Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Classical Aura [II, 9]

The great revival of classical literature and art that began in the Renaissance brought with it an awareness, at least among the educated classes, of the major role of same-sex love in ancient Greece and Rome. Some of the Humanists who were the standard-bearers of this revival wrote poems and other works in Latin with a powerful and sophisticated erotic content. Perhaps the first of these was il Panormita (Antonio Beccadelli), who published his Hermaphroditus in 1425.

Perusal of the surviving works of ancient Greek and Roman literature soon made it clear that much of this same-sex love was age-differentiated. In short we are dealing with pederasty (paiderasteia). In the original Greek texts, the paiderastes was the active partner only. In some modern languages, as in French, the term became more generalized, simply meaning “homosexual.” Today, the French clipped form pėdė is one of the commonest nouns to designate a male homosexual.

In some texts, particularly the Latin ones, the passive partner was commonly termed the catamita (catamite in French and English). The Greek term for the youthful beloved, the eromenos, was known only to a few specialists. In Renaissance texts, young men could be designated by the names of famous exemplars, as Bathyllus (rare), Ganymede, and Giton. More generally, the penetratee was termed a pathicus.

One of the greatest poets of ancient Greece, Sappho, who resided on the island of Lesbos, gave her name to the common noun sapphist. In its various national variations this was the preferred early modern term to designate a woman attracted to other women. In the second rank of popularity was tribade (ancient Greek for "one who rubs"). Only in the twentieth century did those two words yield definitely to lesbian.

For oral service, the term cunnilingus (or cunnilinctus) stems from Latin, as does fellatio. Much less common that to fellate is to irrumate. The first designates a type of male-male oral activity in which the main action, so to speak, is performed by the person stimulating the other’s member in his mouth. By contrast, irrumation occurs when the insertor, instead of just accepting the penile attention, actively engages in vigorous thrusts. The word masturbation is likewise of Latin derivation. (Onanism, not classical, is the product of a misundertanding of a Biblical passage.)

In eighteenth-century England the term Greek love became common as a general term for same-sex behavior, not necessarily in Greece. To some degree this was a camouflage term, but one readily understood by initiates. In its original usage it is one of the rare general terms without any tincture of disparagement.

In American slang today, sometimes found in advertisements, one encounters the expression Greek culture. Alas, this does not connote a cultivated devotion to ancient literature and art, but a predilection for anal activity. More specifically, one may be known as Greek active (the penetrator) or Greek passive (the one who “takes” it).

In a separate category are terms not found in classical languages, but which have been devised in modern times using classical roots as combining forms. These include the international terms homosexual, homophile, bisexual, and pedophile, as well as transvestite and transsexual. Employing this venerable word stuff in new ways endows the coinage with an aura of being scientific or medical, since much of the language of those disciplines is neo-Latin or neo-Greek. As these particular words have acquired overtones of judgmentalism, it is debatable to what extent they are genuinely “scientific.”


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