Ancient and modern

A sex education from Aristophanes

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

The publication of the new Cambridge Greek Lexicon reminded the comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes of her frustrations at school, when she found that the lexica either translated sexual vocabulary into Latin or otherwise bowdlerised it. So when she read the comic poet Aristophanes, she decided that any word she could not identify meant ‘vagina’. Fair enough, but did her school not teach her that it takes two to tango?

For the sexual organs, the poet’s hysterically anarchic inventiveness draws largely on rustic images of agricultural instruments, plants, animals, birds, and food, with military images from land and sea battles added for the male organs. Many of these terms are matching pairs (e.g. ‘bolt’ and ‘bolt-hole’). So:


The female organ: box, piggy, sucking-pig, fig, pomegranate, myrtle-berry, rose, garden, delphinium, meadow, thicket, grove, plain, celery, mint, fuzz, door, gate, sheath, ring, circle, hole, cave, pit, gulf, hollow, bolt-hole, vent-hole, sea-shell, sea-urchin, conch, sluice-gate, hearth, brazier, hot coals, bowl, dish, boiled sausage, varieties of meat and fish, hors d’oeuvres, milk-cake, barley-cake, pancake, delta, nightingale, thrush, mouse-hole, bird’s nest, swallow, crack, gravy-boat.

The male organ: tip, neck, finger, drinking-straw, thing, flesh, skin, biggy, sinew, equipment, muscle, dried fig, fig petal, mallow stalk, acorn, chickpea, barleycorn, alabaster pot, spear, peg, pole, prow, oar, goad, beam, punt pole, bolt, handle, sword, spit-roast, axe, club, staff, top, token, seal, drill, thong, wing, tail, sparrow, various sorts of cake, foot, rope, lump, soup-ladle.

Then consider the extensive imagery of sexual activity: moving, dancing, pilfering, mixing, doing, ravaging, favouring, riding, bestriding, rubbing, bending, grating, feeding on, de-bugging, baking, roasting, smelting; nautically, plying the sculls, boarding, ramming; agriculturally, threshing, ploughing, breaking up the clods (before sowing), gathering fruit, peeling off, skinning, digging, hoeing. Throw in scatological humour and autoerotic behaviour and one hardly knows where it will all end.

But one cannot deny there is a rich vein of humour to exploit here, and with the new, unblushing lexicon at hand, Ms Haynes is just the person to exploit it.

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