Simon Goldhill

Simon Goldhill, the author of Foucault’s Virginity, is a reader in Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, and a fellow of King’s College.

There is a disease which affects young girls, particularly around the onset of menstruation. It is known colloquially as ‘the horrors’, and its symptoms are evident. The disease makes adolescent girls violently aggressive, and commands them ‘to leap around, to fall down into wells and to hang themselves’ – to ‘take on a desire for death, as if it were a good thing’. Although, as with so many female complaints, the mind is affected as the disease progresses, the primary cause is physiological and connected to the bodily changes of puberty. ‘When the blood is flowing all the more copiously, because of nourishment and the increase in bodily size, and when the blood still has no means of egress, the blood leaps up from this surplus to the diaphragm.’ The cure: ‘my advice to young girls who suffer this is to have sexual intercourse with a man as soon as possible.’ Best of all, is to follow this with pregnancy and childbirth (where the blood really flows).’‘

Greece has its canonical witches. There is Medea, barbarian and jilted lover, with her flaming poisons. Homer’s Circe, often allegorised as a figure of lust, who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs and takes him to bed for a year. In the Alexandrian poet, Theocritus, the deserted Simaetha, a petit-bourgeois woman, is desperate to enchant her lover back to her bed. This list makes the association of magic with women, sex and the foreign inevitable – and easily seen as the defining negative of the rational Greek man, proud in his selfcontrol, reason and political display. The Greek (male) hero of both Victorian and Foucauldian imagination is the victim of sexually motivated females, his body and mind lacerated by drugs, misled by spells and baffled by lures. When Plato accuses rhetoricians and sophists of witchcraft, it is these threats and values he seems to be appropriating to bolster the discipline of philosophy, and it has become a set of values with which it is hard not to feel complicit.’

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