Bad History, doctors, drugs, love, sex

Cleopatra and the vibrator powered by bees

One of the most far-fetched myths about ancient sexuality, repeated online but also in print, is that Cleopatra invented the vibrator. Some sites date this event to ‘circa 54 BC’ while others go for 45 BC: there’s nothing like a date to make a story look more convincing.

Now, there’s obviously one little problem here: the power source. How do you have a vibrator without electricity? In a particularly unconvincing part of a very dodgy but much-cited book, Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm (1999: you can read more about my issues with this book here), water power was suggested as an alternative source for vibrators in the Roman world. The Cleopatra story goes in a different direction: it claims that this device was either an empty gourd or a papyrus box, and it was powered by bees.

Even those repeating this myth seem to find it dubious, using words like ‘reportedly’ or commenting ‘There is no physical evidence of this sweet sex toy, but Cleopatra was known as a sex fiend.’ Well, so that’s OK then; who needs evidence when we all know what she was like? Others are clear that it can’t be true – not least because it wouldn’t work – and are more interested in where the story comes from. Greg Jenner of ‘Horrible Histories’, who described the Cleopatra vibrator story as his favourite ‘fict’, did some work on its origins back in 2014 and it looks like there’s nothing before 1992, when Brenda Love included the story in her book The Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Despite the excellent detective work which should have quashed this story once and for all, it’s still around, most recently in Philippe Brenot and Laetitia Coryn, The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots, translated into English from the French in 2016. The rumours of Cleopatra’s excessive sexual appetites were part of the ancient propaganda war against her. However, no ancient source came up with this particular story.

One of the most fascinating examples of making up stories about Cleopatra’s sexual appetites comes from a series of fake letters which circulated in early modern Europe. These were explored in an article by Ann Hanson from 2008: ‘The correspondence between Soranus, M. Anthony and Cleopatra – Melchior Goldast (1578-1635) Concerning the Priapism of Queen Cleopatra and its Remedies’. These letters were allegedly found on bronze tablets in Cleopatra’s tomb. In them, Mark Antony asks Dr Soranus for help in dealing with his wife Cleopatra’s excessive lust (let’s leave aside the basic chronological flaw here, the impossibility of a second-century AD medical writer being consulted by someone who died in 30 BC). According to the letters, Cleopatra once went to a brothel where she slept with 106 men in an evening, but she still left unsatisfied. When she tried to remain chaste, she became very ill.

The solution? It turns out to be an ointment for Mark Antony to use on himself, which will melt during intercourse; Cleopatra then has such astonishingly good sex that she becomes besotted with him and is no longer interested in other men. In letter 7 of the sequence, Cleopatra even writes a little thank-you letter to Soranus for what he has done to boost Mark Antony’s virility, thus helping her to stay faithful to her husband. In the following – and final – letter, Soranus offers her a few more recipes and explains the structure of the female organs of generation, although readers may well feel that she knows quite enough about that already!

Bees, though? I wish they’d just buzz off…

 

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3 thoughts on “Cleopatra and the vibrator powered by bees”

  1. I’m just trying to imagine (if the bee-powered vibrator was real) what the person’s job title who had to put the bees in the vibrator would be….and what happens if they get loose during “usage.” Great post!

    Like

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