Spilled his seed on the ground

(You start with Onan, you’re going to get genitals and sexual acts. Not for kids or the sexally modest.)

The morning name for 6/22, a whole VP — which led immedately to the biblical character Onan and thus to levirate marriage and to onanism, in two different senses (masturbation and coitus interruptus, not to mention figurative uses as, roughly, ‘self-gratfication’, as in intellectual onanism). And from that to remarkably hostile attitudes towards masturbation in Christian churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. And, ultimately, through the work of scholars of masturbation, to Hollywood goddess Hedy Lamarr, doing an orgasm in a 1932 Czech film.

And then there’s the source of that VP in my subconscious mind, almost surely a result of my having just spilled — spread, broadcast — birdseed on the ground of my patio, in an attempt to lure birds to my new bird feeder (details in my 6/27 posting “Meet the Jays”).

Background: the text. Genesis, in the KJV, with the crucial bit boldfaced:

38 And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.

And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.

And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.

And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.

And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.

And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.

And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.

And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

10 And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.

Those were mighty tough days.

Background: from Wikipedia.

Onan … is a minor biblical person in the Book of Genesis chapter 38, who was the second son of Judah. Like his older brother Er, Onan was slain by God. Onan’s death was retribution for being “evil in the sight of the Lord” and disobeying a direct order from the Lord by being unwilling to father a child by his widowed sister-in-law.

Biblical account: After Onan’s brother Er was slain by God, his father Judah told him to fulfill his duty to his brother by entering into a levirate marriage [Latin levir ‘husband’s brother’] with his brother’s widow Tamar to give her offspring. Religion professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky has pointed out the economic repercussions of a levirate marriage: any son born to Tamar would be deemed the heir of the deceased Er, and able to claim the firstborn’s double share of inheritance. However, if Er were childless, or only had daughters, Onan would have inherited as the oldest surviving son.

When Onan had sex with Tamar, he withdrew before his orgasm and “spilled his seed [or semen] on the ground”, since any child born would not legally be considered his heir. The next statement in the Bible says that Onan did evil and that God slew him.

(#1) Onan and Tamar: 1892 painting by Alexandre Cabanel

Early Jewish views: One opinion expressed in the Talmud argues that this was where the death penalty’s imposition originated. However, the Levitical regulations concerning ejaculation, whether as a result of sexual intercourse or not, merely prescribe a ritual washing, and remaining ritually impure until the next day began on the following evening.

Classical Christian views: Early Christian writers have sometimes focused on the spilling seed, and the sexual act being used for non-procreational purposes. This interpretation was held by several early Christian apologists. Jerome, for example, argued:

But I wonder why he the heretic Jovinianus set Judah and Tamar before us for an example, unless perchance even harlots give him pleasure; or Onan, who was slain because he begrudged his brother his seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?

Clement of Alexandria, while not making explicit reference to Onan, similarly reflects an early Christian view of the abhorrence of spilling seed:

Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted. To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.

Roman Catholic views: The papal encyclical Casti connubii (1930) invokes this Biblical text in support of the teaching of the Catholic Church against contracepted sex.

Early Protestant views: Making reference to Onan’s offense to identify masturbation as sinful, in his Commentary on Genesis, John Calvin wrote that “the voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between a man and a woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is double monstrous.” Methodism founder John Wesley, according to Bryan C. Hodge, “believed that any waste of the semen in an unproductive sexual act, whether that should be in the form of masturbation or coitus interruptus, as in the case of Onan, destroyed the souls of the individuals who practice it”. He writes his Thoughts on the Sin of Onan (1767), which was reproduced as A Word to Whom it May Concern on 1779, as an attempt to censor a work by Samuel-Auguste Tissot. In that writing, Wesley warns about “the dangers of self pollution”, the bad physical and mental effects of masturbation, writes many such cases along with the treatment recommendations.

Lexicography of onanism. From OED3 (June 2004), the first cite in English is the remarkable:

1600 I. R. Most Straunge, & True Disc. To Rdr. sig. A3 The sinnes of Incest, Onanisme, Whoredome, Adulterie & Fornication, with other Sodomiticall sinnes of vncleannesse & pollutions, do so outragiously raign.

The writer I.R. has not been identified, and it turns out that the publication was primarily directed at incest and picks up onanism and the rest as a kind of bonus. The full title of the publication (from the Univ. of Michigan Early English Books site):

A most straunge, and true discourse, of the wonderfull iudgement of God. Of a monstrous, deformed infant, begotten by incestuous copulation, betweene the brothers sonne and the sisters daughter, being both vnmarried persons. Which childe was borne at Colwall, in the country and diocesse of Hereford, vpon the sixt day of Ianuary last, being the feast of the Epiphany, commonly called Twelfth day. A notable and most terrible example against incest and whoredome.

And then two later figurative uses:

1820 Ld. Byron Let. 4 Nov. (1977) VII. 217 His [sc. Keats’s] is the Onanism of Poetry — something like the pleasure an Italian fiddler extracted out of being suspended daily by a Street Walker in Drury Lane.

1977 P. Rooney in D. Marcus Best Irish Short Stories II. 141 The onanism of the language, a phrase masturbated without hope of final clear expression.

A note on levirate marriage. From Wikipedia:

Levirate marriage has been practiced by societies with a strong clan structure in which exogamous marriage (i.e. marriage outside the clan) was forbidden. It has been known in many societies around the world.

The details vary from society to society, of course; some survey in the Wikipedia entry.

Attitudes towards masturbation. The Christian tradition for a long time seems to have primarily focused not on masturbation as self-gratification but on masturbation as the spilling of seed — the waste of semen outside of procreative sex. But then there was a shift.

Two book-length accounts of the history make for harrowing reading.

First, Jean Stengers & Anne Van Neck, Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror (tr. by Kathryn Hoffman from 1998 French original, Histoire d’une grande peur, la masturbation) (NY: Palgrave, 2001). This is a serious work of scholarship that the publishers of the English edition decided to market with light-hearted jokiness. From the publisher’s jacket copy:

Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror is a funny and frightening look at the attitudes towards masturbation throughout history and how they have affected the sex lives of anyone living and breathing today. The French biologist, Tissot, was the original spoil-sport who turned masturbation into the scourge of young men everywhere [in a series of editions of works on onanism, in 1758 (in Latin), in 1760 (in French, as L’Onanisme), in 1764 (in an expanded French edition), and in multiple editions after that]. Saying that a little self-induced pleasure caused wasting, insanity, and finally death, Tissot put the clamps (literally, in some cases [AMZ: the photographs of torture devices intended to prevent the wearer from masturbation are hard to take] on the greatest relaxation inducer known to humankind. From Tissot’s work to the punitive postures of the German courts to the surgical preventatives of continental Europe and England to the handbook of the Boy Scouts of America, spanking / wanking, yanking / choking, and other assorted diddling became the big no-no. Stengers and Van Neck give us the whole story and it isn’t pretty, but it will fascinate everyone who agrees with Woody Allen when he said “Hey, don’t knock masturbation! It’s sex with someone I love.”

The turning point came in the mid-20th century. From Stengers & Van Neck, p. 163:

What did more than anything else to sweep away the language of “cure,” “bad habit,” and “vice,” [as late as 1940 a candidate for admission to the Naval Academy at Annapolis was rejected when a doctor discovered he had masturbed] and what playe a decisive role in the shattering not only of some traditional ideas relating to masturbation but also the near-totality of traditional thought on the subject, was the startling revelation that masturbation was an extremely common, widespread, and banal phenomenon. From common, banal, and widespread, there was a natural transition to the notion of what was normal.

This startling relevalation came primarily from the Kinsey report [on sexual behavior in the human male, in 1948], which profoundly marked the field. One might almost say — admittedly by grossly simplifying things — that our history of masturbation began with Onania [in the early 18th century] and Tissot and ends with Kinsey.

This new world is the one I report on in my postings on this blog — links, with annotations, in a Page on this blog on masturbation — which explores (among other things) techniques of masturbation and masturbation in its sociocultural setting, especially among gay men: yes, it’s a “private” act, but like all such acts even if it’s entirely solitary it must be folded somehow into the daily practices of social life — and, in fact, it’s very often incorporated into routines of social connection, by masturbation of others or by masturbating in the company of others.

My own writing on masturbation is often celebratory — I have a high sex drive, and I estimate that my ejaculations per day over 70 years of a sexual life average out at around 2, most from masturbation. (This isn’t a boast, or a confession, or a recommendation; it just is, and I maintain that it’s harmless and banal.)

This does lead me to post fairly often about guys jacking themselves or each other off, and in capturing these occasions in images. In principle, the point of male masturbation is the release of ejaculation, but the actual practices are much more complex than this; guys can masturbate lazily, with no particular end in mind, just to appreciate the sensation, and in some settings, as in sex clubs and gay baths, guys can keep a hard-on going by masturbation for surprising lengths of time (easily up to an hour) while they are waiting for a suitable sexual partner to turn up. (You might even argue that the long public display of their hard-ons is the point of the exercise, and that shooting their load is just the cherry on top of the sundae.) (Oh yes, if a suitable partner doesn’t materialize, you finish yourself off. I have done this, in an earlier life.)

Still, getting off is the ideal, and the spray (or dribble, as is actually more common) of cum is the visible sign of satisfaction. Usually, that’s accompanied by an ecstatic O-face, but some guys carry the Man at Work facial presentation right though to the end (see the Page on this blog on facial expressions in mansex), as in this (nicely framed) image lifted from porn (intent face, though he does have a slack mouth):


Back to scholarship, with Thomas Laqueur’s monumental (501-page) Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (NY: Zone Books, 2003). From the publisher’s cover text:

At a time when almost any victimless sexual practice has its public advocates and almost every sexual act is fit for the front page, the easiest, least harmful, and most universal one is embarrassing, discomforting, and genuinely radical when openly acknowledged. Masturbation may be the last taboo. But this is not a holdover from a more benighted age. The ancient world cared little about the subject; it was a backwater of Jewish and Christian teaching about sexuality. In fact, solitary sex as a serious moral issue can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history; Laqueur identifies it with the publication of the anonymous tract Onania in about 1722. Masturbation is a creation of the Enlightenment, of some of its most important figures, and of the most profound changes it unleashed. It is modern. It worried at first not conservatives, but progressives. It was the first truly democratic sexuality that could be of ethical interest for women as much as for men, for boys and girls as much as for their elders.

The book’s range is vast. It begins with the prehistory of solitary sex in the Bible and ends with third-wave feminism, conceptual artists, and the Web. It explains how and why this humble and once obscure means of sexual gratification became the evil twin ― or the perfect instance ― of the great virtues of modern humanity and commercial society: individual moral autonomy and privacy, creativity and the imagination, abundance and desire.

And on the cover, we get Hedy Lamarr in the 1932 Czech film Ecstasy:


First, the film, from Wikipedia:

Ecstasy (Czech: Extase, French: Extase, German: Ekstase) is a 1933 Czech erotic romantic drama film directed by Gustav Machatý and starring Hedy Lamarr (then Hedy Kiesler), Aribert Mog, and Zvonimir Rogoz.

The film is about a young woman who marries a wealthy but much older man. After abandoning her brief passionless marriage, she meets a young virile engineer who becomes her lover. Ecstasy was filmed in three language versions – German, Czech, and French. It is perhaps the first non-pornographic movie to portray sexual intercourse and female orgasm, although never showing more than the actors’ faces.

And on Lamarr, a truly remarkable character, from Wikipedia (with a geek bonus at the end):

Hedy Lamarr born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (November 9, 1914 – January 19, 2000), was an Austrian-American actress, inventor, and film producer. [She held Austrian citizenship from 1914 through 1938, was stateless (because of her Jewish parentage) from then through 1953, and then became a US citizen.] She was part of 30 films in an acting career spanning 28 years, and co-invented an early version of frequency-hopping spread spectrum.

Lamarr was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and acted in a number of Austrian, German, and Czech films, including the controversial Ecstasy (1933). After this brief early film career, she fled from her husband, a wealthy Austrian ammunition manufacturer, and secretly moved to Paris in 1937 and then onward to London. There she met Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio, who offered her a movie contract in Hollywood, where he began promoting her as the “world’s most beautiful woman” [A glamorous film career ensues; details on Wikipedia.]

.. At the beginning of World War II, Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes, intended to use frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. She also helped improve aviation designs for Howard Hughes while they dated during the war. Although the US Navy did not adopt Lamarr and Antheil’s invention until 1957, various spread-spectrum techniques are incorporated into Bluetooth technology and are similar to methods used in legacy versions of Wi-Fi. Recognition of the value of their work resulted in the pair being posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

She was beautiful, Hollywood-glamorous, a creation of visible arifice, in a way that just doesn’t exist any more. And really tough.

8 Responses to “Spilled his seed on the ground”

  1. joecab Says:

    What? No mention of Dorothy Parker’s canary?

  2. Julian Lander Says:

    My response exactly. I believe that Ms. Parker said (but it may be apocryphal) that she named her canary Onan because he would spill his seed upon the ground.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      There are people who investigate these things, and they aren’t hard to find. In particular, the miracle of Google search on “Dorothy Parker Onan” brings up as its first hit Garson O’Toole’s wonderful Quote Investigator site on the subject :

      Quote Investigator, “It Spills Its Seed Upon the Ground: Dorothy Parker? Corey Ford? John Keats? Apocryphal?”

      Dear Quote Investigator: Apparently, the famous wit Dorothy Parker was once asked why she had selected the curious name Onan for her pet canary. She replied:

      Because he spills his seed on the ground.

      What is the veracity of this tale?

      [careful analysis of evidence:] … In conclusion, QI believes that Dorothy Parker did name her canary Onan based on a humorous biblical allusion.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        A footnote to this: almost everyone recalls the quote as “spilled his seed upon the ground” — and that’s the way I remember it — but the KJV just has “on”. The version with “upon” provides a nice line of iambic tetrameter, with a short first foot, so of course that’s what we want it to be:

        SPILLED | his SEED | upON | the GROUND

  3. joecab Says:

    Sorry but I’ve heard the story so many times, and you seem so well read, that I erroneously assumed you knew and either forgot or chose not to tell it, or I just plain glossed over your mentioning it here. Plus it literally takes seconds to find out what it’s all about online. No need to be so … pissy.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      So then the reasonable thing would be to tell the story. Instead, you chose to ask why I didn’t tell the story, implicating that I should have and was thereby deficient. If you have something to add, *add it*; don’t impugn the writer by implicating that they were inadequate. In addition, you are posting to a readership all over the world, not just to me. Even if I knew the story, plenty of readers would not, so you are being opaque and ungenerous to them.

      As it happens, I knew the story (from at least 60 years ago), wasn’t sure that it was accurate, and in any case chose not to add it to the complex story I was telling (which took me about 20 hours to compose, abandoning numerous tempting digressions as I went along). With Julian Lander’s spur, I have now written on the story, with references — though you could perfectly well have done this yourself, if you had chosen to be cooperative and helpful, rather than just pissing on me.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now on FB, George V. Reilly reminds us:

    And of course, there’s
    “Every Sperm is Sacred”
    from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

    Note: earworm alert!

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