Seduction: A Short History

Seduction is the process of enticing someone to engage in a relationship; often to entice them to engage in sexual behavior. Let’s face it, we all know someone who can persuade anyone into doing anything, so strong is their power of charm. Historically strategies of seduction have included various techniques of non-verbal communication such as the usage of a parasol, fan, and kerchief for communication. The term for seduction is based in 1526 Late Latin and Middle French, seducereact of leading aside, and means literally to lead astray.

ha1The term has positive and negative connotations.It can imply temptations, or simply mean flirtation or charm. Legendary seducers from history include Cleopatra, Giacomo Casanova and the fictional character Don Juan. Seduction seen negatively involves sexual enticement and leads someone astray, generally due to a choice they would not have made if not due to a state of intense desire. Seen positively, seduction is a synonym for the act of appealing to the senses, often with the goal of reducing fears within a social situation with the technique of charm. Think of Scarlett O’Hara at the opening picnic in Gone With The Wind.

Seduction is popular in history and fiction, both as a warning of the consequences of the behavior, or becoming a victim to this alluring skill. In the Bible, Eve entices Adam with the forbidden fruit. But first, Eve was seduced by a serpent. The Proverbs of Solomon warn of the pitfalls of seduction. (With all those wives and concubines, King Solomon was probably an expert.)

Sirens of Greek mythology lured sailors to their death by singing them toward the shore, thus bringing about their demise due to shipwreck; Dionysus was the Greek god of seduction and wine. Famous fictional male names synonymous with sexual allure range from Casanova to James Bond. Cleopatra beguiled both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Anne Boleyn lead Henry VIII to leave his popular wife Katherine of Aragon and break his ties with the Roman Church, thereby changing the history of England forever. In the 20th Century, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton each broke numerous hearts, and left various spouses several times, and never seemed to get the happily ever after they seemed to want, much like the fictional Scarlett and Rhett.


A rake, also known to us as a hellraiser, is a historic term applied to a man who was comfortable with immoral conduct, particularly womanizing. A rake was reckless: wasting his inherited fortune on gambling, and the proverbial wine, women and song. Comparable terms are libertine and rouge. The Tudor Era in England left us a few legends of note: Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Bryan, and Sir Francis Drake.

During the English Restoration (1660-1688) a carefree, witty, irresistible circle of aristocrats grew at the court of Charles II. michel_garnier_-_the_poorly_defended_rose_-_64-63-1_-_minneapolis_institute_of_artsThey were known as the “Merry Gang” and included the King himself. The members combined an over-the-top lifestyle with intellectual pursuits and patronage of the arts. After the reign of Charles II, public perception of the rake changed. They became the center of moral stories in which their fate was debtor’s prison, disease, or insanity. A later group of aristocrats were known as the Hell Fire Club in the eighteenth century. Other famous historical rakes include Lord Byron, John Mytton, and the Marquis de Sade.


The femme fatale archetype exists in the folklore and legends of many cultures. Mohini, the divine femme fatale of Hindu mythology, is described as having enchanted both gods and demons. Ancient mythical or legendary examples of this archetype include Aphrodite, Circe, and Helen of Troy. Historical examples include Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn, as well as the Biblical figures Delilah, Jezebel and Salome.
The femme fatale was a common figure in the European Middle Ages, often portraying the dangers of unbridled female sexuality. The pre-medieval inherited Biblical figure of the Eve and the serpent is a prime example, as is the wicked enchantress of Arthurian legend, Morgan le Fay.


The femme fatale flourished in the Romantic period in the works of John Keats, notably La Belle Dame sans Merci. With the gothic novel, early authors found a powerful femme fatale to be a provocative character. This is evident in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The Marquis de Sade viewed the femme fatale as symbolizing the best qualities of womanhood. In art, Pre-Raphaelite painters used the classic personifications of the femme fatale as a central theme.

In fin-de-siècle decadence, Oscar Wilde reinvented the femme fatale during the Victorian Era in the play Salome: she manipulates her lust-crazed uncle King Herod with her enticing Dance of the Seven Veils. Later, Salome was the subject of an opera by Strauss, and was popularized on numerous stage and screen reincarnations.

Western culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the femme fatale become even more fashionable. No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts cries of lust from an older man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will and masters the mind of a King.  She was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of fire and ice…an immortal goddess, the Beauty Supreme above All…indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning. cleoShe seduced by the spectacle of her heaving bosoms, breathless voice and unattainable glamour. The invention of film gave us goddesses running the gamut from Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly.

After World War II, the rise of the recording industry saw an even greater sex symbol emerge. Frank Sinatra was iconic long before Elvis or the Beatles. By the 1960’s, the revolution in art and music combined to make what had been avant garde the mainstream. Twiggy and super models replaced the voluptuous movie sirens of the early century silver screen. Rockstars, rappers and models became uber celebrities, that realm once obtained by royalty or only the most notorious. Their siren song still has a centuries old allure that we cannot resist.


Thank you to for photography from The Tudors.
All other photographs are public domain or belong to the author.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s