Sexuality in the Song of Songs – Part 3: Symbols

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Sexuality in the Song of Songs

Before looking at the Song’s message and theology, some of the Song’s symbols and images must be decoded. It is important to not get carried away in doing this. While the Song is rife with sensual images appealing to all five senses, it is easy to take this decoding too far and end up with something as subjective as the allegorical interpretation. It is important to remember that while there are a multitude of symbols and images layered in the Song they are not consistent and what symbolises one thing in one verse can symbolise something else in the next. It is therefore impossible to create one-one relationships between symbols and meanings. The Song is a collection of Poems and as such it tries to “communicate in language what is beyond language” (Estes quoting Landy, 2005: 401). Therefore a delicate touch is required not to destroy the beauty of the song with crude decoding and paraphrasing. The Song must be experienced and perhaps even felt (Estes quoting Exum and Bergant, 2005: 401) rather than simply read. Murphy suggests that: “the poet calls attention to the lovers’ imagination and, in so doing, invites the reader to imaginative activity as well” (Murphy et al. 1999: 222)

With that caveat in mind it is time to look at some of the images in the Song without intending to probe the depths of this text but rather to sample some of the imagery. The language of the song is filled with similes and metaphors. It is often compared to an Egyptian poetry form called a wasf, which is a list of physical features where the different aspects of the beloved are likened by different things, places or animals (cf. 4.1-7 and 7.1-4). The woman is described with a plethora of images describing her beauty.  The most common imagery is taken from nature, likening the woman to fruit, trees or animals, but some of the images are more imposing, like the use of tower and warlike imagery such as shields.

The poet shifts from image to image. For example in 7.7 where the woman is likened to a palm tree, and “then the speaker enters into his own metaphor, expressing his desire to climb the tree and gain access to its fruit” (Murphy et al. 1999: 222). Perhaps this shifting is most noticeable as: “metaphors keep shifting between the actual landscape, suffused with erotic associations, and the landscape of the body” (Murphy quoting Ariel and Chana Bloch, 1999: 225). For instance, it is unclear in 2.17, where the man is likened to “a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains”, whether the mountains in question correspond to literal mountains or to the woman’s breasts just as it is not clear whether this is an invitation to a sexual encounter or a request that the man goes away for the night thus preserving her chastity (Murphy et al. 1999: 261). Another passage with this kind of double entendre and layered images is the dream sequence described in chapter five. This passage is dripping with sexual overtones and the suggestive language offers all sorts of erotic imagery. However, the same passage can be read as a completely innocent literal sequence of events. This sequence uses the imagery of oil and myrrh dripping of the woman’s fingers possibly referring to the myrrh found in the “female’s ‘garden’ (4.14, 5.1) or her ‘mountain’ (4.6)” (Hess, 2005:173). Murphy states that: “all of this is in the realm of double entendre. Contrary to the claim of some interpreters, on a descriptive level the passage narrates the man’s visit to the woman’s house. Yet the language raises sexual associations with every line” (Murphy et al. 1999: 276). It seems that at every turn the poet is using evocative language to achieve this ‘double entendre’ and provoke the readers imagination to break out from traditional or religious thinking and to fully immerse and even loose themselves in this passionate erotic narrative.

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Series Navigation<< Sexuality and the Song of Songs – part 2: InterpretationSexuality in the Song of Songs – Part 4: Sexual Ethics >>

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