the sexual allure of old women in early Persian literature

A scholarly authority on womanly beauty in seventh-century Persia counseled men against having sex with aging women.  This authority declared:

Avoid in particular intercourse with an aging woman, for she is like a worn-out skin, sapping your strength and bringing sickness to your body. Her water is deadly poison and her breath speedy death. She will take everything from you and give you nothing.

He described in contrast sexual intercourse with a young woman:

A young woman’s water, on the contrary, is sweet and pure, her embrace is delightful and exciting; her mouth is cool, her saliva sweet and her breath fragrant. Her vagina is narrow, and she will add strength to your strength, vigor to your vigor. [1]

Giving advice about sex, eating, drinking, urinating, and defecating was standard practice among physicians for thousands of years.[2]  Ancient physicians’ recommendations concerning ordinary human behavior varied nearly as much as modern dietary recommendations.  Nonetheless, many men today, while schooled enough not to say so, would consider a physician’s recommendation not to have sex with old women to be rather peculiar.  For a man bound in love to an old woman, such a recommendation is cruel to man and woman.  For men making ongoing sexual choices, such a recommendation implies that choosing an old woman was not uncommon.

The allure of old women wasn’t a peculiarity of seventh-century Persia.  A physician in eleventh-century Damascus, like many other scholars in the ancient Islamic world, wrote poetry.  Here’s one of his short poems:

When a woman is over fifty, try not to see her;
Leave the old hag alone and look for a younger one instead.[3]

That’s unkind and shallow poetry.  It would be of literary interest only from a consummate stylist such as Ovid.  In today’s advanced democracies, a man might have a body part chopped off for writing such poetry.  However, considered economically, this poem describes a man’s choice between an older and younger woman.  The physician-poet urges the male reader to “try not to see” sexually a woman over fifty.  That effort signifies the sexual allure, at least in the ancient Islamic world, of the woman over fifty.[4]

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[1] HP p. 212.  The scholarly authority is the physician Nafi al-Harith ibn Kalada of Thaqif.  Al-Harith also advised against frequent sexual intercourse.  HP p. 214 records:

Harb ibn Muhammad, on the authority of his father, reports: “Al-Hārith ibn Kalada said that four things ruin the body: sexual intercourse after overeating, a hot bath on a full stomach, eating dried meat and cohabiting with an old woman.”

Al-Harith’s counsel seems to have influenced Tayādūq (also known as Baradiq) (d. 708), who served as physician to al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf while al-Hajjaj was governing provinces in Iraq and Persia under Umayyad Caliph `Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan.  Tayādūq advised al-Hajjaj:

Four things ruin life and may even destroy it:

  1. Taking a bath on a full stomach.
  2. Having sexual intercourse after a meal.
  3. Eating dried and salted meat.
  4. Drinking cold water on an empty stomach.

Having intercourse with an old woman is hardly less injurious than any of the aforementioned.

HP p. 232.

[2] The increased credibility of medicine in recent years has shifted physicians’ discussions with clients strongly toward what medicine to take.

[3] HP p. 795.  The poem is from Shaikh Abū al-Hakam `Ubayd Allāh ibn al-Muzaffar ibn `Abd Allāh al-Bāhilī, from Murcia in Andalusia.  Abu al-Hakam worked as a physician in Damascus, wrote poetry for Damascus political leaders, and died in 1154.

[4] While the physicians’ counsel to men to avoid sex with older women was narrowly physical, men in practice may have had a broader context of interests.  In particular, in choosing sex partners, men in the ancient Islamic world may have found old women more accessible, more eager, more intellectually interesting, less costly, and possibly even remunerative.  Such broader interests should not be understood to debase men’s physical interests.


HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

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