Erotic literature

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Erotic literature

Erotic literature

In much of the world's literature of empire, the artistic representation of carnal relationships explores universal human traits and intrigues. Models range from the sensual “The Courtship of Inanna and Damuzi” (ca. 2800 B.c.) in Akkadian-Sumerian lore and the more sedate biblical book of GENESIS (ca. 500 B.c.) to the Kama Sutra (ca. A.D. 500), Vatsyayana's holy guidebook of lovers in the Gupta Empire. The Israelites celebrated parallel male and female desires in the EPITHALAMIUM Song of Solomon (ca. 950 B.c.), and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE recreated the bicul- tural love affair of Antony and Cleopatra, victims of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. CRUSADER LORE such as the Minnesang, the GODDESS LORE of Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs to the Virgin Mary, ca. 1283), and the lais of MARIE DE FRANCE all exalted malefemale attraction in various ways.

A Sanskrit text from the Srivijayan empire, Shuka Saptati (Seventy Tales of the Parrot, ca. 1100) mimics the Persian frame story The THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (ca. 942) with a cycle of plots drawn from disparate traditions of the Malayan realm. Narrated by Lord Shuka, who takes the form of a talking bird, the suite of 70 anecdotes dates as early as A.D. 500. The series ostensibly reminds a married woman named Prabhavati to honor monogamy by distracting her from trysts with her lover. Titillating episodes of bad company, prostitution, seduction, adultery, rape, violence to genitals, bestiality, and incest extract lore from Vishnu Sarma's PANCHATANTRA (ca. 200 B.c.) from the Mauryan empire of India to describe a variety of scenarios for infidelity on a par with the ribald stories of Giovanni Boccaccio, MIGUEL DE CERVANTES, and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Interspersed in the action are nuggets of wisdom about character, such as the roots of jealousy, envy, and possessiveness. Explicit details include a description of the best mattress for sexual intercourse to “bear the strong poundings of a couple's passion” (Shuka Saptati 2000, 183). By the time Prabhavati's husband, Madana Vinoda, returns from a 70-day voyage, she has remained chaste while learning moral lessons from the wise parrot. Through numerous versions and vernacular translations into Persian and Urdu, the Shuka Saptati remained a favorite folklore collection for its evenhanded depiction of male and female foibles and forgiveness of straying mates.

Japanese Love Plaints

In a heavily structured court atmosphere, mournful Japanese mates waited out lengthy sea voyages that separated lovers depicted in the Nara Empire's 20- book MANYOSHU (Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759), an imperial anthology from Japan's golden age compiled primarily by the scholar and statesman Otomo no Yakamochi (ca. 717-785). His collection, pulling together poetry from the seventh and eighth centuries, ranged from ritual prayers, epithalamia, and odes to depictions of girls' flirtations with male idlers and oglers at the temple well. Memorable verses capture achingly carnal thoughts about secret trysts, breasts, genitals, and coitus. An anonymous text pictures the wet hemlines of young girls using their skirts to net sweetfish at the rapids of the Matsura River. Another narrative welcomes the stealthy lover who slips through the blinds to join his inamorata in her room without waking her mother.

Sexual frustration, a universal theme, also appears in Japanese court verses by a wide range of poets. Empress Iwa Hime compares a parting with Emperor Nintoku to torment on the rack; on the other end of the social spectrum, Sano Chigami, a clerk at the Grand Shrine of Ise, grieves over the exile of her lover, Nakatomi Yakamori, to Echizen Province. Princess Hirokawa, granddaughter of Emperor Temmu, describes herself as so laden with love's sorrow that she pulls a load of grief like seven carts uphill. Unrequited love disturbs Lady Otomo Sakanoue, who pictures a virgin as “the star lily that has bloomed/in the thick foliage/of the summer field” (Love Songs 2000, 42). Forbidden love troubles the poet Otomo Yasumaro, who muses on sexual temptation: “If men can touch / even the untouchable sacred tree, / why can I not touch you / simply because you are another's wife?” (65). A sophisticated erotic poem by Lady Ki views the restless female sleeper as a silk-tree blossom. With libertarian impertinence, she asks, “Should only its lord look upon it? / You too, my vassal, enjoy the sight” (41). The social position of both voyeur and unattainable lady layers amorous Japanese verse with the potential for personal and political disaster.

Eroticism and Colonialism

During the Italian Empire, the heroic poet and author GABRIELE D'ANNUNZIO popularized rhapsodic celebrations of sensual gratification. He publicized his love affair with the actress Eleanora Duse in a tell-all novel, Il Fuoco (The Flame of Life, 1900). In a garden tryst scented with jasmine, the lover Stelio, the author's fictional persona, whispers, “I received you all into myself like a wave. And now it seems that I can no longer divide you from my own blood,” a merger that stuns and overpowers (D'Annunzio 1900, 136). A year later, the author chafed censors with the tittle-tattle and scandal of the historical tragedy Francesca da Rimini (1901), set in 13th-century Italy amid the danger and spite of a love triangle involving the title figure, her husband, and his brother.

As Italy began to claim more territory from the Turks, D'Annunzio raised his iconic superman to new heights. The three-act play Piu che I’Amore (More than love, 1906) portrays a cult figure through the manly explorer Corrado Brando, who abandons a paramour and unborn love child for a tragic fate. D'Annunzio extols his hero for exploits in unknown terrain in Italian East Africa and for standing firm on the wrong side of the law. The author's probings of modern tragedy bases heroism on Brando's rejection of social and political conventions for the greater good of his Italian homeland. At the play's debut on October 29, 1906, outraged theater-goers yelled, “Carabinieri, arrestate l'autore!” (Police, arrest the playwright) (Frese 2001, 78).


Benton, Catherine. God of Desire: Tales of Kamadeva in

Sanskrit Story Literature. New York: State University of New York Press, 2005.

D'Annunzio, Gabriele. The Flame of Life. Translated by

Kassandra Vivaria. Boston: L. C. Page, 1900.

Frese, Mary Ann. The Search for Modern Tragedy:

Aesthetic Fascism in Italy and France. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Love Songs from the Manyoshu. Translated by Ian Hideo

Levy. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2000.

Shuka Saptati: Seventy Tales of the Parrot. Translated by Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel Haksar. India: HarperCollins India, 2000.