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In What is unconscious shame? I’ve written about how shame affects us today. In What is ancestral trauma? I’ve written about the shame we still unconsciously carry from the dim and distant past. This brief history of shame joins the dots between the two. It traces the traumatic origins of shame in pre-Biblical times through to the modern era.

This may seem like a trawl through ancient history, ‘water under the bridge’. It is anything but. As Robert Orsi writes, “The claim ‘oh, that’s ancient history’ is almost always a wish, an anxious attempt to put a boundary of time around some event that really is not over at all; it is a bid to silence the past.” The keyword in that phrase is ‘anxious’. We sweep the past under the carpet because we’re nervous about what it reveals of today’s problems—and our responsibility for fixing them.

History of shame

The history of shame is an inexact science. I’ve written how unconscious shame is, by definition, invisible. How can one write a history of something invisible? Yet the history of shame demands it. The footprints of shame can be traced from the sands of the pre-Biblical Middle East through to the rock’n’roll explosion in 1950s America by looking at these events not as factual history but as emotional history.

In this regard, it’s important to remember the words of social theorist Edward Carpenter, who wrote in his 1899 book Civilization – its Cause and Cure that “Feeling precedes thinking”. Or, in other words, emotions precede thoughts. The implication of this statement is profound. Behind every painful factual event in history lies a painful event in emotional history. The history of shame is the history of those painful events.

Behind every painful factual event in history lies a painful event in emotional history. The history of shame is the history of those painful events.


Our prehistoric ancestors lived in a world without shame. They formed foraging societies and moved in tune with the seasons. They didn’t stockpile food, suggesting that they had no concept of surplus or its opposite: shortage. Foraging may seem like an arduous existence. Studies have shown that their nutritious diet, based on a wide range of animal and plant life, could be gathered in as little as two days per week. This left them with ample time for relaxation and social interaction.

The sexual conventions of these communities are uncertain. In Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá argue that sex was freely available within social groups. It was used primarily as a bonding agent. This echoes socio-biologist E. O. Wilson, who wrote that “all that we can surmise of humankind’s genetic history argues for a more liberal sexual morality” than today’s supposed sexual libertarianism.


With the development of agriculture around 8000 BC humans became dependent on beneficial growing conditions in given geographical locations. Ryan and Jethá identify this as the moment when non-possessive, multi-male/multi-female mating gave way to pair bonding and monogamy.

Their theory is disputed – both Lynn Saxon (Sex at Dusk) and David Barash (The Myth of Monogamy) accuse Ryan and Jethá of cherry-picking evidence – but one thing is clear: interpersonal violence was non-existent. Archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef found no evidence of warfare throughout the Near East prior to 6000 BC. Other regions are similarly lacking in unambiguous evidence for violence at this time. Whatever the customs of our Neolithic forebears, they did not include the violence that has dominated human history for the last eight millennia.

And then something seismic happened.


In his monumental work Saharasia geographer James DeMeo documents how, from sporadic beginnings around 6000 BC, decreased rainfall in the Sahara, the Arabian Peninsula and what are now the deserts of Central Asia caused these areas, previously verdant savannahs teeming with wildlife, to become arid. The consequences were profound: “After 6000 BC, sites in Anatolia, Syria, and Iraq yield evidence of drought, decline, and/or disturbed social conditions… Bodies of victims, mostly children… were found.”

Climate change around 4000 BC introduced the concept of shortage into the human psyche. A radically different social and political paradigm soon emerged.

Climate change in Saharasia [De Meo’s collective name for these three regions] introduced the concept of shortage into the human psyche. A radically different social and political paradigm soon emerged. “It was in Saharasia, during the dessication phase, that irrigation agriculture and nomadic pastoralist technology first developed.

Building construction and metallurgical knowledge were also first refined and advanced in Saharasia following the onset of drier conditions, as were various forms of central-state and military apparatus.” Aridity in Saharasia, which became entrenched after 4000 BC, laid the foundations for today’s military-political-industrial complex. Individual or group authority was replaced by a new concept of a ruling elite that the disempowered majority was beholden to.

But just who were the ruling elite?

Survival of the fittest

Darwin’s law of natural selection suggests that they were those who adapted best to the spreading desert conditions, which DeMeo’s research confirms. He studied over a thousand ancient cultures, assessing each one on the basis of matriarchal and patriarchal characteristics.

Matriarchal attributes include a high status and freedom for women and children, simple divorce rules, matrilineal descent, the absence of genital mutilation, unhindered adolescent sexuality and adult sexual freedom. Patriarchal attributes include their opposites: low status and serfdom for women and children, tough divorce rules, patrilineal descent, genital mutilation, restricted adolescent sexuality and lifelong compulsive monogamy.

DeMeo’s findings are clear. As Saharasia dried out, the tribes forced to abandon their now-infertile homelands became increasingly patriarchal as they erupted out of the desert to seize still-fertile territories.

Survival of the fittest rewarded brutality over amity and cruelty over empathy. As the deserts expanded this pattern repeated with the same inevitable result. To the victor the spoils, to the loser death or slavery. In the most brutal societies even the women became warriors and underwent ritual scarification to prove their bravery.

History of shame - Nuba tribeswomen, by Leni Riefenstahl
Photo by Leni Riefenstahl (Last of the Nuba, 1974)

Initially the objective was to secure a viable food source. The realisation emerged that the antidote to shortage was surplus. And so was born the concept of empire. But the problem with a shortage mentality is that no surplus is ever enough. Driven by an insatiable thirst for accumulation, patriarchy diffused out of North Africa and Central Asia to conquer the world.

The history of shame is the history of humanity’s futile endeavour to accumulate enough to never experience shortage. The real shortage, however, is not physical but emotional. Behind the wars that have ravaged humanity for the last six millennia, including today’s economic wars, lies our core emotional wound—the mother wound. Nature’s shift from a bountiful provider to a pitiless environment inflicted that wound—which in turn led to patriarchy.

The birth of shame

Here, in the emergence of patriarchy, we find the birthplace of unconscious shame.

With a life-or-death struggle for food sources, fighting ability became overwhelmingly prized while softness was equated with weakness. Archaeologist Timothy Taylor notes that warrior societies withheld colostrum from infants through early weaning. This created an unconscious rage that conferred an advantage on the battlefield.

But the emotional cost was monumental: sexuality and the emotions were the Achilles’ heel that had to be rigidly controlled. Anyone who displayed the slightest weakness, which endangered the community, brought shame upon themselves and cast suspicion upon their entire bloodline. Brutal warrior elites arose, along with the concept of superior bloodlines that had to be protected to ensure survival. This concept remains active in modern times: Hitler’s ultra-loyal SS troops had their blood group tattooed inside their left armpit and had first call on plasma supplies.

To protect these bloodlines, sexual rules were stringently applied to the women of the ruling elite. In The Invasion of Compulsory Sex Morality psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich demonstrates how cultures designed their marriage laws to retain wealth and power among the ruling males. Over the generations these customs became entrenched as social taboos and to break them was a source of shame; the underlying fear was of expulsion back to the pitiless desert.

Order over chaos

Over time the lower classes adopted the ruling elite’s heartless, sexually repressive, shame-based customs to raise their own social standing. Shame engulfed entire societies. Its power was such that older women were among the most ardent upholders of sexual prohibitions, including female genital mutilation. Examples of those who suffered the most inflicting the same suffering on their own descendants litters the history of shame.

It is important to understand that patriarchy isn’t entirely about the dominion of men over women. It’s about the dominion of thought and strength over feeling, to maximise a society’s capacity to survive in a pitiless environment. It is the triumph of order over chaos.

As a result, punishments for sexual misconduct crystallised: law no. 7 of the Code of Ur-Nammu specified the death penalty for adultery as long ago as 2100 BC – but only for women; men could not be similarly punished because it directly sapped the military strength of the state apparatus. Patriarchal beliefs – the psychological laws that underpinned these societies – swept through the Middle East on waves of conquest and enslavement.

Christianity and shame

Over the last millennium before the modern era, sexual prohibitions were codified in Judaic laws and customs that later migrated into Christianity. The original cause of emotional and sexual regulation sank out of conscious knowledge into humanity’s collective unconscious.

In Europe, the Papacy ascended to power and assumed the right to both define and punish breaches of sexual taboos. These arrived in Britain with Christian missionaries. Once established, the church “sought to impose a code of extreme severity.” While the earliest Saharasian city-states bequeathed us the military-political-industrial complex, our key social relationship came from the medieval church.

The Anglo-Saxon synod of 786 approved the principle of lifelong monogamous marriage, though the practice was not fully entrenched by the time of Henry VIII. Gordon Rattray Taylor writes that the next step was “to place an absolute ban on all forms of sexual activity other than intercourse between married persons, carried out with the object of procreating.”


The entire structure of modern society, with its loss of individual authority and distorted sexuality, is enshrined in these institutions. Rebellion against them is negated by survival fears triggered by shame-based feelings. Sexual shame thus plays a crucial role in upholding patriarchal structures; hence patriarchies respond to sexual liberality with the utmost violence.

State-sanctioned sexual violence in Western Europe peaked with the Inquisition, beginning in France in the 12th century. The sexual basis of witch-hunting is explicit in the Malleus Malleficarum, a central document of the Inquisition written by Heinrich Kramer in 1486: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust.” All sexual behaviour other than married, procreative sex merited death.

This unyielding attitude reveals what Taylor calls “the psychological process of decomposition… it simplifies our emotional situation if we can divide people and things into wholly good and wholly bad”. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) recognises the inability to perceive shades of grey as a cognitive distortion.


While the Inquisition killed millions in northern Europe and Spain, in Italy a counter-movement took place: the Renaissance. This is a turning point in the history of shame. It was the first of a series of liberating waves that lapped against the bulwark of patriarchy over the ensuing centuries.

The change underpinning the Renaissance was a new sense of individuality. This mingled with the notion of romantic love brought to Italy by Provençal troubadours fleeing the Inquisition. The result was a rise in the status of women and a relaxation of sexual prohibitions across mainland Europe in the 15th century.

Botticelli’s painting, Venus and Mars, clearly demonstrates this changing dynamic. Exhausted by millennia of patriarchal infighting, Mars (man) lies exhausted with a spear aimed at his head. Meanwhile Venus (woman) quietly bides her time. The symbolism doesn’t end there. The spear is tipped not with steel but with a seashell, a medieval symbol for female sexuality. Botticelli’s meaning is clear: in the fullness of time, sexuality will overthrow violence. This painting captures the history of shame perhaps more clearly than any other single image.

Venus and Mars by Botticelli
Venus and Mars by Botticelli, 1485 (public domain)

To died-in-the-wool patriarchs, this permissiveness was intolerable. The Renaissance reached England in the 15th century, just before the movement that arose in response to it: the Protestant Reformation. This was fostered by disenchantment with church corruption, particularly the sale of indulgences (remissions of church punishments), which were mostly for sexual deviance.

From a patriarchal viewpoint, the Reformation was highly successful. “The countries which embraced Protestantism… made the greatest social, economic and political advances”. While Catholics enjoyed relative sexual freedom, Protestants sublimated their sexual energy into work. The cost of the Protestant work ethic was emotional and sexual constriction with all its attendant neuroses.

The Puritans

But for the more extreme patriarchs even this wasn’t enough. In the second half of the 16th century the Puritans became a significant religious and political force in England. They didn’t just despise sex; they despised pleasure. Puritans advocated personal and group piety and sought to impose their narrow-minded doctrines onto others. Their mental and emotional rigidity – clear indicators of shame – can be gleaned from the pejorative term for Puritans in use at the time, ‘precisians’.

Blocked from reshaping the Church of England in their joyless image, from 1629 onwards many Puritans left for New England. Here they established patriarchal communities and resumed witch-hunting. Sex-negative attitudes became embedded in America’s burgeoning WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) population. Puritanism waned after the English Civil War (1642-1651). But it wasn’t long before the next front opened in the war on emotional and sexual feelings: the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason.

The publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687 serves as a useful marker for this period.

Influenced by Newton and philosophers such as Descartes, Locke and Voltaire, intellectuals challenged faith-based doctrines. Instead, they sought to reform society on scientific lines. The mark of civilisation was the ability to live entirely on principles of reason and rationality. Eschewing sex was not moral but rational, not about the salvation of the soul but of the mind.

“The English vice”

Here is the idea of sex as unclean, an attitude that survives in terms such as the ‘dirty weekend’. Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker writes that, “In all societies, sex is at least somewhat ‘dirty’”. This attitude is the end product of several millennia of accumulated sex-negative social conditioning. During the Age of Reason, the more men strove to suppress their sexual instincts the more these surfaced in distorted forms such as “the English vice” – sexually motivated flagellation.

History of shame - The English vice of flagellation

Recoiling against this assault, Romanticism was an artistic movement that flowered during the first half of the 19th century. Superficially, it was an attempt to free nature from the deconstructing effect of the scientist’s scalpel. This manifested, in William Wordsworth’s phrase, in “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. He was talking about poetry, but the orgasmic metaphor is clear.

Social theorist Isaiah Berlin wrote that the spirit of the age was “seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms… a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.”

To the Romantic, no goal was more unobtainable than sexual freedom; an emotionally dissatisfied yearning underpins the age. The outcome of Romanticism was the concept of marriage based on mutual love. For the first time, the woman was seen as the man’s equal. And thus the social quest became the search for one’s ‘other half’, that sole individual with whom one experiences a reciprocal sense of emotional completeness.

Victorian era

While sexual punishment peaked with the Inquisition, the high point for self-imposed sexual restriction came in the Victorian era. There was, Taylor writes, a “general desire to ignore the animal aspects of existence” and an “extreme sensitivity on the subject of the excretory functions”.

Language changed. ‘Whore’ and ‘fornication’, words previously legitimised by their use in the Bible, became taboo. Anything to do with legs – from those of a chicken to those of a piano – was indecent.

But all of this repressed energy had to go somewhere. As John Fowles observes in his portrait of Victorian sexual mores, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, one in 60 houses in London was a brothel. Taylor suggests that their occupants were necessary to the era’s collective psyche. “The Victorians needed prostitutes as objects on to whom to project all the negative part of their feelings for women.”

Luncheon on the Grass

While most demonised female sexuality, some sought to humanise it. In 1863, genteel Parisians were shocked by Edouard Manet’s painting Luncheon on the Grass.

Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet
Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet, 1884 (public domain)

As Robert Katz and Celestine Dars write, “the shock of seeing a female nude in the company of two modern-day dandies was simply too much”. Manet was one of the new wave of Impressionist painters whose works show the return of feeling into painting.

What is notable about Manet’s nude is the way she stares directly at the viewer, unashamed of her nakedness. This was outrageous. Critic Louis Etienne slurred the woman as a bréda (a prostitute, after the Rue Bréda in Paris’ red light district). He reviled the painting itself as “a festering sore, unworthy of comment”.

The establishment’s antipathy to Impressionism was entirely predictable, but history was on the turn.


As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, conservative and liberal impulses vied with increasing frequency. In 1904 the Hamilton Beach Company patented the fifth domestic electrical appliance in the world, the vibrator. Its purpose was purely medical. Vibrators relieved doctors of the unpleasant duty of treating women suffering from ‘hysteria’ through genital stimulation to the point of ‘hysterical paroxysm’ (orgasm).

These troubled women had no societal permission for a gratifying sex life; even in the grip of genuinely debilitating symptoms the prospect of relief through masturbation was too shameful to contemplate. On the other side of the ledger, feminism and universal suffrage made great strides. Music became a primary means for expressing socially illicit emotions. Firstly, through jazz in the 1920s and later through rock’n’roll. The latter term derives from Negro slang for having sex.

History of shame - Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock
Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock, 1957 (MGM Inc. / public domain)

Various causes have been ascribed to the two world wars. Perhaps underlying them all is the concept of shortage and surplus that originated in Saharasia. European nationalistic identities firmed during the 19th century; while Britain, France and others accumulated empires, Germany trailed. They saw the empty squares on the world Monopoly map rapidly disappearing. Unconsciously sensing that the game of shortage and surplus permits no draws, Germany asserted its right to empire.

Angst and authority

Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich identified unconscious sexual shame as a key element of Nazism.

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, written in Berlin in 1932, he observed: “Suppression of the natural sexuality in the child… makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority… At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family; this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system”. The Nazis took this angst-laden building block and added to it a heady brew of racist rhetoric and the twisted logic of Lebensraum (‘living room’) to justify their brutal quest for surplus.

The years since World War Two have seen a steady loosening of the prohibitions on emotional and sexual behaviour. Yet this has not resulted in wider satisfaction. From around the 1990s onwards, there has been an exponential growth in emotional issues. These include anxiety, panic attacks, self-harm, eating disorders and porn addiction.

Along with on-going issues of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, these can all be attributed to historic feelings of unworthiness and fears of emotional and sexual expression that reside in the shame layer, which remains largely unacknowledged and unaddressed to this day. Understanding the history of shame helps us to do this.

Main image: Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1528)


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