three pairs of lovers with space

A review of Eros Kalos: essay on erotic elements in Greek art by Jean Marcadé, Geneva, 1962


Subtitled "Essay on Erotic Elements in Greek Art," this superbly illustrated volume deserves a place in every library or collection of material relevant to Greek culture, Greek art, or Greek love. In its illustrations and its text, it goes far towards demolishing the common mistaken view of Greek culture (due ultimately to Winckelmann) which finds calm detachment from things earthly or fleshly as its essential characteristic. This book has been unjustly attacked as pornographic because many of the illustrations of ancient vases, lamps, and reliefs show scenes of sexual pursuit or intercourse. If the test of pornography is a primary appeal to prurient interest without redeeming social value, then this book is not in the slightest degree pornographic. Its text is a moderately popularized essay by a professor of archaeology at the University of Bordeaux, and the illustrations are closely tied in with textual themes, as evidence for or examples of unexpected claims made by the author.

Even what seem at first sight to be mere charming or grotesque genre pieces show up, in Prof. Marcadé's analysis, as relating invariably to Greek religion, in earlier or later forms. For the Greeks, everything had religious significance; and the erotic content of Greek art often relates to erotic rituals deriving from older agrarian fertility cults, assimilated to the worship of Dionysos. The somewhat unconventional view of Dionysos taken in Greek Love is partly confirmed here. Greek love, as between man and boy, is analyzed as largely parallel in practice to heterosexual love, and surprisingly enough its sexual aspects are -- contra Plato -- taken as more pleasing to the goddess of erotic love (Aphrodite) than their denial, advocated by Sokrates, would have been. I take this as independent confirmation of the views advanced in Greek Love, even though Prof. Marcadé refrains from going into any detailed comparison of the changing Greek views of the subject, or into its religious aspects. When I wrote my own book I had not been fortunate enough to read a copy of Prof. Marcadé's contribution. In addition, this book illustrates in detail many themes only touched on in Greek Love, and provides a much needed correction to one error of omission. I had claimed that the sexual position called "sixty-nine" was unknown in antiquity. Marcadé, page 59, provides contrary evidence by illustrating a lamp from the museum of Herakleion, illustrating a man and woman in this practice, a lamp not known to me at the time of my own writing, and apparently not known to Licht or other authors. That only this depiction of the practice has turned up, and that neither Greek nor Latin is known to have contained a word for it, indicates that the technique must have been very rare.

Cavils that can be justly made against this book are few. Proofreading has not been too careful, nor are spellings of the Greek names too consistent. Technical terms are used undefined - not the best practice in a popularization. There are neither index nor footnotes nor bibliography: but the illustrations themselves (identified as to source) provide proofs of some of Prof. Marcadé's claims, as the texts he translates provide others. Owing to layout problems, one has to read carefully or one may miss parts of the text. If -- as I suspect -- the publishers assembled the photographs first and commissioned the text as an afterthought, then Prof. Marcadé's achievement becomes even more of a tour-de-force in unifying such a diverse group. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by J. Z. Eglinton in the International Journal of Greek Love I (New York, 1965), pp. 61-2.