The twins Castor and Pollux, who were in love with Helen; the dangerous, irresistible sirens; Aphrodite, the beautiful god of love who seduced warriors; ancestors and demi-gods copulating, adolescents eroticized by a shepherd with a flute and gods mating with animals to give birth to other beautiful demi-gods. Sexual allusion in ancient Greece was present everywhere, although the debate as to the real nature of that custom has never ended: What the Greeks called eros, “a passionate love that stirs life,” or philia, “an affectionate intimacy,” was it essentially sublime or was it sodomy? Sometimes it was fully approved of, even to the point of suggesting that it was the highest and noblest form of love, and on other occasions the ancient Greeks seemed to condone it.
The imagination in the culture of Ancient Greece is a constellation of copulation among species and kingdoms, a kind of armada of mythological lovers that was manifested, as well as in literature, in dozens of drawings that a problematic art historian called Pierre-François Hugues d’Hancarville would later compile in two books: Monumens de la vie privée des douze Césars, Monumens du culte secret des dames romaines and that presented here, Veneres uti observantur in gemmis antiquis, published in 1785. The book proved to be so popular that it was translated into English almost immediately.
In these images we can see the union of Hercules and Hebe (the alliance of beauty with courage and virtue), in full consummation of the act, as well as statues penetrating demi-gods, gods raping animals (Leda and the swan) and mythological animals (such as the fawn) copulating with maidens. Many of them are satires, as the author explains in the book, and which were used to illustrate scenes in popular theater, but many others were graphic representations of the imagination of the world-view of the era and the place.
The author explicitly distances himself from the “pornography” that he compiles, highlighting instead the artistic skill of the drawings. He also mocks the “innocent and wild imagination of the Greeks” and their “ridiculous gods,” distancing himself from the possible eroticism or desire that the images could provoke. In his prologue he explains: