John M. McMahon, Representing Impotence: Systems of Belief in Ancient Popular Culture
(Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Department of Classical Studies, 1993)

This dissertation elucidates the ways in which the problem of male sexual dysfunction is portrayed in literary contexts by analyzing the popular perceptions of its causes, the traditional methods for treatment, and the iatro-magical belief system upon which these are predicated. In addition, it draws conclusions about how the social implications of impotence are reflected by the genre of the texts in which sexual dysfunction plays a thematic role. Finally, it analyzes passages in the Satyrica in which the personal and social difficulties caused by sexual dysfunction find resolution in the first-person expression afforded its main character.

The Introduction examines the intersection of the cultural and literary representation of male sexuality and establishes a methodology for the investigation as a whole. It concludes that while an aggressive virility stands as the predominant imagery in a cultural landscape marked by a patriarchal viewpoint, references to impotence appear relatively infrequently, and that sexual dysfunction is most commonly associated with literary genres of a humorous or invective nature. Consequently, evidence for popular reactions to impotence should be sought in both literary and sub-literary documents.

Chapter One surveys the primary sources and considers the acceptability and reliability of scientific and subliterary sources for analyzing attitudes toward impotence and for providing information on cures. It also examines the continuity and persistence of popular belief in generically dissimilar texts representative of widely separated periods. Beginning with evidence that discourse about male sexual activity is pervasive and long-lived in cosmopolitan Greco-Roman culture, the chapter establishes the location of pertinent information within a variety of written sources.

Chapter Two examines the processes of evocation, association, and identification responsible for ancient theories about impotence and associated magico-medical cures. It identifies two chief branches of folk healing, the "natural" and the "supernatural", and how causes for affliction were believed to be of both natural (physiological) and supernatural (divine or magical) origin. Such systems are based on the perception that life consisted of an array of corporal, mental, and spiritual elements and that good health resulted from a balanced combination of these. Ancient approaches correspond closely to certain modern folk medicinal systems in which impotence is seen as a creeping paralysis that involves the entire body and which results from a failure to cope with everyday stresses or from externally generated malign influences.

Chapters Three, Four and Five examine one particular belief system which associates certain bulbous plants, serpents, and magical stones with the phallus. For example, references to the stimulative properties of plants included under the general term bulbi appear in such diverse works as agricultural and botanical tracts, the culinary discussions of Athenaeus, Attic Comedy, Roman Elegy, and the Satyrica. Garlic and onions, because of visual associations with the male organ, were especially prized as were a number of other species.

Observations of the visual and behavioral characteristics of animals, linked them with male sexuality in the ancient mind as well. In the case of serpents their perceived ability to rejuvenate themselves by sloughing the skin came to connect them closely with the sexual functions of the male organ. Serpents' venom, moreover, in partaking of the cooling qualities of deadening poisons, was perceived as the kind of magical substance that could bring about the paralysis of impotence. As a result, plants with visual associations with both the male organ and serpents, were often considered as particularly stimulative because of the heating qualities they possessed.

In the associative relationship of plants and serpents sympathetic magic also played a significant role, and the essence of this influence was considered readily tranferrable to objects. In particular the perceived efficacy of magically charged stones and amulets was based on visual features and on other perceived interconnections with serpents and serpent-like plants. The ability to manipulate the powers of these objects became a specific source of empowerment for those who availed themselves of their sexually and socially reintegrative properties.

Chapter Six demonstrates how an understanding of such a belief system can inform the interpretation of several well known texts. Vegetable imagery appears in Catullus 67 in describing an impotent male, and Horace's Epode 3 has a sexual subtext derived from the close association of garlic, serpents, and venom with male sexuality. The wide range of social concerns and accepted cures for impotence appear in Ovid Amores 3.7, and in the Satyrica these elements combine to paint a narrative picture of folk medicinal belief whose recognition is essential for a true understanding of the work's cultural matrix. The numerous attempts by Encolpius to remedy his impotence stand as evidence for popular perceptions about the efficacy of traditional remedies where both natural and supernatural elements function in an integrated treatment typical of folk medical systems.

The Satyrica itself takes this intersection one step further by showing how the failures of the impotent Encolpius are superseded by the personal account of the victim. This then becomes the means by which the humiliation and agony of the sexually dysfunctional male enables his concerns about his condition to be resolved. Through the actual narrative process itself the parodic nature of the Satyrica is incorporated into a critique of the traditional concepts of ritual and magical practice which are taken for granted in other literary representations of male sexual dysfunction.

Go to the Pagina Domestica Classica Lemoynensis