I. The female body in Greek literature
Today we are going to examine some of the ideas that the Greeks held about the female
body: beauty ideals, body ideals, and medical notions. We are then going to look at how
depictions of the female body in Greek art changed over time.
1. From the readings, what is desirable in a woman?
2. What is undesirable?
• Xenophon Oeconomicus women’s makeup and high heels
• Old age; sexual ardor in the old; makeup and adornment on old women (see
Mimnermos too: old men are also undesirable)
• The woman who lost or would lose her beauty and sex appeal was a recurrent theme
in Greek literature, and the litany of insults against old women dwell mainly on the
physical— grey hair, pendulous breasts, drooping eyebrows, "a wrinkled face uglier
even than an old monkey's." For some women the answer to old age was to try to
mask its symptoms, since old age began for a woman after her skin lost its youthful
tone and her body its firmness. Cosmetics like red rouge and white lead were
employed (helping the ravages along), and other beauty implements like hair dye,
wigs, and curling irons were used. Paradox here is that cosmetics contained poisonous
3. How is female sexuality characterized?
• phallocentricity of female sexuality (Herodas' dialogue of the courtesans)
4. How does the image of women in the medical writers reflect ancient conceptions
of the female role in society? The medical texts of Greece and Rome span 450 BCE - 2
450 CE or so. They are male-authored, but gynecological treatises are aimed at a (partly?)
female audience as well as (possibly) female physicians and midwives.
Generally speaking, it was thought that women were passive beings, and because
they could be continually [sexually] receptive it was thought they had no control over any
of their appetites (sexual, gastronomic). Women were moister and colder than men (they
lacked what Aristotle termed "vital heat")— this physical difference between the two
sexes accounted for women's mental and physical inferiority to men (sex made a woman
damp; her dampness in turn fed her sexual drive). FYI Aristotle felt that the male of
every species was more perfect than the female (including humans). We will see many
references to Greek women in the passages in our Handbook as water: and to men
"sailing," "rowing," and "piloting" women. The uterus/womb was the source of women's
physical and mental ills— erratic behavior, mental problems, etc. The womb had a
consciousness of its own: it traveled through a woman's body and caused problems
(husteria). It could be returned to its original place by being attracted or repelled by
sweet- or foul-smelling substances. Being unmarried (without sexual intercourse and
children) was thought by medical writers to be severely injurious to a woman; in virgins
and widows, the absence of sex and childbearing was thought to cause great physical
distress to the woman in the form of a wandering womb: problems could ensue with
menstruation etc., marriage, sex, and pregnancy alleviated these symptoms.
II. The female body in Greek art
The depiction of the female body underwent a radical transformation from the
early Bronze Age to the second century. We will look at depictions of women from
Neolithic times to the third century BCE. Note which women are clothed and which are
nude and when.
• The earliest female Greek images were fertility symbols, steatopygus figurines,
emphasizing a woman's reproductive power. 3
• 1700-1550 BCE we find snake goddesses on Crete. These are faience figurines,
13” or less, with a bell-shaped skirt, a short apron, and belt; her breasts are bare.
There are snakes in her hands. Most were found in the temple repositories
attached to the great Palace at Knossos.
• in the folds and creases of the sculpted cloth; as well cloth was (paradoxically) a
symbol of status. The relationship between cloth and women is an interesting
• The Greeks made great headway in the fifth century in what we would term the
‘naturalistic’ rendering of the female body. There are beautiful examples on the
buildings which make up the Athenian Acropolis: the Karyatids, Parthenon East
pediment, the Nike: "wet" drapery can be used to tease the viewer; to "conceal"
yet display body parts. Body and garments melt into one another; there is a
blurring and an inseparability between garment and body. The female body is by
no means hidden. Wet drapery actually may be construed as part of being a
woman (women were cold and damp; men hot and dry). But remember the
• Examples of women on fifth-century vases: Citizen women are conventionally