Deformed Males and Lazy Parasites: Ancient Views of Women

mythologcial fountain statue

People have been trying to identify the essential differences between men and women for millennia and, I might add, have come up with some insomnia-inducing conclusions. We have our modern debates, for sure, like whether men are from Mars and women from Venus (figuratively speaking, of course) or whether gender distinctions are nothing more than one big fat delusion. None of the current discussions fascinates me the way ancient ideas of gender do, however.

For those of us who want to get a handle on the Bible’s take on male and female, it only makes sense to look at the ideas that were floating around in the atmosphere that Jesus and Peter and Paul breathed. One of the dominant influences on that part of the world at the time was the Greek explanation for the existence of the odd creature known as woman.

Things may have started going downhill for Greek women when the story of Pandora hit the presses around 700 BC. Created by the gods as a way to punish men for their sins, wildly beautiful Pandora was sent to earth with a jar full of toil, sickness and death that she unleashed upon the unsuspecting males who were the sole human inhabitants of the planet at that time. Before this first woman came on the scene, things were peachy keen. After Pandora, life was hard.

With Pandora the conviction that woman is the source of evil, an “irresistibly beautiful but parasitic and lazy artifact that sits in the house of the man and eats everything,”[1] embedded itself deep in the psyche of Greek culture. To my modern ears, the idea of women as parasitic and lazy makes no sense. The women I know are hard-working, just like the men. Maybe Ancient Greece possessed more than its fair share of trophy wives. Too bad.

But woman-as-lazy-parasite wasn’t the worst of it; there was more to come.

When Aristotle arrived on the scene a few hundred years later he had a new and creative explanation for the aberration know as womankind: women were nothing more than deformed males. Sadly, something had gone wrong in their mother’s womb and their development was never completed. Since the male was the human norm (everybody knew that), these poor souls were born female because their bodies never formed properly.

In this Greek milieu females were not just lazy parasites; they were also incomplete, defective, deformed males. Even Plato, who tended to have a more favorable view of things, taught that men should take care not to turn into women in their future reincarnations, mostly by making sure they were “successful” in this life according to the standards of the day. Women could also improve themselves if they lived a good life; they would be reborn as men in the next.

Over time this conception of women as deformed males developed into a fear that even in this life a man could slide down the gender scale and become less than fully male. Self-indulgence and cowardice could take a man down a notch or two while self-control, rational thought and mastery over the women, slaves and children in his household would help him retain his masculinity.

Surprising as it might sound to our modern sensibilities, women were considered morally inferior to men in virtually every way, lacking qualities like self-control, courage and justice. Since the goal of education was virtue, most philosophers (the educators of ancient Greece) agreed that there was no point in wasting formal education on women.

Yep, a waste of effort. The elder Seneca once wrote a letter to his mother that began, “Unlike the great majority of women you never succumbed to immorality.”[2] The great majority of women. Seneca considered his mother highly unusual, so it appears, in that she managed to resist the base instincts that controlled most females.

But one Stoic philosopher, a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, went his own way when it came to the woman problem. Musonius Rufus thought men and women were essentially equal and that daughters, as well as sons, should be educated. Musonius also disagreed with the common assumption that there was men’s work and women’s work, and ne’er the twain shall meet. As far as Musonius was concerned, all human tasks were “a common obligation and common for men and women,” although he acknowledged that some required greater physical strength and might therefore be more appropriate for males.[3]

Musonius was pretty much the extent of the minority report, although some people seemed to say one thing and practice another, like the Roman philosopher Cicero. Though he agreed with the prevailing practice that placed grown women under male guardians, when Cicero was banished into exile he unthinkingly put his wife in charge of his affairs.

I mean, if Cicero had thought about what he was doing in light of the ideas he so confidently espoused, you would think he would have asked a guy to fill in while he was hitting the beaches of Thessalonica. On the other hand, maybe he thought Mrs. Cicero was the best man for the job because she was a successful businesswoman in her own right, owning and managing numerous personal properties.[4]

For the most part, however, the conception of females as deformed males and lazy parasites who needed male supervision dominated Greco-Roman thinking on the subject. Of the biblical characters I mentioned when we started, Paul in particular would have been exposed to these ideas, growing up in a Roman colony as he did.

But Paul possessed his Jewish heritage as well, especially the Genesis accounts of creation. As I wrote in my post The Importance of Being Human, the biblical application of the image of God flew in the face of the common practice of ranking humans according to just how human they were perceived to be.

I wonder what it was like to grow up female in an environment that identified women as deformed males and lazy parasites. What it was like to be convinced you were a deviation, a problem, the cause of all the troubles in the world, and how that would have impacted your heart, your psyche, your motivation, your relationship with the men in your life.

Would it have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, providing further proof of your inferiority? Or would it have come across as a challenge, something to disprove by every means at your disposal?

One can only wonder.

[1] Jorunn Økland, Women in Their Place: Paul and the Corinthian Discourse of Gender and Sanctuary Space, 44-45.

[2] Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, 60.

[3] Ibid., 67-68.

[4] Albert A. Bell, Jr., A Guide to the New Testament World, 198.

7 thoughts on “Deformed Males and Lazy Parasites: Ancient Views of Women

  1. Sarah J O’Connor, There is no fate but what we make! you must get a lot of Terminator references. Sarah i just wanted to say thank you for having this page it really helped me out. I’m a failed film school student but I don’t let that stop me. The story I’m trying to tell is exactly what you have written here. Being a mammas boy i have a lot of respect for women and their station in today’s society. Although I can’t say i believe all that is going on today ,with the whole “i identify” movement that is all I’m gonna say about that, I’m here to give thanks to you not voice my opinions. Also maybe some advice on my screenplay. Your article has struck a cord in me and is giving rise to some deep questions i’m trying to ask and answer as best as a man can. In no better words” that damned women problem” It’s funny to me because I really don’t see a problem any more. The women kind, has had a monumental leap forward in rights in the last several hundred years, we all can agree on that. It’s not perfect and far from fair but toe to toe and eye to eye men and women stand next to each other now more than any time in recorded history. As a storyteller im trying to gleam the future from the past, its difficult to say the least, for i was ignorant of the past as so represive, demining and down right fucked up. I did find the perfect title for my script though. I’m a half breed inupiaq Eskimo, you can say Eskimo is not offensive. Whoever said it was, wasn’t an Eskimo i can 100% guarantee that. Anyhoo the main question I’m asking and trying to answer is this, generational trauma. I learned about it when i had to do drug and alcohol classes the court ordered in Reno NV. My wife and i had it out and well I’m not proud of it, but i punched her in the face. This is part of the story too, domestic violence. so being of indiginous heartiage we got to do our classes at the connoly and this is where i learned about the history of domestic vilonace and generational tramua. I did all my classes all 26 of them and 100hrs of community service and 3 days in jail i feel I paid my debt to society in full. You being the mother of the savior of our dystopian future and leader John connor. Sorry I couldn’t help myself. Joking aside i would really appreciate your feedback on generational trauma. I believe it might be true and yes we can be affected by generations of repression and down right racist bullshit. Not just Eskimos or Blacks or Chinese but WOMEN ESPECIALLY WOMEN TOO. please dont be afraid to voice your true opions , i understand your a professional women and some things you say can get you in trouble but im not fox news or CNN im a failed film school student who is trying to write something more then T.N.A and big explosions. Something i call the Dick factor. A bunch of womenizing studio executives sitting around saying “This doesn’t make my Dick hard, dump it” sorry for the language, i’m a man. hehe

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    1. Hi Ralph. Sorry to take so long to reply. I took some time off over the holidays and am just now getting back to it.

      You have asked a difficult question. I am not an expert on generational trauma and do not know much about it, but from what I have read I believe it is very likely that trauma is passed down through generations in various ways. Besides the obvious ways parents and grandparents impact succeeding generations, it does seem like there is reason to believe that internalized trauma can affect our DNA. When this happens there is a multigenerational effect of the trauma. And when it comes to whole groups of people – like Eskimos – who have experienced generations of repression and traumatic treatment, it would seem obvious that generational trauma would be part of the picture and part of their story.

      Interestingly, the Christian worldview teaches that the world as we know it is broken and that this brokenness somehow gets passed down through generations (see Ex. 20:5-6). This is a sad state of affairs (but not the end of the story!) that we all experience. However, some are impacted more than others, and I would argue that Eskimos and other marginalized groups fall into this category.

      My question for you is whether you are a Christ-follower or whether you would like to be. It’s not as though following Jesus will automatically solve everything, yet because he loves you so much he will help you walk into the future, if you let him. This side of heaven we will never be fully whole nor fully free, but I have seen and personally experienced great freedom in Christ. This seems to happen best when we are connected to a group of spiritually healthy, authentic Christians.

      I wish you all the best with your screenplay. I have also faced failure with some of my writing projects, and I know it can be very discouraging. I hope you move forward with what is in your mind to accomplish. And – haha! – yes, I have gotten a lot of Terminator jokes over the years!

      May Christ richly bless you, Ralph.

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      1. Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my quarry. I understand your very busy. I couldn’t help myself with the jokes. Anyhoo , this generational trauma it feels to me very narrow, I think it’s a more wider swoth of people’s that may or may not be effected. For instance the French , they have in the last one hundred years had some of the most trauma inflicted on them then anyone , excluding the Russian people. But they seem to not show such effects. I meant to say there are not may jokes about French people being angery, hateful, resentful or even hurting from the last hundred years of war and stiff. Instead we make fun of their indomitable spirit and womanizing ways. I never heard a French man complaining about how bad they had in the last hundred years ,I wouldn’t leve him alone with my girlfriend thas for sure , damn accents make all the girls swoon.
        That being said, In the Greek tragedy the hero is also not resentful for his plight. He Sally forth from one tragedy to the next with a better understanding and zeal for life never feeling sorry for himself. As far as women go I think this demographic would show the most signs of generational trauma. Throughout history women have had mostly the bottom end of the society’s they inhabited. With a few exceptions and a hand full of extraordinary women rising to great power in their own right. Countless untold others I’m sure had a greater impact on their bubble of influence. For the most part women have had a rough time of it only give the right to vote in America a hundred years ago. This I found totally crazy. Growing up I Alaska and being a half breed I seen first hand the effects of so called generational trauma. The natural order of social standards had been completely turned upside-down. Where in the past the men were the providers and protecters and the women the homemakers and child bearers . Now native men have lost their status out matched by supermarkets and local vendors. Hunting is regulated and heavily enforced. Alcohol is a plague on all native peoples not just Eskimos, and suicide is a staple diet for the church. I myself know more then ten friends and friends of friends that commented suicide. Now is that part of generational trauma,? I personally don’t think so. I believe its the environment at play . Most people can’t even began to understand the idea of six months of light six months of darkness more or less. It has a direct and I mean a very direct effect on personality, state of mind, and spirit. It’s like being two people, in the summer your happy , nice and outgoing, winter and the darkness you change into a grumpy, short tempered A hole, and drink alcohol like it’s water. On top of it the condition of living is poor at best, the prices of everything is outrageous and cable TV airs the entire world and your fingertips. The warm glow of the big screen TV has replaced the family unit and interaction and storytelling. Now 24hr news , HBO and lifestyles of the rich and famous show the young a better world then the 3rd world that they live in. This is my observations and thoughts, I’m no scientist or anything. Just an individual that looks at his surroundings. But and I hate to use that word , is that all generational trauma? I’m not sure. More and more I beganing to doubt the effects of such trauma as more of a way to explain to those who feel left out of the American Dream. The groups of people’s who say they and I hate this word more then but identify as suffering from generational trauma tend to be minorities. That seem very bias to say say the least. As a human being and a person that has always asked WHY can ask my mother about that and she we say aaagagagag. No more WAY just do it. Hahah. Looking around it feels to me that we gone soft we internalize everything as it effects us and make excuses to the fact of why we do as we do. Sometimes there is no why there is only has happened. Shit happens it truly does. Ok woowee. I got that out. I’m idea of generational trauma being an topic of a story is a good one , it’s just so big I need to bring it down to a personal level and along a line of people that everyone can identify with. So i have choosen the Jewish people as my topic for my story . Part infact from the last paragraph of your article, Deformed. Males and lazy parasites. Which I thought to be an awsome move title but now think against it , as indont want to bring light to such ideas that can be crupted for racism and violence against women. Plastered across movie screens over the world, that though made me shiver in my boots of the ramifications of it. I’ll find something more fitting . The Jewish people if any in the world would be effected by generational trauma but seem to not be. This is the story I’m gonna explore. To answer your question I use to be a pagan I worship the sun , it wasn’t serious it more than anything was an excuse to get drunk. I’m an ex alcoholic, I never say recovering because I don’t drink so I’m not recovering anymore. I would say a prayer to the sun thanking it for giving me life and the whiskey j was drinking. Hahah. Foolish I now but it was an excuse that and my unbirthday. I became a new born Christian on my wife’s constant insistence about seven years ago. We have been separated sence then and I always consider my self a Sunday Christian. I like the idea of being part of something bigger then me and believing more then the sum of my existence. I respect the religion, sometimes pray .when I do it’s for the weather to change usually. Asking God for anything is unnatural to me. Asking anyone for anything is something I’m not good at , BUT getting better. Hahah. Had to put in last sentence.
        Thank you again I very much enjoy conversing with you.
        Godspeed
        R S Anderson III

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