Content warning: Sex, erotic art, sex work.
Writer, physician, midwife and author of an infamous sex manual…
Elephantis was a woman with many talents. She was likely a sex worker, and is also noted by Pliny to have been a capable midwife (perhaps a useful skill in her line of work).
Elephantis shared her knowledge, authoring a manual on cosmetics, and another on abortive methods. But she is most notorious for her sex manual.
Her birth name is unknown; it was common for courtesans in classical times to take animal names as pseudonyms for their clients to know them by. It is even possible that there was more than one woman named Elephantis.
None of her works have survived, though they are referenced in other ancient texts. Roman historian Suetonius mentions that the Emperor Tiberius owned a complete set of Elephantis’ works – said to be written as poetry – as part of his extensive ‘erotic library’.
A poem in the Priapeia also refers to Elephantis’ sex manual:
“Lalage dedicates a votive offering to Priapus, bringing shameless pictures from the books of Elephantis, and begs him to try and imitate with her the variety of intercourse of the figures in the illustrations.”
There is a further epigram by the Roman poet Martial which reads:
“Such verses as neither the daughters of Didymus know, nor the debauched books of Elephantis, in which are set out new forms of lovemaking.”
- The Priapeia is a collection of ninety-five poems in various meters on subjects pertaining to the phallic god Priapus.
- “Novae figurae” has been read as “novem figurae” (i.e., “nine forms” of lovemaking, rather than “new forms” of lovemaking), and so some commentators have inferred that Elephantis listed nine different sexual positions.
The Twelve Caesars (Tiberius 43:2) – Seutonius
Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie
Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic
“Pompeii-wall painting” by ancient artist, User:Okc~commonswiki – Own work photograph.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons