If Game Show Network were to exist over two millennia ago, “The Purity Test” would surely be of the most viewed features among their male audience. Physicians, clergymen, and your average, ancient Mediterranean Joe were simply obsessed with confirming the virginity, and therefore physical purity of a female body at nuptial question. Various cultural practices and medical surveys were performed on these untrustworthy and ambiguous females in order to soothe the masculine anxiety over imperfection reproduction, uncertain genealogy, and ‘uncontrollable’ feminine sexuality. The following entries highlight some of the fan-favorite methods of testing purity, I hope you enjoy the program:
1) Pregnancy. Easy, if a woman’s womb is swollen, she clearly must be with child, and therefore she must have engaged in sexual intercourse. The Old Testament connote great shame with pregnant women that are not yet betrothed, and urges men who have sexual intercourse with virgins to marry them immediately, the unmarried mother was an unacceptable image in Ancient Mediterranean eyes: “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.” (Deut. 22:28-9)
2) Bloodied Sheets: As briefly discussed in Parthenogenesis – Creating Virginity, the Old Testament featured the nuptial sheets as one of the major articles of evidence for virginity. As women were expected to enter marriages as virgins, it would therefore be expected that the sheets upon which the nuptial consummation occurred would be quite saturated in blood from the breaking of the virginal flesh that sealed the womb. In fact, the bloodied sheets would regularly be presented to the parents of the bride as a means of affirming the legitimacy of the woman that the father presented to the husband. The Old Testament details how the father can use the bloodied sheets as a means of exposing a lying husband that is slandering a wife of which he is no longer fond (Deut. 22:13-20) While this logic does fit within its contextual physes of the sealed womb, it does pose a few problems as a questionable method of testing a bride’s virginity, as it is post-nuptial and, as contemporary science indicates, there would be no guaranteed bloodshed from the virginal bride. Ancient Jewish midrashim detail the bloodied sheets being brought before a court of elders with testifying witnesses in order to determine the purity or fidelity of a bride in her virginity trial.
3) Vaginal Examination: Even modern day gynecologists would leave a vaginal examination without full certainty of the sexual status of a woman, with “hymen integrity” being so subjective and variant depending on the patient. With this, it is not surprising that the first vaginal examinations performed by male physicians would not be without their faults. Ancient gynecologists would perform both pre- and post-coital examinations of the bride to test her virginity, specifically seeking the degree of rupture of the female genitalia. A healthy, intact looking vagina would pass the test, whereas vagina that appeared to have undergone physical trauma would be deemed impure. Clearly, upon post-coital examination of the vagina it would be impossible to determine the premarital purity of the bride at hand, nonetheless the practice persisted.
4) Ordeal Test: Described by Herodotus in his historical accounts of ancient Greece, an annual ordeal test was performed on the young female population of a town in Libya. In such a festival, the unmarried women would be divided into two groups that would proceed to attack each other. The women that remained alive and relative unscathed from the festive attack would be considered “true” virgins, as pristine physicality was associated with virginity and rupture and defilement was associated with promiscuity and “false” virginity. Moreover, Michael Rosenberg notes the religious element of this ritual, in that “virginity is read not through a woman’s anatomy, but rather through divine providence.” (Signs of Virginity, p 25)
5) Snakes and Cakes: Another popular purity test of the ancient Mediterranean culture involved virgins, snakes, and cakes. The questionable virgins would be blindfolded and led into a cave with cakes. The blinded women would present the cakes to the snakes of the cave, and if the snakes accepted the cakes, they would be deemed “true” virgins, whereas a rejected caked would point out the “false” virgins.
6) Virginity by Faith: Rosenberg highlights that among the medical and cultural ways through which men of Mediterranean Antiquity confirmed the purity of the bride at question, there was one newly emerging method that was to be revered above the others: divine oracle. In Matthew’s Gospel of the New Testament, Joseph is seen as a “righteous man,” for trusting in his holy vision of Mary’s valid virginity and refusing to expose her unmarried motherhood to the town. The Matthean infancy narrative itself includes emphatic repetition of Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit and therefore connection to the divine. This implies that perhaps the most valid of virginity tests will not be in a medical examination or a cake challenge, but rather in an observation of the women’s pure demeanor and faith.
Ranging in levels of scientific validity and sheer ridiculousness, ancient Mediterranean virginity tests point to the severe distrust that men felt toward a woman’s understanding of her own body. Such practices and cultural mythologies, for example Pandora and Tamar who both masquerade as virgins, outline a fragility in the masculine conception of women. In medicine of Mediterranean Antiquity, the masculine body was conceived to be perfect, clean, and relatively undefiable, whereas “women [were] pollutable, polluted, and polluting” (Carson, Before Sexuality p 158). This, therefore, puts women in somewhat of an existential game of monkey in the middle, as they wrestle between expectations of purity and impurity. Perhaps the emerging hand of New Testament God will craft the solution to this feminine confusion: the Virgin Mother, Mary of Nazareth.