Saturday, 21 March 2015

Kristi Upson-Saia: Sexuality in the Garden: Priapus and the Christian Virgin Policing the Boundaries of the Good Life

Several early Christian authors figured Christian virgins as a "garden enclosed" (an expression derived from Song of Songs 4:12).  In this paper, I analyze a related image we find in Gregory of Nyssa's On Virginity.  In chapter 13 of this text, Gregory imagines the Christian virgin as a boundary stone policing the entrance to (the garden of) Paradise.  I suggest that Gregory's argument here purposively calls to mind another figure who policed garden entrances: Priapus. Statues of Priapus--depicting him with an oversized and permanently erect penis, and accompanied with inscriptions that threatened sexual violence to anyone who dared trespass--were commonplace in aristocratic Greco-Roman gardens. I suspect that Gregory is deliberately setting up Christian virgins in contrast to the hyper-sexualized Priapus in order to subvert conventional Greco-Roman sensibilities about elite status and the good life. Specifically, Gregory opposes the luxury of an aristocratic life symbolized by their gardens and in its place he situates the Christian virgin whose life of devotion to God-a life characterized by a renunciation of sex and of the trappings of the world-will grant her entrance into Paradise. In this paper, I contend that we understand the full logic of Gregory's argument only when we conjure the landscapes and associations of Greco-Roman gardens.

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