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.’ Continue reading “The Mother of Socrates: Priestess, Pharmacist, Obstetrician by Stuart Dean”

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