We are all familiar with that old adage, “Sex sells.” We see it in commercials that follow a stampede of bikini-clad women hungrily pursuing a man who just showered in Axe body spray. Paris Hilton epitomizes the proverb as she gyrates half-naked next to a car, covered in suds, and then takes a sensual bite out of a Carl’s Jr. burger. But erotic imagery predates capitalist marketing campaigns by millennia. In the ancient world, sexually explicit pictures were a fundamental piece of fine art – from Greece to Japan to Peru. And, such erotica was not used primarily as a device to promote consumerism like in the Western world today. While its purposes and specific content varied across cultures, erotic art in the public sphere was a universal component of ancient civilizations.
Of these empires, Greece is perhaps the most well known for its use of sexual imagery. In fact, “the phallus might well contend with the Parthenon as the symbol of classical civilization.” To begin with, Athenian pottery is, if not replete with sex, at least far more risqué than the drinkware one might find in today's Bed Bath and Beyond. We have uncovered “several hundred explicit pictures [sic]… Ejaculation, urination, excretion, penetration [sic], oral and anal sex, homosexual intercourse, bestiality and what the courts describe as 'penetration with instruments' are all depicted, along with 'normal' group sex.” In other words: pornography meets pottery. Similarly, on the Greek island of Delos, historians have also discovered giant “marble phalluses, each several meters high,” erected (no pun intended) in the sanctuary of Dionysus.
The Greeks did not just depict heterosexual copulation. In fact, the “world’s oldest erotic graffiti… [is] gay.” Dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.E., archaeologists found two limestone carvings on the island of Astypalaia. The first of these “features two penises beneath the name ‘Dion’… [while the] second is an inscription that reads: ‘Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona.’” Behold: 5th century “locker room talk.”
After the Greeks came the Romans, who aped many elements of their predecessor’s culture, including sexual imagery. Phalluses abounded. “Citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum believed penises provided protection, prosperity, and good luck, and [they] incorporated them into everything from furniture to oil lamps.” But, Roman artists also pushed the boundaries with images depicting bestiality and hermaphroditism. The Gabinetto Segreto, or Secret Cabinet, contains a carving that depicts “a satyr in flagrante delicto with a female goat, her cloven feet pressed against his chest as she gazes at him fondly.” (Bow chicka wow wow.)
Furthermore, “it is believed that there were hundreds of [hermaphrodite sculptures]” in ancient Rome. One such sculpture, known as Sleeping Hermaphrodite, appears to be a Venus figure from behind, “but the front side reveals something unexpected, a surprise originally intended as a joke at the viewer’s expense.” (The unexpected surprise was a penis.) Apparently, "sculptures like this filled the homes and gardens of wealthy people… [because they] were seen as light amusements, signifiers of good taste.”
But we would be remiss to focus exclusively on Western erotica, when so much of it crosses continental divides. Like the Athenians, the Moche people of Peru (forebears of the Incas) adorned their pottery with sexually explicit embellishments. These images were “typically rendered as free-standing three-dimensional figures on top, or as part of, the vessel. As well as being works of art, the sex-themed vessels are also functional clay pots, with… a spout, typically in the form of a phallus, for pouring.” A variety of other scenes are shown, too, from fellatio to masturbation to bestiality. Hypotheses abound as to the purpose of this imagery; it is often viewed as “a representational catalog of the sexual practices of the Moche people, didactic objects intended to demonstrate methods of contraception, conveyors of moralizing content, reflections of Moche humor, or as portrayals of ritual or ceremonial acts,” although the “latter theory has received the most support to date.”
On the other side of the world in Egypt, we find the Turin Erotic Papyrus, – the “world’s first men’s magazine,” according to some – dating from “sometime in the Ramesside Period (1292-1075 B.C.E.).” 12 images are illustrated, “each with a different sexual position” and each displaying male and female genitals “full frontal.” Additionally, “…The events take place indoors and the room is equipped with the necessary furnishings to enhance an erotic atmosphere. The sistrum, the rattle especially devoted to Hathor, Goddess of love, has also been brought. The jars are full of wine or beer, and careful search reveals objects that may add to the pleasure anticipated.” There is no consensus as to the purpose of this papyrus, though to be sure, it is widely agreed to be a fine work of art.
To the East, in Japan, we find Shunga – erotic prints, literally translating to “springtime pictures” – dating back to the 8th century B.C.E. These prints “were produced and sold either as single sheets or – more frequently – in book form, called enpon.” Shunga were a more specialized form of ukiyo-e style woodblock printing. In this process, the “image is first designed by the artist on paper and then transferred to a thin, partly transparent paper. Following the lines on the paper, now pasted to a wooden block usually of cherry wood, the carver chisels and cuts to create the original in negative – with the lines and areas to be colored raised in relief. Ink is applied to the surface of the woodblock. Rubbing a round pad over the back of a piece of paper laid over the top of the inked board makes a print.” Shunga were purchased for several reasons: entertainment, to foster sexual education, and as part of a feudal wedding ritual.
Shunga found its roots in similar erotica from ancient China some centuries prior (and beyond), “spanning from the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A. D.) to the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911).” Experts advise that these images “should not be considered crude or pornographic, instead representing harmony with the Taoist philosophy that thrived in China before communist rule and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution… Taoism sees sex as a path to happiness and longevity.” (During the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), such imagery was heavily censored.) Sexually explicit art from this region ranged from paintings to porcelain figurines.
Finally, we travel to India, home of the 2nd century Kama Sutra. A millennium later,“…The Chandella kings (950 – 1050 A.D.) built one of the finest groups of temples in India, depicting erotic positions, at their capital Khajuraho.” The temples were places of worship for both the Hindu and Jain religious traditions. Kama, or the pursuit of pleasure, is a fundamental component of Hinduism in particular. The Khajuraho temple images “show passionate interactions between humans along with changes that occur in the human bodies.” Again, historians disagree about the role of this erotic imagery: “One group argues that the old kings lived in obscene luxury and that they used these for excitement. Another group thinks that it was part of sexual education in ancient India… Since these sculptures are limited to the outer walls of the temples, some people interpret them as a symbolic gate to reaching God.” Perhaps from our current vantage point, the intended purpose is irrelevant. Perhaps it is simply enough to appreciate the images as great works of art.
One thing is clear: sex is the great unifier among cultures. Only relatively recently in the Western world has it come to be considered as taboo or offensive. It’s not hard to imagine that scenes depicted in the Gabinetto Segreto or the Turin Erotic Papyrus would affront the delicate modern sensibilities that pervade the current zeitgeist. Though our social mores are not as strict as the Puritans and pilgrims (see: Carl’s Jr. advertisements), we are certainly more buttoned-up when it comes to our cups, our garden decorations, and our places of worship. What might be gained if we took a leaf out of the Moche’s book (or the Japanese, or the Athenians, and so on) and removed our own proverbial fig leaf? What cultural shifts might occur if the private activities of our bedrooms and porn sites became mainstream fodder for our art, and even adornment for our domestic instruments?