Chastity. It is a word that is synonymous with virtue and with purity (it is derived from the Latin word castus, which means ‘pure’). For centuries, chastity has been held in high regard, especially by the Church. So it must follow, naturally, that being chaste is a good and admirable thing?
Yes, it so follows if your name is Oriel Anderson and you are the heroine of my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears. But if your name is Damian Lekkas and you are the hero of the book – no, chastity, that traditional, restraining practice, is not in favour.
Damian has grown up on the Greek island of Helios. Cut off from the mainland, it is an old-fashioned place; stuck in bygone times, in fact. The islanders engage in what Damian calls ‘chastity-worship’, and to his mind this is stupidity, an unhealthy repression of natural human drives.
He shows Oriel a tree on the island called Monk’s Pepper, and also known as the Chastity Tree. ‘In ancient times it was believed to be an anti-aphrodisiac,’ he explains. ‘Women used part of the plant on their bedding, in Pliny’s words “to cool the heat of lust” during the time of the Thesmophoria, when Athenian women left their husbands’ beds to remain ritually chaste. Monks also sat under it to quieten their libidos.’
While interested in the history of his people and respectful of plenty of the old traditions, Damian is the new leader of Helios and he sees it as his role to bring the islanders into the modern time; and that includes taking a new, more emancipated approach to relationships between men and women. Not only does he believe that ‘the thirst of desire cannot be quenched by the cold wine of chastity’, he is adamant that no one should not have to repress their sexuality.
In fact, Damian finds the very idea of chastity abhorrent, ‘an insult to the Creator and an abomination to man’ – and, of course, to woman. He is of the same mind as the Nobel Prize-winning writer Anatole France, who wrote, ‘Of all sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest.’ It is hard to argue otherwise when one considers the extreme of chastity, the chastity belt, used during the Crusades to ensure a woman remained faithful to her husband – they were liable to cause infection, which could lead to sepsis and, ultimately, death!
Of course, all women have the right to choose their own path when it comes to sexuality, and Damian respects that in Oriel. In challenging her on this subject, he is encouraging her to unlock the shackles in which she may feel society has placed her (remember, the book is set during the 1970s). She holds the key; she has the power. It is entirely her choice whether to be chaste… or to satiate the ‘thirst of desire’.