break the classical circle: love beyond castration and cuckolding

From the eight-century BGC ancient Greek text of Hesiod’s Genealogy of the Gods {Θεογονία} to the sixteenth-century French text of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel and beyond, classical culture has encompassed castration and cuckolding. Ideal forms of Plato were transformed in myths that Ovid recounted, yet gender justice for men remains nearly inconceivable. With its lamentable ignorance of classics, our benighted age has unknowingly perpetuated the classical circle of castration and cuckolding. Humanity must instead love men in self-awareness, with truthful paternity, and with appreciation for the seminal blessing.

A twelfth-century cleric struggled with classical culture in his endeavor to encourage cloistered women to love clerics. The cleric frankly acknowledged that, in classical culture, castration engenders the love goddess Venus:

The writings of the poets reveal disgraces of gods and goddesses,
their birth and behavior, and their life and their loves.
One reads how Jove copulated with Juno, the brother with his sister,
how the highest in the clan of gods had sexual affairs in the marriage bed,
and in damage to his mother cut off his father’s penis and testicles.
When the blood of his genitals united with the white sea-spray
in a polluted birth — from this you were created, nourishing Venus.

{ Scripta poetarum divum probra sive dearum,
Et genus et mores, vitam reserunt et amores.
Cum Iove Iunonem, cum fratre coisse sororem,
Fertur amasse thorum primus de gente deorum,
In dampnum matris truncasse virilia patris.
Fedo natali cum sanguine de genitali
Candida spuma maris coit — hinc, Venus alma, crearis }[1]

Castration is a horrible wrong to men and to women who love men. How could the love goddess Venus, born from castration, win among humans?

Jupiter embracing Juno in bed

Like most medieval clerics, this cleric had no doubt that Athens belonged with Jerusalem. He pondered instead what Ovid had to do with Plato:

When the poet {Ovid} deliberates these matters with forms and the metaphor
of changings, a great work and issue is conceived.

I wonder why the poet about to tell of so many monstrous deeds
and so many shameful acts wished to recount precisely prior
the origins of things, the origin of all heaven and earth.
Like Plato, he explicates the character of nature,
afterwards the things that were changed, the varied species of things,
the crime of the changed things, the impiety of the gods above.
And why?

{ Cum de mutatis formis metaphora vatis
Hec commentatur, opus et res magna paratur.

Miror cur vates tot feda, tot improbitates
Dicturus demum, voluit primordia rerum,
Celi vel terre, subtiliter ante referre.
Iuxta Platonem Nature condicionem,
Post res mutatas, rerum species variatas,
Et mutatorum scelus, impia supra deorum
Explicat — et quare? }[2]

The classical gods are an intricate construction of the human mind. Like Jove, the human mind seems to move back and forth between higher and lower realms:

When we contemplate heaven, when we philosophize
about the planets’ courses, we think the seats of souls
to be in the stars. From there they necessarily proceed
with things being born, thus submitting to obligations by fate,
so descending here into a body and inhabiting it.
We philosophize how blessed souls by law now
seek again their first seat, or when departing in death,
they expiate their wrong-doings by fitting sufferings in flames,
with which you would return to purity and then forever enjoy heaven.
When we expound such matters and words of virtue
and of true salvation, in spirit we fly to the stars.
Thus do we seek heaven, not in so doing to pile Ossa on Olympus.
You feel this state of mind turned back to impiety,
to change wrongly, to whore, and to wanton.
Jove, drawn to the lowest, fills human action.
Defeated by vice, abandoned by virtue, the mind sins.

{ Cum perscrutamur celum, cum philosophamur
De planetarum cursu, sedes animarum
In stellis esse, nascentibus inde necesse
Rebus prodire, sic debita fata subire,
Huc se migrantes in corpus et hic habitantes,
Felices anime qua lege cubilia prime
Nunc repetant sedis, vel, cum moriendo recedis,
Suppliciis dignis commissa quis expiet ignis,
Quo redeas purus, perpes celo fruiturus —
Hec de virtute, de vera verba salute
Quando tractamus, ad sidera mente volamus:
Sic celum petimus, non ut ferat Ossan Olimpus.
Hunc habitum mentis tum rursus ad impia sentis
Prave mutari, scortari, luxuriari,
Mortales actus Iovis implet ad infima tractus,
Mens vitio victa peccat virtute relicta. }

Just as for humans, the most important aspect of the classical gods is their sexual intercourse:

There is something you can learn from the divinity of these gods.
Not without instruction are they said to move to the bottom.

Whatever in this world appears under a cruel or favorable
star, and whatever has influence on these,
from which we see all types of things established,
whatever you know and feel, whatever is made and exists from these elements —
they declare this work the sexual intercourse of these gods.

{ Est quod in illorum discas deitate deorum,
Nec sine doctrina migrare feruntur ad ima.

Quidquit in hoc mundo crudeli sive secundo
Sidere versantur, et quicquid in hec operantur,
Ex quibus omnc genus rerum constare videmus,
Quod sapis et sentis, quod ab his fit et est elementis —
Hoc opus istorum coitum dixere deorum. }

No learned medieval person would seek to have her adultery excused by claiming that the devil made her do it. A learned medieval person would claim that the classical gods made her do it, or least gave her the idea:

The gods who have given birth to such deeds could not have sinned —
rather they have shown us that these acts are licit.
And if the power of love prevails in us,
it has also overcome the beings of heaven with the fire of its shaft.
Why are you accustomed to condemn what the fleshly offspring now loves?
And why am I accustomed to condemn mortal humanity for this?

{ Nec qui gesserunt peccare dii potuerunt —
Aut monstravere nobis ea facta licere.
At si que nobis virtus dominatur amoris,
Igne sui teli superavit numina celi.
Quid culpare soles quod amat nunc carnea proles?
Et mortale genus quid ob hoc culpare solemus? }

The classical gods committing adultery doesn’t mean that it’s licit for you to commit adultery.[3] Proscription of adultery was a difficult teaching in god-respecting medieval Europe. But in our ignorant and godless age, what the classical gods did cannot matter at all. Nonetheless, the pattern of castration and cuckolding that the classical gods established remains entrenched in modern cultures.

Jupiter as an eagle comes for Aegina

Rablais’s sixteenth-century Gargantua and Pantagruel exemplifies the failure to break the classical circle of castration and cuckolding. Panurge recognized that Juno’s husband Jupiter, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos, was cuckolding men. Demonstrating his classical learning, Panurge declared of Jupiter:

He was brought up more goatish than a goat by a sow on Dicte in Candia, if Agathocles of Babylon isn’t lying. Also others say that he was suckled by a nanny-goat called Amalthea. And then (by Acheron!) in a single day he rammed one-third of the entire world: beasts, humans, rivers and mountains — Europa, that is. On account of that ramification, the Ammonians had him portrayed in the form of a ram rampant, a horned ram.

{ feut il nourry par une Truie en Dicte de Candie, si Agathocles Babylonien ne ment: & plus boucquin que n’est un Boucq: aussi disent les autres, qu’il feut alaicté d’une chèvre Amalthée. Vertus de Acheron il belibelina pour un iour la tierce partie du monde, bestes & gens, fleuves, & montaignes: ce feut Europe. Pour cestuy belinaige les Ammoniens le faisoient protraire en figure de belier belinant, belier cornu. }[4]

The intellectually vibrant Middle Ages bequeathed to the sixteenth century a living sense of the divine. Panurge wasn’t ignorant of the many ways a man could be cuckold, for the god Jupiter had revealed many:

I know how to protect myself from that horn-bearer. Believe me, he won’t find in me a stupid Amphitryon, a complaisant Argus with his hundred goggles, a cowardly Acrisius, a dreamer like Lycus of Thebes, a lunatic like Agenor, like the phlegmatic Asopus, the yokelish Corytus of Tuscany, or the stout-backed Atlas. Let him metamorphose himself hundreds of times into a swan, bull, satyr, shower of gold, cuckoo (as he did when he made a woman of his sister Juno), eagle, ram, pigeon (as he did when in love with that maiden Phthia who lived in Aegia), fire, snake, indeed even into a flea, or into the atoms of Epicurus, or our-masterly into social constructs. I’ll grab him in my shepherd’s crook.

{ ie sçay comment guarder se fault de ce cornart. Croyez qu’il n’aura trouvé un sot Amphitrion, un niais Argus avecques ses cent bezicles: un couart Acrisius, un lanternier Lycus de Thebes, un resveur Agenor, un Asope phlegmaticq, un Lychaon patepelue, un modourre Corytus de la Toscane, un Atlas à la grande eschine. Il pourroit cent & cent foys se transformer en Cycne, en Taureau, en Satyre, en Or, en Coqu, comme feist quand il depucella Iuno sa soeur: en AIgle, en Belier, en Pigeon, comme feist estant amoureux de la pucelle Phtie, laquelle demouroit en aegie: en Feu, en Serpent, voire certes en Pusse, en Atomes Epicureicques, ou magistrostralement en secondes intentions. Ie vous grupperay au cruc. }[5]

Lacking enlightenment and appreciation for the seminal blessing, Panurge failed to move beyond the classical cycle of castration and cuckolding and castration, repeating endlessly:

And you know what I’ll do to him? Crow-god! What Saturn did to his father Coelus (Seneca foretold it of me, and Lactantius confirmed it), what Rhea did to Attis. I’ll slice off his balls right up to his ass. It won’t be a hair’s breadth less.

{ Et sçavez que luy feray? Corbieu, ce que feist Saturne au Ciel son père. Senecque l’a de moy predict, & Lactance confirmé. Ce que Rhea feist à Athys. Ie vous luy coupperay les couillons tout rasibus du cul. Il ne s’en fauldra un pelet. }

As Panurge showed, neither Plato’s ideals nor Ovid’s mythic transformations directed human culture to a worthy end. Plato’s preeminent disciple Socrates endured domestic violence at the hands of his harridan-wife Xanthippe. Ovid himself was castrated. Panurge faced in marriage being cuckolded, beaten, and robbed. The eternal truth is obvious: history will never be progressive until human culture truly embraces love for men.

Jupiter kissing Io from a dark cloud
Danaë under golden shower

More widespread study of classical literature beyond Plato and Ovid can help to foster love beyond the classical circle of castration and cuckolding. A Thessalonian tomb poem poignantly expresses a woman’s love for a man. Marie de France depicted women’s generous love for men. Women have defended men against hateful anti-meninism and false accusations of rape. A Byzantine woman even strongly intervened in a raging war to save her husband from castration. Such literature must be celebrated to break the classical circle of castration and cuckolding. Ending the literary horror of epic violence against men isn’t enough. True love for men must triumph.

* * * * *

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[1] “One profits from the ignorance of not knowing: you are commended {Profuit ignaris aliquid nescisse: probaris}” vv. 33-9, Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 452-7, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. This poem survives in one manuscript, Munich, Clm 19488, pp. 128-30, copied toward the end of the twelfth century.

Jupiter / Zeus didn’t castrate his father Saturn / Chronus. Saturn castrated his father Uranus at the behest of his mother Gaia. As the cleric’s concern for the wife of the castrated god indicates, he seems to have been working with classical myth in a constructive and instructive way.

Concluding his analysis of this poem, Dronke declared of the cleric’s poem:

His poem is a magnificent affirmation of that unity between earthly and heavenly love in which the values of courtoisie are ultimately grounded. It is unique in its attempt to show philosophically how heavenly love transfigures earthly love.

Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 238. This poem surely doesn’t embrace the men-abasing sexism of courtly love. Moreover, rather than showing how heavenly love transfigures earthly love, the poem shows how earthly love transfigures heavenly love. Wetherbee perceptively noted:

Dronke’s interpretation seems to me to exaggerate the philosophical seriousness of the poem at the expense of its broad comedy.

Wetherbee (1972) p. 140, n. 33.

Dronke noted that this poem apparently is cited in another twelfth-century verse epistle from Otto to a nun. The latter poem survives in MS. Tegernsee, Clm 18580, folios 59r-64r. Otto’s epistle consists of 591 leonine hexameters. Dronke characterized Otto’s epistle as “duller and more diffuse than ‘Profuit ignaris.'” Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 463. Id. provides a short summary of Otto’s epistle.

Subsequent quotes above are similarly from “Profuit ignaris.” They are vv. 102-3, 137-43h1 (When the poet {Ovid} deliberates…), 146-61 (When we contemplate heaven…), 162-3, 173-7 (There is something you can learn…), 55-60 (The gods who have given birth…).

[2] On the influence of Ovid in medieval Europe through the twelfth century, Böckerman (2020) Chapter 1.

[3] “Profuit ignaris aliquid nescisse: probaris” seems here to be echoing Appendix Vergiliana, Lydia. After recounting amorous exploits of classical gods, Lydia boldly states:

Therefore what gods and heroes have done, why not a later age?

{ ergo quod deus atque heros, cur non minor aetas? }

Lydia, v. 75, Latin text and English translation from Fairclough (1918). Lydia is probably from the first century GC.

[4] François Rabelais, The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, The Third Book of Pantagruel {La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, Le tiers livre de Pantagruel}, Chapter 12, Middle French text (with a few corrections) from Bon (1992-3), English translation (modified) from Screech (2006). For an alternate English translation, Frame (1999). Chapter 12 is entitled, “How Pantagruel explores with Virgilian lots what sort of marriage Panurge will have {Comment Pantagruel explore par sors Virgilianes, quel sera le mariage de Panurge}.” Subsequent quotes above are similarly sourced from Chapter 12.

Opening a book of Virgil’s poems and blindly placing his figure on a verse, Panurge encountered this one: “No god honors him at his table, no goddess honors him in bed {Nec Deux hunc mensa, Dea nec dignata cubili est}.” Virgil, Eclogues 4.63. Pantagruel interpreted that verse to imply “your wife will be a slut and you consequently a cuckold {vostre femme sera ribaulde, vous coqu par consequent}.” Panurge interpreted the verse to the contrary: “my wife will be honorable, chaste, and loyal {ma femme sera preude, pudicque, & loyalle}.” Panurge then resolved to defend himself against Jupiter cuckolding him.

Jupiter’s extra-marital sexual activities were well-recognized. About 400 GC, Prudentius wrote of the god Jupiter:

Next Jupiter, who was worse than his father and lived on wooded Olympus, defiled the Laconian women with the stain of lust. One time, he carried off his loved one on a bull’s back to commit his crime. Another time, gentle and lighter than down, he chanted soft wooing notes like a swan’s sweet death-song to charm the young woman and make her willing to submit to his winged love. Yet again, when doors were deaf and tight-wedged bar or bolt held them fast, the rich lover would break the tiles and through the roof pour streaming down a shower of gold for his mistress to catch in her lap. His armor-bearer managed the vile ravishing when he held the wretched Ganymede in his foul embrace, and his sister was angrier than ever at having now a boy as her rival. The cause and fountain-head of the evil is this: raw stupidity imagined a golden age in the reign of the old stranger.

{ mox patre deterior silvosi habitator Olympi
Iuppiter incesta spurcavit labe Lacaenas,
nunc bove subvectam rapiens ad crimen amatam,
nunc tener ac pluma levior blandosque susurros
in morem recinens suave inmorientis oloris,
capta quibus volucrem virguncula ferret amorem,
nunc foribus surdis, sera quas vel pessulus artis
firmarat cuneis, per tectum dives amator
imbricibus ruptis undantis desuper auri
infundens pluviam gremio excipientis amicae,
armigero modo sordidulam curante rapinam
conpressu inmundo miserum adficiens catamitum,
pelice iam puero magis indignante sorore,
haec causa est et origo mali, quod saecla vetusto
hospite regnante crudus stupor aurea finxit }

Prudentius, Against Symmachus’s Speech {Contra Orationem Symmachi} 1.59-73, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Thomson (1949), vol. 1. Men nonetheless continued to be stupid and cuckolded.

[5] The phrase “into second intentions {en secondes intentions}” is scholastic-academic jargon. Here’s a review of “intention, primary and secondary.” I’ve used the phrase “social construct” for more contemporary scholastic-academic relevance.

[images] (1) Jupiter embracing Juno in bed. Painted by Annibale Carracci in 1597. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Jupiter as an eagle comes for Aegina. Painting by Ferdinand Bol in the seventeenth century. Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Jupiter kissing Io from a dark cloud. Painted by Antonio Allegri (called Correggio) about 1530. Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Danae enjoys Jupiter as a golden shower. Painting by Gustav Klimt in 1907. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Böckerman, Robin Wahlsten. 2020. The Bavarian Commentary and Ovid: Clm 4610, the Earliest Documented Commentary on the Metamorphoses. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. Review by Ralph Hexter and by Peter Knox.

Bon, François, ed. 1992-3. François Rabelais. Gargantua et Pantagruel, Le Tiers-Livre. Electronic edition of the Édition Fezandat, Paris, 1552. Paris: P.O.L. Alternate presentation.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fairclough, H. Rushton, revised by G. P. Goold. 1918. Virgil. Aeneid: Books 7-12. Appendix Vergiliana. Loeb Classical Library 64. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press..

Frame, Donald M. 1999. The Complete Works of François Rabelais. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Screech, M.A., trans. 2006. François Rabelais. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books. (review by Barbara Bowen)

Thomson, Henry John, ed. and trans. 1949. Prudentius. Loeb Classical Library 387, 398. Vol. 1, Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. 1972. Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century; the Literary Influence of the School of Chartres. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

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