- Giorgio Pintzas Monzani
Sex and Food in the Ancient Greek World
Today you can find many references that link food to sex, starting from aphrodisiac foods, a topic increasingly mistreated and with less and less medical foundations, to the art of seduction, which pushes us to identify ourselves as chefs to surprise our partners. A topic that is increasingly fashionable today: leading to the birth of new expressions and online trends such as #foodporn, #foodgasm. This union was born in the most ancient societies of the world, almost like an innate instinct. But it is in societies that embrace the study of emotion and the human soul that we can find answers about this connection. In the pre-Hellenistic era, a discipline was born that led to the evolution of the concept of food: gastrosophy. Precisely the gastrosofic studies led to the knowledge of a world that directly connects food to the human soul. We began to analyze the world of food not only from the point of view of strength and physical health, but also from the emotional and psychological point of view, trying to optimize the nourishment of the mind and soul. This is how the comparison with the world of sex was born, because just like eroticism, even in the culinary sphere there is an attempt to find less superficial and primordial answers. What union do we find between sex and food in ancient Greek culture? Sex in the Greek world is as much a cultural element as it is an emotional and sensational one. It is experienced in a much more natural way and less full of taboos than in the present day. This is also true for food. We often read about philosophers and poets who, in order to explain the evolution of food or the evolution of sexuality, take their cue from one of the two elements. For example, in explaining the practice of sexual relations between mature men and younger boys, the Greek philosopher Callicradita says: "At the beginning of his history,man was compelled by necessity to procure food to survive: and he fed, therefore, on roots and berries. But with time, he discovered how to sow wheat and barley, and only animals continued to feed on berries and roots: well, is there anyone so crazy to think that animals, for this, are superior to men? And then, why not apply the same measure to love? To love women was the original necessity, to love men was the conquest of the divine philosophy.” Obviously, this is a strong statement, and it is unthinkable to relate it to today's society, however it makes it easier for us to understand how the world of sex and the world of food were often combined.
Symposia and sex, what is true? In the collective imagination Greek symposia and banquets are often associated with orgies and sexual parties. In reality the sexual practices in ancient Greece were a very personal, private,and intimate fact. Although it is true, they practiced more open sex in terms of gender and age, it is equally false to think about parties based on wine and sexual acts with multiple participants. But why does this common place arise? Evidence of private life in ancient Greek times also and mainly comes from archaeological findings representing moments of daily life. On the cups and chalices (used for banquets and symposia) found, were often depicted sexual acts and group sexual practices, but not because they corresponded to the real ancient uses, but rather because they were the erotic fantasies of the people of the then society. It is true that at the end of the symposiums or banquets many of the guests ended up practicing sex with prostitutes (hired precisely to please the participants), but without ever resulting in group acts, disrespectful to the society of the time and to the master of the house. Meaning of the word "Orgy" and the link it creates between food and sex When we talk about orgy, we instinctively think of group sexual practices. In fact, the word was born in ancient Greece,and etymologically speaking, hides within itself the word "εργον" (ergon) or action. It was used to indicate a ritual, where people allowed themselves to deviate from the rules of good taste and social behavior, so as to regress into a more chaotic state to be reborn purified. In fact, this word today is closely related to the night world, precisely because in ancient times rituals were practiced at night to make people purer during the daytime daily life. The link between today's meaning of orgy and the ancient purifying rites can be identified thanks to the fact that one of the methods to disobey the social laws and morality was just to participate in sexual acts more driven than the daily routine, arriving then sometimes even to practice group couplings. So how does food take part in such a spiritual ritual? Already in the ancient world food was experienced as a vehicle towards purification and not only as a natural sustenance. Orgies had as a fundamental ingredient the sharing of food and the use of wine as a transporter towards a more esoteric reality.
The food offered and prepared during orgies was not the same as the ones of classical banquets or symposia. A great consumption of animals was avoided, which were instead sacrificed in honor of gods. They preferred foods considered pure and representing fertility: such as bread, fruits,eggs, honey, and onions. For example,fruits such as figs were preferred for their great contribution of sugars that gave energy to diners. Eggs instead were identified (still today) as an icon of fertility and life: therefore, having not so much a physical purpose as a symbolic one. The God Pan, god of pasture, nature and pleasure “A divine figure always shrouded in mystery. A gentle God, altruistic, lover of nature, god of fertility, protector of shepherds, protector of the countryside and its fruits. A God rapist, molester, lover of sex in its most carnal form. A mirror of the society of that time: spiritual, democratic but with a strongly primordial and instinctive connotation.” The existence of a divinity that encompasses all these elements are proof of how sacred the link between food and sex in ancient Greece was. Moreover Pan is often associated to the figure of Phanes, also called the "Protogonus", that means "the first born": a testimony of the fact that this figure is the protector of the most ancient characteristics of man, the search for food and the instinct to procreate. The God Pan himself was a breeder of bees and greedy of honey, and still today honey is considered a strong aphrodisiac: thanks to the high content of boron, also capable of increasing the level of estrogen and testosterone. Aphrodisiac foods In the mass culture the concept of aphrodisiac food has always taken more importance and spread, as popular beliefs but in some cases also as medical remedies, both in ancient times and later in the middle age. Today the most widespread opinion believes that physically food and sexuality live in an indirect relationship. What does this mean? Many foods help produce hormones that can ALSO lead to an increase in erotic desire, so not a direct or certain result. Any food that was suggested to stimulate one's intimate life, oftenhad an effect through the message it carried: the intrinsic meaning of the material, sometimes even the shape, which could remind and allude to scenes or even male and female members. Therefore, the concept of aphrodisiac food had such a spread because of the mental concept it represents even before the physical result.
However, with today's scientific means we can give explanations to many ancient beliefs about stimulating foods.
An example can be found in eggplant, which despite in ancient times was feared because of its actual risk of intoxication, in the 1700'sit was defined as a powerful aphrodisiac: because the ambiguous shape of the fruit created a sexual allusion which awoke fantasies in eaters.
Onions, used in ancient orgiastic banquets, today are often avoided in the erotic field, for reasons obvious to everyone.
But in spite of this, these bulbs have a high content of nitrous oxide, one of the active principles of today's Viagra,proving that indirectly the ancient diners felt a physical change in them.
But the true concept of "aphrodisiac" food finds evidence in the way food is experienced and its preparation.
Love in sharing and conviviality is the real element which can create an erotic and amorous stimulus, for the commitment of pleasing a person by means of food or just the will of wanting to share in intimacy such a primordial and deep act: eating.
Today's philosophy recognizes the combination of food and sex thanks to the words of philosopher and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who believed these two worlds to be linked by a primordial thread within each of us:
"hunger, thirst, sexual desire, are all drives that motivate human behavior. The inner force that drives us to eat, could therefore be the same that drives us to survival throughsexuality".
In fact, Freud himself defines both hunger and sexual desire as "self-preservation drives".
Certainly, today clearer and more scientific explanations are provided on the close connection between the two "worlds".
But it is thanks to history that we can understand how emotions and their importance have always been one of the foundations of society and human thought.