resurrection: overcoming the poetic problem with penises & erections

resurrection (Limoges enamel)

While men’s status is scarcely an issue of contemporary public concern, men’s impotence has catastrophic long-term effects on society. Men commonly feel anxiety about their bodily endowment and struggle with their burden of performance. Men understand, at least sub-consciously, that their sexuality supports powerful social forces of gender oppression. That’s particularly true with regard to the vastly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men — that “gender protrusion” almost wholly ignored in the public media of gynocentric society.

Men’s sexual problems have an important poetic component. Superficial metaphorical thinking figures the erect penis as a weapon and colors men’s sexuality with violence. However, Abu Nuwas, an eighth-century Arabic poet commonly regarded as among the greatest classical Arabic poets, pushed forward poetry associating the penis and resurrection. Abu Nuwas’s poetry offers a vital resource for promoting social justice and bringing more joy to the lives of men and women today. As Abu Nuwas recognized, a man’s erection should be appreciated with hope for resurrection.

In literature around the world and throughout history, the penis is dominantly figured as a weapon: a sword, cudgel, or club. The metaphor of love as war is common in world literature.[1] Yet for gross, formal reasons, men’s genitals are figured as weapons while women’s aren’t. A perceptive scholar noted that the penis-sword metaphor is “common to virtually all cultures.” Such a figure can be found in the fifth-century BGC Greek comedy of Aristophanes and in second-century BGC Latin drama of Plautus.[2] Classical Arabic literature associated the penis’s sexual exploits with raiding and battles. In today’s English, the impressively functional “fuck” means both to do someone harm (“screw” the person) and to have sex. That corresponds to the metaphorical space of penal-penis action.

Poetry affirming the generous, sacrificial work of men’s penises has relatively little cultural salience. The beautiful and learned sixth-century poetry of Maximianus’s Greek girl is now largely unknown. Medieval Latin literature described the penis as a peacemaker and a husband’s sexual obligation to his wife as a matter of preserving her life. But major news sources now report as true mendacious statistics about husbands raping their wives. Men’s sexuality is now criminalized in ways that make the early-twentieth-century Mann Act seem almost gender-neutral in comparison. Classical Arabic poetry analogized a impotent penis to loss of mind-enriching resources:

So thin of grip, it is as if my penis were a sack emptied of books [3]

Penises have seminal value for new life like books do for new ideas. But few persons read books today. More powerful poetic resources are urgently needed to affirm the value of men’s penises.

Abu Nuwas offers a subtle poetic answer to the hurtful, violent figures of men’s erect penises. Unlike today’s prevalent literature of women writing sympathetically about themselves and men writing dutifully to please women, Abu Nuwas wrote with utter disregard for social orthodoxy:

I rose up and made for him, swaggering and erect, having prepared my ram for butting. When I had fixed the lance in him, he awoke, like one prostrated by wounds. [4]

Raping a man is wrong. But Abu Nuwas is doing more in this line than just describing another deplorable incident of violence against men. After Abu Nuwas’s penis penetrated the man, that victim “awoke, like one prostrated by wounds.” That’s a preternatural conjoining of returning to conscious life with falling toward death in battle. In another poem, a man who was an Islamic scholar, an ascetic, and an expert doctor advised Abu Nuwas:

Make peace with them and retaliate on their children, if you have a grudge against the unbelievers!
And stab with your lance the belly of this girl or the back of that boy: that is proper jihad! How excellent is the final Home! [5]

The concluding ejaculation, “How excellent is the final Home!” is a quote from the Qur’an. Abu Nuwas has for children conjoined the blissful ultimate end of Islam with being stabbed by an erect penis. With its conjunctions, Abu Nuwas’s poetry subverts the figure of the penis as weapon and connects an erection with resurrection.

Erection and resurrection is even more explicit in another of Abu Nuwas’s poems. This poem associates a battle with symposiastic revel:

When the Father of War deploys his horsemen for war
and death’s banner has passed before the Sheikh as a signal
and the battle reaches maturity and is ignited with fires ablaze,
we ignite our combat as dalliance with those whom we love and who love us,
and the heat of the engagement bares its teeth in a snarl.
We make our hands into bows, and lilies into arrows
and send ahead, in place of standard and spear, sweet basil.
Then our battle reverts to friendship and we become comrades once again
of youths who deem dying in pleasure a sacrifice. [6]

War and love are thoroughly mixed in these lines. The third-personal narrative of the first three lines has abstract, allusive actors ceremonially staging a battle. The fourth line links a second-personal collective of older men to combat in love with youths. The men attack the youths by pretending to shoot them with Cupid’s bow, by throwing flowers at them, and offering them sweet basil, a delicacy then consumed with wine. The reference to “youths who deem dying in pleasure a sacrifice” raises the poem to its initial abstract allusiveness. What sort of sacrifice was it for the youths to die in love — to die from being penetrated by the men’s penises? The poem drops back to narrative details of the love-combat:

When they beat the drum we strum lutes
and draw up squadrons of carnations, all colors —
the stones of our siege-engines are the apples of Lebanon
and the cause of our war is a cup-bearer who has taken captive a wine and gives us it to drink,
urging on the goblet so that the next cup can overtake the first.
You can see this one felled, laid low, and that one flaccid, drunk.
This war is not a war which engulfs people in enmity;
in it we kill them and then resurrect our victims. [7]

The final line relates the youth’s sacrifice of dying in pleasure to the men’s ability to resurrect their victims. The youth’s sacrifice of dying in pleasure is the men’s detumescence. The men’s power to resurrect their victims means their power to resurrect their erections. That’s how the penis functions within the reciprocity of “those whom we love and who love us.”

Classical Arabic poetry may have drawn upon the Hebrew Bible in relating erection and resurrection. The Book of Isaiah, widely revered as beautiful, divinely inspired prophetic poetry, declares:

Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth to those long dead.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. [8]

Classical Arabic poetry lamenting men’s impotence offers a sad counterpoint:

O cock, wake up! The young gazelle has taken off its clothes!
How shall I excuse myself now that you lie together skin to skin!
Messages about incited cocks are revealed at encounters.
O you heavy-headed one that slumbers all night and all day,
using the skin of its testicles as a wrapper against the cold!
O you who won’t move at all to benefit its awakener! [9]

Resurrection is central to the faith and hope of many men and women of different beliefs around the world. Unfortunately, belief that Mary as a virgin gave birth to Jesus has confused many Christians. Such an event would be pointless without men’s erections. Men’s erections have carried forward the promise of eternal life. When you think of penises and erections, think of profound love and hope for resurrection.

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[1] Papoutsakis (2014) p. 110, with references to relevant ancient Greek and Latin literature in n. 30. For sexual exploits presented as raids and battles in classical Arabic literature, id. pp. 108-12 and Schippers and Mattock (1986). Sexual super-heroes are also depicted less allusively in Arabic literature.

[2] Shanzer (1983) p. 184. In the sixth-century BGC Greek poetry of Hipponax, a man’s penis is beaten as a scapegoat.

[3] Abū Ḥukayma, Dīwān no. 33, p. 107, from Arabic trans. Papoutsakis (2014) p. 107. The references to Abū Ḥukayma’s Dīwān are to the third revised edition of Aʿrajī (Köln / Baghdad, 2007).

[4] Abu Nuwas, poem 170, ll. 3-4 in edition of al-Gazālī (Cairo, 1953), from Arabic trans. Mattock (1987) p. 532 (which also supplies the transliterated Arabic). For an English translation of the full poem, Caswell (2015) pp. 69-70. For the verses quoted above, Caswell has:

I then stirred and rose proud as a peacock
Having prepared my ram for butting
He woke up with a start as I speared him

Id. p. 70. Mattock’s translation seems to me to be closer to the Arabic, yet readily understandable. Caswell’s translation misses some of the subtleties of the poetry. Caswell’s work, however, has the great merit of making a large amount of Abu Nuwas’s poetry available in English.

Interpreting Abu Nuwas’s poetry biographically and writing up rape charges against him, as literary scholars now commonly do for men literary characters throughout history, tends to be a mind-numbing exercise. In this poem, Abu Nuwas reports that the victim got him drunk. If a woman gets a man drunk and then has sex with him, she should be regarded as a rapist under gender-neutral application of criminal law. Yet victimizing men in this way has to avoid making men unable to fulfill their performance burden. A scholar has appropriately questioned Abu Nuwas’s account of committing rape:

In the sexual episodes, one would imagine that the victim’s being asleep would detract considerably from the performer’s enjoyment; one would also imagine that the amount of drink consumed beforehand would, in fact, in view of its notoriously anaphrodisiacal qualities, seriously inhibit any such performance.

Mattock (1987) p. 537.

Poets’ actual lives do inform their understanding and their poetry. With respect to Abu Nuwas, Montgomery presented “the poet as impotent tee-totaller (the [distorted] Mattock hypothesis).” Montgomery strongly rejected that hypothesis in his interpretive approach to Abu Nuwas. Montgomery (1998) p. 19 and passim. Between believing that Abu Nuwas was an impotent tee-totaller and charging him with rape is a broad space for enriching literary engagement.

[5] Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 5:211, ll. 15-6 (mujūnīya §211) (ed. Wagner), from Arabic trans. Geert Jan van Gelder. As van Gelder observed, the last phrase above quotes Qur’an 13:24 in the English translation of Yusuf Ali. For l. 16, Lyons has:

Pierce with your spear the bellies of the females and the back of the males: this is jihad; how good will be your future dwelling place.

Lyons (1999) p. 183. Lyons’s translation misses the Qur’anic context of the last phrase and interpolates a possessive pronoun (“your future dwelling place”) that associates that dwelling place with the destination of the person with the spear / penis (“Pierce with your spear”). That confuses Abu Nuwas’s subtle imagery of erection and resurrection.

Caswell provides a looser translation of the whole poem. The poem clearly includes parody. It ends:

I said: “…what else would you advise
A bachelor, stranger, newly arrived in town?”
He said: “Commit adultery with your neighbor’s wife
Then sodomise his son!”

Caswell (2015) p. 144. Just as for the brilliant classical Arabic litterateur al-Jahiz, Abu Nuwas’s outrageousness is mixed with deep seriousness.

[6] Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 5:168.16-169.16 (mujūnīya §167) (ed. Wagner), from Arabic. trans. Montgomery (2011) p. 132 (adapted slightly). The subsequent quote is similarly from id. Montgomery (1998) pp. 22-3 provides a slightly different English translation. Caswell (2015), p. 292, provides a relatively loose, easily readable translation. Other English translations of some lines are Lyons (1999) p. 183, n. 1, and Meisami (2010) pp. 42-3.

Sweet basil is a figure of pleasure in classical Arabic poetry. A seventh-century wine poem of al-A’sha states:

I have gone to the tavern in the morning,
with a bold, brazen, bawdy butcher in my tracks. . .
Reclining I have outdone my rivals for a
sprig of sweet-basil and a dry wine from a moist jug.

From Arabic trans. Galvin (2002). Al-Shanfarā in The Ta’iyya of al-Shanfarā (Mufaḍḍaliyya no. 20) wrote of the narrator and his lover:

We passed the night as though the tent above us was enclosed with sweet basil that had been touched by the evening breeze and the dew.

From Arabic trans. Xie (2016) p. 40. The famous and poignant Lāmiyyāt ‘al-Arab is commonly attributed to al-Shanfarā.

Abu Nuwas rejected the figure of the hero in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. In one poem Abu Nuwas declared:

better than standing on a battlefield and riding horses while shouting halā and hab is the cry of the wine-server to one who keeps a glass in hand.

Abu Nuwas, Dīwān 162.7 in ed. al-Gazālī (Cairo, 1953), from Arabic trans. Lyons (1999) p. 181 (adapted insubstantially for readability).

[7] In translations of this poem, the terms “carnations” and “siege-engines” above are typically “gillyflowers” and “mangonels.” I’ve used the former terms to help ordinary readers at little apparent poetic cost. Montgomery earlier translated the third-to-last line as:

Then you will see this one felled and that one screwing another who’s drunk.

Montgomery (1998) p. 23. Cf. Montgomery (2011) p. 132. Translating classical Arabic is difficult and requires much scholarly study. Moreover, establishing the original-language text that is the best possible representation of what the author actually wrote more than a millennium ago requires arduous scholarly work. Recent academic fashions have regrettably devalued this important work.

The Satyricon, written about 65 GC and attributed to Petronius Arbiter, preceded Abu Nuwas in associating erection and resurrection. Encolpius, a main character in the Satyricon, suffered from impotence when he tried to have sex with Circe. Traditional Greco-Roman magic, with a seasoning of Christian healing practice, restored his erection only for a brief trial. He fully recovered through the intervention of “Dii maiores {greater Gods}”:

“But there are greater gods, who have restored me to my strength. For Mercury, who conveys and reconveys our soul, by his favors has restored to me what his anger had taken away. So you may know me to be more in favor than Protesilaus or any other of the ancient heroes.” With these words I lifted my tunic and offered my whole self for the approbation of Eumolpus. At first he jumped back in consternation, but then to establish belief as far as possible he felt with both hands the favor of the gods.

{ “Dii maiores sunt, qui me restituerunt in integrum. Mercurius enim, qui animas ducere et reducere solet, suis beneficiis reddidit mihi quod manus irata praeciderat, ut scias me gratiosiorem esse quam Protesilaum aut quemquam alium antiquorum.” Haec locutus sustuli tunicam, Eumolpoque me totum approbavi. At ille primo exhorruit, deinde ut plurimum crederet, utraque manu deorum beneficia tractat. }

From Satyricon 140, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Heseltine & Rouse (1913). Eumolpus felt with both hands Encolpius’s large erection.

Encolpius’s reference to Protesilaus implicitly refers to his and Protesilaus’s resurrections:

This is, of course, a generalized reference to those who returned from the dead, but the choice of Protesilaus for particular mention is surprising and striking. He is the polytheists’ new representative of bodily resurrection. And for Encolpius, in particular, resurrection becomes a metaphor for erection.

Bowersock (1997) p. 113. Protesilaus led the Thessalian in the Trojan War and was the first Greek to attack and die. Over time, Protesilaus came to be known as one who had been resurrected.

[8] Isaiah 26:19, 60:1. Cf. Ephesians 5:44:

Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead
and Christ will shine on you.

[9] Abū Ḥukayma, Dīwān no. 9, pp. 61-3, ll. 1-6, from Arabic trans. Papoutsakis (2014) p. 111 (adapted slightly). Id. (which provide the whole poem in translation) notes that this poem “was obviously well-liked by Ibn al-Muʻtazz who quoted it in his note on Abū Ḥukayma in the Tabaqāt.”

[image] Three saints rising from the dead. Limoges enamel, made c. 1250. Along the sides of the enamel is pseudo-Arabic Kufic script. Preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, item M.104-1945. Image thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons.


Bowersock, Glen Warren. 1997. Fiction as history: Nero to Julian. London: University of California Press.

Caswell, F. Matthew, trans. 2015. The khamriyyat of Abū Nuwās: Medieval Bacchic Poetry. Kibworth Beauchamp: Matador.

Galvin, Rachel. 2002. “Of Poets, Prophets, and Politics.” Humanities: the Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. 23(1).

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lyons, M. C. 1999. Identification and identity in classical Arabic poetry. Gibb Literary Studies 2. Warminster, Wiltshire: Aris & Phillips.

Mattock, John N. 1987. “Description and Genre in Abū Nuwās.” Quaderni Di Studi Arabi. 5/6: 528-540.

Meisami, Julie Scott. 2010. Structure and meaning in medieval Arabic and Persian poetry Orient pearls. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Montgomery, James E. 1998. “Abū Nuwās the Alcoholic.” Pp. 15-26 in Vermeulen, Urbain, and D. De Smet, eds. Philosophy and arts in the Islamic world: proceedings of the eighteenth congress of the Union Européenne des Arabisants et Islamisants held at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (September 3-September 9, 1996). Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters.

Montgomery, James E. 2011. “Abū Nuwās, The Justified Sinner?” Oriens. 39 (1): 75-164.

Papoutsakis, Nefeli. 2014. “The Ayrīyāt of Abū Ḥukayma (d. 240/854): a preliminary study.” Ch. 6 (pp. 101-122) in Talib, Adam, Hammond, Marlé and Schippers, Arie, eds. 2014. The Rude, the Bad and the Bawdy: Essays in honour of Professor Geert Jan van Gelder. Warminster: Gibb Memorial Trust.

Shanzer, Danuta. 1983. “Ennodius, Boethius, and the date and interpretation of Maximianus’s Elegia III.” Rivista di filologia e di istruzione classica 111: 183-195.

Schippers, Arie, and John Mattock. 1986. “Love and War: a Poem of Ibn Khafājah.” Journal of Arabic Literature. 17 (1): 50-67.

Xie, Wei. 2016. Love in Pre-Islamic poetry and Shijing. Master of Arts Thesis. University of Virginia.

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