Why did the Greeks and Romans fear the clitoris?

If the anatomical description of the clitoris only appeared in some French school textbooks in 2017, it is because this organ of female pleasure, although known by this name at least since 1559, has long been the subject of true omerta

Why did the Greeks and Romans fear the clitoris?

If the anatomical description of the clitoris only appeared in some French school textbooks in 2017, it is because this organ of female pleasure, although known by this name at least since 1559, has long been the subject of true omerta.

Throughout history, material about women's sexual pleasure has often been suppressed, portrayed as dangerous or obscene. And Antiquity, in this regard, is no exception.

Today, contrary to these ancient negative representations, artists on the contrary exalt the clitoral power, which has become a symbol of feminine claim. Like, for example, Sophia Wallace's sculptures, jewelry and other works glorifying cliteracy.

But the road has been long.

In the series Rome (2005-2007), the legionnaire Titus Pullo gives some advice to the centurion Lucius Vorenus, who wishes to please his wife, Niobe:

“Tell her she's beautiful all the time, even when she's not.

- Something else ? asks Vorenus.

– Yes, replies Pullo, when you make love with her, touch the button between her thighs, then she will open like a flower.

"How do you know Niobe has that button?"

- All women have one.

The scene parodies The Art of Loving by the Latin poet Ovid, a masterpiece of erotic literature, conceived as a manual of seduction.

In the first part, the author delivers his recipes for men who intend to conquer a woman: small attentive gestures, kisses, tender words, compliments... The suitor must, by all means, try to be pleasant to the woman. woman and give her pleasure.

The poet does not speak of the clitoris in his work. Perhaps he is alluding to it, however, when he writes:

If it is not explicitly mentioned by Ovid, the clitoris is, on the other hand, very present in Greek and Latin medical literature. Soranus of Ephesus, author at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. AD of a treatise on gynecology (Gynaikeia), offers a description of the female genitalia. The clitoris is named there numphé or "nymph", a word which designates a virgin girl or a young bride. This term is not trivial: it translates a subjective representation of the clitoris, which should normally be veiled by the flesh which surrounds it, like the head of a young bride. "If we call this part the nymph, explains the author, it is because it hides under the lips like young girls under their veil. »

If this nymph is not sufficiently concealed but more or less protuberant, Soranos considers this to be an anomaly that surgery should correct. The doctor recommends cutting it with a scalpel, taking care, however, to avoid excessive bleeding.

This amputation was commonly practiced in Egypt, as the geographer Strabo writes (Geography XVII, 2, 5). The author does not name the clitoris, but speaks of a form of female circumcision, expressed by the verb ektemnein "to remove by cutting".

In Latin, numphe is translated as landica, a term found in the Latin adaptation of the treatise of Soranos by the physician Caelius Aurelianus, in the 5th century AD. AD Etymologically, the word could evoke a small acorn (glandicula).

The word also appears on a lead sling bullet discovered in Perugia, central Italy, where, in 41-40 B.C. J.-C., an important battle which opposed Fulvia, wife of Marc Antoine, to Octave, future emperor Auguste. During wars, it was customary to engrave the worst insults on the projectiles intended for the enemy.

On the bullet from Perugia, we can read FVLVIAE LANDICAM PETO: "I seek to reach the clitoris of Fulvia"; or more trivially: "Fulvie, take that in the clitoris!" Octave was trying to reach his enemy in what was most intimate to her.

A graffiti discovered in Pompeii goes in the same direction. It is written with an angry hand, a little like the inscriptions that can be read today on the walls of our public toilets. The author, obviously anonymous, insults a certain Eupla, whom he hates: Eupla laxa landicosa; "Eupla is broad and has a large clitoris" (CIL IV, 10004). The image assumes a dilated vulva dominated by a monstrous clitoris, shaped like a dummy penis. An obscene vision for the author, as no doubt for many Romans.

A mosaic from the wealthy so-called House of Menander, also in Pompeii, offers us an iconographic transposition. It adorns the entrance to the caldarium, a room reserved for hot baths. We see four strigils, bronze scrapers, arranged around a vial of oil suspended from straps. Objects usually used by the Greeks and Romans during their sporting activities.

The bather entering the room was perhaps not totally surprised by this image, although the arrangement of the objects may have seemed astonishing from the outset. It was probably only when he left that he fully grasped the artist's intention. Indeed, seen in the opposite direction, the image evokes a vulva. Around the clitoris represented by the vial of oil, the scrapers take the form of the labia majora and labia minora.

In the upper part of the mosaic, a young African servant comes running, holding two phallic-shaped vases, while his imposing penis protrudes from his tight loincloth. Certainly a way of provoking the laughter of the spectator by the association between this triply virile representation and the image of an artificial femininity, made up of male sports instruments.

Unlike the phallus, a real lucky charm with beneficial virtues according to the imagination of the time, the clitoris was perceived as a potential danger for men.

On the mosaic, the vial of oil, seen upside down, takes on the appearance of a pointed weapon, a kind of dagger. It thus joins the definition of the clitoris given by the Greek poet Nicarchus, author of satirical epigrams, in the 1st century AD. Criticizing a certain Demonax, adept of cunnilingus, he wrote: "The pig (khoïros) has a formidable thorn (akantha)" (Greek Anthology XI, 329).

The "pig" is a colloquial term for the vulva, while the "thorn" represents the clitoris, seen as a small penis posing a threat to a man's lips. Démonax, the vulva licker, is in great danger of hurting himself there and bloodying his mouth.

Conversely, the clitoris is supposed to lose all danger as soon as the female sex is penetrated by a phallus, necessarily the winner of the confrontation and the only weapon allowing the dangerous thorn to be kept in respect. Hence the unanimous condemnation in antiquity of the practice of cunnilingus.

In the Odyssey (X, 389), Circe the sorceress possesses a small scepter named rhabdos, the ancestor of witches' magic wands.

Fortunately for the Greek phallocracy, Odysseus ends up defeating it and subduing it. He possesses her, using his phallus, and represses the holder of the wand, a symbol of harmfulness.

*Christian-Georges Schwentzel is professor of ancient history at the University of Lorraine. He published Débauches antiques. How the Bible and the Ancients invented vice, Vendémiaire editions.