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CulturePrintCritical dictionary


António Fernando Cascais

Cultures outside modern western culture would not recognize themselves in the word sexuality, nor would they associate with sexuality the kind of experiences we know.  

We haven’t really invented much more than what they were already doing, under a different understanding, nor were they more “natural” or less “civilized” in the use of their bodies, as we want to believe.

It is essential avoiding ethnocentrism on matters of taboos and rules of social conduct regarding body or pleasure. There were other prohibitions and obligations, always connected with belief systems, myth and magic.  Sexuality was inextricable from economic activities, from social relations, symbolical systems and mythical representations. Willendorf‘s Venus and the phallic representations illustrate the differences that separate and repel, unite and attract us, and through which we surprise them, modern amongst us, and ourselves, primitive amongst them.


Keywords: body, nature, magic, shamanism

The peoples outside modern western culture would not recognize themselves in the word sexuality, with the meaning we assign it today, nor would they associate with sexuality the same kind of experiences, with the specific practices, habits and institutions, we are accustomed to. 

However, if it was possible to make a journey in time, much like what anthropologists have been able to do since the XIX century, studying the last few remaining primitive societies still existing, we would verify that we haven’t invented much more than what our ancestors had tried or known. A thorough interpretation of their traces, especially in the arts, as well as the likely analogies with the present primitive societies, which constitute the two methods available to recover a historical reality forever lost, allow us to draw some general conclusions and carefully take a distance from our inevitable ethnocentrism.

Like today, body and pleasure were the subject of social concern, and were kept under taboos and rules, which, because they didn’t coincide with ours, misled some early researchers who mistakenly thought to be in the presence of human communities comparatively far more permissive than ours. Indeed, there were prohibitions and obligations, but they were other than today’s and were always linked with the belief systems, myth and magic, which reconciled the relationships with one’s self, with kin and with nature.

Thus, the experience they had with what we identify and isolate today as sexuality (with everything we now include in it, such as our perceptions, classifications and categories of hetero and homosexuality, paraphilia, perversion and normality, and a long etc.), show us they did not perceive themselves as we perceive ourselves today and for that reason, we cannot reduce them, without harm, to our values and models, in turn also in constant change. What we understand and experience as sexuality, was, in their societies, inextricably linked with economic activities, gathering, agriculture, hunting and fishing, that allowed individual and collective survival, integrated in the social relationships structured by kinship in extended family clans, organized by the symbolical differentiation of masculinity and femininity, or by the mythical representations of the natural cycles and of genre relations – which are not homologous to our own. 

Unlike current popular thinking, our ancestors were not more “natural” or less “civilized” in the use they made of their bodies, as we sometimes want to believe.

Works of art like Willendorff’s Venus are emblematic of this “symbolical capital”. The Venus’ prominent breasts and belly reveal a fertility integrated in the reproductive cycle of cosmic and seasonal renewal, the specific difference of femininity as opposed to masculinity, the prosperity of the clan and the community, the social value of motherhood and of the woman as an individual and the concomitant position in social hierarchy, a model of beauty and inherent desirability, mark of the gods’ favour and pledge of human success. These were the attributes of a goddess-mother, which doesn’t mean we haven’t received representations of the woman as warrior. 

In turn, and on what concerns masculinity, it was common, and also in pre-Mediterranean societies where the peoples of Foz Côa are included, the phallic representation of males of animal species (namely the bull) but also of human beings.

This representation associated natural virility with civic virility and biological fertility with material prosperity, successful hunting with social power, physical gifts with the ability of seduction and conquest and, in the same measure, the ability to meet the needs of one’s family and community, and the rivalry and competition before male counterparts. 

Nonetheless, there is also evidence of representations of the inversion of sexual and social roles, recognised and appreciated, probably associated with shamanism, evoking the North American berdaches.

In the differences that separate and repel us, paradoxically uniting and attracting, we retrieve how much there is of modern in them and of primitive in us.



A. Joyce, Rosemary - Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. Sex, Gender, and Archaeology. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.


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