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The archaeology of the classical clitoris

Rebecca Flemming

The archaeology of the classical clitoris

Lost, rediscovered, ignored, abused, and excised: these are some of the historical (and less historical) fates of the clitoris. The latter two exigencies were, at least partial, features of the classical as well as modern world, and current debates about ‘female genital mutilation’ have spurred interest in its ancient equivalents. Recent articles on the practice of ‘female circumcision’ in Greco-Roman Egypt have analysed its prevalence, meaning, and possible continuity with today (see e.g. Knight (2001); and Huebner (2009)). Overlooked in all these discussions about the aesthetics and valuation of female genital anatomy, its relation to sexual pleasure and control, is the fact that there is substantial the surviving material evidence which bears directly on these issues. This evidence is the subject of this paper.

Though vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts, female genitals are also regularly found in the votive deposits of both Greece and Italy. In most a vertical slit bisects a smooth, slightly curved, pubic surface; a schematic representation which has been taken as pre-pubertal by some, in actuality or ideal. These items might, therefore, have been offered as part of a ritual marking the passage through puberty (see e.g. Reilly (1997), 164-5; and Turfa (2004), 361); or they evoke a particular notion of female anatomical attractiveness in support of requests focused on sexuality and/or fertility (e.g. Forsén (1996), 138 notes their association with Aphrodite in Greece). The neat economy of these figurations, their decorous explicitness, is unsurprising given the general demands of classical genital aesthetics. There are, however, some alternative and more unexpected forms of female pudenda present in several Italian votive assemblages from the Republican/Hellenistic period, though they have received even less attention than their more discrete colleagues. These either add a clitoris to the pattern described so far (e.g. at Tessennano: Constantini (1995), 96), or, more radically, offer an upward rather than frontal view, depicting more or less the whole vulva—labia, clitoris, and openings—as they might appear from below in a mature woman (e.g. also at Tessennano: Sörling (1994), 50-51; and at Gravisca: Comella (1978), 81).                  

This paper puts the spotlight on these less expected items, against their more demure background, and begins to explore their possible meanings, within the wider patterns of ancient votive practice and wider debates about female sexuality in the classical world. On the one hand, these alternative representations invite connections with later Latin invective about female genitalia, in which largeness and laxness feature as particular points of abuse (see e.g. Hallett (1977), 154-6), on the other hand, this would run contrary to the more idealising modalities of most anatomical ex-votos. A more open interpretation will be offered here, therefore, which allows the clitoris a more positive role, and offers a less prescriptive vision of physical norms for women (and men) in the classical world. This point takes its place within a larger argument about the distinctness of the early Italian—in this case mostly south Etruscan—traditions of making offerings to the gods in the shape of body parts. Part of this distinctiveness is, precisely, constituted by the greater formal variety in votive shapes and styles found in Central Italy in comparison to Greece.

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