parthenos/ παρθένος – Giulia Sissa (UCLA)
A parthenos is a woman who has not yet experienced full vaginal intercourse with a male. Most probably, that woman will be young, not married, and living in her parents’ house. She will be chaste and tightly supervised. Hesiod portrays the archetypal “parthenic” existence. On a glacial, wintery day, the violent Northern wind, Boreas, sweeps through everything, but “it does not blow through the soft-skinned virgin (parthenike) who stays indoors with her dear mother, not knowing as yet the works of much-golden Aphrodite (οὔ πω ἔργα ἰδυῖα πολυχρύσου Ἀφροδίτης)” (Hesiod, Works and Days, 519-524). Her social status (unwed) is also an erotic condition : she is still “unlearned” in the erga of the mighty goddess, who brings love and sensuality to mortals and immortals.
This erotic condition may seem to be there, although sometimes it is not, or not any longer. Herodotus calls pseudo-parthenoi the young women who, in Libya, fight to determine who is still a true parthenos and who is a false one (Herodotus, 6, 180) . The ordeals of virginity in Greek novels, and the lexicographic definitions of a parthenios (or parthenias), as the child of a “seemingly” parthenos, also imply that the word parthenos refers to a sexual, and potentially invisible, way of being. Pollux’ Onomastikon (III, 21) explains that, if a child is called parthenias, this is because “he was born of a woman who is supposed to be a parthenos”, ἐκ τῆς δοκούσης εἶναι παρθένου. In Hesychius, we read that parthenioi are so called, “because we believe that those who engender them are still parthenoi”, ἁπό τοῦ δοκεῖν ἔτι παρθένους εἶναι. The Suidas defines partheneios as “the one who was engendered by what appears to be still a parthenos”, ἐκ παρθένου ἔτι δοκούσης (see also : Scholia to the Iliad, IV, 499 ; and to Pindar, Olympian, II, 48). These glosses agree that there is a quality — that of being a parthenos — which can be still taken for granted and erroneously attributed to a woman, even when it is no longer the case. The error is about visibility and time.
As Hesychius and the scholion to Pindar specify, the sexual encounter occurred secretly : λάθρα, κρυφᾷ. Literary sources emphasize the clandestine circumstances of the sexual act. In Iliad, 16, 179-192, Hermes seduces Polymele, who then gives birth to Eudoros, a parthenios (180). The narrative tells us about the girl’s seduction by the god, their swift and clandestine (λάθρα) embrace, the Eudoros’ birth, his mother’s marriage to a mortal man, and, finally, the “adoption”, so to speak, of the child by his loving maternal grand-father. Eudoros is a parthenios, i.e. the son of a woman, who was supposed to be a parthenos. The appearance — or the reputation, the social status — of the woman was misleading. In Pindar, Olympian 6, 31, Pitana, pregnant of Poseidon, “concealed the virginal labour (or the child, product of the labor) in her folds”, κρύψε δὲ παρθενίαν ὠδῖνα κόλποις. She gives birth to a girl, Evadne who, in turn, has sex with Apollo, and delivers Iamos, “under a dark thicket”. The baby is hidden (55). In Pythian 3, Coronis, who already bears Apollo’s child, has sex with a stranger, unbeknownst of her father, κρύβδαν πατρός. Apollo dispatches Artemis to burn her to ashes, but, in extremis, he extracts his baby son from the corpse. Interestingly, Coronis is called parthenos, when seen as a girl who lives among people who ignore her sexual vicissitudes (34), but “mother”, when Apollo speaks about her (42). The plot of Euripides’ Ion, is entirely built upon the “hidden marriage” of Creusa and Apollo, the concealed pregnancy, and the furtive delivery of Ion, the ultimate parthenios or, worse, partheneuma. “Oh calamity !”, exclaims the young man, “He [my father] engendered me as your bastard piece of virginal business !” ὤμοι : νόθον με παρθένευμ᾽ἔτικτε σόν (Ion, 1474). In a formula that captures the oxymoron of the situation, Ion rudely addresses his mother : “You, Mother, look : isn’it that you have fallen into hidden marriages, those diseases that happen to virgins ?” (ὅρα σύ, μῆτερ : μὴ σφαλεῖσ᾽ ἃ παρθένοις ἐγγίγνεται νοσήματ᾽ ἐς κρυπτοὺς γάμους : 1524). To which Creusa replies with an account of all the secrecy, obscurity and silence that surrounded Ion’s conception : “My nuptial song, my son, did not engender your face in the middle of torches and choruses !”, οὐχ ὑπὸ λαμπάδων οὐδὲ χορευμάτων ὑμέναιος ἐμός, τέκνον, ἔτικτε σὸν kάρα (1474-1476).
Consistently, the noun parthenia denotes a condition that can be taken, λαμβάνειν, (Eschines, Letter 10), and taken away, ἀφελέσθαι (Pollux, Onomastikon, 3, 42). It is a treasure that can be protected, φυλάσσειν (Greek Anthology, 9, 44). A metaphorical sentence, such as : “to loosen the bridle of parthenia” (Pindar, Isthmian 8, 100 : λύοι κεν χαλινὸν ὑφ᾽ ἥρωϊ παρθενίας), implies this same meaning. There is ample evidence, therefore, that a parthenos is not expected to have had sex, althought she might have done do, secretly. Endowed with parthenia, she possesses “something” that can be lost.
By telling intricate, lenghty stories, and by staging characters who have to decipher each other’s situations, dramatic and narrative texts allow us to understand how time and visibility explain the semantic field of parthenos, parthenios and parthenia. Since Greek virginity is not just a social status, however, but a sexual state — not knowing as yet the works of much-golden Aphrodite –, the body is essential. In order to determine how virginity affected the body of a young woman in ancient Greek culture, we need to consult medical writers. It is from this kind of non-fictional, normative, diffuse knowledge about anatomy, that we can expect some enlightenment.
In many Western and non-Western societies, female virginity is associated with an anatomical feature, located at the entrance of the vagina, the breaking of which signifies that penetration occurred. This is a thin skin, which, in a number of modern languages, is called “hymen”, the generic, Greek term for “membrane”. Ancient Greek physicians never mention any such thing as a membrane that obstructs naturally the female sex. They only know of imperforation, a pathological growth that must be eliminated. The writer of Nature of Women, 67 tells us : “If a woman does not receive the semen, although her menses are occurring according to nature, a membrane (μῆνιγξ) is in the way of the (sc. uterus’s) mouth : this can also happen from other causes. You will recognize it as follows : if you palpate internally with a finger, you will touch the obstacle (πρόβλημα)”. The insertion, deeply into the vagina, of a pessary made of resin, flower of copper and honey, followed by a douche of white wine in which myrtle has boiled, should take care of it. The same problem (in the literal meaning of the Greek word, πρόβλημα, which is “impediment”) is described in Diseases of Women, 1, 20 : a μῆνιγξ can be found sometimes, as an anomaly that hinders conception. It will have to be promptly removed either with the application of a pessary, or – and this is a more brutal variation - surgically : “to cut out the tunic is better”, περιελεῖν δὲ τόν χιτῶνα ἄμεινον. Again, the short treatise on Barreness includes, among many causes of sterility, the following : “When a woman is unable to receive the semen, there is every possibility that a membrane (μῆνιγξ) has grown in the mouth of the uterus. You must take some verdigris, bull’s gall and snake oil, mix these together, and then take a piece of wool and soak it with the mixture”. This suppository will have to be applied during the night ; a bath in hot water and myrtle will be taken during the day. Finally, let her have intercourse ! (Hippocrates, Nature of Women, 67 ; Barreness, 11 (translation by P. Potter, modified). Nowhere — neither in Nature of Women, 67 ; Barreness, 11 ; Diseases of Women, 1, 20 ; nor in Diseases of Virgins —, does a Hippocratic writer ever hint to a healthy version of the problematic membrane. The same deafening silence continues in Aristotle’s biological works, and in Galen’s meticulous descriptions of the parts of the bodies — only to be broken by Soranos of Ephesus, in his Gynecology (II century CE) where Soranos mentions an unattributed belief in the existence of a seal in a typical vagina, only to reject it as false, pseudos. Soranos admits that a few unfortunate young women may have a membrane (which he calls by yet another generic term for “membrane”, ὑμήν, hymen) that closes the vagina, but these women are “imperforated” (ἄτρητος). Imperforation is not, Soranos insists, a thicker version of a normal membrane (as some people erroneously believe). There is no normal membrane (Soranos, Gynecology, 1, 17).
This is in acconcordance with the historiographical, literary and mythological evidence, since, in narratives about virginity, as we have seen, parthenia can only be detected through ordeals, whereas its loss can go unobserved – if there is no pregnancy, or if the pregnancy is successfully concealed.
We can now offer a fuller definition of parthenos, which gives account of all the linguistic uses. A parthenos is a woman whose marital status (non-married) is patent, but whose sexual condition (unless she becomes pregnant, and until pregnancy becomes evident) remains uncertain. This uncertainty, joined to the pressure of gendered, social norms (since a nubile female must abstain from sex), is the cause for all our difficulties. A proper definition of parthenos must start from the social status, non-marriage, but it must mention the inability to verify precisely what matters : the woman’s sexual condition. A definition must include both levels, the social and the sexual ; the visible and the invisible.
See G. Sissa, “The hymen is a problem, still. Virginity, Imperforation, and Contraception, from Greece to Rome, Eugesta 3. (> article pdf)
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parthenos/ παρθένος – Giulia Sissa (UCLA), EuGeStA Lexicon, 15 May 2014