The Karma Sutra of the Ancient Mediterranean July 8, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
If there is a heaven then Beachcombing hopes that, past the brass-band podium and the daisy strewn park, there will be a public Library of Lost Books, stocked with the works of antiquity and the middle ages that inconsiderate ancestors forgot to hand down to us. And, on the seventy-seventh floor of that fabulous computerless library – with its polite, eager-to-help, polyglot librarians – there will stand the shelves of the risqué and grotesque where the ghost of Beachcombing will wile away much of his time. In fact, Beachcombing, on his first day in paradise, will rush up the stairs and flick through the manuscripts there until he come across one that he has long dreamt of and one that survives today only in rumour, Philaenis of Samos’s Art of Love, the Karma Sutra of the ancient Mediterranean.
It would be crass to blame the loss of this most precious work on early Christians. It is far more likely to have fallen out of fashion in the rather prudish late Roman Empire without any help from ‘the Galileans’. Indeed, its very non-existence promises much ‘in that library where every book shall lie open to one another’.
Despite its non-existence we do have some precious hints concerning the work’s history. Philiaenis is a generic ‘girly’ name, Samos was a Greek island with a reputation for loose women: in short ‘Philiaenis’ – with apologies to the world’s gender study majors – was almost certainly a male pen-name not a proto-Anais-Nin. And this is perhaps confirmed by the fact that a Greek sophist Polycrates was also credited with authorship. Beachcombing likes the idea of a hopeless, balding Athenian fool teaching the ancient world about reproduction: so much truer to human experience than a lithe and experienced courtesan…
Posterity also know something about its contents thanks to a fragment of parchment (P.Oxy. 2891) from the Egyptian deserts. In fact, this precious leaf discovered in the sands of Oxyrhynchus in southern Egypt includes a short fragment from ‘Philiaenis’. When Beachcombing first heard of this he thought that he was already in heaven and ran with sweaty palms to find the nearest ‘edition’ – decipherment might be a truer word. However, expectation and reality proved uneasy bed-fellows. Part of this fragment is a turgid introduction and other highlights include a reference to ‘wood pigeons’ (?!), tips on how to seduce someone by calling them ‘god-like’ and advice on love affairs with the elderly. Indeed, for a brief if horrible moment Beachcombing wondered if, instead of an ancient Mediterranean Karma Sutra, he had stumbled on an ancient Mediterranean Men are from Mars.
Beachcombing, however, keeps the faith. He is certain that in the complete edition awaiting in the Library of Lost Books old Polycrates will address the entire alphabet of physical love. Alternatively one of the workers on the dunes of the Niles might dig up the rest of the book and put Beachcombing out of his misery in this life time. Wouldn’t count on it though.
Any copies of the Art of Love in a reader’s loft? Let drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom know.