Skip to content

Reading Womanly Sex in Shakespeare, Donne, and the Greek translator(s) of the Song of Solomon?

March 5, 2015

Readers of William Shakespeare and of John Donne have found allusions to the female anatomy and sexuality in imagery and puns. For example, where Shakespeare has this:

scarlet lip William Shakespeare pun

Pauline Kiernan in Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns reads this:

scarlet lip read by Pauline Kiernan

Similarly, John Donne has phrases that appear erotic, and so Robert H. Ray in A John Donne Companion (Routledge Revivals) compiles this:

Velvet glass John Donne pun

This sort of readerly expectation has come with texts much earlier, and especially when the subject matter has to do with bodies and love the images and allusions appear more forthcoming and rather obvious to the audience. For example, in reading the Song of Solomon 8:23, Carey Ellen Walsh in Exquisite Desire: Religion, the Erotic, and the Song of Songs has this:

Song of Songs Pomegranates


Is this a genre thing? Is this what love and sex literature does for us readers? Maybe so.

My BLT-coblogger Suzanne has pointed us all to the fact that, for some readers, “linguistic data has suggested that the Song of Solomon was written in the 3rd century BC, some are looking closer at its structure as a wedding song, in the same genre as Sappho’s songs.”

What is the Song of Solomon goes to Egypt as a Greek lyric despite Aristotelian and Alexandrian notions of τὸ ἑλληνίζειν (or “purest, correct Hellene)? Would the lover there sound much more like Sappho? Would the puns there, the imagery and allusions that readers see and that audiences hear and feel, be more profound?

Don’t the Septuagint translators mix the various ways and words of Greek love, of the Hellene tongue, in playful, sexual ways? Yes, we might read the “erōs (English ‘erotic’) never … in Scripture” way John Piper does, saying this in Desiring God:

Historically, ethicists have tended to distinguish these two forms of love as agape and eros, or benevolence and complacency. Not only is there no linguistic basis for such a distinction, but conceptually both resolve into one kind of love at the root. God’s agape does not ‘transcend’ His eros, but expresses it. God’s redeeming, sacrificial love for His sinful people is described by Hosea in the most erotic terms (11:8-9).” What?! I had to read that three times to even believe I read it. Here is another example of ignoring language. There is a very good reason why erōs (English “erotic”) never appears in Scripture, namely, because it speaks of the physical and sensual. Erōs is not used even for the physical relationship of a husband and wife because their love transcends sex alone.

And yet we might find in these Jewish texts in their Hebraic Hellene renderings a sexual mix of the phrases: ἀγαπᾷ (agapa), φιλίας (philias), and ἔρωτι (eroti).

Today, at the blog Feminism and Religion, Stuart Dean has up a post in which he reads the following connections between the LXX Song of Songs and the Lesbian lyrics of Sappho this way:

It is otherwise inexplicable for the main reason Songs in Greek sounds like Sappho: the explicitness of its female sexuality.  It has been argued Songs 5:5 could be interpreted as “a not-too-cloaked reference to a woman’s orgasm,” but based on the Hebrew that sort of argument has met with considerable pushback.  In the Greek version, however, the door’s bolt is kleithron, a word that, with only a minor tweak in pronunciation, would have likely been recognized as a pun on kleitoris (clitoris)(even with gender and case ending differences) by all but the most prudish or naive of Poppaea’s day.

Such a description of an orgasm would have been taken by Poppaea and other Hellenized Jewish women as an unmistakable legacy of Sappho’s influence (for all the many echoes of Sappho just in Songs 5:2-6 click here).  That is important because though Hellenistic culture generally celebrated the human body as itself a manifestation of the divine (e.g., nudity in Greek athletic competition and in Roman public bathing), Sappho’s description of her own orgasm (S. 31) especially influenced Greek medical thinking on the importance of orgasm to human health.  Eventually this led to the prescription by ancient Greek physicians of masturbation for men and women who for whatever reason did not have partners.

Of course, Dean may be a good bit sloppy with how he characterizes Poppaea. And in a note to the text that his link (S. 31) above provides, where he strangely reads the Septuagint as if translated by New American Standard Version, he has to conjecture:

τοῦ κλείθρου:  This word, neuter kleithron, -ou and the pun on feminie kleitoris, -idos, that it likely plays upon is not attested in Sappho–except a variety of scholars have suggested that the name Sappho gives her ‘daughter,’ Kleis, may have been a play upon the word kleitoris (See S. 132).  One scholar has strongly, but somewhat arrogantly, insisted no such sound play would have been possible, but exactly how Sappho pronounced her Aeolic Greek is a guessing game with no end because there is not enough evidence to end it.  The same scholar somewhat absurdly implies that because kleitoris is not attested until a first century CE medical dictionary it was at that time a neologism.  But dictionaries, then even more so than now, did not create words but rather attest to usage.  Whatever is the case with respect to Sappho’s daughter’s name, it seems unduly skeptical to dismiss the sound play of kleithron, -ou and kleitoris, -idos, and it would seem that would have been in the original written or oral material upon which Songs is based.

And yet he gets (us) readers reading the Hebraic Hellene for ourselves:

ἀνέστην ἐγὼ
ἀνοῖξαι τῷ ἀδελφιδῷ μου,
χεῖρές μου ἔσταξαν σμύρναν,
δάκτυλοί μου σμύρναν πλήρη
ἐπὶ χεῖρας
τοῦ κλείθρου.

And how does anyone hear these? How would those with ears to hear hear this?

A rising in me, a real waking resurrection I am,
An opening to my brotherly-lover,
My hands, dripping with myrrh,
My fingers, with myrrh drenched,
On the handles of
The latch.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: