Living Water: A brief history of semen

Leonardo de Vinci rendered semen coming from the spine in his 1493 drawing, “The Copulation”

Wet. Some men have multiple wet dreams a week if they stop masturbating, but most of the cis guys I know never have wet dreams. They have erotic dreams, sure, but they don’t actually ejaculate because they masturbate and have plenty of sex in their waking lives. Likewise, most cis boys growing up are already masturbating, so they don’t have the big “nocturnal emission” they were told they’d have in Sex Education class.

But we waited for it. Some of us feared it because that’s when our parents would find out about our dream sex life. In a way, the wet dream even betrayed a sort of virginity loss because dreams feel real while you're in them.

A bit of irony: the cis men in history who did have wet dreams, lots of them, were the celibate monks and erotophobic Christians, especially the great church fathers. Sex, masturbating, ejaculating, and wet dreams were all outlawed in Christian monasteries, so the presence of semen in the morning caused great anxiety in these people. Sure, they could keep their ‘spilled seed’ a secret from their brothers, but not from God.

We read in their private confessions that nocturnal emissions were believed to be a sign of profound failure and obsession. Why all the fuss? It’s partly because, as far as they knew, Adam’s legendary first wife, Lilith, was likely taking the spilled, sentient “soul seed” down into hell to create demons!

What’s important to remember is that for these early Christians (and for many premodern peoples), semen wasn’t just a slimy substance that appeared after intense physical bliss. As soon as it was discovered to be the necessary ‘seed’ for procreation (likely around the time of agriculture), semen was imagined as the individual’s soul. It was considered a living thing, the pure soul of the person, or in some theological debates, it was designated the material support for the soul and the body.

Abrahamic traditions express this view, as do Eastern traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and it wasn’t just the patriarchal, male-centered imagination that turned semen divine. The materiality of it — its oily, pearly shininess — was a testament to its divinity. A tiny drop was believed to be spread all throughout the body, sustaining and animating it. We find this idea of divine semen living and manipulating bodies all over the world, and we can see it motivate cultural behaviors like gender roles, and I argue this overvaluing of semen is integral to rape culture.

To be clear, female bodies also had this drop of semen keeping them alive (Galen described ovaries as female testicles), but they didn’t have a storehouse of it. Female ‘essence’ or refined spirit was milk, a mere food. The male body, on the other hand, like God the Father, was able to produce and support eternal souls.

Before modern medicine placed the production of semen in the testicles, it was believed to originate in the head, like some kind of condensed consciousness (or in some cases, it was akin to the final, refined, and fermented product of digestion). Then it traveled down the spinal column and out the penis. Plato characterized semen as “a soft flow from the spine”, and Leonardo de Vinci rendered semen coming from the spine in his 1493 drawing, “The Copulation,” which is weird because he supposedly had the cadaver right in front of him, but his eyes must have been clouded by his culture. Our thoughts were then believed to affect the quality of this “spirit oil,” and what you were thinking at the moment of orgasm affected the life of your offspring.

Its whiteness also related it to bone marrow and to the eyeballs, which contributed to the idea that leaking semen would lead to a weak spine and to blindness.

As Michel Foucault summarizes it in his History of Sexuality, “by expelling their semen, living creatures…deprived themselves of elements that were valuable for their own existence.” This is one reason why eating “liquid soul” was an early Christian ritual. Semen became the Eucharist and Host of the body. If it’s eaten then it’s not wasted! Perhaps they took The Gospel of Eve literally, which says to “gather your seeds” and to not waste them. Some of these Christians believed Jesus was the first to show us, at The Last Supper, how to consume his soul through oral sex. “This living water is my soul. Eat it so that I may live in you forever.” We know about these early Christian beliefs because they were described in detail by Iranius and Epiphanius, the Church Fathers bent on exposing heretical Christians.

Early Christians were not the only groups to ensoul semen and to develop semen-eating rituals around the idea of maintaining an unbroken lineage to a certain person’s mind. Buddhists were doing it, too. And I just want to be clear that this idea is of course incredibly sexist. Because only men create semen (which is why it’s also a symbol for strength and masculinity), are women just considered soulless? Yeah, pretty much. And as far as procreation goes, men were believed to contribute the “white parts” — the eyes, bones, teeth, marrow, and pure white light of the soul, whereas women contributed “the red parts” — the soft flesh, organs, skin, and blood. Without microscopes, can we blame premodern people all over the world for believing this?

But these beliefs echo all the way up into the Victorian era, where wet dreams were still serious and dangerous occasions. The male body’s inability to contain itself despite a conscious intention to not leak led to surgical treatments such as cauterization and the infamous “spermatorrhea ring” that cuts into the penis when it swells in arousal.

However sexist, the conflation of semen with the soul and with the other ‘pearly whites’ of the body created serious anxiety in men: leaking this stuff could be deadly, or even worse: emasculating.

For more about the history of wet dreams, go here.

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