The Greek Slave: naked, chained, but forever pure…

Every fan of cult or schlock cinema has heard of the “nunsploitation” genre, dramas which purport to expose the sleazy activities and atrocious lusts that over-active imaginations desperately hope run rampant inside cloistered religious institutions…

Many of these films were made in Europe, in countries long under the sway of the church and hence far more susceptible to the resentments that foster rebellious genres like nunsploitation. Interestingly, the genre is also big in Japan, even though that’s not a Catholic country; one explanation is that it’s used there as a underhanded way for the East to puncture the pious bubble of the Western nations whose missionaries tried to convert the Japanese to Christianity…

But America has its own tradition of nunsploitation, which goes back to the early part of the nineteenth century. Anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment, expressed by “nativist” groups like the Know-Nothings, set the stage for the 1836 publication of Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, a purported memoir of a young woman’s sexual and emotional mistreatment at the hands of nuns and priests in a Canadian convent. It became a huge bestseller, but it turned out that Maria’s story was completely fabricated by her guardian, an anti-Catholic activist, and a group of ghost-writers, all of whom ended up fighting over the profits of the book. It was revealed that Maria was mentally defective and emotionally unstable due to a childhood injury (she apparently rammed a pencil into her ear), and that she had never been in the convent she was supposed to have written about. Left destitute and discredited, she drifted into obscurity, had a child, married a man who left her, and died at the age of 33 in 1849 after being thrown in jail as a pickpocket.

Even though her story was shown to be fabricated, the book went on to sell 300,000 copies by the time of the Civil War, and as recently as the 1970s, her sensational “claims” have been republished and presented with an aura of legitimacy in modern editions.

Maria Monk appears to have been the perfect victim for predatory men.

The thing that’s interesting is how this trashy book became so widely read in the very strait-laced America of the 1830s. Obviously, its supposed concern for hypocritical outrages made its muted pornography acceptable to genteel readers; though not explicit in the manner of modern smut, I imagine that its restrained intimations of illicit sex behind convent walls were enough to make many readers stir moistly in their breeches or petticoats.

A few years later, in 1847, a statue of a female nude called The Greek Slave became very famous in America, and made its creator, Hiram Powers, the most acclaimed American sculptor of his day.

The slave is a Christian girl captured by the Turks, stripped, chained, and presented on the auction block. Her demure posture and forbearing expression balanced out the obvious titillation factor of this lovely presentation of alluring feminine flesh…

Here was the sculptural equivalent of Maria Monk, a girl still chaste in her heart despite her predicament, her sexually oppressed image presented for the polite delectation of the masses. The sculptor explained what he meant by his creation:

“As there should be a moral in every work of art, I have given to the expression of the Greek slave what trust there could be still in a Divine Providence…with utter despair for the present mingled with somewhat of scorn for all around her. She is too deeply concerned to be aware of her nakedness. It is not her person but her spirit that stands exposed, and she bears it all as Christians only can.”

…with somewhat of scorn for all around her.” (My italics.) Was this a slip of the pen? Did Powers not realize the scorn of the Greek slave could be for the crowds that paid admission to view her? Well, obviously the irony was lost on most people of the time. It became a visual symbol for the abolitionist movement to wipe out slavery in America…and ministers urged their congregations to view the statue at exhibitions. Countless miniature reproductions were sold, and often stood under glass in parlors across the nation.

Personally, I like this sculpture very much, and have ever since I first saw it in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (there are a number of copies of it in different locations); but I knew little about it until I decided to research this post. Despite the verbal sincerity and tremendous skill of its sculptor, it nonetheless strikes me as prurient as it is exquisite; but I don’t hold its prurience against it. Prurience is a part of life, and we deny its hold on our minds at our peril…

We must rather be careful not to wallow in prurience to the exclusion of other things in life.

Even today in America, many prefer their prurience with penitence, or at least the upwardly striving narrative of triumph over adversity in the sleazeball zone. For example, modern memoirs about strippers usually depict them as girls eager to better themselves, often stuffing themselves with education, so that they may rise above their profitable but lowly status in the naughty and nasty lapdance trenches to spiritually triumph as 21st century century equivalents of ever-pure Maria Monks or ever-untouchable Greek Slaves.

People, and not just in America, seem to want to believe that no matter what a woman has experienced with that miraculous vessel of complex cultural symbolism, her naked body, that she remains good at heart.

From stripper and peepshow girl to Oscar-winning screenwriter—how much more uplifting can you get?

From stripper and peepshow girl to Oscar-winning screenwriter—how much more uplifting can you get?

—————-

Writing this post took me to interesting sites, where I got various facts and illustrations. For more information about the Greek Slave and Maria Monk in particular, with links to further material, go here. I found John Absolon’s color painting of the Greek Slave exhibited at London’s Crystal Palace here.

Advertisements

Lamia and the Slutty King of Macedonia!

He met her in 306 B.C. when he defeated the navy of Menelaus in a quest to take Athens away from the tyrants Cassander and Ptolemy. She was one of the spoils of war, once a flute player, now a hetaira (courtesan) in the circle of Menelaus. Her name was Lamia—named after a demon in Greek mythology who ate children and could take her eyes out of their sockets! That should have been warning enough, but some guys like a challenge…

This 1909 painting by Herbert James Draper depicts the demon in the human form of an indolent ancient Greek prostitute.

This 1909 painting by Herbert James Draper depicts the demon in the human form of an indolent ancient Greek prostitute.

His name was Demetrius I, the future King of Macedonia. When he won Athens, he was saluted as The Preserver; later, when he attacked Rhodes with huge engines of war such as his 125 foot tall siege tower known as “Helepolis” (“Taker of Cities”)—he was dubbed “Demetrius Poliorcetes”—Demetrius the Besieger.

And, as he took cities, Lamia took him

A satiric poet nicknamed Lamia a "helepolis" in the way she conquered Demetrius.

Not that he wasn’t ripe for the taking. He was a paradoxical combination of gross sensualist and dedicated, innovative general. Handsome, impetuous, and bisexual, he could pursue young men to the point where one committed suicide by jumping into a boiling pot of water rather than succumb to Demetrius’s lust when cornered in a bathhouse. But over his lifetime, Demetrius was also married five times, had seven children, and was obsessed with chasing female prostitutes, slaves, and freeborn women.

A military innovator, he designed a 180 foot battering ram that needed 1000 men to move!

Lamia was apparently “past her prime” when Demetrius met her, and the bolder members of his court didn’t hesitate to tease him on this count and call Lamia an “old woman.” Once at dinner when Demetrius was praising Lamia to Demo, one of his other prostitutes, complimenting the dessert that Lamia had presented, Demo replied with more than a dash of snark, “My mother will send you something even better, if you sleep with her, too.”

Though he still had his fun with other hetairae hotties like Demo, Chrysis, and Anticyra, Lamia remained his number one babe. According to our ever-handy historian pal Plutarch: “Her beauty was on the wane, yet she captivated Demetrius, though not near her age, and so effectively enslaved him by the peculiar power of her charms that, though other women had a passion for him, he could only think of her.”

A lamia, according to the mythology, was half-serpent and half-woman, but in the way that myths mutate over the years, it would not be a stretch to say that any lamia, or Demetrius’s own personal Lamia, had more than a little bit of spider in her too…

She apparently was more than willing to blackmail members of the court in order to pay for elaborate banquets for her besotted trick. According Plutarch again (from whom I got most of my info, if not my prose), Demetrius’s courtiers would compare the psychic wounds inflicted by their master’s mistress to the scars left by a lion on the body of a warrior: “Our king bears on his neck the marks of a dreadful wild beast called a lamia.” Demetrius was nicknamed “Mythus” behind his back, meaning “Fable,” because they saw him acting out the fairy tale scenario of a man consumed by a monster woman.

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the playwright Aristophanes inferred that the lamia could have a hermaphroditic phallus—like a kind of supernatural, demonic man/woman. Had Demetrius himself ever heard of such a wrinkle to the lamia’s characteristics? It is interesting to ponder, given his sexual ambidexterity…

Plutarch (or Wikipedia, for that matter) does not record the kind of sex that Lamia and Demetrius practiced…but given the heavily symbolic nature of her name (which she probably was not born with, but adopted as her hooker moniker)—and even the joke alluding to her conquering nature as a “helepolis” (what could be more phallic that a siege tower spewing fire and arrows?), it is not too difficult to speculate what stuff might have gone on in the bedchambers of an enraptured Demetrius…

What is certain is that Demetrius I of Macedonia, like other men throughout history, was more than willing to be devoured by a predatory female!

The most infamous example of Lamia’s hold over her Besieger was that she would not go to bed with him at first until he coughed up an outrageous sum…250 talents, which comes to about $415,000, if my calculations of the value of the ancient silver talent (a monetary unit) is correct from my research on the Web.

Actually, I found two versions of this anecdote. According to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Book of Women (another one of the volumes of “esoteric lore” I love to collect, and which introduced me to this story in the first place), Lamia asked for $300,000 and when Demetrius couldn’t afford it (siege towers so eat up a conqueror’s budget!), he put a tax on soap for the Athenians. In Plutarch’s version, Lamia and her hetairae pals apparently said they themselves wanted to buy 250 talents worth of soap (I guess it was hard to scrub away the lingering scents of some of their less appealing clients), and so Demetrius used that as an excuse to rigorously squeeze the citizenry for dough. Once he got the cash, he turned it over to Lamia—$415,000 worth, if my math is right—and if you think modern Americans are pissed off about high taxes, multiply it to the nth power to gauge the Athenian reaction to this outrage.

Well, Demetrius, ole buddy, we hope it was worth it!

These are authentic coins from his reign as King of Macedon (294-288 B.C.)

These are authentic coins from his reign as King of Macedonia (294-288 B.C.)

Maybe Demetrius had developed a taste for the older woman, “yummy mummy” or “MILF” type, from his experience with his first wife, Phila, with whom he tied the knot when he was quite young. The marriage was arranged by Demetrius’s dad, the mighty Antigonus, another brazen general and roaming conqueror to whom Demetrius was very loyal. Phila was much older than Demetrius (how much older I couldn’t determine), but she stuck by him through thick and thin, through his successful campaigns and his failures (there were many of both), through his boy-toys and his lamia ladies. When he finally lost it all and entered the captivity in which he died at fifty-four, she took poison.

It’s not recorded what Lamia thought when her lover no longer had any drachmas for her purse..

A timeless scene: hookers recalling the pleasure of pulling fast ones on their dopier johns.

A timeless scene: hookers recalling the pleasure of pulling fast ones on their dopier johns.

But Plutarch does record one last telling anecdote that reflects the greed of Lamia…

About three hundred years before the time of Demetrius, there was a young fellow in Egypt who lusted for a courtesan named Thonis. Unfortunately, he couldn’t afford her, but luckily one night he had a powerful dream in which he imagined himself hooking up with Thonis. When he awakened, he felt as if he’d had Thonis and was thoroughly satisfied. His sticky post-wet dream sheets, no doubt, were proof of that…

When Thonis heard about this, she wanted to be paid for the young man’s satisfaction. (I guess he just had to go and boast about it.) The Pharoah, named Bocchoris, heard both sides of the story from them, and he told the ersatz “customer” to put the gold that Thonis demanded into a dish, and to jingle the coins in front of her so that she could enjoy the sight and sound of it. That, the Pharoah concluded, was all that she deserved in return: “For fantasy,” he declared, “is no more than the shadow of truth.” Bocchoris decreed that Thonis had gotten the equivalent of what the young man had enjoyed.

In some accounts, Bocchoris is also the guy who drove the Jews out of Egypt and into the desert toward Canaan.

In some accounts, mostly likely erroneous, Bocchoris is also the Pharoah who drove the Jews out of Egypt and into the desert toward Canaan.

According to Plutarch, when Lamia heard this story, she felt the Pharoah was wrong, because Thonis’ desire for the money was not satiated by just seeing it, unlike the young man’s pleasure which had been achieved through a dream.

Lamia was probably one of those avaricious types who would look at a potential customer and think, “What is my money doing in your wallet?” (This is the attitude of the more cold-hearted lapdancers of our modern era.)

Anyway, I have the feeling that Lamia didn’t take poison when Demetrius—once at the command of 98,000 foot soldiers, 12,000 horsemen, and 500 galleys—was captured by his enemies and put in prison. Nope…she probably just moved on to the next trick. "A girl's work is never done!"

—————-

I got my pictures from many sources, but the amazing closeup of actress Tandra Quinn turning into a prehistoric monster in 1953’s The Neanderthal Man is a terrific screen capture from the site Music From the Monster Movies 1950-69. She’s also the lady with the spider, a publicity still from the absurd but entertaining cult classic Mesa of Lost Women.)