You may be relieved (or perhaps disappointed) to learn that nymphomaniacs never roamed the streets of ancient Athens or Corinth or anywhere in long-ago Greece. The term was coined about two hundred years ago, when a French doctor named Bienville tried to describe female hypersexuality. The word mania originally came from the Greek for fury or frenzy; and nymph could refer to maidens, brides, and/or junior-grade nature goddesses.
Galen, a hyperactive doctor and author of the second century A.D., did discuss the nymphomania affliction in one of his million-word write-ups. He just knew that women, especially young widows, had an insatiable desire for semen, and that lack of it would lead to madness. Or, at the very least, what he dubbed uterine fury, or furor uterinus. (It sounds more dignified in Latin.)
The cause of their female fury? According to Galen, a big believer in balancing the four bodily humours, and several other medical writers of ancient times, the humours of women’s bodies were cool and wet. Therefore, sexually mature gals needed intercourse and lots of it to heat the blood and open their wombs. If thwarted, wombs back then had a tendency to create havoc by wandering around inside the body. (Elsewhere in this book you can read more astounding medical beliefs about these womb wanderers.)
The whole matter might sound laughable nowadays; nevertheless, ladies in prior centuries who exhibited forthright sexuality often got labeled as “abnormal.” From there, they might find themselves locked into asylums, cast out as witches or prostitutes, or on the operating table, getting an unwanted surgical makeover of their sex organs.
As late as 1951 the American Psychiatric Association’s official guide to madness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), listed nymphomania as a “sexual deviation,” years later modifying it to “psychosexual disorder.” Thankfully, by 1994 it had dropped the whole specious label of sexual addiction. The term, however, is still a breathless byword and a frequent topic on daytime TV.
In today’s world, the male equivalent of nymphomania, called satyriasis, garners sympathy and smirks in equal measure—along with book contracts. There appears to be quite a cottage industry standing by to attend to today’s male sufferers of satyriasis, mostly referred to as sex addiction these days. Not so in ancient times; you’d be hard pressed to find a human male who would admit to it.
The term comes from the Greek word satyr, referring to a lustful woodland sprite, half human and half animal (usually goat), who was a raucous drunken follower of the wine god Dionysus. Satyrs had ugly faces, smelly, hairy bodies, and coarse genitals that were considered grotesquely large. Satyrs almost never got the girl, although they constantly chased women, goddesses, and animals and raped them when they could. They were often the sidekicks of Pan, the ancient goat god, who had similar problems getting dates.
This might sound naive, but Greek and Roman men had so many sexual outlets to meet their needs that it’s hard to imagine they were ever sexually frustrated enough to behave like satyrs.