girdle of Venus for Architrenius: the cuckold in castration culture

Vulcan catching Mars cuckolding him with his wife Venus

About two millennia after Homer described the girdle of Venus, the all-powerful mother, Mother Nature, advised the weeping young man Architrenius to marry. Mother Nature promised that the man’s bride would present him with the girdle of Venus. The yes-dearing cuckold Vulcan had made that girdle for his adulterous wife Venus. The girdle depicted the oppression of men’s sexuality, including Democritus castrating himself. The medieval Latin satire Architrenius thus associated mother-prompted marriage with castration culture.

Suffering terribly from internalized misandry, Architrenius sought aid from Mother Nature. He imagined:

When I appear before her, she will be compassionate and resourceful, soothe my grief and grant the aid for which I plead. … A son will induce his mother to grant his prayer.

{ pacemque dolorum
Compassiva feret et subsidiosa roganti
Indulgetbit opem, …
ad vota parentem
Filius inducet } [1]

In the Aeneid, the great warrior Turnus, wearing a sword belt featuring the husband-killing Danaids, ignorantly declared, “fortune favors the bold {audentes fortuna iuvat}.”[2] The weeping man Architrenius more prophetically declared, “what fortune may await the wretched, I will see {sit miseris fortuna, videbo}.” On his journey to plead with Mother Nature, Architrenius experienced rocks tearing into his feet, brambles gouging his legs, and tree branches lashing his face. Wind stung his lips, sun burned his skin, and rain drenched him. Even before he recognize her, mother Nature wasn’t kind to Architrenius.

On his journey, Architrenius encountered a beautiful, young woman. She had luxuriant blonde hair and smooth skin without any imperfections:

The swanlike whiteness of her skin is not clouded by any mark or blemish, and its white bloom has received no admixture of the juice of berries.

{ Candida, nec macule nevo nebescit, oloris
Emula, nec recipit vaccinia mixta ligustris. } [3]

The woman had starry green eyes that expressed the Sabine women’s privilege:

Like a lantern in a watch-tower, the pupil of her eye shines with starry fire. At the center a little blazing gem of sapphire shines like the light of day; it is surrounded by a band of ruddy gold, while the outer rim is glowing beryl. … The sheer good faith expressed in her eyes is a guarantee of her Sabine purity.

{ Excubie lampas faculis ignescit ocellus
Sidereis, in quo saphyri flammata diescit
Gemmula, quam rutili mediam circumligat auri
Torquis, ad extremos tractus ardente beryllo.

Promittitque fides oculi sinera Sabinam. }

Just as Helen of Troy did to great harm, the beautiful young woman tended to sexually harass men:

Her appearance is intoxicating; her beauty both feeds the mind of the beholder with pleasure and preys upon him, enticing men with baited hook of desire.

{ Ebriat aspectus, animum cibat; omne tuentis
Delicium facies et predo, cupidinis hamo
Piscatura viros }

So it was with Architrenius:

Architrenius is consumed by a hidden fire, and feeds it, for the torch burns more sharply as he looks, fixing his eager gaze on her face. But at length the too vivid impression of her beauty causes him pain; his very powers of sight become a disease, and he diverts his too sensitive eyes to other parts.

{ Uritur et cecum fovet Architrenius ignem,
Spectandoque faces acuit, vultuque ruentes
Inserit intuitus; facies presencior estum
Asperat et tandem visu sibi pestifer omni
Mollibus ad partes alias divertit ocellis. }

Here’s what he saw when he slowly lowered his eyes:

Her breasts, small, restrained, and clearly defined, do not overflow her bosom like those of an old woman, but hold their position with a firmness proper to her tender years. Each little sphere puts forth a tender bud. … Fuller at the breast, her body narrows, until the loins swell sumptuously to accommodate the full curve of her womb. Below, in a place inaccessible to Venus, a secret garden puts forth the tender bloom of chastity. … No basely presuming vice can open portals locked by the key of virtue; the doors are as if bound with iron bands, on which the unfailing power of a vow has set its seal. Soft down spreads about the portals, soft with the first fleeciness of youth. It does not stray in profusion over the threshold, but confines its mossy carpet to the outer borders.

{ Circumcisa, brevis, limata mamillula laxum
Non implet longeva sinum, puerilibus annis
Castigata sedet …
Qua teres astricti mediam domat orbita cinctus,
Contrahitur flexo laterum distancia lumbo,
Plenior ad pectus, tenuatur ad ilia, donec
Luxuriet renum gremio crescente volumen.
Invius excluse Veneri, secrecior ortus
Flore pudicicie tenero pubescit …
Improba non aperit vicii presumptio clausas
Clavigera virtute fores, adamante ligatur
Ianua, quam voti gravitas infracta sigillat.
Pro foribus lanugo sedet, primoque iuvente
Vellere mollescit, nec multa in limine serpit,
Sed summo tenuem preludit margine muscum. }

What the omniscient narrator knew, the desperate human man Architrenius perceived only through faith:

Architrenius takes note of those parts that are visible, and deduces what he does not see from the evidence of things seen; the grace of what is exposed serves as a mirror of what is veiled. Pleased, he pants out a scarcely whispered prayer that he may feed his avid eyes on this honeycomb, and thirsts no less feverishly for the honey stored within.

{ Hec oculis partim notat Architrenius et, quos
Non videt, a simili visorum conicit artus,
Nudaque pro speculo velate gracia servit.
Hec placet, hanc voto, quod vix respiret, hanelat,
Cernendique favum cupidis delibat ocellis,
Nec sitis infuso minor est idroprica melle. } [4]

When men gaze intently upon women, grace often infuses them with the hope of procreation redeeming creation. Many men delight in women’s beauty. Many men have whispered similar prayers for salvation from castration culture.

When Architrenius found Mother Nature, he threw himself at her feet and embraced her knees. That’s the classical position of supplication. Living under the wrongs of gynocentric society, Architrenius explained that he was miserable and tormented, and his heart was filled with grief. He wept profusely and pleaded with Mother Nature:

Can you, Nature, allow your offspring to be tormented by the scourge of wrong? What winter storm has so aroused your motherly gentleness against your sons? Has a mother’s love learned a step-mother’s hatred? Alas that your charges must henceforth taste only bitter food! Motherly compassion has cloaked itself in severity, and Ino has grown as hard as unyielding Procne.

{ Compaterisne tuam scelerum, Natura, flagellis
Affligi sobolem? que sic in pignora pacem
Maternam turbavit hiemps? odiumne noverce
Exhibitura favos! heu pignora semper amarum
Gustatura cibum! pietas materna rigorem
Induit et scopulis Prognes induruit Ino. }

Scholars now believe that Mother Nature, like everything else, is socially constructed. Yet anti-men gender inequality in reproductive knowledge and cuckolding risk has existed roughly as long as sexually reproducing species have. Architrenius complained that Mother Nature didn’t treat men with generous kindness. He spoke perceptively for men generally.

In response to the weeping Architrenius’s complaint, Mother Nature urged him to marry. She selected for him a young woman, “beautiful, yet chaste {pulchra — pudica tamen}”:

She will be a sweet companion in the marriage chamber, delicately soft to the appreciative touch. Her splendor dims the light of day and the gemlike glow of her starry face burns through the mantle of the darkest night. Though the most persuasive of procuresses should present herself, the very matron of honor of corrupted love, the most brilliant of the handmaids of dissolute Venus, that race whom anxious chastity so mistrusts, this maiden would never accept the embraces of a stranger. She does not harbor a Ledaean spirit behind the face of Lucretia; in her heart she is a very Penelope, though her face is the Spartan’s.

{ Blanda comes thalami sapidoque tenellula tactu;
Obnubit spendore diem, noctisque profunde
Peplum siderei vultus carbunculus urit.
Cum sit adulterii promptissima lena, Diones
Pronuba corrupte, Venerisque ancilla solute
Gloria, sollicito species suspecta pudori,
Non tamen hec recipit alienos innuba nexus,
Nec Ledea tenet animos, Lucrecia vultum,
Solaque Penelopen gremio gerit, ore Lacenam. }

Many men find such women highly attractive. But when being pulled toward the prison of marriage, men should consider a broad view.

girdle of Venus placed on Hera

Mother Nature explained that the bride would present her husband-to-be with the girdle of Venus. Vulcan, Venus’s husband, actually did the manual labor of making the girdle that came to be named after Venus. A leading exemplar of yes-dearism, Vulcan was completely subservient to his goddess wife Venus. When she wanted him to do something, she would persuade him with her sexual allure and his passion for her. For example, when he hesitated to make a shield for Aeneas, she emotionally besieged him:

Ceasing to speak, the goddess threw her snow-white arms
around him as he held back, caressing him here and there,
and suddenly he caught fire — the same old story,
the flame he knew by heart went running through him,
melting him to the marrow of his bones. As thunder
at times will split the sky and a trail of fire goes
rippling through the clouds, flashing, blinding light —
and his wife sensed it all, delighting in her bewitching ways,
she knew her beauty’s power. And father Vulcan,
enthralled by Venus, his everlasting love, replied:
“Why plumb the past for appeals? Where has it gone,
goddess, the trust you lodged in me? If only
you’d been so passionate for him {Aeneas}, then as now,
we would have been in our rights to arm the Trojans,
even then. Neither Father Almighty nor the Fates
were dead against Troy’s standing any longer or
Priam’s living on for ten more years. But now,
if you are gearing up for war, your mind set,
whatever my pains and all my skills can promise,
whatever molten electrum and iron can bring to life,
whatever the bellows’ fiery blasts can do — enough!
Don’t pray to me now. Never doubt your powers.”
With those words on his lips, he gave his wife
the embrace both desired, then sinking limp
on her breast he courted peaceful sleep
that stole throughout his body.

{ Dixerat et niveis hinc atque hinc diva lacertis
cunctantem amplexu molli fovet. Ille repente
accepit solitam flammam, notusque medullas
intravit calor et labefacta per ossa cucurrit:
non secus atque olim tonitru cum rupta corusco
ignea rima micans percurrit lumine nimbos.
Sensit laeta dolis et formae conscia coniunx.
Tum pater aeterno fatur devinctus amore:
“Quid causas petis ex alto? Fiducia cessit
quo tibi, diva, mei? Similis si cura fuisset,
tum quoque fas nobis Teucros armare fuisset:
nec pater omnipotens Troiam nec fata vetabant
stare decemque alios Priamum superesse per annos.
Et nunc, si bellare paras atque haec tibi mens est,
quidquid in arte mea possum promittere curae,
quod fieri ferro liquidove potest electro,
quantum ignes animaeque valent, absiste precando
viribus indubitare tuis.” Ea verba locutus
optatos dedit amplexus placidumque petivit
coniugis infusus gremio per membra soporem. } [5]

Vulcan under Venus’s sexual coercion similarly made the girdle of Venus:

The Lemnian smith {Vulcan}, laboring at the anvil to purchase the love of his spouse {Venus}, carefully fashioned it from molten gold, straining with the bellows to heat his ever-glowing forge, growing hot with both Liparean and Cyprian fires. Meanwhile, Venus lightened his labor by marveling at his handiwork. Even as his hand applied itself to the work, his mouth was snatching from her delicious lips kisses that were far from artificial. Though his face was blackened, and his gait halting, he fed on those sweet kisses: the kisses of adulterous love are no more steeped in honey, nor could Paris’s Phrygian kisses have tasted sweeter to Helen.

{ Incudis studio sponse lucratus amorem,
Lennius hanc cocto solidavit sedulus auro,
Follibus eluctans vigiles excire caminos.
Non minus ardescens Lipares quam Cipridis igne,
Dum Venus emollit operam mirando laborem.
Dum tamen insudat operi manus, oscula morsis
Lingua rapit labris plus quam fabrilia, vultu
Sit licet obscuro, claudo pede, basia carpit
Dulcia nec plure saturantur adultera melle
Nec, Pari, plus Frigiis poteras pavisse Lacenam. } [6]

The sexual division of labor here has the man Vulcan doing hard, dangerous, dirty work, while the woman Venus stood by praising him and occasionally allowing him to kiss her. That’s a common structural inequality that devalues men’s lives. The effects are predictable. Bored with her hard-working beta husband Vulcan, Venus went on to cuckold him by having a torrid sexual relationship with the god of war Mars.

Venus ordering Vulcan to do work

Working as a subservient cuckold under gynocentrism, Vulcan represented his own abasement in the golden girdle he made. He depicted Hippolytus, a man who died in exile after his step-mother Phaedra falsely accused him of rape. The girdle’s representation of Hippolytus thus helps to keep men in their place by reminding them of their vulnerability to women’s false accusations. Vulcan also depicted the high-class prostitute Phryne. She was acquitted of a capital offense after she bared her breasts to the jurors.[7] As Phryne’s case highlights, criminal justice systems act mainly to punish men, not women. With a representation of Lais and Demosthenes, the girdle proclaimed that men commonly feel compelled to buy sex from women.[8] Worst of all, the girdle represented horrific effects of castration culture:

Democritus cuts off his genitals, abandons the male sex and becomes neuter. He divests the robed brothers of their male robes, banishes Venus’s twin testicular servants from their ancestral home, quells with cold steel the fire in his loins, and cuts short the work of that organ by severing it.

{ Inguina Democritus castrat, sexumque virilem
Exuit et neutrum recipit, fratresque togatos
Detoget et Veneris geminum depellit avito
Mancipium tecto, lumbique incendia ferro
Ingelat et nervi succisus apocopat usum. } [9]

What man would seek to get married with this girdle of Venus promised to him as a wedding gift? Architrenius, culturally illiterate, failed to read the signs correctly. He eagerly went through with the marriage that Mother had arranged for him.

The medieval Latin satire Architrenius doesn’t explicitly describe Architrenius’s fortune as a married man. Fortune reportedly blessed his marriage. Yet in the context of medieval Latin satire, the lengthy, tedious praise of his wife’s chastity points to adultery.[10] Architrenius’s good fortune may have been that he wasn’t imprisoned for “child support” debt after his wife divorced him and was awarded custody of their children. Archtrenius’s name literally means “arch-weeper.” He didn’t change his name upon getting married. His baptismal name prefigured his marital fate.

Careful literary study is necessary to understand fully the horrors of castration culture. In the Architrenius, the attendants of Architrenius’s bride included the personifications:

a virgin’s sexual intactness, the castration of a widowed bed,
matronly seriousness, the unchanging levity of a girl

{ Virginis integritas, vidui castracio lecti,
Matrone gravitas, levitas immota puelle } [11]

Those four phrases present a complex structure of meaning. In a cross-line crossing structure, a virgin is associated with a girl, and a widow with a matron. Across the phrase pairs on each line, sexual intactness contrasts with sexual dismemberment, and seriousness contrasts with levity. Virginity, seriousness, and levity are well-recognized concerns in medieval Latin literature. Castration, along with castration culture, tends to be trivialized if recognized at all. Yet in the extraordinary phrase vidui castracio lecti, castration figures the chastity of a widow sleeping alone. That broad, figurative use of castration, in the context of long-standing concern about widows’ chastity, indicates the extent to which castration was normalized in medieval society.[12] Castration in the figurative sense is even more normalized in the misandristic, gynocentric societies of today.

Unless his proposed bride deeply understands castration culture and resolutely rejects it, a man should not marry.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Johannes de Hauvilla, Architrenius, Latin text and trans. adapted slightly from Wetherbee (1994) pp. 22-3. Wetherbee translated parentum as “a parent.” The reference is clearly to Architrenius’s mother. Above I’ve translated parentum as “his mother.”

The Architrenius is “a narrative satire in nine books and 4361 lines of Latin hexameter.” Id. p. ix. The Architrenius apparently was completed in 1184 and dedicated in that year to Walter of Coutances. Walter was about to be established as the Archbishop of Rouen. Johannes de Hauvilla was a Norman, apparently from the village of Hauville near Rouen. He probably taught at the cathedral school of Rouen. Little else is known about his life. Id. p. x.

Subsequent quotes from the Architrenius are (cited by Latin book.line and page in the Wetherbee’s English translation): 1.333, p. 23 (what fortune may await…); 1.384-5, p. 25 (The swanlike whiteness…); 1.404-7,410, p. 27 (Like a lantern…); 1.426-8, p. 27 (Her appearance…); 2.1-5, p. 33 (Architrenius is consumed…); 2.17-9,26-31,39-44, pp. 33, 35 (Her breasts…); 2.66-71, p. 35 (Architrenius takes note…); 9.178-84, p. 235 (Can you, Nature…); 9.295, p. 241 (beautiful — yet chaste); 9.280-88, p. 241 (She will be a sweet companion…); 9.304-13, p. 243 (The Lemnian smith…); 9.328-32, p. 243 (Democritus cuts off his genitals…); 9.431-2, p. 249 (a virgin’s sexual intactness…). I’ve noted substantial changes that I’ve made to Wetherbee’s translation; non-substantial changes go unnoted.

[2] Virgil, Aeneid 10.284.

[3] The Architrenius further associates whiteness with the girl’s beauty:

a natural rosy heat, set off by the surrounding lily whiteness, creates a warm light in her cheeks, but its fire is tempered, and the softer red which suffuses the snowy white of the rest of her face has a gentler glow. … Perpetual snow gleams on her white neck

{ Incola flamma rose, quam circumfusa coronant
Lilia, candentes vultus accendit et ignes
Temperat et parcit faculis et amicius urit
Blandior extremi fusa nive purpura limbi.

Ningit in albenti mansura pruinula collo }

ll. 1.432-5, 470, trans. Wetherbee (1994) p. 29. Medieval society had little understanding of racial discrimination as a moral wrong. The moral wrong of racism is now widely understood. Much less progress has been made in overcoming anti-men sexism and castration culture.

[4] Architrenius “deduces what he does not see from the evidence of things seen”; cf. Hebrews 11:1-3. Wetherbee disparages Architrenius’s masculine heterosexuality as not being aesthetic:

Architrenius’ reaction is more lustful than aesthetic, an exaggerated version of that sought by Matthew of Vendome in addressing his sumptuous description of the female body to the “lector deliciosus.”

Wetherbee (1972) p. 245. Johannes de Hauvilla, however, allusively connects Architrenius’s natural bodily response to the salvific eye of faith.

[5] Virgil, Aeneid 8.387-406, trans. Fagles pp. 254-5, adapted slightly. The Latin text is available online at the Vergil project.

[6] The girdle of Venus is first mentioned in Homer, Iliad 14.214-17. There the girdle (breastband) is a love charm that Venus gives to Hera:

she loosed from her breasts the breastband,
pierced and alluring, with every kind of enchantment
woven through it … There is the heat of Love,
the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper,
irrestible — magic to make the sanest man go mad.

Trans. Fagles (1990) p. 376. For more on the girdle of Venus, Takada (1989) pp. 38-43.

[7] Phryne reportedly failed in a wager-induced attempt to seduce Xenocrates. However, vernacular literature in medieval Europe (the History of the Holy Grail) transmitted that a woman’s beauty could overcome even Hippocrates.

[8] According to Aulus Gellus, Noctes Atticae 1.8.3-6:

The great Demosthenes approached her secretly and asked for her favours. But Lais demanded ten thousand drachmas — a sum equivalent in our money to ten thousand denarii. Amazed and shocked at the woman’s great impudence and the vast sum of money demanded, Demosthenes turned away, remarking as he left her: “I will not buy regret at such a price.”

Trans. J. C. Rolfe (1927) for the Loeb Classical Library.

[9] In classical literature, Democritus blinded himself to eliminate the intellectual distraction of worldly vision. Cicero, De finibus 5.87, Aulus Gellus, Noctes Atticae 10.17.1. Tertullian plausibly associated Democritus concern about worldly distraction with women:

Democritus, by blinding himself because he could not look on women without lust and was pained if he did not possess them, declares his incontinency by his attempted cure. But the Christian, though he preserve his sight, sees no women, because he is blinded against lust in his heart.

Tertullian, Apologeticum 46.11, trans. Alexander Souter (1917). Democritus castrating himself is known only in the Architrenius. Wetherbee noted that “Schmidt plausibly suggest that the basis for John’s substitution of castration {in the Architrenius} is Tertullian.” Wetherbee (1994) p. 268, n. 28. That attribution obscures the thematic importance of castration in the Architrenius and in medieval culture more generally.

[10] Mother Nature warned Architrenius:

Keep your mind wholly free of any taint of fear lest she ever break the bond of marriage, for she will never admit a husband who could admit the thought of such foulness.

{ contagia toto
Pectore declines, alioquin vincula rumpet
Coniugii, passum maculas non passa maritum. }

9.299-301, p. 241. Attempting to coerce a man to suppress a vital, reasonable, and distinctive concern of men doesn’t inspire confidence. That coercion underscores the reality of the concern.

[11] Wetherbee translated this couplet as “inviolate virginity; the abstinence of an unshared bed; matronly dignity; a maiden’s steadfast delicacy.” For vidui castracio lecti, he noted:

As Schmidt notes, castratio must be intended as in some sense equivalent to castitas.

Wetherbee (1994) p. 249 (translation), p.268, n. 36 (note). Wetherbee’s translation seems to me to obscure the rhetorical structure of the couplet. Moreover, given the enduring influence of castration culture, medieval Latin philologists should carefully and extensively study terms such as castratio. That said, Wetherbee and other medieval Latin philologists-translators deserve praise, honor, and appreciation for conveying vitally important medieval Latin literature to a larger present-day public. Thank you for your work, Winthrop Wetherbee!

[12] In the Architrenius, Mother Nature also apparently associated castration with men committing adultery:

Adultery is a foul disgrace! It plucks away the girdle of good character and afflicts an already tainted reputation with diseases that lead to ruin in various ways. As the price of a shameful night’s lodging, the hammer forsakes its natural pouch, its twin is cut away by the hand of Lachesis, and the distaff, too, is severed by the Fates.

{ Turpis adulterii labes! redimicula morum
Vellit et obscuram trahit in contagia famam,
In varias suspecta neces, preciumque pudendi
Hospitis a loculo Nature malleus exit
Et Lachesis gemino succiso pollice. Parcis
Tollitur una colus }

9.260-5, p. 239. The hammer refers to the penis, the pouch to the vagina, its twin to the testicles, and the distaff, probably to the vagina. Cf. Wetherbee (1972) p. 252. Aelred of Rievaulx’s account of the Nun of Watton indicates that in twelfth-century England men were castrated for consensual sex with an unmarried woman.

[images] (1) Vulcan catches Mars and Venus cuckolding him. Excerpt from painting by Alexandre Charles Guillemot, 1827. Held in the Indianopolis Museum of Art. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. (2) Venus places her girdle around the waist of Juno (Hera). Excerpt from a painting by Andrea Appiani, circa 1811. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. (3) Vulcan in his forge taking orders from Venus. Excerpt from painting by Juan de Espinal, circa 1760. Held in the Museum of Fine Arts of Seville. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Fagles, Robert, trans. and Bernard Knox, intro. and notes. 1990. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.

Fagles, Robert, trans. 2006. Virgil. The Aeneid. New York: Viking.

Takada, Yasunari. 1989. “The Brooch of Thebes and the Girdle of Venus: Courtly Love in an Oppositional Perspective.” Poetica (Tokyo) 29/39: 17-38.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1972. Platonism and poetry in the twelfth century: the literary influence of the school of Chartres. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1994. Johannes de Hauvilla. Architrenius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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