Semen was commonly associated with the soul and with the other ‘pearly whites’ of the body, and this created serious anxiety in men: leaking this stuff could be deadly, or even worse: emasculating. I argue this historic overvaluing of semen is integral to the near-universal devaluing of the female body, and introduce SOOP, semen out of place, as a way to better understand male anxiety and the formulation of masculinity.

Wet. Some guys have multiple wet dreams a week if they stop masturbating, but most guys I know never have wet dreams. They have erotic dreams, sure, but they don’t actually ejaculate in bed because they masturbate and have plenty of sex in their waking lives. Most boys growing up are already masturbating, so they don’t have the big “nocturnal emission” they were told they would 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 are real when you are in them. Already, semen is embarrassing.

In a bit of irony, the men in history who did have wet dreams, lots of them, were the celibate monks and erotophobic Christians, especially the great church fathers of western civilization. Sex, masturbating, ejaculating, and wet dreams were all outlawed in monasteries (didn’t Origen castrate himself?), so imagine how the presence of semen in the morning caused great anxiety in these men. They could keep their spilled semen a secret from their brothers, but not from God. It was a sign of profound failure and obsession, as we read again and again in their private confessions. 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. Imagine that.

For early Christians, as for many premodern peoples, semen wasn’t just a slimy sexual substance that appeared after intense physical bliss. It wasn't medicalized yet. As soon as it was discovered as the necessary ‘seed’ out of which life sprang, pearly white semen was imagined as the individual’s soul. I’m not exaggerating. All over anthropological literature semen was considered a living thing, the soul of a person, or, in some theological debates, it was designated material support for the soul and the body, but not of one substance.

Abrahamic traditions express this view, as well as a number of others, 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, and a tiny drop was believed to be spread all throughout the body, sustaining and animating it.

We find this idea living and manipulating bodies all over the world, and we can see it motivate cultural behaviors like gender roles past and present.

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

Before modern medicine placed the production of semen in the testicles, it was believed to originate in the head, like some kind of condensed pure consciousness. Then, in male bodies, it traveled down the spinal column and out the penis. Our thoughts were 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 (1990: 130), “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 apocryphal Gospel of Eve literally, which says to “gather your seeds” and to not waste them. Some of these early Christians believed Jesus was the first to show us, at the Last Supper, how to consume his soul through oral sex. “This spirit-oil 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.

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.

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In prehistory, there is an association between milk from the penis and milk from the breasts, fantastically expressed in the Venus of Willendorf, whose unnaturally thin arms make her breasts look like penises. This idea is also expressed in Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s 1998 fiberglass sculptures and recent paintings. 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.

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Takashi Murakami, Hiropon; Lonesome Cowboy. fiberglass. 1998

Plato also 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 interesting because he had the cadaver right in front of him, but his eyes must have been clouded by his culture.

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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 struggle to maintain a confusing position. Semen is bliss, food, spirit, and defiling poison.

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Egyptian semen-venom ‘mahtoot’ finds its way into the Jewish midrash, a collection of folk stories meant to supplement the priest’s texts, and one describes Eve as being created not from Adam’s rib but from Adam’s tail, which “ended in a sting.” It doesn’t help that scorpion venom physically resembles semen.

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Lilith, from HBO’s True Blood

There are two important passages in the Bible that address SOOP directly: Leviticus 15 and Deuteronomy 23. In Leviticus 15, God tells Moses and Aaron that all their bodily discharges are unclean, and that a man who has had an “emission of semen” must wash everything that came into contact with it. The man himself is “unclean,” (which means he can’t eat holy foods, and he can’t read scripture or pray) until evening. Semen ‘out of place’ (“SOOP,” after Mary Douglas’s famous “matter of out place”), keeps you from being able to practice your own religion?

Deuteronomy 23 speaks specifically of a man “defiled by his nocturnal emission” and requires that he leave the war camp until evening. He can’t even fight for his people because of some semen? And I imagine a lot of soldiers would be spilling semen left and right, so far away from their wives. “He must bathe before returning.” Deuteronomy 23 also says that any uncleanliness, any semen out of place, will “cause God to turn away and not protect you or your people.” Your wet dream could destroy your entire nation! It’s therefore not surprising that Hebrew culture, like their Egyptian mythological overlords, was obsessed with cleanliness.

Sera lavetela. Semen in vain.

Not all Jews and early Christians believed spilling seed was bad. Borborite Christians followed the Gospel of Phillip, which says that ejaculating into a vagina is the sin, because it can cause another soul to be pulled out of eternity and locked into a body to suffer and die. Therefore, all seed must be spilled, or eaten, or wasted. (The current idea of the body as a ‘prison for the soul,’ is a surviving remnant of this Gnostic belief). According to this doctrine, the worst sin, the one sin that will keep you out of heaven, is procreation. But remember, for these Gnostic Christians, the creator of this world, the deity who commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply,” was actually the demonic demiurge, Yaldabaoth, aka YHWH, and who in their right mind would want to bring a soul out of heaven and into enslavement to that devil?

Those groups who advocated SOOP were the exceptions. Most Jews and early Christians believed YHWH wasn’t a demiurge but was the one true God, and semen not ejaculated into in a vagina was sera le-vatala, and wet dreams keep you from being able to enter the temple and get close to God.

Much of Indian, Buddhist, and Taoist yogas are based on this sexist equation of semen with life, with prana, shakti, and chi. But as far as I know, seminal retention, or withholding semen, doesn’t actually benefit the body. The opposite might be the case, and the more orgasms and ejaculations you have, the better. According to classical Indian medical theory, though, one portion of semen requires 60 portions of blood to produce, so one portion lost is like losing 60 portions of blood, and so it is considered extremely precious.

A rare sect of Japanese Buddhists, the Tachikawa-ryu, practiced ritual semen-eating. A student eats his master’s semen as a means for mind transmission. Church Father Epiphanius reports that the early Christian Borborites also practiced eating semen as a Eucharistic ritual because it was, esoterically and biologically, the body-blood of Christ (Panarion, 4,3 p.85–86). Members of the modern St. Priapus Church still consume semen as a form of worship. Here we should be reminded of Raymond Kelly’s discussion of the Etoro people of Papua New Guinea, where the boys ingest the elder’s semen or “penis-oil” as a rite into adulthood and a way to receive the mind-lineage of the tribe (Kelly: 156; Stewart: 12).

I am also reminded of Gibert Herdt’s study of the Sambia boys of Papua New Guinea, and how they drink each other’s semen to replenish their stores: Sambian boys learn that semen is a kind of milk, and that the penis is a version of the breast. The move from childhood to adulthood is the move from sucking milk from the breast to sucking milk from the penis. They also will drink white tree sap. Men gather in the forest around a secret, sacred spot to drink the sap, and they say that this tree sap “replaces” ejaculated semen “lost” through heterosexual sex. Interestingly, most men do not replace semen lost through homosexual sex.

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Within Indian body history, semen is the essence of all body substances as ghee is the essence of all food substances. Semen is also the material beginnings of the mythical honey-oil amrita, said to leak down into the yogi’s body via the pineal gland. This “nectar of the gods” is understood in relation to the sliding shakti which rises from the sacrem like a snake up the spine to be transformed into bliss upon entering the brain, like semen entering the vagina. Some vedic philosophers argue amrita is just a symbol for cerebral-spinal fluid (Michaels and Johnson 2006). Nevertheless, yogis report amrita is generated by retaining their semen during intercourse. This personal semen mythology manifests collectively in the most sacred, and expansive of all Hindu festivals, the Kumbh Mela, centered around the group obtaining amrita from the Heavenly Ocean of Milk. In Bengal, amrita is specifically understood as Shiva’s semen, making the Kumbh Mela the world’s largest spiritual bukkake. The Jewish version may be the sticky white manna God feeds his chosen people in the desert. A jar of manna, the food of the angels (Ps 78:25), the bread of heaven (Ex 16:4), is supposedly kept within the Ark of the Covenant, right next to Aaron’s “budding rod.”

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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