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Obscenity of the Month 3: Love (?) and Marriage

This month’s obscenity is taking the risk of linking the author’s personal life to her research (always a dangerous game), partly as a way of excusing the fact that this post is rather later than I had promised. The reason for the delay is because I married my partner of long standing at the start of February: in celebration of this happy event, this month’s obscenity is a verb which in its earliest uses means ‘to be married to’, ὀπυίω (o-pooi-oh) (also found as ὀπύω without the iota).

There is however much more to this verb than this translation suggests. To start with, note that while I – as a woman – can say a few sentences ago in English of the 21st century ‘I married’ my now-husband, this sentence is not possible, or at least would be very strange, in ancient Greek: it is the man who does the action of this verb to a woman, and not the other way round. This is normal within the Classical Greek socio-cultural view of the world, see for example Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1148b32 which states that women ‘do not ὀπυίω, but are ὀπυίω-d’, and many other classic examples demonstrating the division of the sexes into their active and passive roles. (The traditional British wedding ceremony still very much places in men in the active role, but at least linguistically women can be active; negotiating marriage traditions has definitely released my inner feminist.) The next question concerns the nature of the action the man performs on the woman. In the earliest examples from Homer and Hesiod, ὀπυίω indicates not the initial act of getting married, but rather the state of having a wife (see G. P. Edwards (1987) ‘Meaning and Aspect in the Verb ᾽ΟΠΥΙΩ’, Minos 20-22, pp. 173-181): this is the distinction between more frequent γαμέω (ga-me-oh) and our word of the month, with γαμέω being the act of marriage between man and woman and ὀπυίω the state which results. In short, ὀπυίω is a continuing relationship in which the two parties stand, not a single act. There is a nice picture here on an Attic red figure pyxis c. 350 BC (Philadelphia MS5462) of the goddess Hebe about to γαμεῖται – be married – to Heracles.

ὀπυίω appears 39 times in the Gortys law code from Crete, dating from the first half of the fifth century BC, of which this is a very small part. You might well need an eagle-eyed epigrapher to find the word (there is at least one present passive infinitive, ὀπυίεσθαι).

ὀπυίω appears 39 times in the Gortys law code from Crete, dating from the first half of the fifth century BC, of which this is a very small part. You might well need an eagle-eyed epigrapher to find the word (there is at least one present passive infinitive, ὀπυίεσθαι).

What does this have to do with obscenity? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the link between sex and marriage (with marriage socially sanctioning sex between man and woman, and legitimising any children which result) leads to this word being used of sex itself, rather than just of the social/legal status of the couple. This shift in meaning has parallels in other languages, including for example the euphemistic English slang term, ‘wedding tackle’ (= male genitalia, for clarity), which according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang (2010) appears as early as the late seventeenth century.

It is not entirely clear when this shift of meaning happens for ὀπυίω; perhaps it may be an informal, although not apparently terribly rude, term for sex even as early as 425 BC to go by its occurence in Aristophanes’ comic play Acharnians, roughly ‘how lucky will be the man who will ὀπυίω you’ (line 255) (if you want a laugh, try to make sense of the translation on Perseus at this point in the text). Perhaps ‘to join in union’ or ‘to couple’ in English is a good way of capturing both senses of legal and ‘physical’ togetherness. What is certain is that much later, in the second century AD, we find Lucian, a writer of all manner of satirical texts, using ὀπυίω in parallel to other verbs which are also ‘weak’ terms indicating sex (e.g. Eunuchus 12, Gallus 19). The clearest example of this is at De mercede 41, where we find ‘an Oedipus XXX-ing his mother (τῇ μητρὶ συνὼν), or a Tereus XXX-ing two sisters at once (δύο ἀδελφὰς ἅμα ὀπυίων).’ We know what Oedipus and Tereus did to these various women: for the case of ὀπυίω here, while there was marriage between Tereus and one sister (Procne), there wasn’t with the other one (Philomela), and thus here the verb is not only referring to the legal aspect of marriage, but also sex alone. Overall this verb is rare in our later texts, and it may well be that Lucian is reviving a word which has already largely fallen out of use, but we have very little evidence to go on.

Old Blue Eyes

Old Blue Eyes

Love and marriage might go together like a horse and carriage according to Frank Sinatra, but the Greeks were not quite so romantic.

Next month: walking like an Egyptian.

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