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30-08-2015, 05:31

Pubic Hair

Both the literary and the visual sources confirm the practice of genital depila-tion for women.198 Aristophanes makes several references to women removing their pubic hair by means of singeing and plucking, in order to make themselves sexually attractive.199 In the Assemblywomen, Praxagora, the leader of the women’s movement to take over the assembly, sings the praises of her lamp: “You alone illuminate the ineffable nooks between our thighs, when you singe away the hair that spouts there” (12-13).2°° The effectiveness of the sex-strike in the Lysistrata is guaranteeD by the woman teasing their husbands by wearing diaphanous garments with their “pubes plucked in a neat triangle” (i5i).2°1 Given the dramatic context of these passages, it is difficult to ascertain whether depilation was practiced by proper Athenian wives, or whether it is mentioned for comic effect. In the upside-down worLd of the Assemblywomen, Praxagora proclaims that slave girls should not be allowed to depilate their genitals, leaving “their pussies trimmed like a woolen barn jacket” (724), that is, with long or unkempt pubes.202

The visual sources are likewise ambiguous as to the social status of depilated women. Given the conventions governing feminine nudity in early Greek art, women’s genitals are rarely represented.203 Although nude women do appear in vase painting (e. g., in scenes of bathing and the symposion), they are most often represented in profile, so that their genitals are not easily visible. Martin Kilmer has collected several examples in which it seems that the artist has attempted to show neatly trimmed pubic hair; only a few represent complete depilation.204 While we cannot be sure whether such images represent actual practices of body modification or stylization on the part of the artist, several vases represent the processes of plucking and singeing the hair with lamps.205 The tondo of an Archaic red-figure kylix in the manner of Onesimos in Oxford, Mississippi (Figure 3.13), depicts a nude woman squatting over a basin: in one hand she holds a lamp to her depilated genitals; in the other hand, she holds a sponge to prevent accidental burns.206 This figure may be identified as a hetaira on the basis of her nudity and her boLd fTontal pose (if not the amulet on her thigh; see Chapter 5, pp. 152-154), and the location of the image at the bottom of a kylix.207 A Classical red-figure bell krater by the Dinos Painter in the Harvard Sackler Museum (Figure 3.14) depicts a seated woman performing her own depilation, while a standing woman is depilated by Eros.208 The presence of Eros suggests a parallel with wedding scenes, making the identification of these women as hetairai problematic.209

Marilyn Skinner has argued that “it was customary for Greek and Roman prostitutes to depilate their pubic areas, in contrast to other women, presumably

3.13. Tondo of red-figure kylix in the manner of Onesimos, ca. 500 BCE, University ofMississippi Museum 77.3.112, Oxford, Mississippi. ©University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses, David M. Robinson Memorial Collection.

3.14. Red-igure bell-krater, Dinos Painter, ca. 430—420 BCE, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Anonymous Loan, 9.1988. Photo: Imaging Department ©President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Respectable matrons, who did not do so. In both cultures, the practice thus becomes a regular source of bawdy humor.210 On the other hand, D. M. Bain contends that “depilation of the pubic region, whether complete or virtually complete, was part of the toilet of any Greek woman who had pretensions to smartness or glamour.”211 On a functional level, depilation may have been employed to combat pubic lice (crabs), which are mentioned by various medical writers, and which have been preserved archaeologically in Roman Britain (though not in early Greece).212 Perhaps depilation was first practiced by hetai-rai, and spreaD (together with the lice?) to housewives.213

Whether practiceD by proper women or hetairai, depilation had connotations of eroticism and femininity.214 A few passages in Aristophanes refer to the punishment of male adulterers by means of depilation, but these should be read as jokes: because they lacked control of their sexual impulses like women, they would be plucked like women.215 On the other hand, the visual sources evidence suggests that men also shaped their pubes. The kouros called Aristodikos (Figure 2.4) displays pubic hair in the shape of a star or leaf, a pattern that is replicated among other kouroi as well as in vase painting.216 R. R. R. Smith suggests that the stylized pubes of male figures in art reflect actual grooming practices intended to enhance genital display.217 On the other hand, pubic hair is not always represented for either sex in either sculpture or vase painting, thougH it was added in paint on some marble statues.218

In her study of the gendered meanings of hair in the ancient Greek, Roman, anD Jewish traditions, Molly Levine observes: “Men with visible hair and married women with invisible hair form the normative landscape of the ancient Mediterranean.”219 The Greek ideal required that men display the hair on their heads, faces, and bodies, while women bound and covered the hair on their heads, and removed their body hair completely.220 As with other temporary body modifications, the dramatic transformations of women’s hair reflect a high degree of social control.221 In particular, Levine argues, control over women’s hair demonstrates control over women’s sexuality.222 The visual evidence illustrates increased restraint in feminine hairstyles as girls mature into adolescents and adult women. On the other hand, the fact that (outside of Sparta) adult women’s hair was not cut off completely reflects the social necessity of feminine sexuality. The sexual connotations of women’s hair are evident in the fact that hetairai generally share the same long hair as proper women.223 The potential for manipulation of feminine hairstyles suggests that hair may have functioned as a means of feminine agency.224

The opposition of ideal masculine and feminine hairstyles extends to nonideaL individuals, especially barbarians: Greek men are hairy, whereas Egyptians are clean-shaven; Greek women’s hair is neatly bound, wHile Thracian women’s hair is disheveled and wild; those of servile status are marked as other than the ideal by their closely cropped hair. On the other hand, the fact that hair regenerates itseLf suggests that these social roles are not necessarily permanent.


In contrast to temporary moDifications to the body, which require repeated performance, permanent body modifications are constant and immutable.225 Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish temporary modifications from permanent ones in the visual record (removable body paint as opposed to tattooing, for example), the literary evidence can elucidate permanent practices of body modification. Some forms of permanent body modification may be considereD incidental, such as wounds and scars; others are clearly intentional, including piercing, tattooing, scarification, and circumcision.226 In general, permanent body modifications are reserved for non-ideal figures, especially barbarians.

Wounds and Scars

Prior to the advent of modern medicine, wounds and scars227 would have been more visible than they are today.228 While most wounds and scars are the result of accidental injuries, they nevertheless function as important indicators of identity.229 Both the literary and the visual evidence emphasize injuries sustained on the battlefieLd or in athletic competition, as opposed to everyday mishaps.230 In general, artists depict the action that results in the injury, rather than the resulting wound or scar. One exception is the appearance in later sixth-century black-figure vase painting of patterns of rows of dots on the bodies of warriors and athletes, whicH John Boardman identifies as healed wounds.231 Athletic injuries such as “cauliflower ear” are likewise represented on vases depicting athletes, especially boxers and pankratiasts.232

In contrast to the “heroic” scars borne by elite warriors and athletes, slaves may have been permanently scarred as the result of being beaten, whipped, and tortured.233 In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates states that a slave can be identified even in the underworLd by the markings on his body (524c). Likewise, female mourners, who were often hired professionals, may have been identifiable by the lacerations of their cheeks, a typical feature of lamentation.234

Surgical Transformations of the Body

Deliberate modifications to the body as a result of surgery are more difficult to identify for the early Greek period.235 Although the Hippocratic oath banned cutting human flesh, there is some evidence that minor surgeries were Performed.236 Cauterizing with hot irons or caustic compounds was also practiced, though usually as a last resort as the procedure was sometimes fatal. Both procedures would have produced visible scars.

3.15. Marble grave stele of Xanthippos and his daughters, ca. 420 BCE, British Museum, GR 1805.7-3.183, London. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Visual evidence for surgery is likewise wanting.237 It has been argued that the grave stele oF Xanthippos and his daughters in the British Museum (Figure 3.15) does not represent the deceased holding a model foot reflecting his profession as shoemaker, but rather his own foot, which was amputated or spontaneously detached itself as a result of gangrene or a similar illness.238


The use of prosthetics is attested in the literary sources, though it is difficult to ascertain whether these stories reflect actual practices.239 Herodotus claims that Hegesistratus cut off his own foot in order to escape from stocks, after which he used a wooden foot (9.37). Other

Mythological stories such as the ivory shoulder oF Pelops may reflect the use of ivory in prosthetics, though we cannot be sure. No prosthetic devices have been recovered archaeologically from the Greek period, though a remarkable false leg has been found dating to the Roman period.240

Whereas the evidence for prosthetics of the extremities is problematic, we have secure evidence for dental prosthetics from the Greek period. The method of securing loosened teeth to the manDible is described in the Hippocratic treatise On Joints: “If the teeth at the point of injury are displaced or loosened, when the bone is adjusted fasten them to one another, not merely the two, but several, preferably with the gold wire, but failing that, with thread, till consolidation takes place” (32). Examples of actual teeth bound with gold wire have been recovered archaeologically, though contextual information is unfortunately lacking.241


The recent fashion for both men and women to pierce the ears, eyebrows, nose, lips, navel, and other body parts is quite foreign to ancient practices.242 In general, piercing was limited to women, and only the earlobes.243 Many marble sculptures of women and goddesses have holes drilled in the ears for the insertion of metal earrings (now lost).244 Actual earrings recovered archaeologically are clearly designed to be worn through a perforation in the lobe (see Chapter 5, pp. 145-147 and Figure 5.10). It is unclear how the disk-style earrings depicted in sculpture and vase painting (e. g., Figures 3.13, 4.14, 5.19) were affixed to the ear; it is possible that they were wide studs inserted into an enlarged hole in the lobe.245

Tattooing and Scarification

Tattoo is the Polynesian name for a permanent means of body moDification known in many disparate cultures.246 The process is generally the same: pigment is introduced by means of a small prick in the epidermis; once the skin has healed, the resulting decoration is more or less permanent.247 In Greece, tattoo was probably employed as early as the Neolithic period.248 By the historic period, however, tattooing seems to have been reserved exclusively for non-Greeks, especially Thracians.249

That tattooing was considered an ethnic marker is clear from Herodotus’ assertion that for the Thracians “to be tattooed is a sign of noble birth; to bear no such marks is for the baser sort” (5.6).250 Later authors confirm this practice, though some identify tattooing specifically with Thracian women.251 The visual sources likewise depict Thracian women with elaborate tattoos, most frequently in mythological scenes of the death of Orpheus.252 A red-figure column-krater by the Pan Painter depicting two running Thracian women, one with a sword and scabbard (Figure 3.16), is certainly a reference to the myth, though the victim is not shown. The women are identified as Thracian by their wild, flowing, blond hair (p. 75), their garments (see Chapter 4, pp. 124-126), and the tattoos covering their legs, arms, and necks. The designs are primarily abstract, geometric patterns (dots, chevrons), though a few pictorial designs are discernible (rosettes, deer). Similar designs also mark slaves of Thracian origin, such as the young Herakles’ old nurse, Geropso (Old), depicted on a red-figure skyphos by the Pistoxenos Painter (Figure 3.17).253 Her white, scraggly hair, ugly wrinkled face, bent-over posture, and walking stick identify her as old; her pose likewise reflects her servile status, especially compared to the dynamic, open stance of the sword-wielding murderess in Figure 3.16.254 Neither figure reflects the ideal of a proper Athenian woman; they are clearly marked as outside that norm.

Other ethnic groups in the ancient Mediterranean employed tattoos for religious purposes, and as punitive markings for criminals, war prisoners, and

3.16. Red-figure column-krater, Pan Painter, ca. 470 BCE, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek 2378, Munich. ©Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek Munchen; photograph by Renate Kuhling.

3.17. Red-igure skyphos, Pistoxenos Painter, ca. 480 BCE, Staatliches Museum KG 708, Schwerin. ©bpk, Berlin/Staatliches Museum, Schwerin/Hugo Maertens/Art Resource, NY.

Slaves. The Greeks seem to have borrowed penal tattooing from their neighbors, though it is difficult in the visual sources to distinguish punitive tattooing from ethnic markings.255 The profoundly negative connotations of tattooing are underscored by the representation in vase painting oF Adikia, the personification oF “Injustice,” as an ugly, tattooed woman.256


Another barbarian custom according to the Greeks was male circumcision.257 Herodotus knew it as a practice shareD by various ethnic groups in the eastern Mediterranean but identifies it particularly with the Egyptians (2.36; 2.104).258 The Egyptian rationale for circumcision, according to Herodotus, was that “they set cleanness above seemliness” (2.37). The notion that the circumcised penis was viewed negatively is clear from the depiction of Herakles battling the priests of Bousiris on a red-figure pelike by the Pan Painter (Figure 3.18), in which the priests’ large, circumcised genitals are contrasted with Herakles’ petite, uncircumcised penis.259 As discussed earlier in reference to the binding of the genitals in Greek athletics, the glans was considered unsightly; hence, the uncircumcised penis was preferred. Other vases depict images of slaves and menial workers (including, interestingly, potters) with large, uncircumcised genitals.260 It is unclear in these cases whether these men are to be understood as foreigners or simply the opposite of the masculine ideal.

Head Binding

Hippocrates describes as an ethnographic curiosity the tribe oF Makrokephaloi (Longheads), who bound the heads of their newborns to create an elongated shape: “As soon as a child is born they remodel its head with their hands, while it is still soft and the body tender, and force it to increase in length by applying bandages and suitable appliances, which spoil the roundness of the head and increase its length” (Airs, Waters, Places, 14). Certainly such practices are known in the modern period throughout Africa; perhaps Hippocrates knew or had been told of a group that employed this form of body modification.

In general, permanent body moDifications in ancient Greece were reserved for barbarians and other non-ideal figures. Hence, it may be argued that “the irreversible reshaping of the body and its permanent marking manifest the stable and static character of relations in society.”261 Bodies permanently marked will never be ideal; hence, the social roles of barbarians and slaves are fixed. As Claude Berard has noted, “inscribed, painted, tattooed, scarified, or mutilated bodies are not and will never be Greek.”262 Even among the Greek

3.18. Red-figure pelike, Pan Painter, ca. 460 BCE, National Archaeological Museum 9683, Athens. ©Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.

Elite, permanent body modifications reflect permanent social roles: a soldier wounded in battle is forever a hero.

Modifications to the body reflect the organization of Greek society. Elites achieved their identity by the repeated performance of temporary body modifications, but women were subject to greater restrictions.263 Men exercised and bathed in the public context of the gymnasion, for the voyeuristic consumption of other elite men. Women, conversely, were denied this public arena for personal display and were limited in their diet and the use of perfumes and cosmetics.264 Transformations of the hair were especially meaningful social markers of gender, age, and status: as elite individuals matured into adulthood, their hair became subject to increased social control by means of cutting and binding. Again, women were subjected to additional constraints in the form of depilation of bodily and pubic hair. All these temporary body modifications required repeated performance by both sexes, allowing infinite opportunities for the (re)construction of elite identity.

Non-elites, especially barbarians, were marked as such by means of permanent body modifications. Only foreigners were tattooed and circumcised, modifications to the body that were irreversible. The permanence of such modifications reflects a rigid social hierarchy in which the “Other” remains permanently outside the norm. The limited repertoire of modifications to non-ideal bodies extends to other dress behaviors as well, as we will see in succeeDing chapters.