I was sitting in my high school biology class, during the lecture on bees. The slide that detailed their reproductive systems outlined two distinct paths of procreation: 1) the fertilized egg, produced out of two gametes, 2) the unfertilized egg, produced out of parthenogenesis. What was that, Dr. Ryan? gamete, derived from the ancient Greek word for “wife” or “husband” (think polygamous). Parthenogenesis, derived from the ancient Greek word parthenos or “virgin.” How can these social constructs that relate sex to marital status remain in today’s biology textbooks? Do we really think the queen bee wants or is deserving of all the problematic social baggage that comes with the title of ‘parthenos?’ Let us attack this issue head on… or more appropriately – maidenhead on.
Ancient Greek culture (and not-so-shockingly, into contemporary Western culture) uses marriage as ritual symbolizing the physical union of two individuals. As with most rituals, the actions performed in the ritual are often metaphoric of the internal (physical and emotional) changes that we undergo in the process of developing and moving through life. The study of Ancient Greek wedding rituals can, therefore, be incredibly indicative of the cultural perceptions of the female body, as she changes from parthenos to gyne or ‘unmarried woman’/’virgin’ to ‘married woman.’ Seeing as most girls of Mediterranean Antiquity were expected to be wed between the ages of 14-16 years old and ritual itself culminated to the nuptial consummation, the wedding rituals symbolized such a transitional period of girl to woman. Reflecting on content from Little Lamb, who made thee?, the marriage ritual from this period (and up to today) is strikingly similar in imagery and cultural perception to a sacrifice, thereby expressing then sacrificial killing of the bride’s girlhood. This is further conveyed in the ancient ritual practice, in which the betrothed girl would perform a ritual sacrifice of her childhood toys and garments on an altar the day before her wedding. The customary attire of the bride was also expressive of the symbolism of the marriage ritual: a veil and a girdle was to be worn. Respectively, the veil acted to protect the vulnerable female, as she walked the dangerous liminal space between girlhood and womanhood, and the girdle (called a “zone”) symbolically held the eruptive, feminine sexual energy that she had been preserving for her husband. The husband’s removal of the “zone” was culturally associated with the ritual of consummation, which occurred upon the marriage night. Casey M. Reynolds, in “The Nuptial Ceremony of Ancient Greece and the Articulation of Male Control Through Ritual,” points out that without postnuptial education, citizenship, or societal power, gynes remained children in the emotional and sociological sense. Perhaps the supposed transition to womanhood was, thus, conceived in the physical changes that came with nuptial consummation.
Michael Rosenberg’s Signs of Virginity excellently outlines medical and cultural conceptions of virginity from Mediterranean Antiquity, which will be helpful in navigating this liminal space between parthenos and gyne. Throughout the introductory chapter “Defining Virginity, Making Men,” Rosenberg details that this cultural compartmentalization of virgin vs nonvirgin was most likely generated out of the male fear of infertility or impurity in the female body they selected to bear their progeny. Moreover, a virgin came with the promise of undefiled, pristine reproductive organs, and near full certainty that the child was a product of his sperm only. With this, a cultural importance of virginity emerged, and the medical constructions of the virginal body followed suit.