When I was teaching at the University of California, San Diego, one of the more popular courses that I offered during the summer months was based on antiquity’s love literature. Titled originally “Sex and Romance in the Ancient World” and then later as “Love, Sex, and Desire in the Ancient World,” and with the word “sex” in the title, it had quite a draw. The course was about far more than sex, of course. It was an examination of the conceptions and expressions of love in several ancient cultures, specifically Sumer, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Rome and India. The students came to realize that, although certain basic instincts of human nature are universal, many ideas are culturally determined and reflect important cultural assumptions very different from our own.
An integral component of the course involved exercises in primary source analysis. We engaged in an interdisciplinary study using a variety of literary genres including lyric poetry, love letters, philosophical dialogue, didactic poetry and the romance novel. The course introduced a wide range of topics for discussion including the split between physical and spiritual love, philosophic ideals of “love” and “beauty,” perceptions of appropriate gender roles, physical ideals of female and male beauty, the different conceptions of hetero- and homosexual relations, and the conventions of literary form.
I’ve always thought the course could be converted easily into a highly-readable book designed for the public, and I kept my notes stashed away until an opportune time came. Well, I am happy to announce that I’ve recently dusted those notes off and have begun writing a book based on this course, tentatively titled Love, Sex, and Desire in the Ancient World. In the process, I have been expanding somewhat and diving deeper into the topic to help flesh the book out. My working layout of chapters is as follows:
- Love at the Dawn of Civilization
- Brides of Babylon
- Egyptian Love Poetry
- Biblical Erotica
- Aphrodite and Eros
- Love in Philosophy
- Pastoral Poetry
- The Art of Love
- The Ancient Romance Novel
- Male and Female in Persia
- The Kama Sutra
- Chinese Technique
The first two chapters deal with ancient Mesopotamia, the next one Egypt, the next Israel. Chapters 5-7 are on Greece, Chapters 8 & 9 on Rome. The 10th chapter on Persia will be completely new (never covered in the course). India and China will conclude the book. Last month I completed a draft of the first chapter on ancient Sumer and am now in the midst of the second chapter on Akkadian love literature, which I covered only superficially in the original course.
I think you’ll find the chapter on Sumer quite interesting. After a brief historical introduction, I consider the roles of men and women in Mesopotamian society, courtship and marriage customs, tales of lovers in myth, and the sacred marriage rite involving the lover deities Inanna and Dumuzi.
I’ll keep you posted on my progress and share with you some excerpts from the book to keep your appetite whetted. If you have any questions about the book, or have recommendations for reading or elements to be included, feel free to post below.