strong, independent, man-hating Aseneth became new woman

Aseneth and Joseph having their children blessed by Jacob

In Egypt a long time ago lived a woman named Aseneth. She was a strong, independent, man-hating woman. But she wasn’t ugly and old. She was “about eighteen years of age, tall and beautiful and graceful, more beautiful than any other virgin in the land.” All the young noblemen across Egypt, or “across the whole world,” wanted to marry her. The men fought with each other for her favor. But Aseneth “despised all men and regarded them with contempt.” She refused to meet with any of them.

Aseneth was very rich and very privileged. She lived in a top-floor palace penthouse with ten rooms. She had seven maids, all of her own age, all very beautiful, and all subservient to her. They had their own rooms, one for each of the seven maids and three rooms for Aseneth. One of Aseneth’s rooms held her fine clothes, expensive jewelry, and treasures. Another held good things for her to eat and drink and share with her maids. The largest room was Aseneth’s bedroom.

Aseneth’s bedroom was lavish. It had three large windows looking to the east, to the north, and to the south. Aseneth’s bed faced the east, the direction from which godly salvation was thought to come. Her bed was made of gold. It had a “coverlet of purple woven with gold, embroidered with blue, and fine linen.” Aseneth didn’t allow anyone to sit on her bed. It was hers alone. She spent most of her time in her room with all her fine things.

Surrounding the palatial building in which Aseneth and her maids lived was a large, walled court. Inside the wall were many beautiful trees that produced fruit. An ever-bubbling spring supplied a stream that kept the trees watered. The wall surrounding the court was high and strong. The court had four iron gates, at each of which stood guard “eighteen strong young men-at-arms.” That made a total of seventy-two men ready to fight and die to protect Aseneth from harm. But sometimes she still felt afraid. More needs to be done to help women feel safe.

One day Aseneth went to join her parents for a feast. Aseneth put on a “golden girdle,” “golden trousers,” and “a fine linen robe of blue woven with gold.” To accent her golden clothes, she added precious-stone jewelry: bracelets on her hands and feet, and a necklace. She wore a tiara on her head and a diadem around her temples.  She also covered her head with a veil. Wearing a veil indicates that she was oppressed as a woman.

Like Perpetua, Aseneth refused to do what her father wanted her to do.  Aseneth’s parents returned from their county estate to arrange a welcome for Joseph, the Pharaoh’s hard-working vizier who was on a business trip in the area. Her parents brought delightful treats for Aseneth — grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates, and doves. Then her father and mother asked her to sit down between them. She did. Her father held her right hand in his right hand.

He said: “My child.”

Aseneth responded: “What is it, father?”

He said: “See, Joseph, the mighty man of God, is coming to us to-day, and he is ruler of all the land of Egypt, for Pharaoh has appointed him ruler of all our land; and he is the distributor of corn throughout the country and is to save it from the famine that is come upon it. And Joseph is a man that worships God: he is discriminating, and a virgin (as you are to-day), and a man of great wisdom and knowledge, and the spirit of God is upon him, and the grace of the Lord is with him. So come, my child, and I will give you to him as his wife: you shall be his bride, and he shall be your bridegroom for ever.”

Aseneth’s face turned red. She was furious at her father. She looked sideways at him and said: “Why should my lord and my father speak like this and talk as if he would hand me over like a prisoner to a man of another race, a man who was a fugitive and was sold as a slave? Is this not the shepherd’s son from the land of Canaan, and he was abandoned by him? Is not this the man who had intercourse with his mistress, and his master threw him into prison where he lay in darkness, and Pharaoh brought him out of prison, because he interpreted his dream? No! I will marry the eldest son of the king, for he is king of all the earth.”

Patriarchy is a myth. Many daughters throughout history have been strong, independent women. Aseneth’s father knew that it would be wise for him to accede to Aseneth’s wishes.

News came that Joseph was at their gate. Aseneth ran up to her room to avoid Joseph. She looked out her window to see his arrival. Joseph arrived in the chariot of the Pharaoh’s second-in-command. The chariot was golden. Four white horses pulled it via golden reins. Joseph was wearing a fabulous white tunic and purple robe made of linen woven with gold. On his head he had a golden crown set with twelve precious stones and golden rays. He held a royal sceptre in his right hand. Aseneth’s parents and all her relatives bowed their faces to the ground before Joseph. Joseph was an alpha male of alpha males.

Aseneth immediately fell in love with Joseph. Her heart was deeply distressed, her stomach churned, her knees became weak, and her whole body trembled. She felt wretched and ashamed. She was so wrong to hate all men. She was so wrong in what she had said about Joseph. How could she be forgiven for all her hate and lies? She hoped that her father would give her to Joseph as a slave to serve him — to make his bed and wash his feet — for the rest of her life.

Joseph was wary of women sexually harassing him. Women throughout Egypt offered him unwanted propositions for sex. Even long after he made it clear that he was in Egypt only to do the Pharaoh’s business, women sent him gold, silver, and other valuable gifts in hope of receiving sexual favors. The women of Egypt weren’t prosecuted for their blatant sexual harassment of the Pharaoh’s vizier. That’s probably because the Pharaoh at that time wasn’t employing enough U.S.-trained lawyers to prosecute all the women of Egypt for sexually harassing Joseph. Joseph dealt with the problem on his own as best as he could.

At the palace of Aseneth’s parents, Joseph noticed Aseneth visually stalking him from the upper-story window. Joseph felt afraid. He asked Aseneth’s parents to have the woman at the window go away.  Her parents explained that the woman was Aseneth. They explained that Aseneth hated men. Joseph was relieved. He no longer feared he would be subject to more sexual harassment. Aseneth’s parents urged Joseph to welcome Aseneth as a sister. Joseph agreed to be a brother to her.

Joseph physically rejecting Aseneth converted her into a woman who lovingly cared for men. Aseneth’s father, who had wanted her to marry Joseph, brought his beautiful, young daughter to Joseph. Aseneth and Joseph greeted and blessed each other. Then Aseneth’s father urged her, “kiss your brother.” Joseph, who had endured much sexual harassment, was no fool. When Aseneth came near to kiss Joseph, he stretched out his right hand against her chest. He held her at a distance with his hand between her two breasts. Aseneth was already aroused and her breasts were “already standing upright like handsome apples.” Joseph declared that he would not kiss a woman who did not understand love as he did.

When Joseph rejected Aseneth’s attempt to kiss him, Aseneth became extremely distressed. She fixed her gaze on Joseph and started to cry.  Joseph was tender-hearted and felt her distress. But Joseph didn’t disintegrated into irrational ooze like a college president sipping hot chocolate with a woman making outlandish rape claims and credulously and sympathetically discussing a hatefully fallacious rape story. Joseph lifted his right hand above Aseneth’s head and invoked the God who leads persons “from darkness into light, from error into truth, and from death into life.” Joseph implored God to renew and bless Aseneth.

Joseph’s prayer for Aseneth’s conversion caused her joy and fear. She rushed up to her room and collapsed on her bed. Aseneth wept bitterly about her former behavior. She ate nothing and drank nothing. She remained awake throughout the night. In the middle of the night she went downstairs, collected ashes, and carried them up to her room. Then she went into her dressing room and took off her sumptuous dress and put on black mourning clothes. She threw her best dress out the window. She broke up her gold and silver idols and threw them out the window. So too went “her royal dinner, even the fatted beasts and the fish and the meat, and all the sacrifices of her gods, and the wine-vessels for their libations; and she threw them all out of the window as food for the dogs.” Then she dumped ashes on her ornate-stone bedroom floor. She put on sackcloth, smeared herself with ashes, and fell into the ashes on the floor. There she wept, beating her breast and groaning, until the morning. She did the same for another day and another day and another day until seven days had passed.

With further prayer and the help of a heavenly man, Aseneth become a new woman. No longer was she a strong, independent, man-hating women. She had become a strong, independent woman dedicated to truth and love. Once arrogantly oblivious to her own privilege, she now sought to serve others. She became a man like men had aspired to be before they were taught not to aspire to be men. But she was also a beautiful woman. Her face was “like the sun, and her eyes like the rising morning star.” And after all her fasting, you can be sure she wasn’t fat.

Joseph now loved Aseneth. Being a new woman didn’t mean that Aseneth couldn’t get all dressed up for her wedding with Joseph. In preparation for joining hands with Joseph, Aseneth adorned herself with a dress that glittered with precious stones. She put on golden bracelets, golden boots, a precious necklace, and a golden crown. Their wedding featured a lavish banquet that went on for seven days. Yet even after that wedding, Aseneth still remembered the taste of ashes.

Of course Aseneth and Joseph had children. Men and women did that together until recent years. But the most wonderful sign of Aseneth’s salvation wasn’t childbearing. It was Aseneth being a shining City of Refuge for men who would otherwise have been added to the vastly gender disproportionate rolls of person punished for crimes.

With her strong and independent voice, Aseneth saved Dan and Gad from being killed for participating in an evil plot. The Pharaoh’s son, who lacked Joseph’s seductive allure, foolishly sought to gain Aseneth’s love by force. He plotted to kill his father and Joseph and to seize Aseneth. He enlisted Dan and Gad in this evil plot. The sons of Leah caught Dan and Gad red-handed and prepared to kill them. Aseneth, however, asked them to spare their brothers. The sons of Leah at first rejected Aseneth request. But she insisted that they not kill their brothers:

No brother, you must not repay evil for evil to your neighbour.

Strong, independent women like Aseneth are desperately needed today. They are scarcely to be found among the mobs howling for vengeance against all those evil men, real and many more imagined.

As always, men are partly to blame. Many men lack the insight and courage of Joseph. Men pushing women away can bless them with the possibility of becoming new women.

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The text above is an adaptation of Joseph and Aseneth, included among Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Quotations and details are almost all from the short version of the work, from Greek translated Cook (1984). The short version is probably the earliest version of the text. Kraemer (1998) Ch. 3. The phrase “across the whole world” and the description of Aseneth’s breasts “already standing upright like handsome apples” are exclusively from the long version, established and translated by Burchard. See Burchard(1985), which also includes a good introductory description of Joseph and Aseneth. For an extensive list of Joseph and Aseneth manuscripts, translations, and studies, see Mark Goodacre’s bibliography.

The date, cultural context, and place in which Joseph and Aseneth was created has been a matter of considerable scholarly debate. Nir (2012) convincing places Joseph and Aseneth in the context of third and fourth century Syriac Christianity. In my view, more likely than not a woman authored Joseph and Aseneth. Women authors predominated among authors of early English novels. Joseph and Aseneth has “numerous points of contact with the Greek romances.” Whitmarsh (2013) p. 16. Both Charicleia in Heliodorus’s Aethiopica and Habrocomes in Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale initially reject all men.

The long version gives additional emphasis to the difference between the old and new Aseneth in Joseph’s response to her. While on their first meeting Joseph pushed Aseneth away, in their second meeting in the long version, Joseph eagerly greets Aseneth and kisses her repeatedly:

Joseph stretched out his hands and called Aseneth by a wink of his eyes. And Aseneth also stretched out her hands and ran up to Joseph and fell on his breast. And Joseph put his arms around her, and Aseneth (put hers) around Joseph, and they kissed each other for a long time and both come to life in their spirit. And Joseph kissed Aseneth and gave her spirit of life, and he kissed her the second time and gave her spirit of wisdom, and he kissed her the third time and gave her spirit of truth.

Ch. 19, long version, trans. Burchard (1985) p. 233.

Kraemer (1998), Ch. 7, discussing gender in Joseph and Aseneth, invokes comically absurd clichés of anti-men gender studies: “Aseneth as potential medium of exchange between men,” “Aseneth as the object of male gaze,” “female characters as ‘stand-ins’ for male readers engaged in debates about masculine identity,” and of course the social construction of everything but such silliness. Forbes (1999), documenting the mind-numbing effects of such teaching, concludes:

This has disturbing implications for women; that they are incapable of being saved as they are but have to rely upon a man for their salvation. This in turn implies that women are second class people and are somehow more sinful than men.

In Joseph and Aseneth the author ensures that the ideal man will always win, for no matter what she might gain a woman loses her independence, having to depend upon a man to become the ideal woman.

Such views would be inconceivable to all but thoroughly programmed persons.

[image] Jacob with Joseph and Aseneth, blessing their children Ephraim and Manasseh. Rembrandt, 1656. Held in Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Burchard, Christoph. 1985. “Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction.” (from Burchard’s own reconstruction of a long Greek version). Pp. 177-247 in James H. Charleworth, ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 2.  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Cook, David, ed. and trans. 1984 “Joseph and Aseneth” (based on Greek text of Philonenko (1968). Pp. 473-503 in Sparks, H. F. D. The Apocryphal Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Forbes, Moira. 1999. “Ideal Man versus Ideal Woman in Joseph and Aseneth.” Available online at Mark Goodacre’s The Aseneth Home Page.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. 1998. When Aseneth met Joseph: a late antique tale of the biblical patriarch and his Egyptian wife, reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press.

Philonenko, Marc. 1968. Joseph et Aséneth: Introduction, texte critique, traduction et notes par Marc Philonenko. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Nir, Rivkah. 2012. Joseph and Aseneth: a Christian book. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Whitmarsh, Tim. 2013. “The Romance between Greece and the East.” Ch. 1 (pp. 1-22) in Whitmarsh, Tim, and Stuart Thomson. 2013. The romance between Greece and the East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marbod of Rennes in history of gender-equality double-talk

warrior's leg cut off from man's body

In Marbod of Rennes’s eleventh-century Latin work Liber Decem Capitulorum, no chapters focus on men, but two chapters are all about women. One chapter is about wicked women. The following chapter is about good women.[1] A scholar writing at the end of the twentieth century interpreted Marbod of Rennes’s disproportionate attention to women as developing the social ideal of “ennobling love.” Marbod of Rennes is better understood as an exponent of gender-equality double-talk that implicitly devalues men.

While current gender-equality double-talk is blatant and crude, medieval gender-equality double-talk was rhetorically sophisticated. At the end of his double-chapters focusing on women, Marbod of Rennes wrote:

woman ought not to be censured simply because she is female, nor ought any man be heaped with praise simply because he is a man, but rather that vice should be censured in both sexes and virtue deserves praise equally in both. [2]

A late-twentieth-century scholar of ennobling love commented on that passage:

Moral value, not sex, is the measure of worth, and woman is declared better able to learn virtue than man. [3]

In the Middle Ages, logic was an important field of learning. An educated medieval cleric could work out the syllogism: moral value is the measure of worth, woman is more moral (learned in virtue) than man; therefore, woman is superior to man. While not tracing through his syllogism, the scholar explained:

The point is that the positive pole here introduces into the public forum of poetry a differentiated view of woman, an awareness of the virtuousness and honor potentially present, maybe even inherent, in women, a sensitivity to the “glory of the female sex.” [4]

The phrase “maybe even inherent” is telling. Claims that women are superior to men are made directly in recent, acclaimed scholarly books and are now featured in major U.S. newspapers.

While focusing his attention on women, Marbod of Rennes with a single sentence anticipated modern disparagement of men. Marbod declared:

the stubborn mentality of stiff-necked man resists and scarcely endures the yoke of discipline, all the while denying that he is inferior. [5]

Those who deny that men are inferior to women are today disparaged as sexist and misogynistic. Men today are expected to acknowledge their inferiority, to ponder whether men are necessary, and perhaps also to act to raise the suicide rate of men, which is already four times that of women.

While scholars have argued that the new economy of communication, cooperation, and self-esteem-raising favors women’s superiority, the extension of ideals of ennobling love to women in eleventh and twelfth-century Europe also emphasized women’s superiority. The leading scholar of ennobling love explained:

“Refined love,” “high love,” and “sublime love or friendship” have the role of social ideals resisting social ills that develop in a male-dominated warrior society: misogyny, rape, contempt of women, boorish, warriorlike manners. The civil values of the court can be a force reshaping social practice by reward and punishment. It may well be one of the most genial ideas of any social reformer in history that he or she developed an ideology of courtly behavior within which “worth,” “price,” “value,” prestige, and standing in noble society are set by the individual’s ability to learn courtesy, restraint, civility, to acquire virtue as a prerequisite to loving — hence also as a result of loving. [6]

Men are urged and forced to fight and die for their societies. Historical developments over the past millennium haven’t change the vastly disproportionate bodily disposal of men in war. The development of ideals of “ennobling love” merely increased vicious disparagement of men for “misogyny, rape, contempt of women,” and, worst of all, “boorish, warriorlike manners.”

Medieval literature sets before men the figures of Ulrich von Liechtenstein and the Archpriest of Talavera. Ulrich von Liechtenstein subordinated himself to women and struggled to win the favor of a lady who had contempt for him. The Archpriest of Talavera wrote an important book instructing men on finding true love. Men should study medieval literature and follow the example, not of Ulrich von Liechtenstein, but of the Archpriest of Talavera. Men, choose to be truly good men.

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[1] The standard scholarly critical edition of Liber decem capitulorum is now that in Leotta and Crimi (1998). A lower-quality Latin text is available online in Patrologia Latina 171, 1693f. The ten chapters in Liber decem capitulorum are:

  1. De Ato Genere Scribendi (proper style for writing)
  2. De Tempore et Aevo (meaning of time)
  3. De Meretrice (wicked women)
  4. De Matrona (good women)
  5. De Senectute (old age)
  6. De Fato et Genesi (role of the zodiac in destiny)
  7. De Voluptate (disadvantages of pursuing pleasure)
  8. De Vera Amicitia (true friendship)
  9. De Bono Mortis (benefits of death)
  10. De Resurrectione Corporum (bodily resurrection)

Chapter titles in Latin from Patrologia Latina text, descriptions in English adapted from Ziolkowski (1986) p. 686. Two letters of Marbod’s to women are available online with Latin text and English translation.

[2] Marbod of Rennes, Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4, sec. 9, from Latin trans. C.W. Marx in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 232.

[3] Jaeger (1999) p. 94.

[4] Id.

[5] Marbod of Rennes, Liber decem capitulorum, Ch. 4, sec. 5, from Latin trans. C.W. Marx in Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) p. 230.

[6] Jaeger (1999) pp. 150-1. Underscoring the fundamental anti-men gender bigotry in this development, Jaeger explains:

there is an entirely new and unique image of woman created in the years between 1050 and 1100: woman the vessel of virtue, soft wax to Goodness, sensitive, loving and learning more intensely than hard-necked man. … The dynamics which account for the spread of courtliness outward from the humanistically educated court clerics also account for the rise of the image of woman as giver of virtue {to men} through love.

Id. p. 105. Celebrating this development has dominated teaching of medieval Latin literature. For a broader, more humanistic understanding of literature and life, students should study great medieval literature of men’s sexed protest such as Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.

[image] Warrior’s Leg. Paul Thek, 1966-7. Wax, metal, leather, and paint in acrylic vitrine. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 1990 (90.9). Douglas Galbi’s photograph at Hirschhorn Museum.


Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men Impugned, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. 1999. Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Leotta, Rosario and Carmelo Crimi. 1998. Marbod of Rennes. De ornamentis verborum ; Liber decem capitulorum : retorica, mitologia e moralità di un vescovo poeta (secc. XI-XII). Tavarnuzze (Firenze): SISMEL edizioni del Galluzzo.

Ziolkowski, Jan. 1986. Review. “Marbodo. Liber decem capitulorum, ed. Rosario Leotta.” Speculum 61 (3): 686-688.

Greco-Roman adultery tales & Apuleius’s Metamorphoses

Roman husband guarding wife

Let me tell you, natural philosophy sheds light on truth about men’s risk of cuckoldry. Some, living life without examining shadows and ancient tracings, dwell in darkness among ideals. They are illusory asses philosophizing, and you shouldn’t put up with their braying, unless of course it’s required for a class to get your degree. Many ancient Greco-Roman adultery tales have been copied and recopied from papyrus to parchment to paper so that you can read them now, if you’re sufficiently curious and brave. Nobody tells these tales any longer because everyone fears the philosophers’ descendents, the police. But you, with the great blessing of writing, can still stick your nose in.

Ancient Greco-Roman adultery tales usually go like this. A man, wanting to ensure that any kids that he provisions are biologically his, tries to guard against his woman having sex with other men. Almost all the adultery tales are about women’s adulteries, not men’s. Opening men’s eyes to their false ideals of women was much more important than instructing men on how to commit adultery. Men used to know how to do that quite well. And, don’t you know, wives and girlfriends cared little, as long as men’s sexual wanderings didn’t hurt them socially or materially.

What I’m telling you is a secret. I wouldn’t have this knowledge to know and to tell if I weren’t an ass, a real ass, with an ass’s ears, eyes, fur, and the large organ that distinguishes a real ass. Those pretend asses, those philosophers, march in public processions with social-justice warriors, career hunters, cross-dressers, Hollywood action heroes, fake-law judges, bird-catchers, she-bears, and well-trained parrots. Those public processions are to divert the masses. What I’m telling you are holy mysteries known only to a select few.

Swallow your pride and accept the truth that men are inferior to women in guile. In ancient Greco-Roman adultery tales, the man commonly returns home unexpectedly while his wife and her lover are amorously engaged. The wife, with her superior guile, commonly dupes her husband to escape exposure. Sometimes the husband, imprisoned in his ignorance, even is induced to promote his own cuckolding.

I’ll tell you an elegant rogue’s tale about an ignorant, nose-to-the-grindstone beta man. This husband for meager wages worked with his fingers in front of a preternaturally glowing screen in a windowless office. He went to work at dawn and usually returned home late in the evening. One day, a virus infected the office network, locking everyone’s screen with a sketch of a man’s red, smirking face.

Unable to work at his terminal, the office drone returned home early. He went to enter the side door of his house. That’s where he usually entered to avoid dirtying the polished agate floor his wife had insisted be installed behind the front door. The side door was locked. Then he tried the back door. It too was locked.

The husband gently, very gently, knocked on the rear door once. He didn’t want to overly arouse his wife, who might be napping. No response. He did it again. Still no response. Then he called out, “Honey, good news, I’m home from the office early. Please unlock the door so I can come in.”

The wife meanwhile was quickly and quietly disentangling her arms and legs from the artful drama of her biker-lover’s tattooed body. Then she led him from the bedroom into the kitchen and ordered him to hide in a large, natural wood, seasoned-oak pickling cask. Craft local cucumber pickling had become all the rage in swank circles with the growth of the alternate local husbandry movement.

Once her lover was concealed in the cask, the wife slowly opened the door for her husband. She glared at him sullenly. As he eagerly stepped in, she cuttingly addressed him:

So this is how you’re going to come, empty-headed, slack-handed, in leisurely softness? You’re not working, not looking for our livelihood, not earning our daily bread? And I, fool that I am, all day long I’m twisting my tendons into knots pickling local cucumbers just to bring some sign of urbanity to this dump of ours. Our neighbor Daphne is so much luckier than I am. She can pluck fresh fruit flown in from everywhere, get drunk on undiluted wine at dawn, and loll about in spacious, auto-watered indoor meadows with her lovers all day long!

The husband apologized and said that he was still hoping that his company would get third-round financing and he be given stock options that might be worth real money in a future IPO. “But now,” he said tremulously, “but now, we have to liquidate some assets. I’m so sorry.” Sucking in his face and nearly crying, he whispered, “I’ve had to sell your pickling cask. I managed to get five grand for it, much less than what we paid, but we need cash to cover our bills.”

“You cretin!” his wife screamed, maintaining at high volume her ability to put on a French accent, “I’ve already sold it for more!” After a brief pause, she continued:

I sold it for controlling membership in a motorcycle start-up. Motorcycles are going to be the next, big throbbing thing for women. But what would you know about that, you little cubicle mouse, still hoping for a little piece of cheese for all your coding.

The husband had long yearned to be in on some shares. Now he was, and he was satisfied.

The wife’s biker-lover then poked his head out from the cask. “It’s older than I thought,” he said to the wife, “and it seems to be corroded with lack of use. I don’t know if my board will retain its resolve to consummate the deal.” Then he turned to the husband and said:

hey, bro, get me a tool to scrape away the scum from inside. We’re not gonna trade away controlling equity for poorly maintained wood.

The husband, diligent worker and ignorant cave-dweller that he was, responded:

Please, sir, come out and visit with my wife until I clean this cask for you, completely and thoroughly. I’ll make it seem as if it never held a pickled cucumber.

The husband pushed the empty cask on its side, crawled in, and began to rub the wood by hand. Meanwhile, the biker-lover, quite the versatile rider — leaned the wife forward on the cask, bent his body to hers and uncaring of all else, started giving her a good ride. Mid-trip, she poked her head down into the cask and gave her husband instructions, comically, with a whore’s double-face, pointing with her finger — You missed a spot here and here and … ohhh … there and there … again! — until both jobs were finished. The husband, born under an unlucky moon, then had to arrange to have the pickling cask transported at his own cost to the home of his wife’s biker-lover.

Aporia — that sly philosopher’s got your tongue, huh? — or is it aphasia? Well, either is better than lashing out apoplectically at me for telling you a tale like you’ve never heard before. I, much knowing, have collected tales of this type from many cultures and across millennia of history. I learned them all by myself, with strenuous effort, working evenings and weekends. You think they don’t exist in reality? Just wait until my hard hoof kicks reality in front of your face!

I beg your pardon for giving offense or being outlandish. But I won’t allow these tales to be erased, even if they can no longer be spoken. I’m outside in the light with the seven sages of Rome and an Indian parrot that doesn’t just parrot its masters. You can tilt against Homer, but one day tales again will be told.

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The text above is an adaptation of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses / The Golden Ass, 9.5-7 (adultery tale known as the Tale of the Jar), 1.1-4, 11.8, 10.33, and various other sections. The adaptation is based on the translation in Relihan (2007).

Apuleius was known as a “philosophus Platonicus” and probably studied in a neo-Platonic school in Athens. Sandy (1997) pp. 7, 22-6. On Platonism in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, see Kirichenko (2008) and Plato’s Phaedo and The Republic, 514a–520a.

A review of ancient Greco-Roman adultery tales, including evidence of mime performances, is within Konstantakos (2006). Both Apuleius’s Metamorphoses (written in Latin) and the Life Aesop (written in Greek) mix elite philosophic culture with ribald tales and witty, satiric changes.

Studying the adultery tales in Metamorphoses 9, a leading scholar has declared: “the prime characteristic of these stories is literary entertainment … suitably adapted for a low-life and sensationalist novelistic context.” Harrison (2013) p. 242. The adultery tales seem to me to contribute to important intellectual and social critique.

The adultery tales in Metamorphoses 9 are often retold in subsequent literature. Boccaccio’s Decameron, VII.2 is an adaptation of Apuleius’s Tale of the Jar. Decameron VIII.8 is a further variant of that tale. The frame adultery tale in Metamorphoses 9, the tale of the miller and his wife (9.15-31), ends with the miller having sex with the wife’s male lover. Decameron V.10 is an adaptation of that tale.

[image] Roman man and woman, Kline funerary monument, 1st century GC. In National Museum of Rome, Italy. Thanks to Mary Harrsch and flickr.


Harrison, S. J. 2013. Framing the ass: literary texture in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kirichenko, Alexander. 2008. “Asinus Philosophans: Platonic Philosophy and the Prologue to Apuleius’ Golden Ass.” Mnemosyne. 61 (1): 89-107.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2006. “Aesop Adulterer and Trickster. A Study of Vita Aesopi Ch. 75-76.” Athenaeum. 94 (2): 563-600.

Relihan, Joel C. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Sandy, Gerald N. 1997. The Greek world of Apuleius: Apuleius and the second sophistic. Leiden: Brill.

Life of Aesop as continuing critique of elite culture

Aesop in the Life of Aesop

Early in the Life of Aesop, the goddess Isis and her nine Muses came to the ugly slave Aesop as he slept in a pastoral, paradisiacal garden. They favored him with power to tell elaborate tales. The wife of the philosopher Xanthus, after she saw two handsome, young male slaves on sale, ordered him to go and buy one. Xanthus bought Aesop. Aesop spoke and acted a wide-ranging critique of elite Greek literature. In a way that elite literature today doesn’t appreciate, Aesop also spoke and acted a potent critique of men’s subordination to women.[1]

Aesop urged Xanthus to reject subordination to his wife. Upon returning home after purchasing Aesop, Xanthus, for fear of upsetting his wife, told Aesop to wait at the door. Aesop responded:

If you’re under your wife’s thumb, go and get it over with. [2]

Xanthus went inside and explained to his wife that he had purchased a slave as beautiful as “an Apollo or an Endymion or a Ganymede.”[3] Xanthus’s action makes little sense in its narrative context. It didn’t change his wife’s desire or the reality of Aesop’s ugliness. Late in the Life of Aesop, Xanthus prepared to commit suicide because he couldn’t interpret a portent. Aesop dissuaded Xanthus from suicide by ultimately agreeing to interpret the portent for him. A husband being under his wife’s thumb was a different portent. In those circumstances, Aesop implicitly urged suicide. For more than a millennium, literature urging men to avoid the shackles of marriage has exhorted suicide as a preferable alternative.[4] Looking back in history from the the first writing of the Life of Aesop, knowledgeable death (e.g. Socrates’ willingness to drink hemlock) has much greater Greek literary status than being a ignorant, foolish cuckold.

Household drama in the Life of Aesop has a sharp ideological edge. Before meeting Aesop, Xanthus’s wife thanked the great goddess Aphrodite for a dream. She told her husband Xanthus:

As soon as I went to sleep, I had a dream in which you bought a perfectly beautiful slave and gave him to me for a gift. [5]

To ratify that dream, Xanthus told his lie about Aesop’s godly beauty. The wife’s maids, excited with this news, quarreled over who would get to marry the new slave. Upon seeing the reality of Aesop, they treated him with contempt:

May Aphrodite slap your ugly face! So we were fighting over you, were we, you trash? Worse luck to you. Go on in and don’t touch me; don’t come near me.

Such household drama is like Greek New Comedy. But in the Life of Aesop, the drama turns on reverence for Aphrodite supporting pleasing, false belief in a dream.

Aesop himself refused to acquiesce to the invocation of Aphrodite and to his inferior position relative to Xanthus’s wife. Aesop narrated the desire underlying the wife’s dream:

Woman, what you are after is to have your husband go out somewhere and buy a good-looking young slave with a nice face, a good eye, and blond hair. … this handsome slave can go to the bath with you, then the handsome slave will take your clothes, then when you come out of the bath, this handsome slave will put your wrapper around you and get down and put your sandals on, then he’ll play with you and look into your eyes as though you were a fellow servant who had caught his fancy, then you’ll smile at him and try to look young, and you’ll feel all excited and ask him to come into the bedroom to rub your feet, then in a fit of prurience you will draw him to you and kiss him passionately and do what is in keeping with your shameful impudence

Aesop’s story of the wife’s desire almost surely comes from a popular adultery tale, probably one that pantomimes performed. Aesop, however, then immediately invoked the high-cultural authority of the famous tragic poet Euripides:

Dread the anger of the waves of the sea,
Dread the blasts of river and burning fire,
Dread poverty, dread a thousand other things,
But no evil is there anywhere so dread as woman.

Switching back to popular discourse, Aesop castigated his superior, his master Xanthus’s wife:

you, the wife of a philosopher, an intelligent woman, with your urge to have handsome male servants, you bring no slight discredit and disrepute on your husband. It’s my opinion that you are sex-crazy and don’t follow your bent simply because you are afraid that I’ll give you a piece of a new slave’s mind, you slut.

Underscoring the comic context of status reversal, Xanthus’s wife deferred to Aesop. Aesop himself then bragged of his “great accomplishment to have tamed a woman by overawing her.” The high-cultural authority Euripides taught dread of woman. The lowly slave Aesop, in contrast, demonstrated mastery of his lady-master. He deconstructed her invocation of Aphrodite.

Aesop’s adultery vision proved true. One day, Aesop lifted his clothes and displayed his penis. In the Greek novels, boy and girl fall in love at first sight of each other’s noble person. Xanthus’s wife fell in lust with her slave Aesop at first sight of his “long and thick” penis.[6] She offered Aesop a full set of clothes if he would have sex with her ten times. Aesop earlier had declared that Xanthus’s wife wanted adulterous sex. Her proposition fulfilled his oracle.[7]

The Life of Aesop’s adultery-prostitution tale has under-appreciated literary complexity. Aesop agreed to his lady-master’s proposition. After having sex with Xanthus’s wife nine times, his desire drooped. She insisted that he fulfill the letter of his contract for sexual service:

So he tried a tenth time and succeeded in letting the semen fall wide of the mark. And he said, “Give me the clothes. If you don’t, I’ll appeal to my master.” [8]

Xanthus’s wife didn’t yield her desire to that incongruous threat of appeal. She declared:

I called on you to plow my field but you crossed the property line and worked in another field. Do it once more, and take the clothes.

Aesop then followed through on his threat of appeal. When Xanthus returned home, Aesop presented the case in a fictitious allegory:

My mistress {Xanthus’s wife} and I were walking in the orchard and she saw a branch of a tree that was full of plums. She said to me: “If you can throw a rock and knock off ten plums, I’ll give you the set of clothes.” I picked up a rock, threw it, and knocked off ten plums. But one plum fell in a manure pile, and now she won’t give me the clothes. [9]

Xanthus’s wife endorsed and extended the fictitious allegory. She added:

Obviously there’s no argument about the nine, but, as for the tenth one which fell in the manure pile, I’m not satisfied. Let him throw again and knock off an apple and get the clothes.

Xanthus interpreted the fictitious allegory literally. He ruled for both sides. He declared that his wife should give Aesop the shirt. He also declared unknowingly that his wife should receive further sexual service from Aesop. Xanthus told Aesop:

Let’s go to the forum, and when we come back, knock off the tenth apple and get the clothes.

Xanthus’s wife assented explicitly to that judgment, and Aesop, implicitly. Xanthus supported his own cuckolding with his failure to interpret critically the story he was told. Readers must beware of making the same mistake.

Later in the Life of Aesop, Aesop tells a story about a man having sex with an ass. An “idiot girl” misinterpreted the man’s explanation of what he was doing and why. She requested that he also have sex with her. The man fulfilled her request. Recent, acclaimed elite scholarship has interpreted this tale as a parody of the “pederastic foundation of Theognidean didactic.”[10] That interpretation looks back to the elite Greek tradition of expressing love and transmitting wisdom between males.

The Life of Aesop has considerable similarities with the highly popular medieval Latin work Solomon and Marcolf. The penultimate chapter of Solomon and Marcolf features a tableau of the lower bodily stratum:

Marcolf was lying bent over with his head downward and had pulled down his breeches, and his buttocks, asshole, penis, and testicles were revealed. Seeing him, King Solomon said: “Who is it that is lying there?” Marcolf: “It is I, Marcolf.” Solomon said: “How is it that you are lying in this manner?” Marcolf: “You instructed me that you would not see me any more between the eyes. But now, if you do not wish to see me between the eyes, you may see me between the buttocks.” [11]

Marcolf’s action parodied men’s weakness in social vision. Men are largely incapable of challenging socially the prevalence of cuckolding men and the highly disproportionate imprisonment of men. A man doesn’t have eyes in his behind.

The Life of Aesop highlights an orificial-sexual difference: understood figuratively, a woman has eyes in her behind. After Aesop had prepared a table for dinner, Xanthus told his wife to keep “an eye” on the table so that dogs don’t snatch food. Xanthus’s wife told him not to worry, for “even my behind has eyes.” The lady reclined and fell asleep with her behind facing the table. Aesop then lifted her robe and exposed her behind. Xanthus and his student-guests arrived for dinner. They saw the lady’s exposed buttocks. Xanthus and his wife were embarrassed and disgraced. Aesop explained:

I exposed her so that the eyes in her behind would see the table. [12]

Xanthus the philosopher didn’t appreciate the significance of biological sex-difference. He didn’t recognize the distinction between “an eye” and “eyes.”[13] He merely declared that as punishment he would beat Aesop within an inch of his life.

The low culture of men’s wisdom involves individual experimentation and observation. Consider the tenth instance of Aesop’s sexual intercourse with Xanthus’s wife. Among the few scholars who have dared to address the Life of Aesop’s adultery-prostitution tale, the most thorough analysis explains that on the tenth instance Aesop “ejaculated on the lady’s thigh.”[14] Aesop stated that his semen fell “wide of the mark.” Xanthus’s wife declared that Aesop “crossed the property line and worked in another field.” Aesop’s allegory of the dispute associates that work with a manure pile. A decent appreciation for medieval literature, such as Boccaccio’s tale of attaching a tail to a woman mis-imagined to be a mare, makes clear that Aesop put his semen in the orifice associated with expressing love and transmitting wisdom between males in Greek tradition. The resulting dispute between Xanthus’s wife and Aesop enacts conflict in valuing different types of sexual acts.[15]

In judging the sex conflict between Aesop and Xanthus’s wife, Xanthus the philosopher completely mis-understood the underlying reality and the actual conflict. Elite culture and mass opinion-shapers today support, with procedures far outside of traditional due process, extraordinarily harsh punishment of men for disputed sex with women. In its factual context, rape-culture culture re-enforces a fundamental distribution of social power: men’s subordination to women in social discourse. Xanthus the philosopher is the dominant character among cultural elites today. The best hope for promoting truth and justice for all is with low-cultural characters like Aesop.

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[1] The Life of Aesop (Vita Aesopi) is also commonly known as the Aesop Romance. Stories of Aesop’s life were known from the fifth century  BGC. See Aristophanes, Wasps, ll. 1446-9 (allusion to Delphic story). The Life of Aesop was probably written in its current form about the second century GC. Kurke (2011) describes the importance of Aesop in relation to ancient Greek literature.  Reviewing that book, Whitmarsh states:

this is in one sense a very traditional book. Like so many Hellenists, Kurke is offering a story of origins: note the ‘invention of Greek prose’ in her subtitle, the latest in a long sequence of ‘invention’ titles. … There is more at stake in this matter than a purely academic question of chronology. The crucial point is that as long as classicists continue to be obsessed with only the very earliest era, for which the evidence is most exiguous, they will remain addicted to the hypothetical and un(dis)provable ‘reconstructions’ that have sustained but also marginalised the discipline for 150 years.

Whitmarsh (2011) p. 39. Better appreciation for horrendous, obfuscated injustices today can help to foster critical insights into ancient literature and contemporary relevance.

[2] Life of Aesop (The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and Aesop his Slave or the Career of Aesop) 29, from Greek trans. Lloyd W. Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 123. All quotes from the Life of Aesop are from id. and the manuscript stem Vita G, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Apollo was thought to speak through oracles at the sanctuary dedicated to him in Delphi. Xanthus’s wife imagining Apollo as her adulterous slave-lover underscores Aesop’s challenge to the privileged position of the Delphic oracle. Endymion was a handsome shepherd-boy in Greek myth. He was thought to be in eternal sleep. His appearance at one’s door is thus comically improbable. Ganymede was Zeus’s beloved, beautiful boy and his cupbearer. The invocation of Ganymede adds irony to Xanthus’s wife’s devaluation of sex of non-reproductive type.

[4] On urging suicide rather than getting married, Juvenal, Satire 6, ll.28-31. The Romance of the Rose (c. 1275), ll. 8697-8710, cites approvingly Juvenal’s exhortation. The 15 Joys of Marriage (c. 1400) attributes that advice to Valerius, who sought to dissuade his beloved friend Rufinus from marriage.

[5] Life of Aesop 29, p. 123. The subsequent five quotes are from id. 30, p. 125; 32, p. 125-6.

[6] Id. 75, p. 142. A textual difficulty concerns what Aesop was doing when Xanthus’s wife saw his long and thick penis. Detailed recent study suggests for English translation of the Greek original: “after taking his clothes off, clapping and shaking {or, throwing} his hands he {Aesop} started making gestures that herdsmen do, when they are unruly.” While the translation is conjectural, the original Greek text probably didn’t have Aesop masturbating. Papademetriou (2009) pp. 56-7, esp. fts. 26, 29.

[7] On the Aesopic challenge to the Delphic oracle, Kurke (2011) Ch. 1. In perceiving underlying truth, foretelling action, and contravening established prophetic authority, Aesop’s meeting with Xanthus’s wife parallels Jesus’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. See John 4:16-24. Aesop’s subsequent sexual activity with Xanthus’s wife diverges sharply from that Christian parallel. The Life of Aesop’s story of Xanthus’s wife washing the rustic’s feet relates similarly to the Gospel of John’s story of Jesus washing Peter’s feet. Aesopic conversations may have encompassed the Gospel of John in the first centuries of Christianity. For a much higher level comparison of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark, see Watson (2010).

[8] Life of Aesop 75, p. 142. Following Konstantakos (2009) p. 453, I’ve changed “shirt” to “clothes” to better reflect the Greek stole himation in this and subsequent quotes. The subsequent four quotes are from id. The surviving manuscript history of Life of Aesop 75-76 is relatively sparse. It survives only in the Greek Westermann version, Baroccianus 194 (O); a Latin translation in cod. Lollinianus 26 (Lo); and in a Greek papyrus of the 3rd century, P.Oxy. 3331. Id. pp. 453-4.

[9] Life of Aesop 75, p. 142.  I’ve changed “apple” to “plum” following Konstantakos (2009) pp. 456-8. Id. recognized a Greek pun on cuckoo / cuckold in Aesop’s allegory of the adultery.

[10] Kurke (2011) p. 215. The story of the man and the idiot girl is at Life of Aesop 131. Neither all Greco-Roman pedagogy nor all Greco-Roman male homosexual relations were pederastic. On Greco-Roman homosexuality, Hubbard (2014). Social constructions of sexual acts can vary widely. Consider, for example, Boccaccio’s story of Alibech and Rustico putting the Devil back into Hell.

[11] Solomon and Marcolf, Ch. 19, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2008) p. 99. The existing Latin text probably was first written about 1200. The first indisputable surviving reference to Solomon and Marcolf as a pair dates to roughly 1000. Id. pp. 8-9. In his introduction, Ziolkowski explains:

the closest relative Marcolf had in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period was Aesop. The parallels between S&M {Solomon and Marcolf} and Vita Aesopi (Life of Aesop, a kind of picaresque biography or ancient romance of Aesop that is interlarded with supposedly Aesopic fables) … are sufficiently powerful to have struck their publishers and audiences from the late Middle Ages through the present. In Germany from 1450 to 1520 printers assimilated images of Aesop and Marcolf to each other, using picture of the one to represent the other.

Id. p. 39. For more on the relation of Solomon and Marcolf to the Life of Aesop, Ziolkowski (2002).

[12] Life of Aesop 77a (Vita W), pp. 143-4.

[13] The Latin word play in Solomon and Marcolf emphasizes the connection between eyes and buttocks. Marcolf says to Solomon:

si non vis me videre in medijs oculis, videas me in medio culo. {if you do not wish to see me between the eyes, you may see me between the buttocks.}

Solomon and Marcolf 1914, text and trans. Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 98-99. Id. p. 98 comments:

Benary 53 notes aptly the word play on oculus and culus, which would have been particularly striking in the pronunciation of the phrase in medio oculo because of the gliding from one o to another.

These phrases are also possible in classical Latin. Eye(s) are connected to buttocks in both biological and linguistic structures. The Life of Aesop was written in Greek. Complex interactions among Hebrew, Greek, and Latin existed in the ancient world.

[14] Konstantakos (2006) p. 563, Konstantakos (2013) p. 368. Aesop “fails on a technicality by spending himself on the outside.” Papademetriou (2009) p. 58. Kurke (2011) doesn’t mention the Life of Aesop’s adultery-prostitution tale at all.

[15] Within a pederastic framework, Aesop positioned himself as superior in wisdom to Xanthus’s wife. Aesop described Xanthus’s wife as “the wife of a philosopher, an intelligent woman.” Life of Aesop 32, p. 125. She, however, didn’t appreciate Aesop’s superior wisdom, nor his sharing it in a way that mocks the elite Greek pederastic tradition.

[image] Frontispiece woodcut from a 1489 Spanish edition of Aesop’s fables (Fabulas de Esopo, published in Madrid). The woodcut depicts Aesop surrounded by images and events from the Life of Aesop. Thanks to Wikicommons.


Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hubbard, Thomas K. 2014. “Peer Homosexuality.” Pp. 128-149 (Ch. 8) in Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. A companion to Greek and Roman sexualities. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2006. “Aesop Adulterer and Trickster. A Study of Vita Aesopi Ch. 75-76.” Athenaeum. 94 (2): 563-600.

Konstantakos, Ioannis. 2009. “Cuckoo’s Fruit: Erotic Imagery in Vita Aesopi ch. 75-76.”  Pp. 453-460 in Eleni Karamalengou and Eugenia Makrygianni (eds.), Antiphilesis. Studies on Classical, Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature and Culture in Honour of John-Theophanes A. Papademetriou.  Franz Stein Verlag: Stuttgart.

Konstantakos, Ioannis M. 2013.”Life of Aesop and adventures of criticism: A review-article on Manolis Papathomopoulos’ recent edition of the Vita Aesopi, version G.” Myrtia 28: 355-392.

Kurke, Leslie. 2011. Aesopic conversations: popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Kurke’s introduction.

Papademetriou, John-Theophanes A. 2009. “Romance without eros.” Pp. 49-80 (Ch. 4) in Karla, Grammatiki A., ed. Fiction on the fringe novelistic writing in the post-classical age. Leiden: Brill.

Watson, David F. 2010. “The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark: Two Ancient Approaches to Elite Values.” Journal of Biblical Literature. 129 (4): 699-716.

Whitmarsh, Tim. 2011. “Crashing the Delphic Party: Review of Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue and the Invention of Greek Prose by Leslie Kurke.” London Review of Books 33 (12): 37-38.

Ziolkowski, Jan. M. 2002. “The Deeds and Words of Aesop and Marcolf.” Pp. 105-123 in Dorothea Walz, ed. Scripturus vitam: Lateinische Biogaphie von der Antike bis in die Gegenwart. Festsgabe für Walter Berschin zum 65. Geburtstag. Heidelberg: Mattes Verlag.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Hatim Tai’s poetry suggests problem of being too generous

Paschal candle to share flame

Hatim Tai, an Arabian figure thought to have died about 578 GC, became legendary for his generosity. Here are verses, originally written in Arabic, attributed to him:

When riches are lords for their folk
I, praise to Allah, will enslave riches

Slavery ends by it and eats well
It is given when the far off greed breaks

When tricky greed quenches its fire
I say to one who wants my fire: Light up!

Spread the little, be enough for us
Its flames create, chaste and praised [1]

In these verses, Hatim Tai ends slavery by enslaving riches, meaning giving his wealth generously. The metaphors of far off greed breaking and tricky greed quenching its fire suggest, at least to me, dawn. The light of day is commonly understood to offer some protection against sly theft.

Hatim Tai subsequently develops an alternate metaphor of sharing fire. Sharing a flame doesn’t diminish it, but spreads light. In ancient Christian liturgy for celebrating the Easter Vigil, the congregation gathers in darkness. Flame from the single Paschal candle is shared to ignite candles that each person holds. Sharing that single flame lights up the church. That same figure is part of Hatim Tai’s verses.

Another poem attributed to Hatim Tai offers an alternate understanding of trade. A fundamental economic idea is that if two parties voluntarily trade, the trade must make both parties better off. Hatim Tai presents a much more culturally complex understanding of trade:

If what he gives freely were held
As thoughts of blame they’d draw him out

But he wants only Allah as his own
He gives so you gain profit in a bargain [2]

The “thoughts of blame” in the first couplet could mean Hatim Tai’s kin blaming him for squandering their common resources. But thoughts of blame could also come from the receiver of generosity, humiliated with inability to reciprocate appropriately. Being drawn out suggests being expelled or lured from one’s home camp.

In the second couplet, Hatim Tai justifies his generosity. He hopes to receive blessings from God for his generosity. He offers the other party not an obligation to him but clear material rewards: “profit in a bargain.” Barriers to such trade would be God’s absence or humans’ unwillingness to reap profit. In human understanding around the world and throughout history, neither of these barriers to trade have been prevalent.

Being too generous can impede practical cooperation. In his introduction to his volume of Hatim Tai’s poetry, the translator explained:

The success of Hatim’s poetry is in part due to his mastery of communication habits by means of which his readers understand his work and were stimulated to spread his fame long after his death. Such habits are established in early childhood and can be thought of as developing in a five part sequence. The tactile sequence begins with the horizontal position which the infant maintains during the first few weeks after birth. The second position is established as it learns to sit up, the third position appears when it learns to crawl on all fours, the fourth position involves learning to stand on two legs, and the fifth and final position is walking on two feet.

These five positions are related to certain auditory and visual habits. The horizontal position can be correlated with the infant’s ability to babble as it tries to cope with its separation from the mother’s continuous feeding at birth. The seated position lets the child deal with the pull of gravity as it is exerted along the vertical torso instead of as in the horizontal position. The result is a new kind of breathing that produces articulate sounds which replace the babbling. The crawling position acquaints the child with locomotion on its own power and allows it to explore the world with its four feet. This results in the grouping of sounds into words with a syntax that classifies them as nouns and as verbs, etc. and a semantics that relates words to events in an external world. The standing position teaches the child to use its hands to grasp objects such as the pen by means of which elements of a script can be made to represent the sounds of words. The walking position in the last fifth gives the child new ideas that alter the spoken syntax and semantics so that their grammar and metaphors become more elaborate than in spoken language. [3]

For the couplet above, “If what he gives freely…,” the translator provided the following commentary:

The first couplet says that Hatim gives so lavishly that he is blamed for it. The {Arabic} verb amsakat has a feminine singular ending and its subject janabatu though plural also has a feminine ending in the singular. This suggests that blame for Hatim’s good deeds originates in women and they in turn are the reason he is spurred on to do more good deeds. This is put in the form of a supposition since the women referred to are the prenatal mother, the nurse, and the feminine torso of the seated infant, all of whom cannot be identified too clearly since they are known before speech develops. But the desire to give waste products to those who have stolen the continuous nourishment is clear enough. [4]

Engaging with such communications theory and such poetic commentary is difficult. But that theory and commentary is no more nonsensical than hugely influential Freudian and other theories and commentaries. Finding some constraint on humans’ generosity in giving meaning seems particularly necessary in a global economy of complex, intricately connected, quickly signaling human communication networks.

This for that has great use when it means no more than that.

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[1] Diwan of Hatim Tai, from Arabic trans. Wormhoudt (1984) 4:12-17. A leading authority on Arabic literature has told me that Wormhoudt’s translations poorly represent the Arabic text and have numerous clear translating errors. The name Hatim Tai has numerous spelling variations, including Hatim al-Tai and Ḥātem-e Ṭāʾi. Stories of Hatim Tai have parallels in the Old French fabliau William of the Falcon, in the medieval Latin poem Lantfrid and Cobbo, in Boccacio’s Decameron X.3, the story of Nathan and Mithridanes, as well as in much other literature around the world.

[2] Id.  1:1-2.

[3] Introduction, Wormhoudt (1984) pp. 1-2.

[4] The commentary faces the Arabic poetic text and is immediately below its English translation.

[image] Lighting Paschal candle for Easter Vigil Mass. Parish of St. Rita of Cascia, Mexico City, Mexico. 30 March 2013. Thanks to Isaac1992 and Wikimedia Commons.


Wormhoudt, Arthur. 1984. Ḥātim al-Ṭāʼī. The diwan of Hatim al Tai. Oskaloosa, Iowa: William Penn College.

reading medieval Welsh erotic poetry: game & seduction

Medieval Welsh erotic poetry becomes much more meaningful from the perspective of comparative literature. Consider the first stanza of a medieval Welsh poem that stages a dialogue between a boy and a girl. The boy says to the girl:

Dexterous girl with slender waist,
grand of manner with fine eyebrows,
I request your leave in secret
for Jesus’s sake to make love to you.
May I, pleasant is my greeting,
have leave to lie with you girl? [1]

That’s far from the typical masculine diffidence in medieval courtly love poetry. The medieval Welsh poem is an amazing historical antecedent to the single-stage game that modern applied game theorists call the apocalypse opener. That game has a simple structure. A man approaches an unknown woman in a bar or nightclub and asks her quickly and serially three questions:

  1. Hey, how’s it going.?
  2. What are you doing later?
  3. Do you want to come home with me?

Practitioners describe the key to this game as shock and awe. Some women, stimulated by the man’s boldness, will respond positively. Others will tell him to go away. Our climate of hostility to men’s sexuality enhances the shock and awe of the apocalypse opener and thus increases its effectiveness.


The medieval Welsh poem develops the apocalypse opener with literary sophistication. The girl responds enthusiastically to the opener. She instructs the boy:

Lift my dress, seek openly,
as if from under my navel,
and put your knee between my knees —
if you bring one put them both.

The boy, however, then loses the stiffness of his desire.[2] The result is bitterness on both sides. The girl says to him:

So take your thin little cock
and seek companionship in a bed of fleas.

The boy responds:

And God’s curse on you girl,
you ill-tempered wild-arsed bitch.

In the medieval Welsh poem, the apocalypse opener worked. The implement for the subsequent act failed. Since medieval times, a lucrative market of pharmaceuticals has developed to address this sort of problem.

A go-to technique in modern, text-based seduction is the ascii penis. That too has a forefather in medieval Welsh erotic poetry. In medieval life and literature, go-betweens, who were usually old women, conveyed proposals of love. The transgressive medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym instead figured his genitals as a go-between:

My two balls, go on my errand
concerning my girl, may she be nearer here.
Be you fierce,
my bald round love messengers.
Go, round black diligent prick
throttled by my two balls.

Demand a feast for your bearer,
pale bondsmen of the trousers. [3]

From this literary figure to the ascii penis is simply a matter of advancing media technology.

Building upon the lessons of Ovid, the master teacher of love, modern seduction literature instructs men in the importance of confidence and boldness. So too did medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Here’s typical advice of an old-woman go-between in medieval Welsh erotic poetry:

Woo the gentle girl lovingly;
if you woo long you won’t win her in the end.
Better the thrust of knee and elbows,
by Mary, than long buying of mead. [4]

Interpreted literally, the old woman advises the man to rape the woman. But raping a woman has always been regarded as a serious crime.[5] Moreover, most men, like most primates generally, don’t rape women. Medieval Welsh erotic poetry that instructs men not to attempt to beg or buy love from women parallels warnings against beta behavior in modern seduction literature. The thrust of knee and elbow figures the dominance and entitlement of the alpha male. Medieval Welsh erotic poetry that encourages men to be sexually assertive suggests that many medieval Welsh men, like many men today, lacked sexual confidence.

Medieval Welsh erotic poetry, like literature generally, tends to be read gynocentrically. That leads to literary criticism that’s not much more than intoning misogyny blah blah blah.[6] Modern seduction literature written for men provides in comparative perspective much better understanding of medieval Welsh erotic poetry.

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[1] Ymddiddan Rhwng Mab a Merch (A Conversation Between a Boy and a Girl), from Welsh trans. Johnston (1991) p. 79. The subsequent three quotes are from id. In medieval Welsh poetry, slender eyebrows are a highly attractive feminine feature to men.

[2] Some sex field reports suggest that women interested in sex with men are more fulfilled by being warmly receptive rather than crudely demanding. Men’s sexual response is not merely a mechanical reaction to an opportunity for sex. Men’s sexual functioning often depends on complex workings of men’s minds and emotions. In recent decades, the popular pharmaceutical category “erectile dysfunction drugs” has further contributed to misunderstanding, if not outright demeaning of men’s sexuality.

[3] Cywydd i Anfon y Gal a’r Ceilliau’n Llatai (The Poet Sends his Genitals as a Love Messenger), attributed to Dafydd ap Gwilym, from Welsh trans. id. p. 35.

[4] Cyngor Hen Wraig (An Old Woman’s Advice), probably composed in 15th century, from Welsh trans. id. p. 47. The last three verses above also occur verbatim in Ding Moel’s Cyngor i Gyfaill (Advice to a Friend), trans. id. pp. 51 (second verse), 53 (concluding couplet).

[5] Syr Dafydd Llwyd Ysgolhaig (Sir David Llwyd the Scholar), an amateur poet of the mid-16th century, explicitly described a cleric rejecting rape:

I confessed jokingly to her
my malady in my crotch.
She couldn’t commit fornication,
she said, she wouldn’t do it for anyone.
The lovely maid was not to be had of her own will,
I wouldn’t commit rape anymore than a wren.
Still, nevertheless, she agreed
of her own will to let me have her barrel:
my sweetheart jumped, radiant bosom,
into bed and paid with her arse.

Y Clerigwr a’r Forwyn (The Cleric and the Virgin), trans. id. p. 107. The woman subsequently wore the man out with her eagerness for sex. While men raping women has always been regarded as a serious crime, today rape of men is appallingly obscured and trivialized.

[6] E.g. id., introduction and commentary on individual poems.

[image] Apocalípico I, by Mauricio García Vega. Thanks to Mauricio García Vega and Wikimedia Commons.


Johnston, Dafydd. 1991. Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd canol = Medieval Welsh erotic poetry. Grangetown: Tafol.

Aesop Romance: quarrels of story-telling, philosophy & poetry

From nearly the beginning of the Roman Empire, story-tellers told of a quarrel between the fabulist Aesop and the philosopher Xanthus. Philosophers, also known as sophists, were by this time the most powerful figures in Greco-Roman culture. The quarrel between Aesop and Xanthus became the popular work now known as the Aesop Romance. Story-telling today is widely recognized as a powerful cultural practice. The relation of Aesop’s quarrel with Xanthus to the cultural authority of story-telling hasn’t yet been adequately appreciated.

The story-telling author of the Aesop Romance seems to have learned from Plato. One of Plato’s most brilliant ideas was to instigate a quarrel between philosophy and poetry.[1] Goddesses residing on Mount Parnassus represented poetry. Athenian city officialdom regularly staged major festivals of dramatic poetry. Philosophy, in contrast, mattered relatively little. Philosophy probably reached its pinnacle of public recognition in fifth-century Athens when the comic poet Aristophanes lampooned Socrates and his silly school of philosophy.[2] Promoting a public quarrel between philosophy and poetry raised lowly philosophy to the august heights of poetry. The Aesop Romance worked similarly for story-telling in relation to philosophy at a time when philosophy had leading cultural authority.[3]

The Aesop Romance begins with Aesop at the bottom of the Greco-Roman status hierarchy. Aesop was a slave born in a foreign land. Slave and foreign were two marks of low status. Aesop also was ugly:

potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped — a portentous monstrosity. [4]

Aesop was put to work digging in a field outside the city. Working outside the home and outside the city marked him as the lowest among the lowly slaves. Even worse, Aesop lacked capacity for speech. In Greco-Roman culture, not being able to speak made a man no better than a beast.

Aesop showed the power of story-telling even before he gained the ability to speak. Aesop’s master had a bowel of figs. Other slaves ate all the master’s figs. When the master saw that all his figs had vanished, he inquired into the matter. The other slaves blamed Aesop. Aesop, because he couldn’t speak, couldn’t argue his own case. But he drank some warm water, stuck his finger down his throat, and threw up all that was in his stomach. The contents of his stomach were only water. The master ordered the other slaves to do likewise. Their vomit contained remnants of figs. The only possible story that could explain the contents of their stomachs was that they, not Aesop, had eaten the master’s figs.[5]

Aesop Romance: Aesop entertaining philosophers

Aesop gained the ability to speak through the well-established story of benefiting from kindness to strangers. A priestess of Isis, passing by the field in which Aesop was working, asked him for directions. Aesop took her by the hand, led her to a grove, and gave her food and drink. Then he took her to the main road. In return for his hospitality, the priestess prayed to Isis to give Aesop the ability to speak. Isis and her nine Muses gave Aesop the power of speech, and more:

They conferred on him the power to devise stories and the ability to conceive and elaborate tales in Greek. [6]

When the Aesop Romance was first written, fables attributed to Aesop had already been circulating for centuries.[7] The Aesop Romance is about the cultural status of such story-telling.

Impressed with Aesop’s responses to questions, the philosopher Xanthus purchased him. Xanthus’s wife had told him to purchase a slave for her. Xanthus’s wife, who was carried about in a litter, dominated Xanthus even though he taught his students “one shouldn’t pay attention to a woman.”[8] Further undermining the cultural authority of philosophy, Xanthus praised the dancing of pantomimes:

Gentlemen and scholars, you must not think that philosophy consists only in what can be put in words. Philosophy is also in acts. Indeed, unspoken philosophy often surpasses that which is expressed in words. You can observe this in the case of dancers, how by the movement of their hands the continued motions themselves express an unspoken philosophy. [9]

Pantomime dancers provided mass entertainment. Xanthus’s subservience to his wife and admiration for pantomimes are blows to his philosophic prestige. Xanthus’s slave Aesop delivered many more such blows.

The Aesop Romance provides an early example of the philological-bureaucratic skill of working to rule. Angered by Xanthus’s bothersome commands, Aesop resolved to himself: “I’ll give this philosopher a lesson in how to give orders.”[10] Xanthus asked Aesop to bring the oil flask and towels to him at the bath in the city. Persons in the ancient world commonly anointed themselves with oil after a bath. Aesop brought the flask without filling it with oil, because Xanthus had said, “oil flask,” not “flask with oil.” When Xanthus commanded Aesop to cook lentil for dinner, Aesop cooked a single lentil. When Xanthus commanded Aesop to bring food “to her who loves me,” Aesop brought food to Xanthus’s female dog rather than to his wife. Aesop similarly engaged in deliberate mis-communication with others. In doing so, he highlighted the maddening silliness of verbal sophistication.

Aesop pointedly ridiculed philosophy in serving tongues for food. Xanthus invited his students to his home for dinner. He ordered his slave Aesop to cook “the finest thing imaginable.” For each course of the meal, Aesop served tongues of pigs. The students were overcome with nausea and admitted “defeat by tongue.” Xanthus castigated Aesop for disregarding his order to serve “the finest, the most delicious thing imaginable.” Noting that Xanthus ordered him to bring “the finest, the most delicious, the greatest thing imaginable,” Aesop explained:

Well, what can one imagine finer or greater than the tongue? You must observe that all philosophy, all education, depends on the tongue. Without the tongue nothing gets done, neither giving, nor receiving, nor buying. By means of the tongue states are reformed and ordinance and laws laid down. If, then, all life is ordered by the tongue, nothing is greater than the tongue. [11]

Xanthus’s students praised Aesop’s answer and told Xanthus that Aesop was right and he was wrong. The students then went home and from their tongue dinner suffered diarrhea all night long.

Aesop more subtly ridiculed philosophy in proving that one of Aesop’s students was a busybody. Aesop set out to prove that the student was a busybody by showing, for implicit comparison, a man who was not a busybody. That’s a parody of indirect proof: demonstrating that a person is not a non-busybody, and hence must be a busybody. The proof succeeds with a rustic unconcerned about anything. When Xanthus pretends to prepare to immolate his own wife, sure that the rustic would chivalrously intervene to protect the woman, the rustic urged Xanthus to wait. The rustic said that he wanted to fetch his wife so that Xanthus could burn both wives. Xanthus then stopped and conceded defeat. The rustic thus verbally triumphed over gynocentrism and the hypocritical philosopher.[12]

Aesop’s power as a story-teller ultimately didn’t save him from his foolish behavior. At Delphi, persons who heard him give a speaking exhibition didn’t reward him with gifts. Aesop in response insulted them and their city. To strike back at Aesop, the Delphians hid a temple cup in his baggage. They then uncovered it and falsely accused him of temple theft.[13] Aesop told stories to try to dissuade the Delphians from executing him for theft and blasphemy. But Aesop’s story-telling failed. He was forced to jump off a cliff.

The fame of Aesop and modern appreciation for story-telling ignores the end of the story: Aesop dead at the bottom of a cliff. In our world, story-telling has triumphed over philosophy. But if you believe the story of the Aesop Romance, poetic justice will prevail in the end.

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[1] Declared explicitly in Plato, Republic X, 607b-c. For relevant discussion, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Most (2011).

[2] Aristophanes, Clouds.

[3] Gibbs (2009) describes Aesop as an “anti-philosopher” and a “wise fool.” Aesop in the Aesop Romance seems to me to have a more specific position than the generic folk-type “wise fool.” Kurke (2010), in contrast, describes the complex relationship of the Aesop Romance to a wide range of classical Greek literature. One strand of Kurke’s account is understanding the Aesop Romance as a popular critique of elitist practices. My approach here provides a simpler view of the Aesop Romance in the context of strategically instigated quarrels between philosophy and poetry, and then story-telling and philosophy. This account encompasses three millennia of literature from ancient Greek poetry to story-telling today.

[4] Aesop Romance (The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and Aesop his Slave or the Career of Aesop) 1, from Greek trans. Lloyd W. Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 111. All subsequent quotes from the Aesop Romance are from Daly’s translation in id. The Aesop Romance (Vita Aesopi), which dates from about the time of Jesus, became highly popular through to the twentieth century. It has a diverse, complex manuscript corpus. Daly’s translation is based on the manuscript stem Vita G (Perriana), supplemented (indicated by brackets) with text from Vita W (Westermanniana).  The characterization of Aesop as an ugly, foreign slave goes back at least to the fifth-century BGC. Kurke (2010) pp. 3, 41.

[5] Aesop Romance  2-3, Hansen (1998) pp. 112-3. In the Islamic world, Aesop became associated with a person known as Luqman the Wise. The story of the figs exists in Rumi’s Mathnawi I: 3584-3607.

[6] Aesop Romance 7, id. p. 114. Another account of hospitality to strangers is Genesis 18: 1-15 (Abraham, Sarah, and the three angels).

[7] Fables of Aesop were known in fifth-century BGC Athens. For various collections of Aesop’s fables, see Laura Gibb’s magnificent site Aesopica.

[8] Aesop Romance 24, Hansen (1998) p. 121.

[9] Aesop Romance 22, id. p. 120.

[10] Aesop Romance 38, id. p. 128. The issues of the oil flask, lentils, and food for the one who loves Xanthus are in sec. 38, 39. 44-50a, id. pp. 128-33. The Old French farce Le Cuvier (The Washtub) is another comic tale of working to rule.

[11] Aesop Romance 53, id. p. 134. Note the continual addition of superlatives in describing the request. Being able to speak eloquently was highly valued in the Roman Empire. The claim that the tongue is both the best and worse portion occurs in the Seven Sages tradition. Plutarch was fond of this claim. He quotes it, among other places, in his Banquet of the Seven Sages, Ch. 2, 147f. For discussion, Kurke (2010) pp. 218-22. Kurke describes the murals of the Seven Sages at Ostia as an Aesopic parody without Aesop. Id. p. 236, discussed pp. 229-36.

[12] Aesop Romance 56-64, Hansen (1998) p. 135-8.

[13] Cf. Genesis 44:1-17 (Joseph has his cup hidden in Benjamin’s bag). Kurke (2010) detects in this story a complicated ideological critique that extends back to the fifth-century BGC. Kurke (2010) Ch. 1.

[image] Aesop entertaining two priests, who appear dressed as philosophers. Plate before p. 3 in Barlow (1687). The drawing identifies the figures whom Aesop is entertaining as “Gnthias priests.” The associated text describes Aesop entertaining “two priests of Diana.” In Daly’s text, Aesop entertains a single priest of Isis.


Barlow, Francis, with Aphra Behn, Thomas Philipot, Robert Codrington and Thomas Dudley. 1687. Æsop’s fables with his life in English, French and Latin. London: Printed by H. Hills, Jun., for Francis Barlow, and are to be sold by Chr. Wilkinson … Tho. Fox … and Henry Faithorne. (online, 64 MB pdf)

Gibbs, Laura. 2009. “Life of Aesop: The Wise Fool and the Philosopher.” Journey to the Sea 9.

Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kurke, Leslie. 2011. Aesopic conversations: popular tradition, cultural dialogue, and the invention of Greek prose. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Kurke’s introduction.

Most, Glenn W. 2011. “What Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry?” Pp. 1-20 in Destrée, Pierre, and Fritz-Gregor Herrmann. 2011. Plato and the poets. Leiden: Brill.