“Death and the Little Death” Part Two

Humans – Historical sex and death links

Animals have intrinsic reasons for establishing links between sex and death which is done without conscious thought, but humans supplement their subconscious drives with sophisticated thought and association, and seemingly have done for millennia.

In around 440 BC Herodotus famously wrote that the ancient Egyptians took precautions against necrophilia by prohibiting the corpses of the wives of men of rank, especially those of beauty, from being delivered immediately to the embalmers, for fear they would be violated. [6] Here we see written evidence of the physical act of necrophilia in humans (which isn’t the subject of the present article) but there are other links culturally from that point in history.

Tales of fictional necrophilia and necrophilic fantasy abound in western literature, such as the death scene in Romeo and Juliet and the kiss in Sleeping Beauty. In fact, the original Sleeping Beauty tale called ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ tells of a King who wanders passed Talia’s palace and follows a falcon who flies in through her bedroom window. Finding her asleep and admiring her beauty, but unable to wake her, he rapes her and leaves. Eventually she gives birth to twins, still asleep, and it is one of them suckling her finger which removes the poisoned thread and revives her. [7]

Perhaps these archaic observations and tales would seem totally abhorrent if there weren’t so many positive customs regarding the ‘touching’ of corpses. Traditionally laying hands on a corpse would mean ‘good fortune’ and touching or kissing the deceased meant that one bore no ill-will and also prevented its spirit from escaping. Corpses, particularly executed ones, were also considered to have healing powers and, in the west, rubbing the afflicted part of one’s body against that of a hanged criminal was a “sought after privilege that ensured a most powerful cure” [8] A tale was even told by a Frenchman in mid-17th Century London who noted “a young woman with an appearance of beauty, all pale and trembling, in the arms of the executioner, who submitted to having her bosom uncovered in the presence of thousands of spectators, and the dead man’s hand placed upon it” [9] One can perhaps assume that she had some malady of the breast, but note how the passage pulsates with a latent sexuality: it describes a ‘pale and trembling maid’, almost virginal, yet happy to have her breasts touched by the hands of a dead man while thousands of blood-thirsty onlookers no-doubt licked their lips with voyeuristic glee. In addition to the above, an even more direct link between sex and death is the fact that touching a corpse was said to halt menstruation [10]

A little later, in the 18th Century, medical teaching introduced the Anatomical Venus – an incredibly life-like anatomically correct wax model used for demonstrating anatomy to students in the absence of cadavers and without the time constraints of natural decay. The unusual thing is that there is a disproportionate number of Anatomical Adonises – as the name Anatomical Venus suggests, the figures, alternatively known as ‘Slashed Beauties’ and ‘Dissected Graces’, are all female. And not just any female but beautiful females with perfect skin and luscious real hair attached to wax scalps. Adorned with tiaras, silk ribbons and pearl necklaces, they recline in luxury on satin and velvet, nipples erect, with their glass eyes sometimes half open in an expression of spent pleasure. In fact one “…Clutches at the plush, moth-eaten velvet cushions of her case as her torso erupts in a spontaneous, bloodless auto-dissection…” suggesting the grip of ecstatic convulsions. [11]

Anatomical venuses

It may be argued that perhaps the figures were predominantly female as there was also a need to illustrate the development of the foetus in utero, and with the female form both dissections could be represented at once. Perhaps it was also because females were seen as a less threatening sex or because the male onlookers/medical students would identify with her less and objectify her more? But then why make them so beautiful? Why drape them in fine jewellery and carve into their faces expressions of passive pleasure if not to simply make them gratifying for the audience who is confronted, in one arresting glance, by all the mysteries of life, sex and death.

This lascivious aspect of medical teaching doesn’t just apply to pseudo-cadavers. Medical school dissection rooms in the C18th were hotbeds of suppressed sexuality if illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) can be believed. In “The Persevering Surgeon” (below) the anatomist can clearly be seen with a salacious expression and raised phallic scalpel as he bends over the buxom female corpse [12] and in “The Resurrection Men”(also below) two body snatchers leer happily at the beautiful features of a female cadaver while a skeletal ‘Death’ looks on menacingly.

The Resurrection Men and the Persevering Surgeon

The drawings are satirical, of course, but they possess the usual factual basis required of satire to make them such humorous observation.Before the Anatomy Act of 1832 (which allowed corpses of the unclaimed poor – particularly the workhouse and prison dead – to be given to medical schools for dissection by students) cadavers were rare. The need for these difficult to obtain ‘specimens’ led directly to the enterprising Resurrection Men who illegally removed the newly dead from their graves and sold them to anatomists for their students. One such doctor was Robert Knox who had a successful career up until he was involved in the ‘Burke and Hare’ scandal in 1828, at which point his career was prematurely terminated. This association gave rise to other distasteful practices, one involving a beautiful young prostitute called Mary Paterson. She had been murdered by Burke and Hare and within four hours of her death she was in Knox’s dissection room. However she wasn’t anatomised promptly: she was kept in whisky for three months, essentially on voyeuristic display [13]. During that time, the number of participants in his dissection classes increased as students chose to come and leer at the deceased [14] and many of them knew her personally as they had slept with her in life.

During an era in which some doctors administered clitoridectomy to female ‘hysterics’ and people suffering from syphilis were easily coerced into buying quack treatments which “ruined both their bodies and purses” [15] it’s fair to say that sex was misunderstood. The mechanics were a mystery, just as much as those of death, and these two enigmatic subjects together, in the form of female cadavers at male-only medical schools, was a heady combination. Even Victorian Public Anatomy Museums, considered an acceptable day-out for a general public on a journey of intellectual enlightenment, had ladies only slots. The presumption from one source [16] is that the contents of the collections were so titillating it was inappropriate for the two sexes to view them at the same time, although another source [17] states that it was simply because women were still regarded as the inferior sex and were segregated from men. It is worth noting though, that many of the anatomy museums of the time, not connected with medical schools, were closed down under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, which associates them with pornography.


Finishing on contemporary culture, sex and death links are copious, and in fact the topic is metaphorically becoming less of a taboo in the wake of paranormal romances featuring undead protagonists (although that is a topic for a different article).

Where culture shines a spotlight on an issue science can elaborate and I’ll finish with an observation on a study from 2006: Positron Emission Tomography was used to measure regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) during clitoral stimulation and female orgasm. The team discovered that “deactivation of the temporal lobe is directly related to high sexual arousal.” [18]

The temporal lobe, one of the four main lobes of the cerebral cortex, is responsible for primary organisation of sensory output and damage can have a dramatic effect on an individual’s personality and even change it entirely: memories can be lost and languages can change. If every time a woman has an orgasm she enters a trope or allegorical state of the end of the self as she knows it, then with every orgasm she is indeed experiencing a Little Death.

(If you’re based in London and interested in learning more about the above anatomical Venuses then come along to my event tomorrow)

References (Humans – Historically)

[6] Herodotus: The Histories Book II, Euterp

[7] – sun, moon and talia http://uncoy.com/2006/05/sleeping_beauty_1.html

[8] “The Corpse: A History”, Christine Quigley

[9] “Death: A User’s Guide”….

[10] Quigley again


[12] Rowlandson 1 http://jhellden.tumblr.com/post/46354523808/thomas-rowlandson-1756-1827-the-persevering

[13] Richardson, Ruth (1987), “Trading Assassins”Death, Dissection and the Destitute, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,

[14] http://www.trivia-library.com/b/life-after-trial-graverobbers-and-dr-robert-knox-part-1.htm

[15] http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2010/12/22/one-night-with-venus-a-lifetime-with-mercury-syphilis-and-syphilophobes-in-early-modern-england/

[16] Julie Peakman, “The Pleasure’s All Mine: A History of Perverse Sex”

[17] Alan Bates “Indecent and Demoralising Representations”: Public Anatomy Museums in Mid-Victorian England

[18] http://anatomy.neurosciencegroningen.nl/txt/publications/georgiadis2006a.pdf


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