Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.10

David Leitao, The Pregnant Male as Myth and Metaphor in Classical Greek Literature.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xii, 307.  ISBN 978110701728.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Yurie Hong, Gustavus Adolphus College (


This important and thought-provoking book provides a meticulously documented history of the metaphor of male pregnancy in Athens during the classical period. Leitao begins by noting that, despite the amount of attention drawn by Plato’s characterization of intellectual activity as the “birthing of beautiful ideas” by philosophically engaged men, there is a surprising absence of scholarship on images of male pregnancy as a rhetorical tool prior to the Symposium. Leitao successfully demonstrates that the conception of intellectual production as a male reproductive act did not spring from Plato’s head fully formed. Rather, it is the culmination of a long history of Greek thinkers’ use of male pregnancy to think through intellectual problems. With its detailed account of the genealogy and evolution of the pregnant male metaphor, this book fills an important gap in the study of intellectual history. Like a good detective story, the book tracks the metaphor’s development in well-known authors, such as Aristophanes, Herodotus, Plato, and the tragedians, but also in less frequently discussed works, such as the Derveni Papyrus, the Orphic hymns, and presocratic and sophistic texts. As such, it makes a valuable contribution to scholarly discussions of gender and reproduction by introducing less frequently discussed texts into the conversation and carefully situating various appearances of this metaphor in their appropriate intellectual and rhetorical contexts.

To date, scholarship on the notion of birthing as a male, rather than female, activity has tended to focus on how such concepts participate in broader cultural discourses about gender and authority in ancient society.1 As Leitao articulates in a brief introductory chapter, this book addresses a slightly different set of questions. It asks how the metaphor came about and what literary or intellectual purposes it serves in any given work (p. 4). The overall thesis is that the image of male pregnancy originates in the mid-5th century as an intellectual tool to solve embryological, cosmological, and theological conundra. The metaphor is then deployed in comedy and tragedy to think through concerns regarding paternity, authorship, and the transmission of knowledge. Only later, in the 4thtcentury, is the metaphor used to engage in political debates about gender roles. At times, the evolutionary framing of this thesis and its emphasis on the motivating factors that led to the metaphor’s use prove to be more schematic and restrictive than necessary. Readers may wonder what is to be gained by such a stark delineation of when the pregnant male metaphor is relevant to discourses about gender and when it is not, particularly since discourse often operates independently from authorial intent. Nevertheless, the book is filled with many compelling arguments and makes a persuasive case for the importance of examining the intellectual and rhetorical context of the male pregnancy metaphor if we are to gain a more nuanced understanding of its function in classical texts.

Chapter Two, “The New Father of Anaxagoras,” traces the idea of male pregnancy to mid-fifth-century developments in embryological and cosmological theory, which sought to explain the origins of life as deriving from a single paternal source. Leitao argues that these paternalist theories develop, not to engage with sociopolitical debates about gender roles, but as solutions to scientific and metaphysical problems. Thus, Anaxagoras’ “one-seed theory” of reproduction and the cosmological notion of a male god, who creates the universe with his semen, emerged as attempts to solve paradoxes inherent in arguments about generation from multiple sources. Against this intellectual backdrop, Apollo’s notorious devaluation of women’s contribution to reproduction in Aeschylus’ Eumenides should not be understood as part of a “battle between male and female” but as a rhetorical move to strengthen the speaker’s position using contemporary science (56). This is an important point, but I found it difficult to see why this rhetorical strategy would negate the one-seed theory’s relevance to the trilogy’s quite explicit engagement with issues of gender.2 Some clarification of why paternity and kinship should not be viewed as related to the theme of gender conflict would also have been helpful.

The third chapter excavates the myth of Dionysus’ birth from Zeus’ thigh. Leitao argues that the story of Zeus’ “pregnancy” was not known in mainland Greece before 500 BCE and only became popular during the last third of the 5th century when theological debates about the status of demigods and political debates about citizenship were at their height. He suggests that in the aftermath of Pericles’ Citizenship Law and contemporary debates about the significance of each parent’s contribution to the child’s civic status, thinkers began to wrestle with the theological problem of gods born to mortal women. Based on close readings of Herodotus and Euripides’ Bacchae, Leitao persuasively argues that the story of the thigh birth was called upon primarily to address these theological and civic concerns.

Leitao is at his best in his discussions of the centrality of male pregnancy in pedagogical theory. In Chapter Four, he cogently outlines the chain of connection between the metaphor’s use in Athenian drama during the 420’s and the sophists’ claim that they could “impregnate” students with knowledge or virtue. This pedagogical model allowed sophists to maintain that intellectual and poetic creativity was the product of external inspiration, while also enabling the thinker/poet to claim full authorship of their ideas. The long period of gestation of such inspiration within the body meant that the end product was “owned” by the thinker/poet himself (123). Thus, Leitao observes that, in tragedy and comedy, metaphors of male pregnancy are used, not to usurp gender roles, but to perform authorship and claim credit for one’s intellectual work in situations where a poet’s “paternity” of his work is at stake. The chapter closes with a discussion of Aristophanes’ Clouds and the suggestion that its “miscarriage of ideas” image refers primarily to the sophists and their impregnation model of pedagogy.

From here, we turn to the early 4th century in “Blepyrus’ Turd-Child and the Birth of Athena.” In this fifth chapter, Leitao argues that “the male pregnancy metaphor is put to work, for the first time, in rhetorical contexts defined to a great extent by an opposition between male and female” (146). In the Assemblywomen, the constipated Blepyrus embodies the demos and the painful consequences of Athens’ backed-up economy. His birthing of a “turd baby” symbolizes the demos’ attempt to reassert masculine privilege in response to the abolition of paternity by the women of Athens. Leitao rightfully interprets Blepyrus’ anal birth in connection with examples of male pregnancy in myth, principally Zeus’ birthing of Athena, in which “men can become pregnant as a means of depriving women of power” (176). Leitao’s conclusions about the pessimistic quality of Aristophanes’ male utopian fantasies and their engagement with anxieties expressed in myth about gender, social roles, and the distribution of social and political roles are well thought out and expertly argued. Yet for that reason it raises the question of why the gendered component of this mythic tradition could not also be applied to fifth-century examples in earlier chapters and considered alongside the intellectual tradition as additional, rather than opposing, layers of meaning.

Chapter Six, “The Pregnant Philosopher,” should be required reading for anyone interested in Plato’s use of reproductive metaphors in the Symposium. Leitao argues convincingly that such metaphors refer to, but reject the sophists’ impregnation model of pedagogy. The student of philosophy does not give birth to virtue through passive impregnation by his teacher. Rather, philosophical engagement with the Form of Beauty cultivates a pre-existing virtue that resides in the philosopher-lover’s “already pregnant” soul. In contrast to the earlier speeches in the Symposium, in which birth is appropriated and masculinized, Diotima’s speech uses feminine reproductive language that constitutes “an empowering feminization of the male philosopher” (17). This feminization enables a shift toward pregnancy and plenitude as privileged states superior to ejaculatory models of penetration and parturition. It thus prioritizes the acquisition and retention of virtue within the philosopher as a condition that must be subject to an ongoing process of gestation within the body. The metaphor of male pregnancy communicates the notion that, rather than transmitting virtue in a single expulsive act, the goal of philosophy is to be permanently pregnant in one’s soul.

The final chapter of the book argues that, in the Theaetetus, Plato’s shift from the model of the philosopher impregnated by the Form of Beauty to that of the philosopher as intellectual midwife reflects Plato’s shift of interest away from practical ethics and the elenctic mode to epistemology and metaphysics. Rather than reflecting the historical realities of midwifery, Plato constructs his own model of the midwife as a figure of transition and blurs the characteristics and functions of a midwife with those of the father. He crafts an image of Socrates as a barren male midwife, who may assist in another thinker’s production of ideas and determine their validity but is unable to beget those ideas himself. This move allows Plato to configure his own intellectual genealogy while claiming credit for his own original ideas. The historical Socrates may have acted as a “midwife” of Platonism, but Socrates’ intellectual infertility, his stated inability to “father” children of his own, allows Plato to demonstrate the ways in which Socrates has not “fathered” his own mature metaphysical theories.

The book concludes with two appendices. The first argues that the evidence for thinkers who argued for the existence of female seed” before Democritus is inconclusive. The second demonstrates that, statistically, τίκτω is used far more frequently of women than men. In the Symposium, Plato adheres to the standard distinction of τίκτω for women and γεννάω for men. When the discussion of reproduction becomes more abstract, however, he uses τίκτω to make clearer the analogy between generating ideas and female pregnancy and birth.

As indicated above, there are a few areas which might give readers pause. Some scholars may be taken aback by strongly worded assertions that, for example, “[in fifth-century texts,] male pregnancy myths and metaphors had little to do with sorting out the competing social and political claims of men and women or with constructing masculine gender identities, in spite of their superficial feminine content” (3). Such statements can be frustrating because they distract from the book’s many revelatory arguments and masterful disentanglings of complex passages. Leitao does make a persuasive case for 5th century thinkers’ use of the male pregnancy metaphor primarily as a rhetorical tool to work through problems of logic, express concerns about paternity and civic status, or articulate pedagogical and philosophical activity. However, such motivations and rhetorical usages do not automatically deactivate the assumptions and anxieties about gender inherent in the metaphor in its earliest mythic incarnations. In the case of tragedy, in particular, where gender is quite explicitly a topic of interest, the metaphor may have been especially useful because of its ability to tap into multiple fields of meaning at the same time, none of which need be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, some deeper comment on how the notion of male pregnancy fit into the broader discourse of gender would have provided a more complete picture of the signifying power of image of the pregnant male both within the text and outside of it.

In this regard, the book and its approach may be viewed as a complement to, rather than a refutation of, previous scholarship on the gendered implications of the notion of male pregnancy. None of this diminishes Leitao’s accomplishment and the value and usefulness of this book. It opens the door to many new avenues of inquiry and will inspire readers to reconsider long held views about familiar passages. By reconstructing vital aspects of Athens’ intellectual climate during the 5th and 4th centuries, Leitao makes an important contribution to the scholarly conversation about the nature and function of metaphors of male pregnancy.


1.   e.g. Arthur, Marilyn (1983) “The Dream of a World Without Women” Arethusa 16: 97-116; Halperin, David (1998) “Why Is Diotima a Woman?” in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality. Routledge.
2.   e.g. Zeitlin, Froma (1996) “The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in Aeschylus’ Oresteia” in Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. Chicago.

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