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Beneath the Skin: Investigating Cutaneous Conditions as Somatisations of Gendered Emotions

Chiara Blanco

University of Cambridge / Durham

The aim of this paper is to investigate the relation between cutaneous conditions and human emotion in ancient Greece. A medium between the self and the external world, the skin was deemed to be one of the seats of human emotion in antiquity; and yet, its prominent role in ancient literature has so far been overlooked by scholars. Alterations in complexion and cutaneous diseases are listed as symptoms of lovesickness by some of the best-known ancient authors, such as Hesiod (Catalogue of Women, 123-3 M-W), Theocritus (Idylls, 2.88-9) and Sappho (fr. 31 Voigt). Interestingly, while women's skin was mainly affected by unfulfilled erotic disease, men mostly experienced skin ailments in relation to shame. Thus, for instance, in Aeschylus' Libation-Bearers, 279-82 Orestes lists leprosy and alopecia among the terrible consequences that he will have to face if he does not avenge the murder of his father. Thus, on one hand, the skin can be penetrated by external forces (i.e. Eros), giving them access to one's bodily and emotional inner space; on the other, it displays that very same interiority to the outside world, through alterations in its complexion and skin diseases.

The paper is divided into two parts. In the first, I investigate literary texts where cutaneous conditions (including cases of change in complexion and itch) appear to be a manifestation of psychological or emotional alterations. I begin by analyzing those texts where cutaneous conditions are deemed to be a somitsation of erotic feeling, and I proceed by examining the connection between skin ailments and other feelings (i.e. shame, embarrassment, anxiety) to see whether a connection can be established between these cases. My focus here is on gendered emotions in particular, and the role that touch and skin played in experiencing, expressing and somatising gender-specific feelings in ancient Greek literature. In the second part I investigate medical and biological treatises, Hippocratic and Aristotle's works more specifically, with the aim to understand whether the narrative which they provide is consistent with what is found in literary sources. In particular, I focus on the aetiology of cutaneous conditions (including cases of change in complexion) seeking to understand to what extent skin diseases were linked to somatic and psychic disorders. By focusing specifically on cutaneous conditions, this paper aims to explore emotions and their somatisation in ancient Greece.

Session/Panel Title

Emotions and the Body in Greco-Roman Medicine

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