Saturday 31 August 2013

What the Greeks knew about Virginity Testing

Is our understanding of physiology going backwards? The head of the Education Agency in Prabumlih, South Sumatra, announced in mid-August that female senior high school students would in 2014 be subjected to compulsory virginity tests. 

Virginity tests are a physical impossibility. Some women, whales, elephants and chimps have a perceptible elastic membrane at the opening of the tube which connects their wombs to the outside world. Some do not. Whether any object has ever been inserted into this tube CANNOT be discerned by physical examination.

Although the daft proposal has been criticized by other Indonesians, and withdrawn, it is not an isolated phenomenon. Virginity tests have recently been documented by Human Rights Watch in many other places including Egypt, Afghanistan and India. 

How can this be? The ancient Greeks, however deplorably sexist, long ago knew that the only proof a woman had experienced penetrative sex with a man was when she produced a baby. One medical writer, Soranus (yes, that really is his name) mentions the hymen, but only to deny its existence. 

Being a virgin, parthenos, was a social status meaning that a woman was believed not to be having sex or to have been pregnant and was marriageable. This status could be faked, in which case you were a pseudoparthenos

Indonesians might just as well adopt the sort of virginity test we do hear about in Greek literature, in a novel by Achilles Tatius.[i] The heroine, Leucippe, is enclosed inside a cave of Pan. If the crowd hears the music of the syrinx (panpipes made of reeds) then she is a virgin. If they hear a scream and she vanishes, then she is not a virgin. Leucippe, a resourceful young woman, passes with flying colours.

The beauty of this test is the ease with which the right result can be furnished. It would not be hard to secrete a small set of panpipes in your flowing robes. I also appreciate the sexiness of the setting. Everyone in ancient myth knows that the place to go for an erotic encounter is a cave. Since Pan is the horniest of deities, if you were a virgin before you entered his cavern, you were unlikely to be one when you left it. And the reeds constituting Pan's pipes had once been the beautiful virgin Syrinx, who was transformed into this plant when pursued by the randy goat-god.
I propose that societies where virginity is an issue implement the Pan-cave test instead. It would be easier to administer and much more enjoyable. Both men and women could undergo it. They could play a tune on their own in a cave, or even flirt there with Pan. The examiners would be relieved of their task and get to listen to some music. The result would be just as reliable. What's not to like?

[i] Brilliantly introduced and translated by Helen Morales and Tim Whitmarsh in the Oxford World’s Classics series.

Sunday 25 August 2013

What the Greeks knew about Combat Trauma

The Greeks knew a lot more than we do about insanity. If someone has either temporarily or permanently a perception of reality which is seen as markedly different from everyone else's in their community, they are today diagnosed as e.g. bipolar, schizophrenic, paranoid, or suffering from senile dementia.

In the case of US Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who has just been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for murdering 16 villagers in Kandahar, Afghanistan in March 2012, his lawyers said he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Robert Bales, Now Lifer without Parole
But the Greeks would have been quite clear that he had been assailed by Lyssa, the goddess who makes warriors behave like rabid dogs, forget whom they are killing and why, and 'lose it' in crazed fits of violence on the battlefield (or often, like Bales, far away from it in an assault on women and children).

Lyssa was not the inspired madness sent by Apollo which allows the truth and the future to be divined. It is not the mania of the attendants of the wine god, Dionysus, which blurs the line between fantasy and reality. It is not the vengeful bloodlust of the Erinyes or Furies, personifications of the mental changes which people undergo when their loved ones have been murdered. It is not the heightened emotional sensitivity of girls in the early months of achieving fertility, changes overseen by Artemis.

Lyssa only attacks trained killers like Heracles, who in Euripides' tragedy murders his wife and three small sons. In his psychotic delusion he thinks they are the family of his deadliest enemy. 
Lyssa, the Madness of Warriors
In the story of Troy, the trained killers whose anger management issues suddenly explode into  'insane' violence are all members of the army of occupation. Achilles starts sacrificing innocent youths on funeral pyres. Ajax attacks his own generals, or so he thinks: he is deluded and attacks their livestock instead. Odysseus comes home and kills a hundred local islanders because they have helped themselves to his larder.

I am not a pacifist. I think I could probably retain my sanity after shooting someone trying to kill my family.  People defending their own have always coped far better with combat trauma than soldiers sent off to distant lands for ill-defined reasons by cynical leaders. This is why all the PTSD in Greek myth happens to men like Bales--invading warriors rather than members of the home team. Such incredible wisdom could usefully be borne in mind today by the creators of foreign policy.