The Mother of Socrates: Priestess, Pharmacist, Obstetrician by Stuart Dean

ParthenonBecause 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 WordPress photoStuart 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:

Categories: General, Healing, Herstory

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17 replies

  1. Stuart, I find this very interesting and you provide information I had not known about regarding Socrates’ mother and his characterization of himself as a midwife. Trying to follow it up, I was not able to access PMP via the link due to “cookies” issues which I don’t understand or know how to fix. It would be helpful if you quoted the passage, preferably in the body of your blog text, so we can see it.

    I did find a translation of the Theaetetus online, but did not find the passage. However, ironically (or not), I did find that though Socrates called himself a midwife, he made it clear that his patients/clients are men not women, and that he is a midwife of the mind/soul, not of the body.

    Thus, though he may to some extent value midwifery, at the same time he views midwives of the body as practicing a far lesser art than his own. The text clearly affirms the superiority of mind over body, in other words, articulating what Rosemary Radford Ruether called the “classical dualisms” which from Plato on have been used to consign women, nature, and the body to the “lesser” realms–to be ruled over by men, mind, and soul. (The point of the analogy seems to be that the midwife does not create the baby or in his case the ideas, but only brings forth what is already there.)

    This does not negate the fact that you/we can mine Plato’s texts and as Biblical scholars say, “read the text against the text.”

    It should probably also be noted that match-making in patriarchal societies was/is often done by women, and not always for the benefit of the matched, given that property and status and the need to perpetuate male lines and honor were/are involved. Whether Phaenarete would have been likely to be practicing an earlier “art” of matchmaking that bypassed or contradicted patriarchal interests is a question to be explored.

    Finally I think we need to ask about the relationship of male medical traditions and female ones in classical Greece and in other times. As you must know the female traditions continued, and continued to be practicesd by women up through the witch persecutions that occurred in Western (but not Orthodox Eastern) Europe, which some view as having been based in part in the attempts of “male” scientific medicine to stamp out the “female” healing traditions that continued to be practiced by midwives and female healers.

    Lots of food for thought here.


    • Carol:

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I am sorry about the hyperlink issue (my guess is the issue relates to where you are as here the links seem to be working). I appreciate your insights on match-making not necessarily being a manifestation of sexual egalitarianism. I may do a follow up post on this.

      Here is the 1921 Loeb Translation of the passage (just the language attributed to Socrates):


      I am the son of a noble and burly midwife, Phaenarete.


      No [midwife] attends other women while she is still capable of conceiving and bearing but only those do so who have become too old to bear.

      The cause of this is Artemis, because she, a childless goddess, has had childbirth allotted to her as her special province. Now it would seem she did not allow [149c] barren women to be midwives, because human nature is too weak to acquire an art which deals with matters of which it has no experience, but she gave the office to those who on account of age were not bearing children, honoring them for their likeness to herself.

      Is it not, then, also likely and even necessary, that midwives should know better than anyone else who are pregnant and who are not?

      Midwives, by means of drugs [149d] and incantations, are able to arouse the pangs of labor and, if they wish, to make them milder, and to cause those to bear who have difficulty in bearing; and they cause miscarriages if they think them desirable.

      They are the most skillful of matchmakers, since they are very wise in knowing what union of man and woman will produce the best possible children.

      They are prouder of this [149e] than of their skill in cutting the umbilical cord. Just consider. Do you think the knowledge of what soil is best for each plant or seed belongs to the same art as the tending and harvesting of the fruits of the earth, or to another?

      And in the case of a woman, do you think, my friend, that there is one art for the sowing and another for the harvesting?


      . . . Midwives, since they are women of dignity and worth, avoid matchmaking, through fear of falling under the charge of pandering. And yet the true midwife is the only proper match-maker.


      • One of my friends had her marriage arranged by her mother when she (the daughter) was 13. In the ensuing years, the daughter and her father tried to un-arrange the marriage, until finally, five years later, the mother’s “honor” was validated and the marriage took place. Suffice it to say it has been a very unhappy marriage. Sadly, disempowered women often abuse other women. In this case the “power” to arrange a marriage was one of the powers the mother of my friend had.


      • Thanks for the citation, I did find the dialogue here but missed S’s opening line, where he names his mother.

        Now I am wondering about Socrates’ comparison of himself to a barren or better not-bearing woman. Does he mean that he is already enlightened and now turns to the task of enlightening others?


  2. In modern Greek, the Virgin Mary is often referred to as Faineromeni, She Who Appears (or manifests Herself as in hierophany, a word derived from the same root). This is from the same root as Phaen-arete. I do not know ancient Greek, but is arete in the name from the word for virtue, thus her name translated as, Virtue Appearing? Or is the accent different? If so, what is the meaning of the end of the name?


    • That is fascinating regarding the Virgin Mary. Most interpretations I have seen interpret/read S’s mom’s name as Phaen (acting subject) + arete (objective genitive) = revealer of virtue. But as in Latin ‘vir-tue’ the masculine aspect of ancient Greek arete was often generalized and could mean gender neutral ‘strong,’ physically or morally. In a compound such as Phaenarete it seems to me it functions as an intensifier so that her name means ‘Revelator’ in a strong–physical and metaphysical sense–but also possibly in both a subjective sense (she reveals her own virtue as a physician) and objective sense (she brings out the infant, who in each case embodies virtue).


      • She Who Manifests Virtue/Strength sounds like a good translation too. Wonder if this was a real name or a name concocted to make a point? Not to stir up another storm. Though the description of midwifery et al is valid whether or not S’s real mother was one or not.


  3. Fascinating. I love the concept of words as herbs.


  4. Thank you for this very interesting post. I had never given much thought to Socrates parents before today, nor had I ever considered that Madonna may have been referencing postmenopausal women when she sang, “Like a Virgin”.

    Regarding matchmaking: this is a complex process and without knowing much about ancient Greek marriage traditions, this can go in many different directions. There is the exchange of property and goods (as dowry or bride price), new family alliances (most communities don’t want a Montague & Capulet situation), enforcement of class or clan status, and knowing tribal genealogy (if incest or inbreeding is a taboo). Marriage in many pre-modern societies had strong communal elements and a good matchmaker would have to know ‘what’s what’ as well as be a skilled diplomat. You might even argue Phaenarete was a community activist, a tradition her son carried on in his own unique style.


    • Thank you very much. I appreciate your summary of the many issues implicated by matchmaking. It is an area of Greek culture where evidence is surprisingly scanty. I intend to write more on this and in doing so I will try to clarify what I think makes ancient Greek practice unique not only relative to other ancient cultures but modern cultures as well.


  5. Thank you, Stuart, for another fascinating post! I have learned a lot in both the post and the comments. What immediately struck me was your statement that it was traditional for post-menopausal mothers to become priests, pharmacists, and obstetricians. How different from our own society which tries to devalue, silence, make invisible, and deny the wisdom and sacredness of older women.


    • Thank you very much. I was very surprised when I realized that ‘menopause’ (that is built off of Greek roots) was coined in relatively recent times and that there was not even a word with a corresponding meaning in ancient Greek.


      • Thanks Stuart. It would almost seem that the term, menopause, as the cessation of menses, was coined by a woman, because there is a sort of freedom for women in later life, not having to endure the inconvenience and oftentimes pain of menstruation. In a sexist society, or from a male point of view, we might expect the time of menopause to be referred to as the age when women are infertile (άφορος).


  6. Thanks Sarah. Notwithstanding multiple Google searches in multiple languages I was not able to satisfy myself that I had found the earliest use of ‘menopause’ (in German medical literature ca 1700). I find it a particularly unfortunate term because while the ‘-pause’ part of it derives from Greek ‘to stop,’ in English ‘pause’ usually means a brief interval with the connotation of ‘no big deal.’ In that regard it is hard to imagine a more misleading term in English for what is actually the case.


  7. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    I never knew anything about Socrates’ mother before, never even heard of her. Fascinating.


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