When in Rome....: Ancient Sex Gods
Often we lust over another person, obsess over them, fancy them and even describe him or her as a 'sex god'. Few of us will actually go as far as worshipping this 'sex god' (thankfully), but in the past there has been a multitude of gods dedicated to fertility and sexual pleasure.
The most notorious gods of sex are from Egyptian, Greek and Roman Mythology. However, when the Romans invaded Britain 2000 years ago Londoners and the British population were required to worship these mystical gods.
Southwark was seen as today's Soho. It was the heart of the sex scene and like Soho or Las Vegas magnificent buildings were dedicated to the gods of sex, pleasure and lust. These gods would be worshipped to such an extent that palaces and temples were built in dedication. Worship was very much a celebration fuelled by wine turning into rather wild processions and often culminating in frenzied public orgies.
Devotees would perform religious duties such as carrying gigantic phalluses in a procession or handing around wine in jugs on specific 'days of drinking'.
In the twentieth century, remains underneath Southwark Cathedral and in Tooley Street were discovered of a substantial Roman Temple. A jug was also discovered inscribed with 'LONDINI AD FANUM ISIDIS' - In London, at the Temple of Isis.
Isis was the main Ancient Egyptian goddess worshipped in London during the Roman occupation, her worship spreading throughout the Greco-Roman world. She represented fertility as well as being the patron of nature and magic. She was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife. Isis is depicted as the mother of Horus, another Ancient Eygptian God. This hawk-headed god of war and protection is often seen suckling on Isis in a similar depiction as that of the Virgin Mary with Jesus. Isis was also known as protector of the dead and goddess of children.
As the story goes, Isis married her brother Osiris and they conceived Horus. When Osiris was murdered, Isis was instrumental in his resurrection, using her magic to restore life to his body. This death and rebirth was relived each year through rituals.
As the fertility goddess, this beautiful dark-haired woman recruited many devotees, particularly in women. The most noble empresses to the lowest whores on the bank of the River Thames came to worship.
The temple of Isis in Southwark was known as 'houses of assignation'. This was where women conducting secret affaires could rendezvous with their lovers or clients. Women were even known to pick-up a willing partner or simply confide in priests about all aspects of love, sex and fertility.
Harpocrates was the god of silence, adapted by the Greek from the Ancient Egyptian child god Horus. Horus represented the newborn sun and was the child of Isis and Osiris. He was considered the victorious god of the sun who each day overcame darkness.
Although Harpocrates did not have a dedicated temple in London or Britain, he often featured across London's Roman brothels. Depicted as a man with a penis two or three times taller than the rest of him, his picture was painted across ceilings, walls and doors. He was known for his sexual prowess and his image was supposed to 'spur-on' clients to the max. This deity was also depicted in figurines with one vast penis, sometimes even used as an oil lamp with the erect penis holding the oil. The figurine was meant to protect lovers from evil demons lurking In the dark and help redouble their efforts in amorous pursuits.
Apollo was also a widely worshipped deity in London and one of the most important and complex Olympian deities in ancient Greek and Roman religion. Recognised as the god of light and sun, healing, truth and prophecy, he was the prophetic deity of the Delphi Oracle. Apollo was also seen as the god who could bring ill-health and deadly plague, so it becomes clear why he was profoundly worshipped in London where the plague was so common.
Apollo was a leader of muses as well as patron god of music and poetry. His love affairs were also renowned, although these were only attributed to him in later development of Greek mythology. Famously, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Phoebus Apollo chaffs cupid for toying with a weapon more suited to a man. Cupid wounds Apollo with a Golden Dart and simultaneously shoots a leaden love-repelling arrow into Daphne, a nymph who scorned Apollo and all men. Daphne flees Apollo's relentless chasing until she can no longer bare his pleading and boasting. She seeks help from her father Peneus, the river god, who transforms her into the Laurel tree which was sacred to Apollo.
Hermes was the messenger god, and although he was less worshipped as a sex god he still played a vital part in meetings of the heart. It has always been uncertain of his deity origins. Some argue he is a native god worshipped since the neolithic era, others suggest he was 'imported' from Asia via Cyprus or Cilicia.
Hermes' cult was established in the remote regions of Greece, where he was worshipped as a god of nature with shamanic attributes like divination, magic and sacrifices. More appropriately he was also considered a re-conciliator and initiator of contact between places of existence, a mediator between worlds. For this reason he was worshipped as a god of sex as the Romans in London needed to worship a messenger, someone who could action communication between loved ones in Rome, new meetings and more.
In early Londinium, Hermes 'fertility figures' were a common sight in the streets. These statues were sited at major intersections. The statue was positioned on a square pillar around six foot high, often featuring a large erect penis, complete with testicles. Passing women would touch and fondle the stone penis and pray for the god's intervention whether it be in successfully conceiving a child, making the woman more desirable, strength in a relationship or success in finding clients if the woman was a prostitute.