There's a certain mystique to the orgy that comes from its pagan heritage. But what do we know about the history of the orgy? Fuck.com asked Leo Larkin to give you a quick rundown of its origins.

 

Like most sexual activities, orgies turn up in the history books mainly as the kind of thing people accused their enemies of hosting. Indeed, the very word “orgy” (Greek 'orgion', plural 'orgia') originally meant a religious festival, usually sacred to the god Dionysos. 

Dionysian religious rites involved all sorts of activities intended to create an altered state of consciousness called ekstasis – “ecstasy” to us – in which the individual became separated from mundane matters and social constraints. That sounds like a prime environment for boning, especially with all the music and dancing (and, er, animal sacrifice), but that's just speculation.

Participants in orgia were often accused of going off into the woods (or wherever) to fuck each other, but that's just because no one outside the religion knew what went on during them and the ones inside the religion weren't talking. 

They also admitted women, which alarmed ancient societies, each of which kept a tighter control on women's sexuality than the last. So the idea that ancient cultures were just wall-to-wall sex parties is probably not accurate.

Even the tales of the most debauched Roman emperors are likely to be a wee bit exaggerated, as Roman historians engaged in the enjoyable pastime of shit-talking unpopular former rulers.

Later historians often do the same thing. In disapproving societies, don't overestimate how much actual screwing went on! 16th-century writer Philip Stubbs lambasted traditional May Day celebrations in his Anatomie of Abuses, saying that he had heard that of the maidens who went off into the woods to collect the maypole, scarcely a third returned “undefiled.”

Two couples kissing on a bed Fuck.com

Every part of Philip Stubbs description shows that he's just talking about a party with people dancing, drinking, flirting, and yes, possibly sneaking off somewhere to have sex. To him, that's a brain-searing vision of hell, but to most of us, it's just a good Friday night, not necessarily an orgy.

Although there's no evidence for historical orgia being constant fuckfests, most ancient customs that have been called 'orgies' weren't as orgy-like as people make them sound, it's obviously an idea that leaps into everyone's mind. And even though it's usually introduced as a negative thing, someone hearing the condemnation starts to think “actually, that doesn't sound so bad...”.

And, of course, it isn't – at least for the people who regularly attend orgies, swingers' or sex parties. But orgies are still not common or very public, and when they turn up in fictitious societies, it's usually as a marker of how different that society is from ours, like the orgy-porgy in Brave New World or the libertine parties of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels.

In some societies, group sex parties serve to reinforce social cohesion, but it's often an illicit form of social cohesion. Being out in the open – which I think is part of what strikes people as decadent about the image of the Roman orgy – would spoil the fun.

Orgies in ancient Rome were probably not unlike modern ones: fun for the right kind of people, but not as common as you might think.

Modern sex parties have all sorts of advantages over their ancient ancestors: safer sex, for starters, and the tiny detail that none of the people participating in them is there because our empire sacked their city and dragged them off in chains. 

So, wrap up in a toga if you like – they're flattering – or pop a wreath on your head for looks. But historical glamour or not, modern orgies are probably the best of all.


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