Is love the same across time and around the world? Not so, says Eric Selinger—and what counted as love in one time or place might get you locked up in another! To understand just how many things “love” can mean, Selinger says we need to “go to anthropologists, historians, sociologists, people for whom difference is everything.”
If there are universal attributes to love, they must reside somewhere deep in our biological inheritance. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher studies love across cultures, and does brain scans of lovers at all stages in relationships. Here’s her TED talk on the findings.
The ancient Greek poet Sappho lived well over 2500 years ago, but her vibrant “Hymn to Aphrodite” still captures the heady delights of a love based on endless pursuit, not on settled coupledom. There’s no first love in Sappho’s hymn, and no HEA; if there’s any lasting couple, it’s the poet and her favorite goddess. Who does Sappho really love?
Greek philosophy may have idealized Eros, a love based on desire, but Classics professor Margaret Toscano says that the reunion between Odysseus and Penelope at the end of Homer’s Odyssey is more like a miniature romance novel, based on courtship, friendship, and sexual mutuality. Here’s a prose translation of Book XXIII, where they meet again at last. How ancient or modern does their night together seem?
Ovid’s advice poem Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) pokes fun at epic poems and philosophy. Here great Caesar’s triumph is a chance to pick up women, and “Know Thyself” means fashion tips (if you’ve got a great tan, show some skin!). Amid the playful amorality, though, there are moments of seriousness. “Love requires art to survive,” he warns women, while chiding male readers “if you want to be loved, be a loveable man.” Rolfe Humphries 1957 translation brings out the poet’s urbanity, while James Michie’s rhyming version plays up the humor.
In thirteenth-century Florence, the nine-year-old Dante Alighieri sees Beatrice, also nine, exactly once before Love seizes command of his life. Nine years later, a vision of her in the arms of Love inspires him to write a sonnet—the first in what will be his first great book, La Vita Nuova [The New Life]. But Dante’s love has nothing to do with marriage, intimacy, or tenderness. Would we call it love?
In 2012, writing in English, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak wove Rumi’s story of spiritual and poetic awakening into a transformative romance between a middle-aged American housewife and a mysterious foreigner named Aziz Zahara. East meets West, ancient meets modern, and sacred love meets suburban marriage in Forty Rules of Love.
The 11th-century Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, is sometimes called the world’s first novel, and the pursuits of beauty, poetry, and love—or something like it—are central to the story. Tour the world of the novel in photographs and check out the UNESCO “Heritage Pavilion” for the book, which marks it as a treasure of global culture.
Love and marriage go together, the song says, like a horse and carriage—but around the world, the two concepts have often been separate, and even at odds. Popular Romance Project advisor Stephanie Coontz explores the vast variety of ideas about what love is and how it relates to marital happiness in the first chapter of Marriage: A History.
British historian Claire Langhammer says that English love went through an “emotional revolution” in the first half of the twentieth century, transforming expectations of marriage and romance and setting the stage for the sexual revolution to follow.
Holidays like Valentine’s Day, “I Love You” Day, and “Singles Day” are popular with a young generation, while web-based romance fiction explores ancient and post-modern gender, sexuality, and relationship structures, often through elaborate time-travel plots.
Husbands and wives didn’t always think that marriage should be “romantic.” Sociologist Eva Illouz explains that advertisers in the 1920s and ‘30s introduced that goal to American consumers, and used coverage of celebrity marriages—especially film stars—to reinforce the ideal.