‘Genitalia of the Sea’: Seafood and Sexuality in Greek Comedy

in Mnemosyne
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Fish play a sizable role in the remains of ancient Greek comedy. Although scholars have proposed various cultural, economic, and generic explanations for comedy’s interest in sea creatures, they have not adequately considered the importance of seafood’s relationship to obscenity and sexuality. Greek comic poets correlate a range of sea creatures with sex and sexuality in imaginative and humorous ways, making obscene jokes about courtesans and aphrodisiacs, as well as creating double entendres for male and female genitalia. This study provides a lexical resource for Greek comedy’s numerous seafood fragments, uncovering many neglected ancient sexual jokes and offering fresh insight on comedy’s interest in sea creatures.

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  • 2

    Murphy 195997.

  • 4

    Davidson 19973-20; cf. Davidson 1993 53-66. Wilkins (2000b 293-304) also studies fish as a “Luxurious Food in Comedy” though he distinguishes the fish which “attracted the gourmets of ancient Athens and commanded high prices” from the “anchovies sardines and small fish” which everyone could afford (2000b 300). Wilkins’s and Davidson’s works are much more complex and compelling than a brief overview can communicate. Even when their studies do not directly inform my analysis they have been very influential.

  • 5

    Cf. Chrysippus fr. 667svf 3.167.

  • 7

    Henderson 1991xv.

  • 9

    Henderson 1991xiv.

  • 12

    Henderson 1991142.

  • 13

    Olson & Sens 2000245. Also K-A ad loc. note the sensus obscoenus of σπατάγγης in this fragment.

  • 16

    Cf. West 1974134. Nickel (2003 290) notes the possible “obszönen Sinn” and Gerber (1973 105-9) explains that the fragment most likely has a sexual meaning to receive many penises “in one’s body”. Da Cunha Correa (2002 87-88) suggests that Archilochus may be using eels in a homoerotic context. Many thanks to Joshua Katz who pointed me to this article with regrets for having missed it in his own piece.

  • 18

    Loraux 199125within a larger discussion on Heracles’ contradictions. Cf. Athenaeus (13.556e-f). Another obvious comic possibility for Heracles’ representation at the feast is his association with feasting and gluttony.

  • 21

    Henderson 1991119.

  • 24

    Hordern 2004159.

  • 25

    Cf. Wilkins 1993b68.

  • 27

    Dalby 200314. Cf. Heraclides of Tarentum (fr. 65 Guardasole ap. Athen. 2.64a).

  • 29

    Lawrence 1991312. There is also a more esoteric connection that could potentially have linked the general term ἰχθῦς with male genitalia. Eisler (1921 261) suggests that Pythagoreans recognized a special connection between the phallus and fish. Using the practice of number symbolism known as isopsephy Pythagoreans added up the numeric value of letters in a given word to learn mathematics as well as to look for relationships between words. One significant relationship they found was between φαλλός (21+1+11+11+15+18=77) and ἰχθῦς (9+22+8+20+18=77) both of which add up to seventy-seven. Although Pythagorean philosophy was popular enough to be satirized frequently in Greek comedy it is difficult to know whether this connection would have been familiar to a broader audience. The fact that the Greeks used their alphabet as their number system though suggests that it is not entirely implausible.

  • 30

    Henderson 1991129-130. There is a large body of work on the relationship between the phallus and the pous and polypous. Watkins (1978 231-235) offers a useful discussion on these associations as they relate to Hesiod’s Works and Days 524 suggesting that the ἀνόστεος (‘boneless one’ often interpreted as an octopus) is a kenning for the penis.

  • 32

    Cf. Rosen 1995135n. 20.

  • 34

    Henderson 1991178.

  • 37

    Henderson 199171n. 9.

  • 45

    Davidson 199720.

  • 49

    Henderson 1991132.

  • 50

    Cf. Henderson 1991134-135.

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