…cum puerum vidit visumque optavit habere;
nec tamen ante adiit, etsi properabat adire,
quam se conposuit, quam circumspexit amictus
et finxit vultum et meruit formosa videri.
… when she [viz., Salmacis] saw the boy and wanted to have
what she saw; but though she was eager to
approach, she didn’t approach him before she
did herself up and inspected her dress and made
up her face and had a fair claim to look beautiful.
Ovid Metamorphoses 4.316-319
Salmacis is one of countless lovely nymphs inhabiting one of countless pools that dot the tensely sexual landscape of Ovid’s chiaroscuro masterpiece, the inimitable Metamorphoses. She falls just madly in love with a handsome youth whose physical loveliness reflects the divine beauty of his parents, Mercury and Venus. Salmacis offers him a secret affair (327: furtiva voluptas) if he is already involved; if he is free, she promises him marriage (328: thalamumque ineamus eundem). She hides in a sward at the rim of the clear waters and, peeping at him as he undresses and reveals all, she catches fire (347: exarsit) and feels her eyes ablaze (347: flagrant). A nasty paradigm of “selfish” sex, this lacustrine lady finally forces her lustful way on him, literally joining him to become a single Hermaphroditus (Greek Hermes being Roman Mercury, and Greek Aphrodite being Roman Venus).
Talk about sexual harassment!
This tale of hard-core passion and relentless seduction – like many others before and since – has, like so very much else in Western literature, it ultimate origins in Homer, specifically Book 14 of the Iliad (157-353).
Hera here hatefully and with clear malice aforethought (158-160: στυγερὸς δέ οἱ ἔπλετο θυμῷ. / μεμρμήριξε δ’ ἔπειτα … / ὅππως ἐξαπάφοιτο Διὸς νόον … hateful he [i.e., Zeus] seemed to her heart; she then pondered …how she could deceive the mind of Zeus …) seduces Zeus in order to divert his attention from the war and give her desperate Greeks an advantage over Zeus’ rampaging Trojans. She uses all the premeditated design of a woman determined on success at seduction: a lengthy titivation (170-187) redolent of immortal perfumery, swishing with heavenly fashions and clinking from exquisite jewelry; a patent lie to Aphrodite (188-224) in order to secure her seductive sexual device, the kestos (214: κεστός), which contains “all forms of seduction” (215: θελκτήρια πάντα) like “passion, yearning and sweet-talking allurement for robbing the reason of even the most sensible people” (216-217: … φιλότης … ἵμερος … ὀαριστύς / πάρφασις, ἥ τ’ ἔκλεψε νόον πύκα περ φρονεόντων); and (231-291) shameless sexual bribery of Hypnos (“Sleep”).
Hera is no fool and is wildly successful in her mission: After a build-up of close to 200 lines, Zeus does her in the heated rush of a single line (346) and then – just like a guy, right? – rolls over and goes to sleep (352). The next morning, of course, Zeus never really wanted to have sex last night at all, and, indignantly denying any culpability whatsoever in his own “seduction,” lays full and total blame on Hera for everything: “You had sex with me … and you tricked me …” (… ἐμίγης … καί μ’ ἀπάτησας [Iliad 15.33]).
Space does not permit a continued review of this pervasive erotic typology throughout more than a thousand years of ancient Greek and Roman poetry. In ancient lyric, in ancient drama, in ancient elegy, and surely in ancient life, lovers promised the moon and they promised the sun and they did what birds do and they did what bees do and they did what even educated fleas do.
But all those lovers in classical poetry and popular song are lucky they never did now what they did then, for a proposal of a few years back put forth by a professor of law at a well-known university would kindly have come to our collective rescue from our hopeless and helpless selves. This lawyer seemed to think it was a good idea that oral promises made in the torrid moments prior to “doing it” should be construed as a binding legal contract that enforces payment precisely as stipulated. I’m no lawyer and I’m probably misinformed, but I used to think that the commercialization of sex – whether in cash or kind – in this country was illegal, like in prostitution. But things undergo change so fast these days, and who can possibly keep up?
Am I the only romantic left in this earnest, earnest world of ours? What ever happened to the thrill of ardent pursuit, the joyfulness of amatory play, the adult onus of personal sexual responsibility? I was married to a very sensible woman so I didn’t have too many legal worries on that score, but now that I am single, would I dare date a woman and even hold her beautifully tapered hand without my tape-recording lawyer present at that oh so delicious moment of first touch and …?
Since Salmacis and Hera were both women, come to think of it, they probably need not have feared this kind of legal reasoning. After all – at least from what I can garner in the popular press – the shocking sexist assumption that appears to underlie such thinking as that of the above law professor would seem to claim that only men can seduce. But this is a proposition by which I — a man who many a sad time in his amorous and amatory life has been horribly victimized by the seductive cruelty of lying women — shall elect to be deeply and traumatically offended.
So, what do you think of about all of this? How shall we henceforth do our loving of our lovers – by Hera’s typology or the professor’s typology?