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Ritual Space and Gendered Healing: The Delphic Oracle Cures Male Infertility

Polyxeni Strolonga

Male anxieties relating to infertility inform a significant body of questions addressed to the Oracle at Delphi (Fontenrose 1978, 443).  For example, a male questioner asks the oracle how he will have children (Q104); another petitioner states his desire for children (Q160), while another declares his lack of offspring (L23). Even though the oracle’s responses to these questions vary, nevertheless, they all seem to heal presumed male infertility by promising, predicting and even ‘generating’ progeny, either literally (most often outside the current wedlock (L4, L5, L82)), or metaphorically (through the foundation of a colony  (Q28), or a victory in athletic contests (Q160)). By contrast, female infertility, as it is apparent in the Hippocratic corpus and the inscriptions at Epidaurus, is treated as a physiological problem requiring medical treatment. While most scholarship has primarily focused on gynecological remedies (e.g., King 1998; Pinault 1993) in this paper I focus on the interconnection between sacred space and human productivity and I argue that there are double standards vis-à-vis the problem of male and female sterility; standards, which reveal that healing at sanctuaries occurs in gendered ways.

Two of the best examples of oracles providing help with the problem of infertility feature prominently in two tragic texts, Euripides’ Medea and Ion. The Delphic oracle to Aegeus  (L4) explains how the king will beget a son; this son, however, turns out to be an illegitimate heir and will cause Aegeus’ ultimate doom. The same oracle is also stated at Medea (679), although the remedy Medea proposes includes potions, thus constituting a feminine way of healing. Similarly, Xuthus (L28) is granted a son in the person of Ion, who appears to be the product of one of Xuthus’ previous anonymous affairs, as the oracle prescribes that the first person he sees will be his son (cf. L82, where the petitioner is advised to mate with whichever female he first meets). These examples verify that infertility is attributed only to women, as the case is in the Hippocratic corpus. However, it can also be inferred that the oracle rejects the implication that the male petitioner is infertile (e.g. the petitioner never asks about his wife’s infertility) and “legitimizes” illegitimate children as a cure for infertility.  As a result, adultery is sanctioned for the purpose of procreation. On the other hand, procreation within marriage can be dangerous too as the case of Laius shows (L17).

In other cases, the oracle responds to the request for children with a prophecy about the birth of a daughter (H34) or a grandson, who become alternatives to male heirs, a compromise solution to infertility within the limitations of a legitimate union. The foundation of a colony is another alternative to children. In one case, Apollo promises children to Myscellus only after he founds a colony, implying that the oikist may first “beget” through colonization. Victory in contests is another prophecy that constitutes a male type of healing and an alternative to parenthood, as athletic pre-eminence is a source of pride and continuous fame, comparable to that generated from children.

After discussing Delphic oracles dealing with sterility, I will turn to Asclepius’ medical treatment for infertile women through incubation, in order to show the double-standard approach to childlessness. Although both men and women visit ritual spaces, the proposed cure to female infertility is physical, as is also the case with other medical cures, while in the case of men, who according to Greek beliefs cannot be physically sterile, but nevertheless face the social and personal impacts of infertility or the lack of male lineage, the remedy is social and involves some times procreation outside legitimate marriage. Thus, even though sterility was attributed only to women, we can detect in the Delphic petitions for progeny men’s anxieties over their fertility and male approaches to securing lineage.

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