Because the dates for the life of Socrates are certain, it is safe to conclude his mother, Phaenarete, was born about 500 BCE. She seems to have lived well past menopause and thus was certainly alive to see the start of construction of the Parthenon (447 BCE) and probably its completion (432 BCE). As was traditional for many Greek mothers, after menopause she became a priestess, pharmacist and obstetrician.
The relevance of the chronology for Phaenarete requires some context to appreciate. Writing had yet to be widely adopted during her life (the alphabet was not standardized until about 400 BCE). Literary evidence in particular for the practice of medicine before and during her life is scarce. Although Hippocrates was a contemporary of her son, nothing survives of medical writings from antiquity that can confidently be attributed to him. Parmenides and Empedocles (contemporaries of Phaenarete) appear to have been medical practitioners, but what survives of their poetry relates to nature philosophy in general and only in places to medical theory.
Hence, it is extraordinary that an account of Phaenarete’s medical practice survives in Plato’s dialogue, Theaetetus, 149a-150a (hereafter “PMP”). Though PMP was composed by Plato in the 300s BCE, he emphasizes it is based on a transcript of an actual conversation from the late 400s BCE. PMP records what Socrates said about his own mother. It is as authoritative a source of information about her as it is about the origins of the sine qua non of medical practice: optimizing human reproduction.
While evidence exists for women healers in many ancient cultures, the specifics PMP provides show postmenopausal mothers were especially important to early Greek medicine. Curiously, there was no word for ‘menopause’ itself, a fact that suggests it was thought of more in metaphysical than physical terms. Evidence indicates it was thought of as a type of ‘virginity’ (parthenia), the metaphysical meaning of which can be detected in its association with goddesses such as Artemis and Athena (cf. ‘Parthenon’ for her temple’s name). It marked the completion of the ‘internship’ of motherhood, the prerequisite to graduate to become a priestess of Artemis. The name of Socrates’s mother, Phaenarete, evinces that religious context: it essentially means “Revelator.” The Greek for “obstetrician,” maia, also evinces that context: it was also the name of a goddess. The status such a word then connoted is lost in translating it, as many do, as ‘midwife.’
The three aspects of Phaenarete’s practice as maia attest to a tradition of Indo-European medicine categorized into three functions: speaking (advising before conception but also afterwards, including regarding abortion), dispensing pharmakia (herbs–surely including Artemisia) and performing surgery (cutting the umbilical cord). The poetically spoken word, however, was of primary importance. Before writing was adopted, the ability to speak succinctly and memorably, and thus poetically, was vital to the efficaciousness of any prescription.
Associated with such speaking were magical effects: a belief that words themselves were effectively herbs (PMP attests to special pregnancy related poems). This may seem fanciful, but a modern lullaby is a legacy of this ancient belief. Indeed, such a belief is implied in the understanding that how something is said (manner and tone) matters as much as what is said in many medical disciplines, particularly psychiatry. In this regard it is notable that the first mention of Hippocrates in literature occurs where something he said about the relevance of the psyche to health is brought up in a brief passage about how a theory of ‘poetry’ (rhetoric) relates to medical theory (Phaedrus 270b-271a). The language, however, is so vague that its meaning is debated, ironically, ad nauseam.
The significance of poetry to medicine appears to relate to an important aspect of Phaenarete’s practice, although in a way that is very difficult to discern in translation. Socrates mentions that his mother and her professional peers prided themselves most on what is commonly translated as ‘matchmaking.’ Not only does that not sound like medical practice in translation, it apparently did not sound that way in the original Greek, at least to some of Phaenarete’s contemporaries. Socrates says some misinterpreted it as ‘pimping.’
The underlying Greek for ‘matchmaking’ is formed from a cognate of a word used originally to refer to poetry. It would seem to be an artifact of an oral tradition when women assessed prophetically (and therefore poetically) the respective qualities of a bride and groom (both were a matchmaker’s ‘patients’). There is evidence for such a tradition. Sappho, who lived only a century before Phaenarete, assesses the qualities of the bride and groom in some of her poetry. Perhaps she was a matchmaker and perhaps the ridicule of her by some in antiquity relates to the misinterpretation of the term ‘matchmaker’ to which Socrates refers.
Far from pimping, a fragment of Parmenides’s poetry (P. 18) suggests matchmaking assessments were putting into practice a remarkably modern sounding medical theory. Though Parmenides lived in Italy, his poetry was well known in Athens and he was particularly admired by Socrates, who met him when he visited Athens. Phaenarete surely knew of him. He himself characterized his poetically articulated medical theory as the revelation of a goddess and as such it was directly relevant to her practice as the ‘Revelator.’ Given their respective ages, maybe Socrates first learned of Parmenides from Phaenarete.
P. 18 expresses the basic elements of two seed reproductive theory. Such a theory reflects principles of sexual egalitarianism consistent with Phaenarete’s responsibility to assess the viability of both members of a prospective couple. P. 18 also articulates a genetic theory of sexual orientation. It is the earliest evidence of the recognition that being transgendered or homosexual, though statistically abnormal, is natural. It is reasonable to infer that the recognition of the sexual orientation of the bride or groom informed the matchmaking decisions referred to in PMP.
So what happened? A comment Socrates makes in the same dialogue as PMP offers a clue. In expressing his admiration for Parmenides he also warns that his thinking is so deep there is a risk the full implications may not be appreciated (Theaetetus 183e-184a). Does it not seem that this very warning was not heeded with respect to P. 18? For other than as a failure fully to plumb the depths of the implications of Parmenides’s reproductive theory for medicine as practiced by Phaenarete (a failure arguably related to the misinterpretation of matchmaking), how else could it have been that from shortly after Phaenarete lived until the late 20th century all aspects of medicine were practiced predominantly by men?
Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City. He has studied, practiced and taught Tai Chi, Yoga and related disciplines for over forty years. Stuart has a blog on Sappho and the implications of her poetry for understanding the past, present and future: http://studysappho.blogspot.com/