Triumph over the taboo – images exposing what’s hidden but desired in the Australian Museum collection.
Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.
Love-making is a basic form of social intercourse. It glues the most intimate relationships and family. It’s like oxygen and fire for love and passion. It possesses us as much as the need for food and water.
Yet, biological and social roles of love-making are disparate. Its biological function is procreation; but its social function is to form close relationships, to bond and reaffirm, as well as pure enjoyment – fully organic and simple. Erotic intercourse tends to be private because it’s intimate and involves a degree of exposure – emotional and physical.
For most of human history love-making produced significant tensions: where social and emotional needs had to be tempered by a prospect of various sanctions and often unwanted pregnancy. For countless generations many women (and some men) carried a heavy burden of biological stress and stigma as the price for their passion. Only modern contraception quite recently lessened this quandary, at least on the biological side of dilemma.
It’s not surprising that love-making became an important ingredient of social organisation and institutions. And so, this simple pleasure was wrapped in exclusions and restrictions; it served as rewards and privileges, dressed in various moral norms and religious prohibitions. It caused endless frustration and suffering as well as exploitation, predominantly of women and children.
Moral and religious sanctions of erotic intercourse and its prestige value produced situations at time bizarre, absurd and phantasmagorical. Biblical King Solomon, an iconic patriarch of Judaism and Christianity, claimed to have 700 wives and 300 concubines. At the other extreme Catholic priests are bound to celibacy (abstaining from sex), although (surprise surprise) many are not very strict, like a proverbial dog stealing sausage in darkness. Some, socially and emotionally troubled souls, abuse minors or women under a watchful eye of bishops and cardinals. And many pontiffs were renowned for their sexual adventures – some would make decent sex-workers blush.
Jewish, Christian and Hindu scriptures are full of sexual stories and eccentric tales. Absalom challenged his father King David by 'sleeping with' all his concubines, publicly enough – separated from a public gaze by tent’s canvas. Draupadi, in Hindu epic Mahabharata, married five Pandava brothers. The Song of Songs by Solomon is a famous poetic celebration of erotic love. Refined love-making is prized and instructions given in Hindu work The Kama Sutra (c.200-400 BC) and Arabic The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight (12th century AD) – to name just a few.
Once considered obscene (and banned in many countries) Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence (1928) illustrates how love is only possible with a vigorous sexual engagement. The famed Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955) –another explicit erotic novel – shows a power of sensual passion, heightened by forbidden (and improper) sexual liaison.
But the most profound role of love-making must be in Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh – probably the oldest written story of all times. A main character Enkidu is seduced by Shamhat – a woman skilled in the art of erotic services – and through a protracted period of love-making Enkidu became humanised!
Erotic art is found in all cultures, big and small, ancient and present, indigenous and foreign. My short survey of our collections shows examples form cultures known for their erotica, including Palaeolithic figurines from Europe, ancient Peruvian pottery, Japanese ivory and Balinese painted narratives.
We may search for the meaning of individual pieces, but many could fulfil multiple functions, ranging from sacred to profane, from dignified intercourse in the story of Adam and Eve through to profane as it’s depicted in the Balinese wedding of Ketut Subaya. And some pieces could be the ordinary paraphernalia which remind us of love-making as an essential component that shaped human culture and habits for a few million years - and is still going.
I trust that young people who independently surf the internet and who visit the Australian Museum website in quest for inspiration and knowledge would be familiar with the mechanics of sexual intercourse and will not be surprised, confronted or offended by the material in this blog post.
BC (or BCE) – means Before Common Era, and indicates the years counted back from the first year of the Western Calendar. For example, in 30 BC Rome conquered Egypt and Cleopatra took her own life. AD – means Common Era.