Out of the Gynaeceum: A New Look at Ancient Greek Society

The Female Body

By Lydie Bodiou, Hélène Castelli, and Véronique Dasen

Pélikè apulienne

Fig. 1: Apulian pelike, Vatican Painter V (430-380), Inv. 26316, Musée Saint Raymond Toulouse. © Musée Saint Raymond Toulouse. Photo: Jean-François Peiré.

Ever since Hesiod’s poem recounting the creation of Pandora, the first wife (1), the female body has been associated with beauty and seduction. This woman-wife, presented in Hesiod as full of artifice, is described as a nefarious creature who uses and abuses beauty, kindness, and goodness to seduce. Greek iconography often depicts female characters attending to their bodies (scenes showing women performing their toilette, putting on jewelry and make-up, etc.). However, such practices and the objects connected to care for the body and for one’s appearance were not exclusive to women. Free men sculpted their bodies at the gymnasium, covered themselves in perfumed oil, styled their hair, wore carefully chosen clothing, and decked themselves out in finery. The Greeks understood the human body on a scale of perfection that stretched from the animal body to the divine body. While mortals could use effort and artifice to approach the divine ideal, the perishable and sometimes uncontrollable nature of their bodies kept them close to animality. For Aristotle and many physicians, women’s bodies were defined by one organ, the womb, which distinguished them from men’s. Some considered the womb, untamable and wild, to be determinant of female “nature.” For Plato, males were also sometimes ruled by their sexual organ, bringing them, too, close to animality—although that idea was less persistent in the later tradition.

(1) Hesiod, Works and Days, 42-105; Theogony, 535-616.

The Womb: Root of Women’s Violence?

In the 19th century, the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot wrote that hysteria had always existed, in every age and every location (1). However, like all illnesses that are above all intellectual constructs, hysteria belongs to a particular place—Europe—and time—in this case, a rather long period, between the 5th century B.C. and the 20th century A.D. It was the Greek physician Hippocrates and his disciples who created this remarkably durable explanatory model of behavioral disorders among women. In Greek medical treatises, “womb”—hustera—refers to the female reproductive system, and one of its roles was said to be regulating the humidity that characterizes female nature and threatens to upset humoral equilibrium. The improper functioning of the womb was thought to be “the origin of all illnesses” among women (2). For young women not yet menstruating regularly, the body could be saturated with blood if the womb was not able to evacuate it. The organ would then put pressure on the heart and diaphragm, causing serious problems: delirium, murderous insanity, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts (3). According to some doctors, the best cure was marriage.

It is difficult to assess the extent of the reception of this model in Greece. Plato referred to it, (4) which proves, at least, that it was widespread within intellectual milieus. In other contexts, such as tragedy, the violence and madness of women, like that of men, was attributed to Dionysian possession (mania).

(1) J.M. Charcot, L’hystérie, selection of texts chosen and presented by E. Trillat, ed., Toulouse, Privat, 1971, p. 19.
(2) Hippocrates, Places in Man, 47, in Hippocrates: Volume VIII, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1995.
(3) Hippocrates, Diseases of Women, 1, in Hippocrates: Volume XI, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1995.
(4) Plato, Timaeus, 91c-d.
Hématite (15 x 10 mm) Hématite (15 x 10 mm)

Fig. 2 and Fig. 2b:  Hematite (15 x 10 mm), 2nd-3rd century A.D., Private Collection. © Photo: M. Depowska.

Carte à collectionner Liebig

Fig. 3: Trading card, Liebig, Belgium, 1931. The poet Orpheus being attacked by delirious Bacchantes (women followers of Dionysus). According to ancient sources, it was actually Thracian women who were responsible for Orpheus’ death. © Photo: DR.

More than 200 engraved stones from the imperial Roman era depict an octopus, symbolizing the attractive force of the womb, which is amply described in medical texts. The engraving shows the womb-octopus locked by a key, signifying control of the opening and closing of the organ. It is encircled by an ouroboros (a snake eating its own tail), which protects it against harmful forces. The wavy lines on top of the octopus perhaps represent fallopian tubes, while those at the bottom may represent ligaments, appendages discovered by the physician Herophilos in Alexandria around the year 300 B.C. His discovery led to the claim that women’s bodies were the anatomical inverses of men’s. See the complete series of engraved amulets here.


Adorning the Body 

When the ancient Greeks got dressed, nothing was left to chance: dressing was an art, kosmêtikê technê, the art of giving order to all the elements of the body so as to show it in its best light. There is a progression that goes from simple washing and grooming to a highly sophisticated toilette, which, when taken too far, becomes reprehensible, according to Plutarch: “I think there is a great deal of difference between gaudiness and cleanliness. For women, while they paint, perfume, and adorn themselves with jewels and purple robes, are accounted gaudy and profuse; yet nobody will find fault with them for washing their faces, anointing themselves, or platting their hair” (1). It was a commonplace of Greek culture to present women as masters of the art of dissimulation and artifice, with command of the codes of seduction, which they used for their own benefit. But if we look at images, we see that men also wore ornamentation: clothing, veils, hairstyles, tattoos, perfumes, brooches, shoes, and other cosmetics. For both men and women, misusing accessories, or using them excessively—especially if one was a citizen—undermined one’s credibility, and made one vulnerable to mockery and insults. For the Greeks, such improper uses of bodily ornamentation were associated with barbarians, usually those from the east. In everyday life, how one dressed was controlled by the community, for dress was not just a matter of appearance, wealth, or ostentation, but also served to signal status, gender, age, and, in particular, one’s belonging to a political and ethnic community—from which it was not befitting for anyone, man or woman, to stray too far.

Lydie Bodiou, Florence Gherchanoc, Valérie Huet, Véronique Mehl, eds., Parures et artifices. Le corps exposé dans l’Antiquité grecque, L’Harmattan, 2011.