Tag Archives: classical literature

The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Stephanie Lynn Budin.

Budin The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity

A few words to describe Budin’s The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity: scholarly, thorough, agonistic, persuasive. As is obvious from the title, the author provides a revisionist approach to a matter that has been taken as factual in many modern histories of the ancient world. Readers should note that she defines sacred prostitution in a very circumscribed fashion, to mean “the sale of a person’s body for sex, where some or all of the money is dedicated to a deity” (261)–of the sort described most notably in Herodotos’ account of Babylon. She does not evaluate the likelihood or possibility of temples as places of sanctioned erotic assignation, or sexual sacraments such as hierogamies, nor does she argue against the sexual element in the worship of the generative powers in antiquity.

According to Budin, the modern expositions of the “sacred prostitution” myth gather their initial steam at the outset of the 19th century, with key inflections occurring later in the contexts of Frazerian anthropology and Neopagan religion. She recounts the origins of skepticism on the issue among scholars studying the ancient Near East, and describes the tenacity of the notion among classicists. 

Most of the book is given over to close examinations and contextualizations of the putative evidence from ancient sources. These are tackled in roughly chronological sequence from Herodotos on. Within the chronology, they are often sorted by geography. This organization permits the collation and comparison of accounts regarding Corinth specifically (260-265), or, say, Heliopolis (276-283). 

In many cases, Budin demonstrates that sacred prostitution has been a matter of misguided inference, and that it actually fails to appear in many texts often-cited to support its reality. In those cases where it does appear, it is unsupported by firsthand testimony, and can be explained in terms of accusational rhetoric and/or quasi-historical fabulation. Even then, the tendency to view it as an actual phenomenon (rather than a rhetorical product) owes more to modern interpreters than to ancient efforts to deceive.

Budin has certainly done her homework. One of the passages I found most impressive and intriguing was her philological re-estimation of the term hierodule. While the prevalence of the sacred prostitution hypothesis has led classicists to understand this term almost uniformly as designating a temple slave with typically sexual duties, Budin demonstrates from scholarship grounded in primary materials that the more likely significance of the term is to describe a former slave who had been manumitted through a mechanism of religious authority (184-189). 

The book is replete with intriguing references. Not only is the immediate topic of great interest, but the whole affair serves as an excellent cautionary example of how a robust historical consensus can be constructed on the basis of shockingly weak primary evidence, to the point where revision like Budin’s is called for.

H P Lovecraft’s Dark Arcadia

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews H. P. Lovecraft’s Dark Arcadia: The Satire, Symbology and Contradiction by Gavin Callaghan, from McFarland.

Gavin Callaghan H P Lovecraft's Dark Arcadia from McFarland

Gavin Callaghan’s Dark Arcadia is a capable and engaging critical treatment of the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. He brings an interesting combination of methods to this material. Recognizing Lovecraft’s professed interest in classical literature, he examines the allusions to antiquity and the possibility of satirical method in HPL’s stories. As a complementary tactic, he invokes psychoanalytic appraisals of Lovecraft’s authorial motives (strongly indulging Jungian approaches) to account for significant tropes in his output.

Although the publisher’s jacket copy praises Callaghan for “ignoring secondary accounts and various received truths,” he is clearly well-read in the existing body of Lovecraft criticism. While he brings some new ideas to the field, his most significant contradiction of “common knowledge” about HPL and his work is to consider the “cosmicism” of Lovecraft’s horror to be ornamental rather than essential. Callaghan asserts that the various instances of cosmic scenarios and phenomena in Lovecraft’s stories (actually rather outnumbered by more conventional gothic horror tropes and contexts) are simply grandiose exaggerations of the author’s familial mise-en-scène, and vehicles for his ambivalent antagonism toward the cultural decadents of his parents’ generation and his own. The “Old” and the “Elder” to which HPL attribute a veneer of deep time were, according to Callaghan, in living memory in the fact of their inspiration. The extra-dimensional hugeness of Lovecraft’s monsters simply reflects the subjective enormity of parental figures.

Callaghan also opposes the notion that there was in any sense a “mellowing” or relaxation of Lovecraft’s social and cultural conservativism in his later fiction. In the interpretive context Callaghan provides, he makes a persuasive case in this regard. Callaghan’s own value-position relative to Lovecraft’s ideological stances is not made especially clear. While he does indict HPL for his racism and misogyny, he also repeatedly implies sympathy for Lovecraft’s right-wing “acuity” (8). Callaghan notes with evident distaste, for example, the fact of “some branches of the modern Wicca movement finding allies and common cause with environmentalist, feminist, luddite, leftist, gay liberation, and other radical organizations” (207), and he refers to “the insanity of the sexual revolution” (8, 58).

The volume is divided into six loosely-interlinked essays, three longer and more general, and three shorter and of narrower scope. It opens with the long “Dark Arcadia,” in which the focus is on Lovecraft’s preference for Roman over Greek antiquity, and his satirical intent directed at the decadent culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapters three and six are the other long pieces, and they address the principal psychological materials that Callaghan discerns in the HPL oeuvre: “Behind the Locked Door” is about the paternal image with classical allusion to the myth of Theseus, and “HPL and the Magna Mater” provides an analysis of the Lovecraftian feminine. The smaller essays address Lovecraft’s use of apiary imagery, his trope of the “moon-ladder,” and an interpretation of the “coda” that concludes “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

Callaghan dedicates a section of his bibliography to an odd assortment of six works on occultism. His insightful remarks on Lovecraft’s antagonism for the Theosophical Society show that this reading was not wasted, but he generally hews to popular derision for modern occultists such as Aleister Crowley. (In this contempt, he probably tracks with Lovecraft, who appraised Crowley as a “queer duck.”) Callaghan’s gloss on the monumental Etidorhpa of John Uri Lloyd is quite superficial, but he deserves a point for mentioning it at all.

Callaghan gives a great deal of attention to a number of Lovecraft’s “lesser” stories and collaborations, such as “The Green Meadow,” “The Moon-Bog,” and “Medusa’s Coil,” suggesting that in those instances where the writer’s technique is less polished, his methods and motives may be more exposed. His insistence on the abiding Puritan character of Lovecraft’s orientation, as well as the polemical intent of stories that seem so focused on evocative mood, is tied together quite convincingly with a study of the psychological conditions that could inspire such polemics. The book is, on the whole, a fascinating read for anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s work. [via]

 

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Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity

You may be interested in Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity, a brand new thematic network associated with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). This new group “aims to bring together scholars who specialize in esoteric phenomena in antiquity, regardless of discipline, in an effort to create a dialogue about shared issues and research while providing the necessary resources to facilitate further study.”

There are a number of people involved in the group, but of those whom I’ve mentioned on occasion previously elsewhere I will mention specifically April DeConick, one of the founding members, and Sarah Veale, the website coordinator. The NSEA coordinator is Dylan M Burns of University of Copenhagan and you can check out more about the founding members on their about page.

Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity

“AncientEsotericism.org is the website for the Network for the Study of Ancient Esotericism (NSEA), a thematic network associated with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). NSEA specializes in the study of esoteric phenomena of the ancient period and provides contact for specialists of ancient esoteric thought, history, and literature.

This website is intended as a resource for scholars and students. While the ancient sources (Gnostic, theurgic, Neoplatonic, Hermetic, etc.) of Western Esotericism possess enormous importance for the development of esoteric currents from the fourteenth century onwards, there remains only a minimum of interaction between the antiquity experts and their (proto)-modern colleagues. The Network therefore is intended to 1) introduce scholarship on ancient esotericism to students of Western Esotericism, 2) serve as a forum in which to exchange ideas, notes and references, etc. outside of other professional bodies which are not concerned with esotericism per se, 3) to coordinate study and workshops with other working groups on the subject, such as the Society of Biblical Literature’s Section on Esotericism and Mysticism in Antiquity, and 4) (and most importantly) to provide a junction of the many resources online that can serve as aids in the study of this fascinating and difficult material (dictionaries, textual corpora, blogs, etc.).

Founding Members of the NSEA include:

Brian Alt (University of Indiana)
Dylan M. Burns (University of Copenhagen)
April Deconick (Rice University)
Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta (University of Groningen)
Nicholas Marshall (Aarhus University)
Joyce Pijnenburg (University of Amsterdam)
Lisa Emma Pizzighella (Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia)
Kocku von Stuckrad (University of Groningen)
David Tibet (Macquarie University)” [via]

 

“The Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity (NSEA) is happy to announce our new website, AncientEsotericism.org. With continually-updated online resources news, and conference announcements, AncientEsotericism.org is intended to be a one-stop location for scholars and students of the field.

What is esotericism in antiquity? This is a broad term that governs the use of secrecy, concealment, and revelation to talk about the really important stuff—from the true identity of the creator of the cosmos (Gnosticism) to the keys to the heavenly palaces (Hekhalot literature) to how to talk about the indescribable One (Neoplatonic mysticism), etc. So if the subject involves arcana celestial and subterrestrial, it’s ancient esotericism. Scholars in various disciplines have struggled to describe a spike in “secret revelations” in Hellenistic and Late Antique religion (Hengel) or the trend towards mythology in the “Underworld of Platonism” (Dillon)—what all this diverse material has in common is an interest in secrecy and revelation for dealing with the divine, and a common reception-history in “esotericism” in the modern era, ranging from Renaissance Platonism to the New Age.

The website is intended provide a guide to the wonderful, but dizzying, online resources available for the study of this vast and difficult body of literature. My goal (in collaboration with Sarah Veale) was to create the website I would have died to see when I was an undergraduate and just starting to get excited about this material, but totally confused about how to go about studying it, what scholarship was already out there, and, most importantly, where to find the most useful primary sources and reference materials on the web. A lot of the resources gathered here will be familiar to you—but perhaps not to your students, or colleagues in an adjoining field, or a friend. So, if someone has come your way who is starting to get into Nag Hammadi, or Iamblichus, or the apocalypses, etc. and asks you for some guidance to what’s out there, please consider making this one of the links you pass on to them. We will do our best to make it worth your while.

We encourage those interested in these fields to submit calls for papers, workshop notices, conference announcements, and other pertinent news and resources for inclusion on the website. You can submit by email or through our online submissions form. Those wishing to get involved with NSEA are invited to contact us for more information.” [via email press release]