Immaculate Conceptions

Chris LaMountain is a rising 3rd-Year student at Northwestern University, pursuing a Religious Studies Major on the Pre-Medicine track. As an aspiring OB/GYN, Chris was honored to receive the opportunity to spend an entire summer analyzing what many consider the foundation of the Western cultural conception of femininity and motherhood: the Virgin Mary. With an intended semester abroad in Rome, Italy during the fall quarter of his Junior Year, Chris is looking forward to acquainting himself with this popular figure in Roman Catholic iconography. Chris would like to thank his friends and family for their unwavering support through his not-always-conventional interests and topics of conversation; had it not been for the generosity and trust of the Northwestern Office of Undergraduate Research, Chris would never have been afford this wonderful opportunity!

Physis

noun
/fizis/
A Greek theological, philosophical, scientific term, usually translated into English as “nature.”

Dean-Jones, in her Women’s Bodies in Classical Ancient Greece, characterizes the ancient Greek notion of “physis,” as the invisible nature of men and women, qualities that were accepted as facts, yet never empirically proven. Much of the ancient Greek civilization had to rely on physis; how could Hippocrates have possibly understood the complex anatomy of the uterus before dissection was a conceivable practice? Nonetheless, such an imaginative approach to the foundation of medicine is as indulgent, as it is dangerous. To be Hippocrates, Galen, Soranus, Aristotle, standing at the threshold of human capability, with a world suspended before your words. Perhaps these founding father should have been more careful as they began laying out the foundation of our cultural conceptions of gender and the body. As scientists continue to do, these ancient physicians used what they claimed to be medical truths as a means of confirming social understandings that benefited them, and thus they constructed women to be inferior counterparts to men, through their anatomy, physical potential, and biological purpose. Sex turned from a mutually pleasurable experience into a medical requirement for women’s sanity and vitality. Animalistic and violent characterizations of the womb illustrated female sexuality as something that needed to be tamed. The constructed differentiation of male and female flesh suggested that no matter how close to the active, masculine lifestyle a woman pursued, she would never be able to reach the perfect potential of a man, simply due to her physical disposition. Moreover, through the medical depiction women, the men of ancient Greece gained the power to subordinate the mothers and daughters of their society and told them that their bodies were something of which to be ashamed and afraid.

In the following few posts, I hope to highlight some of the most pertinent aspects of physis for this project, including the wet and dry dichotomy, the wandering womb, and the “one-sex” gender model.

The Conception:

The bodies of Ancient Greek women were erupting. Discharge, menstruation, lactation, lachrymation, childbirth: their insides were violently pouring and ripping out, according to Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Soranus, the male pioneers of gynecology and obstetrics in the 5th Century BCE – 2nd Century CE Greece. Whether through the description of childbirth as dirty and animalistic or the depiction of female anatomy as the deformed counterpart to male anatomy, these early “masters” of OB/GYN constructed the female body to be inferior and pollutable and her bodily processes to be inhuman and uncontrollable, with parturition at the lowest rank. As the Gospels of the first century CE and Infancy Gospels of the New Testament in the third century CE emerged, the introduction of Mary – the Virgin Mother of the Messiah – brings about a revolutionary depiction of the Female, as pure and divine. This research project does not necessarily seek answers the mysteries of Mary’s existence, nor does it seek to criticize the validity of Mary’s immaculate conception. Rather, by virtue of juxtaposing Mary’s story with the medical understanding of women that preceded and proceeded her, I hope to improve our current understanding of what Mary may have meant to her Greek audiences in Late Antiquity: does Mary’s immaculate conception empower women or reinforce the subordinate status of the female body? how does Mary’s unattainable dimension of “purity” serve as an ideal for women and mothers? prevented from experiencing the pleasures of sex and the pains of birth, to what extend would audiences of the time consider the Virgin to be a woman (or even human for that matter)? how does Mary’s depiction comment on the construction of gender to the Greek Audience? My primary hope from this research is to develop such conversations, with the greatest consideration of the ancient medical, male perspective of women.