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The joy of sex -- an ancient guide

A giant marble phallus. An ancient brothel. A seductive statue of Eros and Psyche exchanging a passionate kiss. This is the untold story of love in antiquity, revealed in a stirring, spine-tingling exhibition in Athens.

Dedicated to Eros -- the winged and whimsical god whom ancient Greeks adored for aeons -- the exhibition takes an unabashed look at an attitude to love and lust.

It might have set many modern Greeks blushing, but the show's startling success in its opening month has the Louvre yearning to bring it to Paris, city of love.

"We want to show the sweeping scope of love in ancient times," said Nicholaos Stampolidis, the director of the Museum Cycladic Art in Athens. "But for this to happen, visitors must have their eyes and minds wide open."

With its 272 artefacts that span a millennium from the sixth century BC to early Christianity, it is the first major exhibition on this theme. Organisers spent three years researching and surveying items before convincing 50 other museums to collaborate.

"It's easy to read and write about love," Mr Stampolidis noted. "But it is extremely difficult to convey love through art, and the project, altogether, was a challenge."

From phallic-shaped lamps, vases and urns depicting men and women gnarled in sexual scenes, to a 2,500-year-old love note and the incised text of a jilted lover's curse, the display documents the changing perceptions of Eros from the 8th century BC.

Ancient Greeks idolised him as an omnipotent god, but in Roman times he became less potent and was renamed Cupid -- and he became a mere companion of Venus. The show is divided into nine sections ranging from the birth of Eros, his upbringing by Aphrodite, the status of women in ancient society, and love in religion and marriage.

The crowd-puller, though, is the second floor. There, visitors face up to the bold and bawdy attitude that the ancient Greeks and Romans had towards homosexuality, prostitution and even bestiality -- or, to use the organisers' euphemism, "bucolic love affairs".

"Our ancestors were hardly hypocritical prudes," Mr Stampolidis said.

"They were very tolerant; their society was one of openness and lack of guilt." Indeed, in room after room, viewers gaze at a cornucopia of vases, charms and trinkets depicting graphic scenes of erotic play between an unimaginable combination of partners in all sorts of positions.

hnews@herald.ie


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