Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Reign of the Phallus

1985, 1993 University of California Press edition
Eva C. Keuls
The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens
Original price $18.00, purchase price $3.95
Worn paperback with broken spine

Keuls not only looks at sexism in Athens of the fifth century B.C., but she tries to solve an ancient mystery: who destroyed the herms (phallic statues of good luck) the night before a planned invasion of Sicily?
( http://www.historum.com/blogs/okamido/455-alcibiades.html )

She argues that women, who had relative freedom during the annual rites of Adonis, committed the vandalism as a feminist/pacifist protest against macho militarism.  I find that her conclusions are not well supported-- there are a lot of leaps-- but the book is interesting as a "What if?" and as a gallery of art, mostly from vases, much of it pornographic, if oddly whimsical.  I think she overexaggerates the oppression of women in Ancient Greece, not that it didn't exist, but I don't believe it was as all encompassing as she presents.  (It's as if someone said that women had absolutely no rights or freedom in Victorian England.)  And one leap that especially bothered me was that she assumes that worship of the phallus added to male power but the earlier worship of the "female principle" had no effect on society.  Why?  I'm starting to feel like the mid-1980s led some female writers to a particular form of despair, as if men are naturally bullies and women naturally victims.  (This edition is a slight revision, but mostly of the bibliography and illustrations, so I don't see it as a product of the '90s.)

Ironically, her solution to the mystery is the most plausible aspect of the book.  I still recommend it but reading this book twice is enough for me and I won't be replacing my copy.

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