Ancient History & Civilisation

A god, a song, a membrane

Known in Latin as hymen vaginae, throughout history this elastic little membrane over the vaginal opening has caused a world of trouble for women. It’s a pretty standard part of reproductive systems, one that human females share with elephants, manatees, whales, horses, and chimps. But don’t get too proud—the hymen is also standard equipment in slugs and several other humble species.

Some human females are born without hymens; some tear the membrane in childhood—and in still other cases, the darn thing entirely covers the opening, which usually requires surgery in order for a girl to menstruate without pain.

For these reasons and more, ten out of ten doctors today will tell you that it is impossible to confirm virginity by hymen examination. Nothwithstanding, various cultures around the globe have made—and continue to make—life hell for their women by insisting that you cannot have the former without the latter.

How did the hymen get its name? Oddly enough, Hymen (or Hymenaeus) was a minor male deity, the god of marriage ceremonies. In ancient Greece, members of the wedding party would call his name aloud, to make sure that Hymen attended; it meant rotten luck for brides and grooms if he didn’t show. In his Greek tragedies, playwright Euripides called Hymen “the god of hot desire!” which makes him sound more like a male stripper.

The deity Hymen was sometimes thought to be a mortal youth who looked very feminine; by other accounts, he was the son of the god Apollo. Hymen was also pictured as a pretty child with wings, usually carrying a torch in his hand to escort the bride. In Greco-Roman art, his image is easily mistaken for one of the Erotes, the winged love godlings who were part of Aphrodite’s entourage, discussed elsewhere in this book.

As in today’s world, weddings were big business in ancient times. A great many Greek poets, from Hesiod and Alcman to the great Sappho, earned fat commissions by composing beautiful melodies and verses to Hymen the marriage god. They were calledhymenaios. Sappho and company also cleaned up by writing poetic lyrics that were sung outside the wedding chamber itself, called epithalamia.

At Roman weddings, on the other hand, guests belted out obscene lyrics to the tunes that were traditionally called fescennines.

Dancing through the streets with torches lit, the members of a typical Greek wedding procession followed the carriage of the bride and groom, singing the hymenaios. Male and female members of the wedding party sang alternating verses to each other, filled with happy, flirtatious, often bawdy words, many of them double entendres about the frightening size of the groom and the purity of the bride. Each verse ended in the words “O Hymenaeus Hymen, O Hymen Hymenaeus.”

Once the newlywed couple entered the flower-adorned nuptial chamber, with the best man guarding the door, the wedding party stood outside and all of the young women sang the epithalamia. Accompanied by flutes and lyre, they warbled verse after verse. Why such noisy, lengthy entertainment outside the chamber? According to an ancient commentary on the wedding poetry of Theocritus, “The epithalamia is sung, in order that the cries of the young bride, while she is offered violence by her husband, may not be heard, but may be drowned in the song of the girls.”

Curiously enough, among Romans, maidenheads were sometimes broken beforehand for a religious reason, the belief in divine impregnation. According to author Barbara Walker’s Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, “Roman brides routinely deflowered themselves on the wooden or stone phalluses of Hermes, Priapus, Tutunus, or some other ‘anointed’ god before lying with their bridegrooms, so that their firstborn children would be god-begotten.”

In earliest Roman times, a life-size phallus of Tutunus, the ithyphallic god of fertility, was present at the ceremony itself. Two long-ago authors noted that brides were obliged to sit on it to promote their fertility while chasing away evil.

Since time immemorial, brides-to-be have sought help with hymeneal restoration in those cultures where to be lacking meant an unpleasant death. Long-ago Greek brides who’d already lost their virginity often stuffed small sponges soaked in blood in the appropriate aperture. Another traditional solution was the deft use of leeches in the hours prior to the wedding-night consummation, a method used with some success since ancient times and into the modern era, by groups as diverse as medieval Italians and nineteenth-century brothel workers in London. Hymenoplasty surgery to repair maidenheads routinely takes place in many parts of the world today, including in Muslim communities. In Japan, the procedure is poetically called “virginity rebirth.”

Hymen, that ancient deity, would no doubt get a chuckle out of all that premarital skullduggery.


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