1. Prehistoric Wet Dreams

This series looks at a cultural and material history of semen in general, wet dreams in particular. Archeologists and cultural historians like to remind us that we “think through things,” that we not only imbue objects and substances like body fluids with meanings, but that the physical things themselves lead our imaginations in certain ways. Semen, because of where it comes from and what it looks and feels like, energized many different attitudes and reactions.

We might have evidence for attitudes towards erotic dreams at the 17,000 year old Scene At the Well in Lascaux. We see a figure on its back with an erection. Is he dead? Is he asleep? Maybe he is in a trance or a dream. His head is a bird, which could mean he is flight even if his body is not. He is the dreamer, and the bull floating above could be the dream image, depicted as more real and solid than his own body. The bull could be a minotaur, or an erotic partner, with a spear and vagina symbol floating to the right, pointing to sex. This may be a depiction of an erotic dream! And what is all that white stuff floating around?

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Prehistoric people may not have even had nocturnal emissions, though, because they probably had enough opportunities to empty their testicles during the day. If our bonobo primate cousins tell us anything about ourselves, it’s that we masturbated plenty in prehistory.

But even if prehistoric people had wet dreams, frequently, how wet were they? I mean, how shameful, how sticky, how bed-wetty “wet” were they? How feminine, or how challenging to a man’s identity were they? Maybe not at all.

Prehistoric men arguably didn’t know about paternity yet, a knowledge most likely gained in Egypt and elsewhere with the domestication of animals (see Gordon and Schwabe). So there wouldn’t have been this historic anxiety about spilling or wasting semen or “seed.” Like all body fluids, prehistoric semen may have been mysterious, sure, but it was also like any other squirt, like puss, snot, spit, sweat. An oily secretion that appears after intense physical bliss. A byproduct of the bliss?

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Men were not “men,” as we define that body/personality type/social role today, and semen wasn’t very important. The archaeological evidence from prehistory supports this view: there are virtually no male icons in prehistory, and this could be because there are no ‘fathers,’ no warriors, no priests — no male gender roles tied to male lineage. Instead, there are thousands of female figurines and some incredibly beautiful animals. Marija Gimbutas argues that the omission of male icons is evidence for a “civilization of the goddess” and for early monotheism. She says the goddess icon found all over was a unifier, an agent of culture, who kept the peace, birthed the people, and helped us survive for tens of thousands of years. Art historian Marilyn Stokstad also noticed that the use of the female stone icons rose whenever climate conditions were most brutal. Stokstad points out that as material agents, these icons would have drawn strangers together–neighbors who would want to examine the other’s “creator” carried or worn as a pendant around the neck, facilitating close contact, building trust. An international ID card, and an invitation to love.

The female body in general must have been seen as Creatrix and Leader, and male bodies were underdeveloped females who couldn't give birth or feed babies their milk. Because we saw both male and female bodies come from the female, her body must somehow contain both.

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And look! The Venus of Willendorf’s unnaturally thin arms make her breasts look like penises, and archaeologist Rosemary Joyce points out that figurines like the one to the right of Willendorf can obviously be viewed in two ways. She is the object of desire and is also the phallus. Another secret about how prehistoric people felt about semen reveals itself when we notice the visual rhyming of the breasts and male genitalia in the clay figurines. There is an association between milk from the penis and milk from the breasts, which is fantastically expressed in Murakami’s 1998 fiberglass sculptures and recent paintings. So, we can infer that semen may have been considered food (like it still is in some contexts today). But, like food, it may have also been, in the end, associated with feces and other bodily wastes.

As recorded history begins, Afro-Asiatic languages will associate semen with other alarming substances like venom, and we will see Egyptian, Jewish, and Christian worldviews maintain a confusing position. Semen is bliss, food, spirit, and defiling poison.

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Takashi Murakami, Hiropon; Lonesome Cowboy. fiberglass. 1998

See Part 2: Egyptian Wet Dreams

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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