Abishag and the comforts of sleeping together that are apart from sex
By Denise Noe
I first encountered the story of Abishag as a child watching the BBC production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. She was mentioned in the segment about Henry’s doomed fifth queen, Catherine Howard, who would eventually be executed for adultery, a crime that constituted treason in a queen.
On the morning after her wedding night, a distraught Catherine Howard (Angela Pleasance) sobbed in the arms of Lady Rochford (Sheila Burrell). The latter told Catherine she wept “as if you’re heart will break.”
Between sobs Catherine confided, “He called me his Abishag.”
Eyes wide with alarm, a shocked Lady Rochford asked, “Child, what are you saying?”
Then the new Queen spilled out the story of her husband’s impotence. He had quoted from the Biblical story of an elderly King David and Abishag: “He knew her not.”
One of my current projects is to read the Bible cover to cover and I recently came to the passages about David and Abishag. They are in 1 Kings 1: 1-4: “Now king David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat. So they sought for a fair damsel throughout the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunamite, and brought her to the king. And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not.”
David was sick and cold in his sickness. He craved the warmth of a human body next to his and apparently received comfort from Abishag’s sharing his bed. He enjoyed this comfort even though he did not have sex with her. Whether he did not have sex with her because he was no longer getting erections or simply because he chose not to is something that the Bible story does not make clear.
There is a misandrist tradition that says, “Men are only interested in one thing” and “men are beasts,” meaning that they care exclusively or at least primarily about their sexual pleasures. The tale of David and Abishag suggests that men may enjoy specifically female company without sex. They may like sleeping with women when all they are doing is SLEEPING together.
That brings me to a pet peeve: the use of the term “slept with” as a euphemism for “had sex with.” To sleep with someone and to have sex with someone are two very different things so the euphemism is downright misleading.
Sleeping alone can leave a person feeling deprived even if that person has no sexual yearnings and sleeping with someone can be a comfort in the absence of a sexual relationship.
This is so even if that “someone” is of another species. A neighbor’s dog stayed with me for about a month. She often slept with me and no, there was no act of bestiality with the neutered canine. However, I found it very comforting to go to sleep with a dog right next to me, especially with her right against me or with one of my arms around her.
Like King David and Abishag, people can and do sleep together sans sex. It can be nice to just hold and hug another person as one drifts off to dreamland. This is a gentle joy entirely separate from the far more intense pleasures of sex.
I have a friend who is asexual and lived in an unconsummated marriage for several years. She and her husband never engaged in any kind of sexual activity but they shared a bed.
I once took a class in which a guest lecturer told of how Mahatma Gandhi had decided to be celibate. The lecturer related, “To test his willpower over his sexual urges, Gandhi often slept with pretty young women without having sex.”
Wit that I am, I chirped, “Did he ever flunk?”
“No, not as far as is known,” was the reply.
Of course, the Bible itself, at least in the King James Version which is the one I am reading, describes sexual activity through a euphemism: “He knew her not.” Sex in the Bible is often described in terms of either “lying with” or “knowing.” The former is very close to “slept with” in the way in which it is misleading.
“Knowing” is also misleading since people know usually other people outside of a sexual context. I have read it suggested that this term suggests that sexual activity is a kind of ultimate “knowing” of another person because of its extreme intimacy.
However, I think we should speak plainly and say “had sex with” when that is what is meant. Those are my thoughts. Readers, what are yours?