Totally Soaked: a week dedicated to summer horniness.
Toward the beginning of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, an ancient Greek play about an enterprising group of women who decide to withhold sex from their partners until they agree to end the Peloponnesian War, the titular character leads her fellow woman in an oath. “No lover or husband shall ever come near me with an erection,” she has them all proclaim. “I shall live my life at home unfucked, dressed in my sexy clothes and perfectly made up, so that my husband will burn with desire for me.”
The pledge progresses, and those reciting it grow increasingly descriptive and vivid. “I will not lift my silken slippers up to the ceiling,” they intone. And then, stunningly: “I will not adopt the lioness on a cheese grater position.”
This last image is as viscerally affecting as it is mysterious. One cannot hear “the lioness on the cheese grater position” without imagining … something sexual. But what, exactly? A lioness? And a cheese grater? How would these two extremely unlikely bedfellows interact? As it turns out, this is a question that’s tormented academics for millennia: Scholars may have puzzled over the meaning of the enigmatic sex position as early as the Hellenistic period — which is to say 200 years after the Lysistrata was first written — and antiquarians today remain torn on what it could be, though they do have some alluring conjectures.
Early commentary written in the margins of the play call the position “licentious and meretricious” — slutty and trashy, very cool — and suggests it could be what we would now call doggy-style. This is because “a cheese grater is a big knife,” the argument goes, and such big knives often had handles adorned with carvings of “ivory lions crouching down.” Per this interpretation, the position would involve a woman bent over in the posture of a decorative-utensil lion. In the words of the classicist Alan Sommerstein, “The woman stood bending forward (sometimes resting her hands on the ground or on a bed), in a posture reminiscent of a lion crouched to spring, and was penetrated from behind (either vaginally or anally).”
This (kind of anticlimactic!) interpretation was the dominant one through the 19th century. More recently, however, a new theory has begun to emerge — one in which the lioness does in fact fuck the cheese grater, crouched atop it and kind of rubbing her pelvis back and forth to a somehow-pleasurable effect. “When I started looking into [the knife-handle theory], it didn’t really make sense, because that’s not what an ancient cheese grater looks like,” explains Cashman Kerr Prince, a visiting scholar at Wellesley who in 2009 authored a 22-page paper attempting to elucidate the mysteries of the fabled copulative pose. In antiquity, as today, the kitchen utensil did not have a handle, he tells me: “An ancient cheese grater looks pretty much like the one in your kitchen. It’s frequently metal, perforated, possibly with nails, and has all these little ridges on it.”
Things become logistically complicated here — again, what sex act could a lioness even perform with a metal object that is perforated, possibly with nails? In the course of his research, Prince felt the best way to proceed was to examine the “mental baggage” around both figurative participants. “If I start talking about the lioness on the cheese grater, what’s that going to bring to mind?” he poses, rhetorically. “So then I unpack lioness — okay, what does that mean? — and look at cheese graters: What does that mean?”
Cheese graters were both functional and prized, according to Prince — they have been found in Etruscan tombs, which would make them an imported luxury good — and lionesses were associated with regality and sensuality. The lioness on the cheese grater is “probably going to be a somewhat expensive position sexually,” he explains, referencing a sex-position menu believed to have been used in ancient Greek brothels, in which the most exotic positions cost the most, “but at the end of the day it’s still something everyday. It’s sex.” He also believes it would involve a strong woman, given the lion reference.
“I think that it is a position that is going to involve the woman on top with, like, some extra back-and-forth moving or rocking,” Prince responds, using the most delicate tone imaginable, when asked how a position that conjures such an menacing mental image would even work. “So a motion like the cheese going across the grater.”
In a follow-up email, having checked in with a colleague who also focuses on sex and gender in ancient Greece, he tells me that “basically everyone agrees it is a position with a woman on top” these days, but the specific details remain murky. “I still hold by what I wrote: woman on top, with extra back-and-forth motion,” he affirms. “Even if not everyone agrees with me, at least they don’t think I am out in left field!”
Still, we can’t be sure. There’s always the chance that Aristophanes invented the phrase altogether, that it’s a joke or a very sexually intimidating signifier with no actual signified. This is something scholars, including Prince, have long acknowledged; it’s especially hard to know because there are so many slippages in the ways people talk about sex: so much posturing and half-joking, and so much disconnect between what we say in public and do in private, which is something that’s been true as long as people have been talking and writing about their erotic lives.
It seems we’ll have to learn to sit with this uncertainty, however uncomfortable — the way a lioness might sit upon a cheese grater.