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"Hysterical" Virgins in the Hippocratic Peri Partheniōn

Abbe Walker

Bryn Mawr College

In the opening of the Hippocratic treatise the Peri Partheniōn, the author explains that there are certain fears that people dread so exceedingly that they go out of their minds and behave as if they see hostile daimones both day and night. This affliction can happen to both men and women, though more commonly to women, and it is especially common in young girls of marriageable age who are approaching menarche. In the course of his investigation into the causes of this disease, the doctor offers a physiological explanation based on the distinct makeup of the virgin female body, the root cause of the disease. While previous scholars have taken issue with the author’s dubious assessment of the disease and have looked for more medically sound explanations, in this paper I turn the focus away from the doctor’s perspective on the female body and instead analyze the ways in which the young female patient expresses her symptoms, particularly her claims to see hostile daimones. I argue that this is a culturally-structured condition based on the socially constructed “nature” of girls.

Although earlier scholars’ attempts  to retrospectively diagnose the ‘disease of young girls’ as hysteria, King argues that the label hysteria is not applicable to Hippocratic medicine and in fact is detrimental to our understanding of Hippocratic gynecology (King 1998: 205). I claim, however, that we can use modern anthropological approaches to hysteria, more neutrally referred to as conversion reaction, to understand why girls might interpret an illness, whatever it may be, at the highly marked age of transition as an attack from daimones. I argue that by emphasizing cultural and historical factors, the concept of conversion reaction (hysteria) can be stripped of its pejorative sense and used to understand symptoms with no apparent pathological cause, precisely the sorts of inexplicable behaviors attributed to daimonic attack.  

For the girls represented in the Hippocratic treatise, the pressure to marry and become a mother, that is, to successfully fulfill their role in life, creates a fear of failure to fully transition into adulthood. Their expression of this fear and anxiety about their future is shaped by their cultural context, which exhibits a belief in the existence of vengeful ghosts, daimones, of prematurely dead girls who attack their still living counterparts. This explanation provides the Hippocratic virgin with the mythical vocabulary to express to her parents her own fear and apprehension at her transition. By applying anthropological models that explain the symptoms of conversion reaction as culture and history-bound, I attempt to explain both why the symptoms in the Hippocratic text occur predominantly in females and why these girls would express their symptoms as attacks from ghosts. Taking my cue from these anthropological approaches to conversion reactions, I argue that the symptoms themselves are simultaneously a window into this cultural framework expressed in myth and superstitions and a portrait of the psychological state of young girls as they approach marriage. By placing these daimones within the mythico-religious tradition of the dying maiden whose spirit demands propitiation, as elaborated by Johnston, I argue that they are the explanation for a perceived hindrance to transition made by girls who were conditioned through myth from a young age to imagine their transition to marriage and womanhood as a confrontation with death that must be overcome through proper religious channels. Such an approach emphasizes female “nature” not as a biological fact, but as a social construct. The contradiction implicit in the idea of a socially-constructed “nature” points to the essential problem: “hysteria” is not a historical constant, but a historical variable.

 

Session/Panel Title

Women and Agency

Session/Paper Number

43.2

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