Eroticism and Ancient times seem like the right combination of words to make a sentence. We’ve explored previously how the Ancient Egyptians had the idea of erotic art for their own enjoyment, which can be seen as the first pornographic evidence in humanity’s history, or how the ancient Romans used phallic figures as protection and fertility symbols but, at the same time, how they really explored their sexuality, let’s say, in a free way. All in all, depending on the civilization, sex and its imagery have shaped our own modern conceptions of eroticism, but at the same time, we still try to force our understanding of sexuality to their way of living or thinking. As for the subject we’re dealing with today, I always found extremely interesting how history always shows us another face of things we thought to be certain.
We all grew up with the classic tales of the famous, and mistranslated, Arabian Nights or the most accurate translation, One Thousand and One Nights. While this text has given us endearing stories and characters such as Aladdin and Sinbad, many choose to ignore, or are unaware of, the highly erotic tone of these stories. This shows the conception of sexuality and the importance it had in Arab cultures and their everyday life, despite the ideas we have nowadays about them being an extremely conservative society where sex and enjoyment are forbidden. In fact, these types of texts expose the relationship sexuality and eroticism had with religion and spirituality.
Besides the classic story of Scheherazade and her one thousand and one tales, or the famous Kama Sutra, there’s another text, the Arabic sex manual known as The Perfumed Garden, rescued in the nineteenth century by the English translator and orientalist Richard Francis Burton. This explorer is who we should thank for presenting to an English speaking world the tradition of oriental literature, and more importantly, for showing us the reaches of eroticism without our prudish standards. Burton was very interested in sexuality, and even his writings and records about his explorations were highly controversial for the openness with which he expressed his interest in studying the subject.
The story includes countless explicit stories of the ars amatoria, which are thought to have functioned as guidelines of how both men and women should perform and behave in the sexual act. Another important fact this text provides is the entertaining intention and essence of sex, meaning that it's more than just a duty or for reproductive purposes. Sex was understood as a pleasurable activity to enjoy.
Burton referenced his translation not only to the original text, but also to an earlier French interpretation. Now, he might have been quite open about his intention of showing the role eroticism and sexuality played in the development of these cultures, but still, his version is quite prudish compared to the French text. The latter includes a whole chapter dealing with homosexual practices and pedophilia, which the English translator deliberately excluded, thinking these absolutely went way too far, even for his moral standards. Years later he changed his mind and thought about publishing an extended version, The Scented Garden, including this controversial chapter, but unfortunately he died before he could even start working on it.
What is important to understand about this text is that, besides what we could think about it being a forbidden or even a secret pornographic manual, this was religiously approved and promoted as God’s gift to humanity. In that way, unlike many religions and cultures that think of sex as only a reproductive tool, far from the enjoyable pleasures it provides, for Arabic cultures pleasure was an indispensable feature in spirituality and entertainment.
For more stories about the history of sexuality take a look at these: