For those times when a person is depressed, distressed, or just can’t be bothered to get dressed, masturbation has always offered a modicum of comfort.
In the United States, masturbation has gone through long periods of being utterly reviled and/or hysterically forbidden. Today it seems to be looked at uneasily but without revulsion, a private, slightly embarrassing pleasure that barely qualifies as a transgression in the Catholic Church.
In ancient times, however, masturbation was a necessary and celebrated act that gods around the world performed. Men and women of long-ago civilizations whose lives and livelihoods depended on river water—such as the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates—believed that their gods supplied their own ejaculate to keep those fresh waters flowing.
To maintain the rivers upon which all life depended, folks in Egypt and Mesopotamia believed that their male gods routinely fired sperm samples into the waters.
Sumerians, among the earliest of literate cultures, wrote about their god Enki, who used to fondle himself to keep the Tigris River topped up. The Egyptian god Hapy did the same for the Nile River, to maintain its yearly flooding. (Read the prior entry to see the additional help given the Nile by its pharaohs and other gods.)
One Egyptian creation myth has the god Atum appear out of the void— and then, since voids are generally empty and boring, he masturbates, which brings him a nice surprise in the form of Shu and Tefnut, the first human beings, who set to work creating humans in a more gregarious fashion. But the highly imaginative Egyptian story-spinners didn’t stop there. Their god Osiris performed even more astonishing feats with his own semen by resurrecting himself through sacred masturbation. He also conceived his own son Horus using his semen alone.
When the gods engaged in masturbation, it was perceived as a magical, creative act. Many cultures around the Mediterranean Sea also regarded its use by humans as natural and a healthy substitute for other sexual experiences.
Greek mythology pointed to the god Hermes (Mercury among the Romans) as an early adopter. He then taught it to the goatish god Pan, an ancient Arcadian deity of shepherds, forests, and animals tame and wild. This was an act of kindness, since shaggy, loud-voiced Pan had great difficulty getting any girlfriends in human form—or goat form, for that matter. He once had the hots for a nymph named Echo, but she’d rebuffed him. Newly inspired by masturbator techniques, Pan went on to teach solo sex to shepherds and others.
On the less exalted human plane, Greeks and Romans alike approved of masturbation as well. Poets such as Martial mentioned the common practice of fondling oneself while reading erotic material and gazing at pornographic
art. Masturbation was also a popular subject on Greek vase paintings— including drinking cups.
Mark Twain once gave an impudent speech called “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism.” In it, he quoted none other than Julius Caesar, who appeared to have been a real fan: “To the lonely it is company; to the forsaken it is a friend; to the aged and impotent it is a benefactor; they that are penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion.” To that statement he adds, possibly in jest: “There are times when I prefer it to sodomy.”
Speaking of Onan; remember that poor guy in the Old Testament’s Genesis 38:8-10, who took a lot of flak for refusing to inseminate the wife of his recently deceased brother? Maybe he just hated being rushed into something that personal. No small talk, no engagement ring, just God ordering him to procreate with his sister-in-law Tamar, since his brother had died before producing a son and heir. Unenthused, Onan nevertheless had dutiful sex with Tamar, although afterward he spilled his seed on the ground. Deeply displeased, God promptly put Onan to death.
Although modern students on the subject are pretty sure that what Onan did was coitus interruptus or pulling out before ejaculating, Jewish rabbis from about 100 B.C. took the passage to mean that Onan wasted his seed, a type of birth control. Very sinful. The early Christian fathers took a different tack: since Onan’s copulation wasn’t for procreation, it must have been for pleasure. And thus was immoral.
Eventually Onan’s name and his activity became a synonym for masturbation: onanism. From the earliest Christians onward, a variety of religions came down heavily on masturbation, calling it one of the four “unnatural vices.” (The other three vices: homosexuality, bestiality, and sex in anything other than the missionary position.) Some Early American colonists went them one better, making it a death penalty crime.
In the mid-1700s, thanks to a flood of avidly read “dangers of onanism” books and pamphlets written by English crank S. A. D. Tissot and other quacks, Onan’s deed newly panicked the English-speaking world about masturbation. And boy, did the Victorians run with it. Manual manipulation was life-threatening and would cause blindness, spinal consumption, polio, suicide. “Experts” selling potions and weird devices abounded. Some educators lobbied for schoolboys to wear skirts instead of tight trousers. Onanism-phobia and bizarre masturbation-quelling diets ruled until well into the twentieth century, possibly until the cathartic year of 1969, when Philip Roth’s hilarious, revelatory Portnoy’s Complaint came out.