We tend to look at the past through our own perspective and fail to see the context used by other cultures and eras. It’s like when we read or watch a documentary on how a certain princess was married at a very young age and we freak out, because we obviously think of them as a children. I’m not saying that it's fine to marry off little girls. My point is that for the standards of those times, that was an age when they were eligible for marriage. Back then nobody was scandalized by these traditions. We frown upon this because it collides with our perception and context.
The same happens with sexuality, or more specifically, the sexual act. We assume that this feature of human nature has always been seen the same way as we understand it today. So, whenever we see a depiction of sex or eroticism we understand it, let's say, in "modern ways". Each society and culture, with their own world views, looks back at the past and constructs their own interpretation of it. Take a look at these five artifacts that may look as explicit, or even pornographic, representations of sex but actually had another meaning behind.
Roman Dildos and Phallic Figures
We all have that idea of Roman society as one of the most sexually active of all due to their visual representations of the human body and erotic activities. From the highly explicit mosaics and paintings in Pompeii, to the many nude sculptures and figurines of phalluses and vaginas, we got the idea of this society as a perverted and lustful one, without wondering what they wanted to portray with these visual artifacts. As a matter of fact, several phallic necklaces were used as a sign of manhood, virility, and power. They were passed from soldier to soldier as a token of good luck during battle. Phallic statuettes were also displayed in infant burials to protect the deceased on their way to the underworld. It’s said that Romans believed in some sort of demonic figures who haunted men, so they would put a phallic artifact with strange shapes and motifs to scare those evil spirits trying to harm them.
The Stoivadeion Temple
The island of Delos is probably one of the most important places of Greek Mythology, (well, next to the cave in Crete where Zeus was born), and it is because it’s the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis. Actually, this place was considered some sort of holy land where ancient travelers would go on pilgrimages. Moreover, this land was so sacred that no one could actually conceive, give birth, or die here. Besides Apollo and Artemis’ birth, this place was also dedicated to the god Dionysus with a unique temple guarded by two pillars holding a huge phallus. These also have scenes of the famous Bacchannals. We all know that Dionysus is the god of wine and excess, but sometimes we forget that he was also one of the main representatives of Greek theater. This temple is a symbol of that particular art, not precisely of sexual activities, as it might be thought.
Moche Sex Pottery
The Moche was an ancient Peruvian culture of sailors with an advanced agricultural technique. As it usually happens with Pre-Columbian cultures, many have associated objects and archeological discoveries with Western notions of life and the universe. So, when specialists discovered a set of erotic or highly explicit pottery objects, many assumed they were representations of the Andean sex life. However, archaeologists, historians, and specialists believe that since this society revolved around irrigation (they invented systems to transport water), these pots are a representation of their systems. Because they saw water as a source of life, sexual imagery became symbol of it as well.
Indian civilizations are highly associated with eroticism and sexuality due to the famous and still relevant Kama Sutra. Naturally, every time we see a visual representation of sexual acts, we automatically assume they actually portray sexuality. However, that’s not the case with the carvings of this temple. Built between the 900 and 1130 AD, this nine-square-mile space is decorated with traditional everyday scenes of the women of the time. One of the sections of this place displays images that are considered highly explicit and erotic, so people tend to name it the Kamasutra Temple. However, they actually symbolize a worshipping of life and wellbeing. Specialists also believe these figures were meant to be protective.
The Phallus of Hohle Fels
Finally, this is one of the best examples of how we love to give a sexual meaning to everything. In recent times, archaeologists found pieces of what they thought was a sculpture that dated from about 28,000 years ago in the cave of Hohle Fels in Germany. They gathered the pieces and assembled them, creating a long figure that they assumed was a phallic representation or even a very antique dildo. The news was all over the world about one of the oldest sexual toys of history. Nonetheless, many specialists actually believe it was actually a knap tool, due to the knife markings it has.
For us, many of these ancient things represent sexuality as we conceive it nowadays. And while many of them are related to the sexual act or genitalia, they had a completely different meaning or connotation to the cultures they belonged to. We always look to the past for explanations about our present, transfering our visions of life to other cultures, thinking they actually followed our ideas.
You might find interesting:
The Sacred Role Of Sex And Masturbation In Ancient Egypt
The Culture Trip