ElAnt v4n2 - Fear of Sex in Nonnus' Dionysiaca

Volume 4, Number 2
April 1998


R.F.Newbold ,
Department of Classics
University of Adelaide,
SA 5005,
Email: rnewbold@arts.adelaide.edu.au

This article begins with a consideration of five rapes that occur in Nonnus' poem, three committed by Zeus, two by Dionysus. It will then consider other incidents and material, and argue that the psychology which informs the poem contains a large element of fear of sex, specifically, of male intercourse with women. Women in the poem, too, have reason to fear sex when it is threatened or imposed by rape, as it often is, 1 but it is the problem from the male perspective that Nonnus illuminates. The psychopathology on display is to be found in perversions or paraphilias such as fetishism and voyeurism, which are overwhelmingly the province of males.

The first episode, Zeus' abduction and rape of Europa (1. 46-144, 321-351), is the mildest illustration of our topic and would hardly be significant if it did not contain some features that occur elsewhere. Having become a bull to entice Europa to clamber aboard his back, transferring her from her native Sidon to Crete and ignoring her laments, he assumed the shape of a young man, 'touched her limbs, loosed first the bodice about the maid's bosom, pressed as if by chance the swelling circle of the firm breast, kissed the tip of her lip, then silently undid the holy girdle of unwedded virginity, so well guarded, and plucked the fruit of love hardly ripe'. 2 In this perfunctory account, what is notable is the tentative element suggested by the pseudo-accidental touch of the breast of the terrified virgin, alone and far from home, by the powerful and sexually experienced male. Possibly this is a mark of respect but, as material below suggest, more likely indicative of something else.

Zeus impregnated Persephone with Zagreus, Dionysus' first incarnation (5. 565-571, 586-621, 6. 1.155-168). This episode likewise contains features which, while not in themselves exceptional, take on a greater significance when considered alongside further evidence. Consummation is preceded by a period of spying upon her (5. 568-621), when the insatiability and turmoil of the voyeur are emphasised (5. 587-590). Zeus was particularly attracted to her breast: 'the gaze of lovemaddened Zeus was enslaved by the lovely breast of the goddess' (5. 592-593: cf. 605). Her mother Deo, who was aware of the danger, had hidden Persephone underground in Sicily and placed a serpent on either side of the entrance of the bedchamber. Changing into a serpent, Zeus lulled the guardian serpents to sleep, entered the room and 'licked the girl's form gently with wooing lips. By this marriage with the heavenly dragon, the womb of Persephone swelled with living fruit' (6. 162- 164). The sexuality of this encounter is contained not so much in the oral nature of the impregnation (as if licking was sufficient) but in the choice of Zeus' transformation and the way emphasis is placed on the serpent's penetration of the dim and guarded bedchamber, 'rolling in many a loving coil through the dark to the corner of the maiden's chamber'.

The rape of Semele is likewise preceded by a prolonged voyeuristic episode (7. 190-221, 255-279), where a sense of violation is conveyed by the intense looking and insatiable feasting of the eye upon the naked body of the bathing maiden: 'but the bosom most of all and the naked breast seemed to be armed against Cronides, volleying shafts of love. All her flesh he surveyed, only passed by the secrets of the lap unseen by his modest eyes' (7.263-266). Notable here is not only clear focus upon the breasts but explicit aversion of the eyes from the genitals in a manner that call attention to them, makes them a locus of concern. Although the description of the eyes as 'modest' ( aidemenoisi ) may seem odd, it refers to the shame-sensitivity typical of voyeurs and, here, to the refusal or reluctance learn of the 'secrets of the lap' ( ‘rgia k“lpou ). Gaining access to Semele in Thebes, Zeus took the form of a bull-headed man, lion, panther, and young bridegroom with hair bound by snakes, vine and ivy, premonitions of Dionysus likely to increase her terror but otherwise unnecessary and not explained by Nonnus. What follows presages the serpentine associations of Dionysus and the oral nature of his boon to humanity, but there is also something indirect and coyly modest about the account, as if Nonnus, as in the case of Zeus and Europa, is more at ease with metaphorical descriptions of consummation: Zeus as 'a writhing serpent crawled over the trembling bride and licked her rosy neck with gentle lip, then slipping into her bosom girdled the circuit of her firm breasts, hissing a wedding tune, and sprinkled her with sweet honey instead of the viper's deadly poison. Zeus made a long wooing, and shouted '" Euoi !" as he begat his son who would love the cry. He pressed love-mad mouth to mouth, and beaded up delicious nectar,that she might bring forth a son to hold the sceptre of nectareal vintage' (7. 328-340). There follows an allegorical description of Semele's bedchamber sprouting life in sympathy with the impregnation and revelation by Zeus of his identity and the glory she will enjoy (7. 344-368). Although the serpentine and oral elements in the accounts of the rapes of Persephone and Semele can be explained as typical of Zeus' metamorphic and sadistic modus operandi and premonitory of Dionysus, the distancing and incorporation inherent in the preceding voyeur episodes, the preliminary binding, explicit in the case of Semele, the focus on the breast and the adoption of disguises by Zeus in order to consummate his desire suggest an unease, to put it no more strongly at this stage, with genital sexual encounters. There is something more than convention and tradition about Nonnus' descriptions.

Dionysus' first heterosexual encounter is with the nymph Nicaea. He spied upon her bathing and followed her, enjoying in particular the sight of her neck when tresses move to reveal it (16. 11-18). After some rather masochistic, self-abasing fantasies (16. 21-45), Dionysus offers his bed to her. She mocks his effeminacy (16.165, 170-174) and threatens to fetter him (160-162) but, unfamiliar with wine, slaked her thirst excessively and passed out. Whereupon 'Dionysus with shoes that made no noise crept soundless to his bridal, placing his footsteps with care. He came near the girl: and softly with gentle hand undid the knot which guarded the girdle of innocence, that sleep might not let the maiden go' (263-269). Then follows allegory, the earth sprouting with new vegetation (270-280) and emphasis on the stolen, dream-like quality of the experience (281-282). A satyr commends the use of wine to Pan to enhance the success of his 'nuptials never consummated' and Pan rejoices in the discovery of such an aid (312-340). As a tree points out to Dionysus, Nicaea was not susceptible to wooing, so that the more brutal and deceitful methods of his father were more appropriate (231-243). Dionysus' rape of Nicaea is quasi-necrophiliac, offering a reprisal-free sense of control and with the sadistic accompaniment of defloration. In Book 15, it is Nicaea's prowess as a hunter and scorn for the marriage bed that is emphasised (169-203). She killed the infatuated oxherd Hymnus. While such a formidable, Amazonian figure clearly needed to be approached with care, her masculinity, taken with Dionysus' effeminacy, may in fact have reduced the threat she posed to a sexual novice unsure of his sexuality. This comment will be elaborated below.

Dionysus' rape of the nymph Aura in Book 48 has similarities to that of Nicaea. A marriage- and Dionysus-scorning hunter, she is deflowered in a drunken coma. But there are some differences. She is more closely associated with Artemis. Her masculinity receives more emphasis. 3 She is tied up while asleep and her reaction to her loss of virginity and impregnation is more lethal and desperate than Nicaea's. Given her ferocity, it was a wise precaution for Dionysus to complete his sense of mastery by binding her as well: 'Then Iobacchus seeing her on the bare earth crept up noiselessly, unshod, on tiptoe and approached Aura where she lay.With gentle hand he put away the girl's neat quiver and hid the bow in a hole in the rock, that she might not shake off Sleep's wing and shoot him. Then he tied the girl's feet together with indissoluble bonds, and he passed a cord round and round her hands that she might not escape him: he laid the maiden down in the dust, a victim heavy with sleep ready for Aphrodite, and stole the bridal fruit from Aura asleep.on the ground that hapless girl heavy with wine, unmoving, was wedded to Dionysus' (48.621-634). Nonnus once again comments on the dreamlike qualities of the experience and transfers the orgasmic pleasure to the environment, where hills and trees dance(639-641).

The five episodes illustrated above clearly contain some paraphiliac elements but they may not be sufficient to prove any deep fear of sex, in that they could be said to be required by the mythological tradition and by the logic of a narrative steeped in literary convention. Although one of the hallmarks of infantile and anxiety- producing notions of sexuality, viz. the blending of sex and violence (or, to put it another way, of aggressive and erotic drives), is clearly present, this may be thought to be unexceptionala and part of an attitude that if persuasion fails, rape should follow. However, both the Nicaea and Aura episodes contain clear references to the primal scene, a major source of such a notion 4 . The description of Dionysus' wrestling with Pallene (48.124-171, another somewhat masculine woman, and compared with Atalanta, 111,182) in order to win her as a bride is patently erotic, e.g., 'He grasped a rosy palm, and felt comfort for his love as he squeezed the snowwhite hand. He did not wish so much to give the maid a throw as to touch the soft flesh, entranced with his delightful task' (132-136). Erotic too is the description of Dionysus wrestling Ampelus (10. 339- 372), e.g., 'Bacchus was in heaven amid this honeyed wrestling, and love gave him a double joy, lifting and lifted' (343-346). The salience in the Dionysiaka of sado-masochistic scenes and fantasies of whipping and being whipped, binding and being bound, may betray a desire to be treated like a helpless child. They may not be overtly sexual (if one discounts references to desire being whipped up by the cestus or strap of Aphrodite, e.g., 7.203-204, 33. 198, 42. 438) but they comprise a current in a stream of fantasy that is not only characterised by infantile notions of sexuality, but fed by infantile anxieties thereof. 5

There are three other episodes involving Indians which give considerably more substance to the idea that males fear genital sex in the Dionysiaka , and two of these raise the sceptre of the phallic woman, supposedly the fantasy at the core of all other paraphiliac fantasies. 6 The dress of a slain Bacchant is pulled up as she falls and rolls on the ground. The Indian slayer is seized by necrophiliac longings; 'he would have mingled with her in love' (35.35; cf. 43), gazes upon her naked limbs, fondles her breast and laments that he could not restore her to life (35.21-78). A no-rape edict from his commander, Deriades, was the ostensible reason for the non- consummation of his desire but the conflict between fear and desire within the Indian is clearly brought out. Although the language is metaphorical, the missiles that emanate from the Bacchant's thighs and breasts convey a degree of perceived hazard that goes beyond disobeying orders.

In an earlier incident, an Indian caught a virgin Bacchant by the hair, forced her to the ground and 'with lust-maddened hands unsealed her belt, wild with hope: for suddenly with head erect a serpent crept from her bosom, near neighbour to the groin, and darted at the enemy's throat, and about his neck twined a circling belt', whereupon he fled (15.75-86). One does not normally think of breast and groin as near neighbours physically but, psychologically, as we shall see, the description is tenable. The serpent has an obvious character of phallic saviour from rape but it has a choking, constricting role that hints at something else to be feared in heterosexual intercourse. In a later incident, the Indian warrior Morrheus' attempt to rape the Amazon-like Chalcomede is thwarted by a serpent that 'darted out from her immaculate bosom to protect the virgin maid, and curled around her waist.Morrheus trembled for fear when he .saw this champion of unwedded maidenhood. The coiled defender terrified the man of war; he curled his tail round the man's neck.and many a snaky shaft came darting poison against him, some darting through her uncoifed hair, some from her snake- protected loins, some from her breast, wild warriors hissing death' (35. 204-222). The image of the phallic woman, at least as perceived by Morrheus, is even stronger here than in the previous example but present too is the idea of the constricting serpent. At any rate, this serpent is no ordinary serpent and its reward will be extraordinary. Previously Thetis had appeared to Chalcomede to assure her that, if Morrheus threatened her with rape, she had a serpent that would protect her maidenhood. For this service Dionysus would pay it the signal honour of catasterism, to shine in heaven as 'an everlasting herald of your untouched maidenhood', equal to the constellations of Draco and Opiuchos (33. 346-387).

According to psychoanalytic theory, the infant, whose primary identification is with the mother, has to overcome the conflict involved in abandoning that identification without feeling threatened, at this stage narcissistically feeling that loving someone must mean being the same as them 7 . This challenge is overcome by most people, more or less, but various events can disturb the mother-child relationship to make resolution very difficult for some people, particularly males, who have to cope with the realisation that they are more different from their mother than they first thought. The anatomical difference of a woman not having a penis is a potential source of anxiety because it is clear evidence of non-identity with the mother. At the same time, the male child's awareness of his penis becomes the precious symbol of separation and individuation. It becomes an impassioned object. The initial response of many an infant male is vehement denial that the mother in particular and women in general lack a penis, that they have been 'castrated', that they have been reduced to a state that he could come to. 8 Hence the fantasy of the phallic mother or woman, a fantasy that can remain in the unconscious long after the individual acknowledges that women do not have penises. In the primary process cognition of infants, the contradictory concepts of phallic and non-phallic women, castration and non-castration, easily co-exist, and it is a way of maintaining identity with the mother. This fantasy is characteristic of the preoedipal, mother-child dyad stage of development (1 to 3 years old) that precedes the mother-father-child oedipal triad stage.

The 'castration' to be feared comes not from the vaguely comprehended father with a knife but from the mother making the infant like her, submerging his sense of identity in hers. Much separation anxiety in Nonnus revolves around the figure of the serpent, which has an incorporative as well as a phallic aspect (see below).

Fetishism arises when a substitute object takes the place of the 'missing' female phallus, serving to reassure the child and later adult that women are not really that different from men and can be safely approached. They are not such unknown territory. When the fetish is a separate object, like a shoe or a type of material like fur or leather (the feel of which may recall infantile closeness and intimacy with the mother), it appears to deliver control of the problematic missing phallus and assuage the anxiety that surrounds it. Fetishism also occurs when a part of the body (breast, thigh, hair, neck) is overvalued, so that it becomes more important than the whole. Breast fixation in Nonnus (see below) is sufficiently marked to assume a fetishistic status and by transference upwards breasts can assume phallic properties, apparent in the episode of the Bacchants and the would-be Indian rapists. While such fetish theory may seem bizarre, 9 it is no more bizarre than other infantile ideas, such as the spontaneous generation of life and the omnipotent child warrior, both clearly present in the Dionysiaka . There is considerable clinical evidence that at least some children reason along these lines and the theory happens to fit the Dionysiaka rather well. The idea that women are both phallic and non-phallic is perfectly at home in a work where the confusion between reality and illusion, truth and falsehood, genuine and fake, is a major theme of an epic about a god of paradox and ambiguity. There is much uncertainty and instability of form, an impression added to by shapeshifters and donners of masks and disguises. 10 We have already observed the muted, indirect, implied, allegorical, distanced, trance-like genitality of Zeus' sexual encounters, the focus on the mouth and the breast, and the use of shapeshift and remote location to frighten and control his victims. Mythological tradition aside, in the context of the Dionysiaka there is something particularly fitting about Zeus becoming a serpent with Persephone and Semele, denying or fending off any castration or submergence fears by turning his whole body into what is both a symbol of the phallus, and thus an assertion of male identity, and a symbol of the incorporator, and thus a protection against incorporation. Dionysus neutralises any threat posed by the mannish women Pallene, Nicaea and Aura. The first he tames by wrestling, the second by wine, the third by wine and bonds. While their masculinity, taken with Dionysus' effeminacy, reduces the gender gap, it is also a dangerous strength that needs to be disarmed and controlled. It is the failure of the two would-be Indian rapists to adequately subdue their Bacchant victims that leads to them being frightened off. Probably relevant here too are the 'secret swords on armed beds' of 49 Danaids that accounted for their unsuspecting bridegrooms, 'naked and helpless', on one wedding night (3. 303-307).

Thighs, hair and necks are objects of unusual interest in Nonnus 11 but it is the breast which most approaches the status of fetish object. There are 121 occurrences of mazos in the 21287 lines of the poem, 65 of kolpos in the sense of breast, 11 of thele , teat, and of the 82 references to sternon and stethos , many signify breast rather than chest or thorax. In contrast, the 11995 lines of Ovid's Metamorphoses have no occurrence of mamma , mammula and papilla , and just 8 of uber . Sinus , in the sense of breast, occurs 15 times. But relative frequency of incidence aside, it is the qualitative evidence, the loving and detailed descriptions of breasts, the keen appreciation of their erotic and comforting function (e.g. Electra nursing Harmonia and Emathion, 3.381-408) that indicates an impassioned object. But as we have already seen, the breast can also be a site of power and menace, shooting forth arrows or bristling with snakes (7. 263-264, 35. 41-42). The metaphorical shafts from Aphrodite's breasts made a metaphorical eunuch of Morrheus (35. 173-174). Breasts are best touched indirectly (i.e. best touch objects that they have been in contact with), timidly, perfunctorily, in disguise (1. 347-348, 12. 390-393, 15. 260-261) or when their owner is dead. Beroe's breast seems toxic, for when Dionysus 'brought a longing hand near her breast.touching the breast the lovesick god's right hand grew numb' (42. 67-70). Breasts can be a source of rivalry. There is an almost phallic competitiveness about the way Aura vaunts her masculine breasts over Artemis' feminine ones (48. 351-353, 363-369). 'Every reader must be struck by the attention paid to the female breast in the Dionysiaka '. 12 Being able to feed at certain breasts, such as Dionysus at Rheia's (9.232-234) and Heracles at Hera's (40. 21), is a source of status. The power of the breast is also suggested by its manifold roles and functions. There are 51 different adjectives applied to the breast, ranging from physical description (firm, projecting, naked), to function (abundant, flowing, nourishing), to personification (crafty, wise, jealous). The human breast in Nonnus offers hunger satisfaction to numerous infants, including animals such as kids and lion cubs (10.8-9, 3. 383-393), and emotional support, as when the adult Dionysus flees underwater from Lycurgus and takes refuge at Thetis' bosom (21. 178-180). The motif of the seen and the unseen, central to the experience of the voyeur (see below), appears in frequent comments on whether the breast is covered (and how) or uncovered (and why). Further signs of a breast-oriented world include milk pouring forth spontaneously from breasts (e.g. 9. 57-58, 24. 131), milk and/or wine spurting from the multinippled earth (eg. 22. 16-14, 41. 121-125), books (4. 267), the breasts of males (25. 52-54) or virgin females (eg. 13. 173-179, 48. 954-957). 13

The key characteristic of fetishism is displacement, displacement of attention from the real locus of fear and fascination to a substitute symbol, which becomes the locus of sexual fantasy and which can be more easily handled or contemplated. The characteristic is clearly evident in Nonnus' 23 voyeur scenes. 14 Voyeurs who peep on women in a state of undress are typically driven by more than the appeal of (semi-) nudity and a sense of being in control. They are driven by a compulsive checking and confirmation of anatomical gender differences, whether there really are phallic women. Notable about Nonnus' voyeur scenes is that something usually prevents a final disclosure, as when Pallene's thighs are described as both bare and covered a wrap to conceal her nakedness (48. 118-120; cf. 17. 222-224). The gaze that focuses on parts of the naked body avoids the genitals. Only once are the female genitals subject to direct scrutiny. In a remarkable quasi-voyeur scene, serpent coiled thrice round the breast of a Bacchant sleeping off the effects wine, 'while it gaped at her thigh so close (!).and sleepless gazed at the maiden secrets of the girl' (14. 363-366). There are phallic associations here but also the suggestion that only as a serpent was it safe to thus gaze. If blinding can be considered symbolic castration, it is a reminder of a latent fear that Actaeon reports being dazzled by the brilliance of bathing Artemis, 'shooting snowy gleams in the waters against my eyes.Darkness covered my eyes'. 15 We have already seen Zeus' obsessive regard for the breasts of Persephone and Semele. It was the breasts of Chalcomede and Beroe that most delighted Morrheus and Posiedon (34. 279-280, 42. 451-453). Voyeurism is a distancing strategy that yet conveys a sense of phallic power as the eye (only once is the plural used) distends with desire, something clearly brought out by Nonnus: the voyeur's eye, the ferry, porthmos , or conduit, orcheton , of desire or amazement stretches forth, titaine , towards the espied. 16 Even when they occur in contexts not overtly voyeuristic, words such as huperkupto , peep over, (occurring 14 times), opipteuo , stare at, (48 times), hemiphanes , half-seen, (21 times), akredemnos , unrevealed, (25 times), combine to reinforce the impression of tremulous curiosity about the revealed and the unrevealed. 17

To take stock: the infantile conflict over separation from the mother, if not adequately resolved, bequeaths impaired body image and castration anxiety, and promotes regressive fixation upon a substitute object that recalls the intimacy of the early mother-child fusion. The breast in Nonnus nourishes and comforts, and has phallic characteristics. It is both reality and symbol, an evoker of the lost behaviour of sucking at the soft, warm cushion that dissolves any sense of the infant being separate from the mother. A 'solution' to the problem of individuation for the male child, which underlies fetishistic and voyeuristic behaviour, is the fantasy of the phallic mother, an illusion both reassuring and scary.

A major motif in Nonnus, and one that reveals much about the abiding strength and nature of separation anxiety, is the serpent. Draken occurs 70 times, ophis 28 times, acidna 5 and orphster 10. In addition, there are cognate adjectives, such as snaky or snake-haired, occurring 116 times. Given the traditional association of Dionysus with serpents, such incidence may not be surprising but what is remarkable is their pervasiveness, their occurrence in contexts that do not feature Dionysus, including those before his birth in Book 7. Nonnus' serpents can be terrifyingly huge and destructive, and are creatures of the wildest fantasy. The serpent which destroys Cadmus' companions and nearly kills Cadmus has an awesome range of destructive capacities. 18 Earth-born Typhoeus and the Giants have serpentine characteristics and wreak enormous havoc (Books 1 and 2, 48. 31-86). On 17 occasions serpents spit (usually poison, and once they dribble), and on 9 sport horns. Very few species of snakes do either. Nor do all snakes hiss, but they do 18 times in the Dionysiaka . And on 11 occasions it is their gaping, elastic jaws that are remarked. Sometimes a serpent combines these characteristics. 19 While spitting emphasises distance between objects, swallowing eliminates it. Nonnus' serpents thus neatly exemplify the ongoing conflict over identity. Serpents in the Dionysiaka , as they do in mythology generally, stand for some deep, primal fears. They are richly polyvalent. They represent contrarieties, chthonic and involutionary, wise and evolutionary, mysterious and terrible and protective, always associated with Great Mother deities. Because of their ability to shed old skin (41. 179-182), to penetrate holes, and to constrict, swallow, engulf, incorporate large creatures, serpents readily evoke boundary anxiety. 20 Hitherto in our argument, the incorporative power of the serpent has been mentioned while the phallic aspect has been stressed. Serpents can convey both aspects, which one may term female and male, and it is the incorporative aspect that is probably more important in Nonnus. Separation fear in the poem is indicated in a general way by the prevalence of borderline narcissism (the clinical term for the preoedipal stage of precarious identity), the self-absorbed, fatalistic, curiously passive, weakly individuated, characteriologically largely indistinguishable personnel, 21 the porosity of so many surfaces, the ubiquity of spouting and eruption, and, more pointedly, by the number of earth-born, Gaia-generated serpentine monsters who do, or who threaten to, inflict destruction, deformation, 'castration', strangulation, engulfment and submergence back into the earth, the mother and the unconscious. The serpents who spring forth to rescue Chalcomede and the Bacchant in Book 14 also coil and constrict. The breasts they start from are both phallic and engulfing. Some serpents in Nonnus are benign (eg. 44. 107-114). Relatedly, the infant may alternately perceive the mother as 'good', satisfying and nourishing, or 'bad', frustrating and withholding, and there are numerous examples of both in the poem. 22 This split image can manifest at one level as benign and malign mother-representing serpents, and at another level as kind, anthropomorphic mother-figures who contrast with wicked stepmothers.

The case of Dionysus is instructive. Father-figures, who can facilitate the transition to a secure masculinity, are largely absent from his childhood. As child and adult he was harassed and threatened with destruction by the baleful stepmother figure of Hera. He was also nursed and protected by a succession of surrogate good mothers, the daughters of Lamos, Ino, Mystis and Rheia, surrounded and cherished by Bacchants who chastised for him aggressive brutes such as Lycurgus, and opposed by earth-born Giants and Indians. 23 The latter refuse to worship the heavenly deities, only those of earth and water. The serpentine and anthropomorphic mother-figures are entwined because nurture, protection and adoration can also smother, suffocate and threaten individuation. Dionysus' response to the maternal threat occurs at two levels. Firstly, serpents become a major attribute of him and his followers (9. 129-132). He wears snaky garlands in his hair and around his waist. He thus reduces distance between himself and serpentine figures and powers. It was his arrogation of serpentine qualities that helps him overcome the Giants (25. 219-222, 48. 56- 62). Secondly, he becomes effeminate and thus reduces distance and threat from malign, destructive, incorporative maternal figures and forces. At one point he assumes the shape, dress and voice of a girl to escape Hera's attention (14. 159-167), and his effeminacy is frequently noted. 24 In doing this, Nonnus is perpetuating the traditional figure of Dionysus as someone who responds to identity and gender issues in a manner distinct from that of Zeus, Apollo, Orestes, Hephaestus, Perseus and Heracles. 25 Nicaea comprehensively rejects his masculinity: 'soft-haired, weaponless, spiritless, shaped like a woman' (16.172). Dionysus' efforts to reduce gender difference is mirrored by many women who have masculine characteristics, notably Bacchants who can overcome men or mad oxen with their bare hands (25. 230-235, 36. 260-270, 46. 89-93), Nicaea, Pallene, Aura, Athene, and by pregnant, birth- giving males, notably Dionysus' father and paternal grandfather. Close association with serpents, or becoming one, as Zeus does with Persephone and Semele, can be seen as counterphobic, counterincorporative strategies, a 'resolution' of separation anxieties that does not, however, resolve all sexual fears and conflicts. The seemingly phallic/incorporative female warrior and hunter poses a different threat and challenge that for Dionysus requires resistless rape and, for two Indians, involves failed rape. Given that Dionysus would never encounter what he sought, a 'real' phallic woman, his response was, in its way, deft. By becoming effeminate and wearing serpents he became like a phallic woman himself.

Also relevant to the strategy of gender gap reduction is another major theme of the poem, the plethora of irregular or metaphorical lactations, births, words for autogenesis (9 separate compounds), and noncoital or spontaneous reproductions, which outnumber regular reproductions. These are not just residues of infantile ignorance and confusion about sexuality. They serve to blur the distinctive roles of the genders in a primitive androgyny and suggest a diffused sexuality that finds focused genital sexuality difficult to organise and which, for example, prefers to think of flowers as genitals.

A general tendency to androgyny, however, does not preclude insistence upon distinguishing male and female rocks, palm trees, lyre sounds and flowers. 26 Nor does it preclude the existence of forthrightly macho and overcompensating characters who deprecate women, such as Lycurgus, Orontes, Deriades and Indian warriors. Whether or not their hyper-masculinity should be seen as overcompensation for doubts about gender identity, (for example, Pentheus's swing from machismo to transvestism), they tend to fare badly in encounters with more androgynous figures.

Earlier discussion of voyeurism referred to the phallic, penetrative quality of the peeper's gaze. But ogling can have an incorporative aspect too. The interchangeability of mouth and eye, possibly going back to the infant maintaining eye contact with the mother while feeding, is recognised in common expressions such as 'feast one's eyes upon', 'read voraciously' and 'she has good taste in clothes', where visual and oral sensations mingle. In the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the big eyes as well as the big mouth of the disguised wolf are emphasised. The insatiably incorporative element in Nonnus' voyeurs is brought out in references to the eye ' running over her body never satisfied' ( akoretos , 1. 531-532), Actaeon's insatiate view of Artemis (5. 305), Zeus' eye insatiate for Persephone (5. 589), Hymnus' for Nicaea (15. 227) and Dionysus' for Beroe (42. 455). The two-way oral sadism in this form of looking is mirrored by Nonnian serpents who both spit and swallow.

In conclusion: at 5.171-174 and 33. 275-277 Nonnus describes an ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail. This image can be symbol for the infantile, primordial union with the mother and the lack of self-awareness that it is the challenge of Nonnus' characters to emerge from. The stream of consciousness that informs Nonnus' narrative is replete with infantile fantasies, fears and fixations. Phyllis Greenacre speaks of the universal male fear of female genitals. 27 Universal in the sense of cross-cultural perhaps, and a fear that most males can grow out of. In the absence of details, one has to assume that many sexual relationships in the poem are non- violent and unproblematic, such as those of Dionysus with Althaea, Coronis and Ariadne, who in a dream accuses Dionysus of being a bedhopper like his father(48. 550-556), and those within the fecund union of Cadmus and Harmonia. But when Nonnus brings a sexual encounter into focus, there are signs of male wariness of females, signs reinforced by the nature and aetiology of the recurrent paraphilias (confusion and insecurity over separation, sexual structure and body image; 'castration anxiety'; defensive and adaptive manoeuvres) that degrade women through visual rape, counterphobic incorporation, objectification and elevation of parts over the whole. The behaviour of humans and gods in the poem has been described as being as far removed from reality as the characters in another work characterised by infantile perspective, Alice in Wonderland . 28 Seen, however, as an illustration of unresolved conflicts and arrested development, such behaviour is merely commonplace.


1 Rape is committed, attempted, feared, and, by Typhoeus, hoped for: 2. 130-131, 305-308, 12. 72-83, 27. 75-162, 33. 318- 345.

2 1.346-351, translation by H.D.Rouse, Dionysiaka (London 1940), as are those that occur below.

3 See R. Schmiel, 'The Story of Aura (Nonnos Dionysiaka 48. 238-978)', Hermes 121 (1993), pp. 470-483.

4 16. 309-311, 48. 770-772, and, by denial, 16. 278, 48. 642- 644. Primal scene is the term given to the child's witnessing of parental intercourse, and appropriate here in view of the prevalence of infantile perspective in the poem. Cf. 32. 80-82, 93-97, the screened, unseen love-making of Zeus and Hera, and 83-92, the orgasm-indicating sympathetic sprouting of plants, and where, interestingly, bindweed 'wrapt his male leaves about the female plant (saffron) by his side.so the double growth adorned the bed of the pair, covering Zeus with saffron and Hera his wife with bindweed'.

5 See R.F.Newbold, 'Discipline, Bondage and the Serpent in Nonnus' Dionysiaka ', Classical World 78 (1984) pp. 89-100. The relevant anxiety suggested by a taste for discipline and bondage is uncertainty over body image or physical boundaries, and concerns about separation-individuation versus merging and incorporation. Sado-masochistic fantasies and eroticism are common with fetishism.

6 See R.Bak, 'The Phallic Woman: the Ubiquitous Fantasy in Male Perversions', Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 23 (1968), pp. 15-36. Bak states that the phallic female is a universal male fantasy only reluctantly abandoned in the course of development.

7 For a convenient exposition of the concepts that appear below, see W.Arndt Gender Disorders and Paraphilias (Madison, Conn. 1991), with 46 pages of references.

8 See, e.g. M. Klein The Psychoanalysis of Children (London 1932); G. Kohon, 'Fetishism Revisited', International Journal of Psychoanalysis 68 (1987), pp. 213-228.

9 And has incurred criticism. See, eg. T.Brown 'The Poem and the High-Heeled Shoe': Fetishization and Narrative', in S.Whiting and E.Mitchell (edd.) Fetish (Princeton 1992) pp. 36-49. For argument and material supporting the theory, see, eg. V.Steele Fetish (Oxford 1996); Z. Adams, 'Fetish, Fact and Fantasy: a Clinical Study of the Problems of Fetishism', International Review of Psychoanalysis 2 (1975) pp. 199-230; C.Allen A Textbook of Psychosexual Disorders 2nd ed. (London 1969) p 306; K.Howells (ed.) The Psychology of Sexual Diversity (London 1984) p. 70; R.Edgcumb and M.Burgner 'The Phallic-Narcissistic Phase: a Differentiation between Preoedipal and Oedipal Aspects of Phallic Development', Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 30 (1975) pp. 161-180. Fetishism can be approached from a number of angles: the psychoanalytic (Freud being the most influential, but not first, theorist), the anthropological (the study of objects particularly meaningful to a society, including its religious and ritual icons and objects of adoration), and the economic (the commodity and consumerist fetishism explicated by, amongst others, Marx). Of relevance to observations in the text immediately below about Zeus and Dionysus is Steele at p. 168: '(the fetishist) may seek to reassure himself about his manliness by choosing a sexual partner whose frightening feminine aspects are disguised behind a "veil" of phallic signifiers. As Louise Kaplan puts it, he needs a fetish to "pave the way" if he is to successfully "enter that temple of doom called the vagina" '. What Kaplan is referring to here is the fear of intromission as a castration threat and of the loss of the sense and individuality and boundedness that occurs in sexual coupling. The bow and arrows of Nicaea and Aura, like the thyrsus of the Bacchants, could be phallic signifiers.

10 Nothos occurs 122 times, mimema and cognates 127, dolos and cognates 92, pseudos and cognates 81, antitupos 62. See R.F.Newbold, 'Some Problems of Creativity in Nonnus', Dionysiaka ', Classical Antiquity 12 (1993) pp. 89- 110, esp.99-100; W.Fauth, Eidos Poikilon . Zur Thematik der Metamorphose und zum Prinzip der Wandlung aus dem Gegensatz in der Dionysiaka des Nonnos von Panopolis (Gottingen 1981), pp. 185-190; J.Lindsay, Life and Pleasure in Ancient Egypt (London 1965) pp. 224, 369-395. There at lest 69 metamorphoses in the work.

11 See J.Winkler, In Pursuit of the Nymphs. Comedy and Sex in Nonnos' Tales of Dionysus (Diss.U.Texas 1974) pp. 41-49. Words for thigh occur 64 times, hair 156 (sometimes = foliage), and neck 188 (sometimes = headland). By way of comparison, words for knee and arm both occur 70 times. But no parts of the body, including cheir and pous , which occur more frequently, attract the sort of emotional investment that the breast does.

12 . Schmiel (at n. 3) p. 475. For how breasts can be seen as phallic signifiers and facilitate displacement upwards, see R. De Monchy, 'Oral Components of the Catration Complex', International Journal of Psychoanalysis 33 (1952) pp. 450-454 (a baby's penis can look very much like a nipple, and both organs contain erectile tissue), and Steele (at n. 9), p. 134: 'It may be harder to see how the breast can also be perceived as a phallic symbol. Yet in "Undercover News", the body of the female character is described in phallic terms. "Her breasts stood out pointedly like the horns of an angry bull ready to gore through its imprisonment" ', and cf. pp. 135, 137, photos of cone bras. For an infant, a pendulous breast may resemble an adult penis and even to some adults they may be interchangeable (M. Sperling, 'The Analysis of an Exhibitionist', International Journal of Psychoanalysis 28 (1947), pp. 32-45). Both breast and penis emit a powerful creamy substance and may be a source of pride and anxiety to their owners. Cross-culturally, semen and milk are often equated. Children have fantasies about the breast and the penis that are similar to each other.

13 I am reserving fuller analyis and discussion of breasts and milk in Nonnus for a separate study.

14 For references and discussion of what makes these scenes illustrations of infantile psychology rather than normal male interest in female bodies, nude or otherwise, see Winkler (at n. 11) pp. 1- 16, 52-67. Winkler, p. 6, observes pertinently that the voyeur's vision and imagination blend so that what he sees is not clearly distinguishable from what he wants and hopes to see. For psychoanalytic discussion, apart from Arndt (at n. 7), Allen (at n. 9), and Howells (at n. 9), see, eg., J. Hamilton, 'Voyeurism: Some Clinical and Theoretical Considerations', American Journal of Psychoanalysis 26 (1972), pp. 277-287, and I. Rosen, 'Exhibitionism, Scopophilia and Voyeurism', in I. Rosen (ed.) Sexual Deviation 3rd ed., (Oxford 1996), pp. 174-215 where clinical evidence for the shame-sensitivity and chimaerical quest for the phallic woman can be found.

15 The Eleventh Century peeper, Tom, who spied on the naked Lady Godiva in Coventry was supposedly struck blind. Cf. Tieresias and Athene, 20. 399-402.

16 7. 203, 15. 240-243, 42. 40-45: cf. 25. 408, 33. 199.

17 See R.F. Newbold, 'Sensitivity to Shame in Greek and Roman Epic, with Particular Reference to Claudian and Nonnus', Ramus 14 (1985), pp. 30-45, esp. p. 41. While much of such behaviour could be explained in terms of residual infantile preoccupation with the primal scene (Winkler, at n. 11, p. 161 says that passages describing spontaneous generation camouflage the primal scene), I think the fantasy of the phallic woman offers a fuller guide to understanding the poem's psychology.

18 4. 369-375: cf., eg. 18. 238-356, 25. 455-480, 495-538.

19 1. 194, 266, 6. 192, 7. 320, 325, 25. 500, 505, 510.

20 See P. Slater, The Glory of Hera (Boston 1969) pp. 75- 122.

21 F. Bornmann, 'Sulla Spedizione di Dionisio in India nel Poema di Nonno', SFIC 47 (1975), pp. 52-67; G. D'Ippolito, Studi Nonniani (Palermo 1964) p. 52: F. Vian, 'Dionysus in the Indian War: a Contribution to the Study of the Structure of the Dionysiaka , in N. Hopkinson (ed.), Studies in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus (Cambridge 1994), pp. 86-98, esp. p. 90.

22 Such a perception is not without real foundation. See R. Parker, Mother Love/Mother Hate (New York 1995) on ubiquitous maternal ambivalence towards children.

23 See F. Vian Nonnos de Panopolis. Les Dionysiaques. Tome IX Chants XXV-XXIX (Paris 1990) p. 120. Pentheus can claim chthonic and serpentine ancestry, 44. 152, 210. Dionysus' destruction of the earth-born Indians so grieved Gaia that she spurred on her chthonic and serpentine progeny, the Giants, to attack Dionysus, 48. 7-14: cf. 18. 218-221, 25. 205-210. The ambivalence of the serpent is brought out by the fact that the destruction of a snake portended Dionysus' victory over the Indians, 38. 649, and snakes help him overcome the Indians, 26. 198-200. Another earth-born giant, Alpos, with a row of mouths able to swallow horses and men, attacked and was defeated by Dionysus, 45. 170-215. The serpentine qualities of Typhoeus are emphasised by Nonnus.

24 17. 283, 20. 209, 228-232, 27. 73-74, 44. 134.

25 The 'solutions' of these characters are discussed at length by Slater (at n. 20). Cf. R. Eisner, The Road to Daulis (Syracuse 1987), c. 5; A. Henrichs, 'Loss of Self, Suffering, Violence: the Modern View of Dionysus from Nietzshe to Giraud', HSCP 88 (1984) pp. 205-240.

26 For references and discussion, see L. Lind, 'Un-Hellenic Elements in the Dionysiaka ', LAC 7 (1938), pp. 57-65, at p. 62.

27 P.Greenacre, 'The Transitional Object and the Fetish', International Journal of Psychoanalysis 51 (1970), pp. 447-455, at p .449. If one accepts the symbolic equation serpentine hair (e.g., of Medusa, mentioned 22 times in the Dionysiaka ) and female pubic hair, the power of female genitals to petrify is acknowledged in myth. See Slater (at n. 20), pp. 318-324, and P. Du Bois, Sowing the Body (Chicago 1988) p. 91.

28 Lind (at n. 26) p. 61.


COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 2 - April 1998 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606