Friday 6 August 2010

A Parade of Perversity

Fie on impure Ganymedes, Hermaphrodites, Neronists, Messalinists, Dodecomechanists, Capricians, Inventors of new, or Revivers of old lecheries, and the whole brood of venereous libertines, that know no reason but appetite, no law but lust, no humanity but villany, no divinity but atheism.

The list is one of the greatest tools of the author, and is seldom used today. Modern writers have an ascetic tendency to search for the right word. Shakespeare was quite happy to let a mob of nouns run across the page whooping and screaming. Not that the list above is from Shakespeare. It's from Gabriel Harvey's Third Letter on Robert Greene, which makes up in fun for what it lacks in up-to-the-minute relevance.

I quote it here, not simply to demonstrate what a good list looks like, but also because of all the lovely and obscure words. So:

Ganymede was the cupbearer of the gods, and Zeus' bugger-boy. So by Ganymedes Harvey means catamites. This is a trifle counter-etymological as Ganymede's name seems to have originally come from ganyesthai medea, meaning rejoicing in virility.

Ganymede had been born mortal but was granted immortality and eternal youth by Zeus (in exchange for rights of his passage). Ganymede's brother Tithonus was also granted immortality, but not eternal youth, which is all the excuse I need to quote a bit of Tennyson's Tithonus:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Hermaphrodite in Harvey's time simply meant homosexual. It was someone who, as a contemporary put it, was "in sexe a man, & in heart a woman".

A Neronist is anybody who imitates the depravity of Nero. This takes in a fair amount of depravity and Neronists deserve top marks for effort. Nero was a transvestite, a ganymede, a hermaphrodite, a mother-killer and a Bad Singer. In the context, Harvey probably meant transvestite as that is the perversion that Nero had and other emperors didn't.

Nero had a cousin called Messalina who was the wife of the Emperor Claudius. However, she also screwed almost everybody in Rome. According to Juvenal, she set up her own brothel where she worked as an enthusiastic amateur (with "gilded nipples"). According to Pliny the Elder she challenged Rome's most notorious prostitute to see who could have sex the most times in 24 hours. Messalina won with a score of twenty five. Given all that, I'm sure you can work out what Messalinists might be.

Dodecomechanists are... well it should be obvious. Dodeco means twelve. Mechanist means either someone who makes things, or someone who believes in a mechanical theory of the universe. The OED has no entry for dodecomechanist or any similar word, so I have had to work it out myself.

I can't for the life of me see how twelve could have anything to do with sex. So I think that Harvey was referring to astrologers, more precisely to those astrologers who discount both God and free will, and attribute everything to the mechanism of the stars. You see there are twelve houses in Heaven. That is to say, the sky is divided into twelve parts in which influential stars can be ascendant or descendant.

The renaissance astrologer William Lilly said:

There is nothing appertaining to the life of man in this world, which in one way or other hath not relation to one of the twelve Houses of Heaven, and as the twelve signs are appropriate to the particular members of mans body; so also doe the twelve houses represent not onely the severall parts of man, but his actions, quality of life and living.

So Lilly saw the twelve houses as the mechanism that drives the universe. So he was a dodecomechanist. That attributes to the stars the powers that are properly God's, so it's a tad atheist.

Capricians are not in the OED. They may be people who follow their caprices too much, but that seems rather weak in such a strong, bawdy, lecherous and ensemened list. Capricious simply means like a goat (as in capricorn) because goats are so whimsical. Given the context - the ganymedes and messalinists - I shall take a guess that capricians are those who like goats rather too vigorously.

So the whole list reads: Catamites, homosexuals, transvestites, sexually confident women, star-gazing atheists, and goat-shaggers.

Fie on them all indeed. Now I'm off to invent some new and revive some old lecheries.

This is the strangest Budweiser advert I've ever seen


  1. You should go to a few performance poetry gigs – the list is alive and well in that genre, for better or worse.

  2. Will there be any performance poetry at the Bethnal Green Working Men's club?

  3. Not from me – quite possibly from the support acts.

  4. The Antipodean, long-time lister,8 August 2010 at 12:19

    Dogberry, this is great news! I've just taken lists off the official, erm, list of 'things I overuse in writing.'

    I looked up 'venerous', as I figured its meaning probably differed from that of 'venerable', which it did, only to discover that they are both descended from Venus. Unsurprisingly, it would appear that Venus has a large number of etymological descendants, particularly when compared with her less available colleague, Dian-in-her-orb.

  5. How to turn a single sentence into a soap opera.

  6. You see! That's what a classical education does for you!