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.

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