lust we haven’t really touched on yet.

Upon hearing of Phaedra’s desire, the Nurse remarks, “Cypris, you are no god. You are something stronger than God if that can be.” Aphrodite, the goddess of Desire, is not just a run of the mill goddess. She is a force of nature, primal, dangerous, mercurial, and cruel. With a dark look, she can destroy lives with a single girlish crush with the wrong target (Hippolytus and Phaedra) or an entire city with a promise of the most beautiful women in the world (Helen and Paris.) She can even make people fall in love with animals.

In another play of Euripides’, The Cretans, Pasiphae, the mother of the Minotaur protests her oncoming execution for committing adultery with a bull:

Now if I had prostituted my body in clandestine love to a man, you could have rightly said I was a whore. But as things are, it was a god who drove me mad; I am sorry, but it was not my fault.


It makes no sense; what is it about the bull that could have stirred up my feelings with such a shameful passion? Did he look so splendid in his robes? Did his auburn hair and his eyes flash brilliantly? Was it his dark beard? It can hardly have been the symmetry of his form! This is the love for which I got into the skin and went on all fours; and this makes Minos angry! I could hardly wish to make this husband the father of children; why was I afflicted with this madness?


It was Minos’ evil genius that afflicted me with this curse; the one human being who bears all the guilt is Minos! It was he who broke the promise he had made to sacrifice the bull that came as a portent to the sea god. It was for this that Poseidon’s vengeance came upon you, and it is on me that it descended! And then you cry aloud and call all the gods to witness, when the doer of the act that put me to shame is you yourself!

In Hippolytus, Phaedra says “Shame is of two kinds. One is harmless. The other, a plague.” There is the public shame that Pasiphae speaks about, the ruining of reputation. The other is the private shame, the guilt, the force that suppresses desire for fear of punishment. Though the Greeks were much better than the Victorians in turns of admitting the reality of sexual desire, they were even worse in terms of punishing those who upset the patriarchy with those desires. (This includes both wives and their possible lovers like Mr. hypocritical child of a common law marriage with a barbarian Hippolytus.) Shame has many forms, most of which are tied to unreasonable demands of chastity on the part of both sexes, and it’s a dangerous thing, especially when older husbands are away.


Ancient Greek Civilization (Audio CD). Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D. Recorded at the University of Pennsylvania.

Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation (Third Edition) edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2005.)

Women on the Edge: Four Plays By Euripides edited and translated by Ruby Blondell, Mary-Kay Gamel, Narcy Sorkin Rabinowitz, and Bella Zweig. (Routledge, New York, 1999.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s