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.