Spanking Down the Ages

1946 Australian Women's Mirror

It’s only a few million years since humanity, that inventive, indomitable species, crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. They’ve survived flood, famine and plague. They will survive cosmic wars and holocausts (we hope). And in all that time, they’ve managed the menace of naughty girls – by spanking them.

I have dealt at length elsewhere with the formidable spanking reputation of our distant cave-dwelling ancestors, so all that’s necessary here is to put down a marker or two from the adventures of the comic-strip caveman Alley Oop. The strip’s main spanking content was covered in the earlier article, but there are a few more crumbs to consume. First, here he is in a 1950 story, dressed in uncharacteristically modern garb for a voyage into space, and laying down the law to his girlfriend Ooola:

1950 Alley Ooop 18 Nov

Ooola is uncowed by the threat, because back in the Bone Age there was some degree of equality, or balance, between the sexes. This accounts for the events of an earlier episode, from 1945, in which Alley Oop and King Guz celebrate the successful end of a war by holding a male-friendly party, complete with a bevy of nubile cave-maidens.

Alley oop 1

Unfortunately for King Guz, Oop and all of the men, Queen Umpateedle is on her way in, leading a battalion of women raised by Ooola to help out in the war that in fact has just been won. What they see makes them pugnacious in a different way, and things don’t look good for the cave-maiden who is apparently being pulled from her prime position on King Guz’s knee to a less enviable one across the Queen’s:

But it’s a moot point whether a spanking actually happens, because the next episode starts with the girl making her escape while the Queen’s wrath is turned on Guz,

alley oop cont

and the upshot is a victory for the prehistoric equivalent of the rolling pin, including a punch on the nose for Oop from Ooola.

No real surprises here, then: cavemen spanked their women and jealous cavewomen may have spanked their rivals. From there we go forward in time to the Hyborian Age, wholly unknown to palaeontologists, archaeologists or historians, but very familiar to students of pulp fiction. It is the period immediately before the start of recorded history, when warrior barbarians roamed the earth fighting monsters and wizards and rescuing beautiful maidens. And, sometimes, spanking them.

The most renowned denizen of this world is Conan the Barbarian, created by Robert E. Howard in 1932, coincidentally the same year as Alley Oop’s debut, and, also like Alley Oop, still going strong. Out of the innumerable Conan stories, the one that earns our attention is The Flame Knife (1955), in which he rescues a harem girl named Nanaia after she warns him of an assassination plot.

In defiance of his orders, she disguises herself as a male warrior and joins him in the climactic battle, which earns her two things from Conan after his victory:

He kissed her loudly and spanked her sharply. ‘One’s for fighting beside us; the other’s for disobedience.’

The moment was faithfully reproduced when, in 1978, the story was adapted in the Marvel comic book The Savage Sword of Conan:

After that, we enter the first true epoch of known, non-fictional history, when our ancestors have built the cities of the Fertile Crescent from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and are developing the sophisticated systems of government and long-term record-keeping that enable us to know something direct and definite about their lives. But if the Sumerian Era is the first age of bureaucracy, there are still heroes too, like Nippur de Lagash, the exiled, nomadic protagonist of an Argentinian comic book first published in 1967.

In the 1969 story ‘A River Called Lonemer’, Nippur meets the beautiful Tiren.


At first he mistakes her for a boy, for no better reason than that she is hunting a wild boar. Her quarry attacks her and knocks her off her horse,

but Nippur intervenes and slays the boar: she has both her catch and her life.

Nippur 3

He quickly realizes that she’s a girl, but she objects to being called that, and insists, with the full huffiness of 1969 as much as the 23rd century BC, that she is a woman. Her umbrage extends as far as a slapped face for him, whereupon he proceeds to give her something which, he says, she can’t have had from her parents:

‘I hope this will teach you to speak politely to your betters,’ he tells her.

Almost at once, her father Alomeres rides up and she complains that Nippur hit her on the… Well, he hit her, but it seems she’s too embarrassed to say where. She demands that Alomeres punish Nippur, but it turns out that he saw everything, including how Nippur saved her life, and he approves of everything, including the spanking.

Duly chastened by paternal admonishment, she apologises to Nippur for her rudeness, and he becomes an honored guest in their fortified town – luckily for them, as there’s some skulduggery to save them from later in the story.

Many things have changed since Alley Oop’s Bone Age, but many have stayed the same: now we live in settlements with buildings rather than clefts in the rock, but  loners still wander the land, some heroic and some predatory. And that will remain true when we make our next leap forward, to ancient Egypt of the 12th century BC, and to a more serious work of fiction, John Arden’s novella ‘Slow Journey, Swift Writing’, part of a quartet about human tool-making, Cogs Tyrannic (1991). But what future is there for spanking?

The particular tool at the center here is the alphabet, which in the story is the invention of the civil servant Harkhuf, and is in effect a private cipher: all his fellow scribes are still in thrall to the cumbersome formality of hieroglyphics. He has taught the secret to one other person, his comely Indian slave-girl Mira, but has warned her to divulge it to no one, ‘on pain of a week’s daily whippings by the women’s eunuch of his household’.

Harkhuf uses his alphabet to write a draft report on an ancient mariner who has arrived in Egypt telling the story of his travels, part of which will later become one of the foundational works of European literature, the Odyssey. The reason he needs to write it down using a system of notation known only to him (and Mira) is that it contains details about the position of the sun in the sky which are contrary to religious doctrine, and so might cause the fall of the divine Pharaoh if they were to become generally known; at this point in human history, nobody understands the concept of the southern hemisphere and its implications for navigation. So Harkhuf needs to keep Odysseus’ tale a secret until he can work out how best to present it to his political masters.

Much of the novella’s direct action is simply the draft text that is being written down, with occasional interruptions, one of which is germane to our subject. As Harkhuf writes, Mira is in attendance in the room, but becomes bored and starts playing with a cat. When she gets scratched, there is a moment of feline chaos which leads to some spilled ink.

Mira lunged, to try and catch the unfortunate animal; Harkhuf too lunged, and caught her. Without regard to time or place or how many might be watching, he hauled her in his rage upside down across his knee, whipped up her flimsy skirt with one hand, pulled off his sandal with the other, and leathered her slender haunches until she screamed. He let her fall, she rolled away from him, he ordered her out of his sight.

This seemingly trivial incident turns out to be the pivot of the story. Harkhuf is discomfited to realize that he is giving credence to Odysseus’ tale, despite the religious preconceptions that tell him it simply cannot be true – and if he reports accordingly, it will be the end of him. He finds a way out of the dilemma when he realizes certain similarities between his own recent behavior and that of the lusty old voyager:

Here is a sea-rover that sets his grip upon the breasts of a sheikh’s wife in the midst of his rage of manslaughter. Here is a writing man so furiously fixed into his work that when a heedless girl intrudes on him, he sets his raging grip upon her, and throws her – and upturns her – and tears at her skirt – and – how much difference, after all?

And with that he realizes why it is that he believes the traveler’s tale about the impossible position of the sun: he has become infected with the teller’s own barbarism. So he duly gets a grip on himself and writes an orthodox report – meaning that the last of the Greek heroes is to be put to death because an Egyptian official spanked a slave-girl.

But Odysseus is also saved for the very same reason. When Harkhuf awakes from the sleep of the just, he finds the scroll of his draft report unrolled on the floor, as if somebody has been reading it – and since it is written in his secret alphabet rather than hieroglyphics, there is only one person that can be. Mira has gone, leaving him a note, also written in the alphabet:

Sir and master, you are kind but not kind, not with that sandal when all saw. … You said often Egyptians are kind and Sea Peoples cruel. I liked that cat and you beat me. I like Sea Peoples better.

And so she has released Odysseus and gone away with him to be his princess in Ithaca.

The story also bears a wider significance: it identifies spanking as a barbarian act, something inconsistent with pretensions to civilization. And it is striking that, as we leave behind the heroic era and enter the Greco-Roman phase of antiquity, the period Western culture looks back on as an apogee of human civilization, spanking scenarios become a lot less common. (In fact, I can only think of one, and it’s not the work of a professional storyteller.) The broader implications of that will emerge in due course. For now, what it means is that – contrary to orthodox history – the Fall of the Roman Empire was followed in short order by the Renaissance of spanking, as we shall see next time when we enter the Middle Ages.

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