Onan (from the Hebrew: "Strong grip") is a minor character in the Book of Genesis, who was the second son of Judah. God loved His chosen people so much that He killed both Onan and his older brother, Er (named when the Registrar of Births asked Judah for a name following a spectacular “wetting the baby’s head" Manischewitz binge). According to Genesis, Onan lived in a “Land of Confusion” and preferred the stimulation of an “Invisible Touch” to fathering a child by his widowed sister-in-law as stipulated by Talmudic law.
Onan became “evil in the sight of the LORD” when he opted “to spill his seed on fallow ground,” which has come to mean fornicating for non-procreative reasons, consorting with gentile girls, or knocking one off in the desert during the dry season. In classical English, Onanism has come to mean the act of masturbation, which was once punishable by flogging, public humiliation, and blindness.
Onan the Barbarian
Christian prejudice against the honourable institution of jerking-off meant that Onan’s name became a by-word for self-pollution, culminating in the Victorian Anti-Onan devices. Consequently, the name Onan largely disappeared from the world except for France, where being a wanker is the cultural norm. However, in 1932 Robert E Howard published a story in the fantasy magazine Weird Tales. This tale, “Grappling the One-eyed Monster”, contained a black-haired swordsman with unusually strong wrists, generally clad only in an easy-access loincloth. Howard called his new hero Onan the Barbarian and he continued to appear in Weird Tales until 1943, when wartime restrictions on wipe-clean paper meant that the magazine could no longer be published.
Though precise descriptions of this new incarnation of Onan vary from edition to edition, Howard generally portrays him as being 6 feet three inches tall (when standing erect), with the grace and agility of a panther but hardened by early exposure to sights no boy should witness. His huge, muscular neck is said to be corded with veins, ringed with tightly curled hair, and topped with a gleaming purple helmet. His face is generally depicted as strangely contorted, his eyes bulging, his skin bronzed by chafing.
Howard’s initial Onan tales were lavishly illustrated but formulaic affairs in which Onan is roused from sleep and brought to a state of agitation by the sight of a pretty slave-girl, generally almost naked and chained to a chunk of rock, iron post or swollen alien. Once his blood is up, Onan attacks the stronghold of the story’s villain, releasing his minions and finally getting the girl. These simple tales proved remarkably popular with both teenage boys and married, middle aged men, selling by the tens of thousands under such titles as “Bash the Bishop”, “The Snake Charmer”, and “Teasing Weasel”.
Until 1943, Onan Literature had been available only from the top-shelf of back-street newsagents or via mail-order, discretely dispatched in plain brown envelopes. But all that was to change at the start of 1944 with the publishing of the first Onan books - “Sexual Behavior in the Barbarian Male” and “Sexual Behavior in the Barbarian Female”, written by Dr. Alfred Kinsey. Initially banned for obscenity, the books were smuggled in from Canada or underground publishing houses in the wilds of Kentucky – the now legendary “Poon-Shiners”.
Due to the anti-masturbatory dedication of the Eliot Ness and his Self-Touchables, most Onan literature during this period had to be hidden from the law by being given titles that could equally well have a self-improving theme. Thus “Whackin’ the Mole” and “Beating about the bush” passed as gardening handbooks, “Polishing the pipe” – a plumbing guide, “Erecting the monument” – a civic sculpture brochure, “Grappling the Gorilla” – a wildlife management manual, and “Buffing the Banana” – an instruction book for aspiring green-grocers.
The first and most famous of the books had the sub-title “The coming of Onan,” in which Onan is ripped from the breast of his mother, Josselin, by his father’s murderer and tossed out of the mighty castle Tal-y-Wacyr, his ancestral home. Adopted by swamp-peasants, he ekes out a living rounding-up tadpoles until, having grown taller and stronger than his compatriots, he is so hungry he chokes a chicken – one of the few fowl in the meagre swamp flock. For this he is expelled from the tribe and determines to take matters into his own hands and regain his kingdom.
To do so he trains to become an expert sword-master and sets off to Tal-y-Wacyr. Initially, he is welcomed by the peasants and shakes hands with the milkman in every ward of the city. When the usurping king, Poinswatta, send assassins to kill the upstart, Onan wields his mighty weapon and beats off his assailants before setting off for the palace. But just as Onan is about to cross the moat to the castle’s keep, the plank is yanked from beneath his feet and he is forced to grasp the vine and climb the ivy on the walls to gain entry to royal chambers.
Poinswatta holds a blade to Josselin’s neck and forces Onan to confront his chief bodyguard in hand-to-hand combat. Despite having to surrender his weapon, Onan pummels the bald-headed champ until he spews and sinks to his knees defeated. Poinswata stabs his bride and leaps to his death from the tower, leaving Onan physically drained and deflated to have regained his birthright but lost his mother.
This book was a hit and a further thirty five books appeared at about one a year until the late 1970s. They were frequently republished, as their pages tended to stick together. Sales of over ten million units meant only one thing – Onan movies were inevitable.
Onan on the silver screen
The idea of Onan films is as old as film itself, and it was inevitable that a theme so beloved of teenage boys everywhere would one day be immortalised on celluloid. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, and Linda Lovelace, the first movie was written by Hugh Heffner and produced by Larry Flynt. Once again, Onan must seek vengeance for the death of his parents, this time at the hands of Thulsa Dong, leader of the Spitting Cobra cult.
This time, Onan is enslaved and trained as a right fist warrior, enjoying a successful career as a gladiator fighting both beasts and other men. But after a particularly brutal aquatic-themed gladiatorial contest in which he is both emotionally and physically spent after flogging a dolphin, Onan is outraged when his master gives all the seamen shore leave except him. Later, he appreciates the opportunity to spend quality time with himself considering his future, and planning his revenge on Thulsa Dong.
When his master visits Onan in his cell, he is amazed to discover the improvements the barbarian has made to the previously dank environment. Venting his frustration in a binge of DIY, Onan has rubbed down the woodwork and spackled the ceiling. The slave-master is so impressed with Onan’s handiwork that he immediately releases his slaves, allowing Onan to pursue his dream of vengeance.
The now free Onan finds himself being chased by wolves, possibly because his hands have an overwhelming smell of meat. He scales a lonesome peak in search of safety and discovers the tomb, guarded by the ghost of an old king. Having greeted the old chap, Onan liberates his stout broadsword and realises he is now fully equipped for his quest. Travelling unaccompanied, he eventually stumbles across the hut of a beautiful woman who invites him in for coffee and... you know, whatever feels right later on.
Confused by her offer, Onan admits that he prefers to plough a lonely furrow and that he seeks only a symbol he has seen in his dreams - a single yogurt-hurling serpent. She claims that she has seen the symbol but can tell him only if they make love. At the height of passion she screams out that the symbol can be found in the land of Zamorra. Moments later, she turns into a demon when Onan shows no interest in cuddling afterwards, and explodes into flames when his post-coital cigarette sets fire to her soft-furnishings.
The following morning he discovers one of the demon's previous lovers, whom she had chained to the back of her hut during a particularly savage spell of pre-menstrual tension. Together, Onan and his new companion (Submita) raid the temple at the heart of the land of Zamora in search of a huge ruby called the “Eye of the Serpent” and recruit a thief (Veneria) who is eager to use her skills, running up and down the tower until it gives up its treasure. While Onan and Submitta plunder the basement, Veneria stumbles upon a ceremony in which a young girl is stripped and prepared to be bitten by the snake. However, as the pit is filled, Onan's and Submitta’s energy causes the snake to collapse in exhaustion.
Though Onan has enjoyed his time as a team-player, he knows at heart that he is a soloist. He leaves his companions while they are sleeping and travels to Thulsa Doom's "Mount of Power". Onan disguises himself as a female initiate of the snake cult and attempts to sneak into the temple, but is caught and ordered to be nailed on the tree of doom.
Nearly dead, he is finally rescued by Submitta and Veneria, who take him to a wizard for magic healing. Once recovered, they plan to enter the temple via a lower cave hidden by thick vegetation. They work their way to the throne room, where an orgy is in progress, the participants eating human flesh and prisoners chained to the walls. Onan is determined to free the hostages and attacks immediately, carrying away the enslaved princess on his shoulders. He is unable to kill Dong, who has morphed into a giant stripeless anaconda and forced himself into a small tunnel.
Though Veneria has died of tertiary syphilis following the attack, Onan and his companions are pleased with the outcome and so overawed by the presence of royalty that they chain the princess to a rock on top of a hill, the better to take photos for the Readers’ Monarchs section of Play-Barbarian and to tempt Dong to come for her. In preparation, they set booby traps and nipple-clamps around the standing stone while Onan prays to his god, Clunj.
Another battle ensues in which Dong realises the princess will never be his. Instead, he conjures-up an enchanted arrow that will incapacitate her for nine months. However, Submitta has given her a magical hat from a distant land that provides a mystic barrier to protect her from Dong’s venom, the so called Dutch cap. The battle over, Onan begins to follow his enemy, but stops when he realises that he can never kill Dong as, no matter how hard he tries, Dong will rise again the following morning. He returns to the temple where he receives a blessing from the priest before warming-up the altar boy’s dinner.
A second Onan film was made but was much less successful, largely as a result of Onan’s ever-tighter loincloth, which restricted his sperm production. A third film was planned but shelved when it became clear that the rise of the World Wide Web was making Onan-films redundant. However, the internet has allowed specialist Onan-material to proliferate as never before. And it is clear that young men are as interested in the actions of Onan as ever.