BMCR 2016.04.14

Bodies in Transition: Dissolving the Boundaries of Embodied Knowledge

, , , Bodies in Transition: Dissolving the Boundaries of Embodied Knowledge. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2015. 320. ISBN 9783770558087. €44.90 (pb).

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This volume is a collection of twelve essays written in English, French, and German that resulted from a 2011 conference of the same title held at the Morphomata Center for Advanced Studies in Cologne. The individual papers each have a narrow focus but collectively they address a wide range of objects and themes. The strength of Bodies in Transition is in this impressive array of material that goes beyond existing discussions of alternative body types in antiquity, that is, bodies that do not conform to the ideal of the young, athletic male.1

Dietrich Boschung and Alan Shapiro clarify the aims in the preface and introduction. Embodied knowledge is one central theme. The authors “explore in interdisciplinary dialogues how forms of knowledge can be embodied in concrete form that one can perceive with the senses” (7). Some essays (particularly those by Hans Bernsdorff, Véronique Dasen, and Helen King, discussed below) meet this challenge while others (such as that by Despoina Tsiafakis on Thracian tattoos) discuss interesting topics without specifying how the subject matter sheds light on embodied knowledge. Alan Shapiro defines the volume’s second theme in the introduction, writing that it is an exploration of “a particular aspect of the body: to use a now popular terminology, not from the center, the normative, Greek male body, but from the periphery, bodies at the boundaries of the categories that the ancients used to define the human body: physiognomy, gender, ethnicity, and so on” (9). Bodies in Transition includes contributions from archaeologists, ancient historians, and art historians from Europe and the United States, all of which offer different intellectual perspectives on this central theme. However, the relationship between most of the essays and the anglophone Classical scholarship of the 90s on sexuality and the body remains unclear, even though the essays are presented as springing from those efforts.2 While the selected topics do focus on a variety of non-ideal bodies, most of the conclusions do not directly engage with the earlier scholarship that formed around the normative male body. Alan Shapiro’s essay, discussed in more detail below, is an important exception to this.

Hans Bernsdorff examines the so-called “Tattoo Elegy” in his discussion of an alternative aesthetic goal of tattoos during the Hellenistic period, in “Schmerz und Bestrafung in der hellenistichen ‘Tätowierelgie’” (119-136). The essay includes a reproduction of the original text from a fragmentary papyrus that is now divided between Brussels and Paris and a new German translation. Bernsdorff analyzes the relationship between the painful process of tattooing and the role of pain in the myths that the poem describes as tattooed on the body. He concludes with a helpful discussion about how the elegy relates to broader trends in early Hellenistic poetry such as the miniaturizing of mythological themes from the archaic and Classical periods, while adding a new commentary on the established practice of tattooing. His suggestion that the subject to be tattooed in the poem was an erotic rival finds support in the other two essays on tattoos in the volume, which examine the customary function of tattooing in ancient Greece as a punitive measure (“Thracian Tattoos” by Despoina Tsiafakis, 89-117; “Stigmata: From Tattoos to Saints’ Marks” by Jan. N. Bremmer, 119- 151).

Véronique Dasen considers a remarkably literal manifestation of embodied knowledge in her essay on ancient elaioscopy (“Body Marks–Birthmarks. Body Divination in Ancient Literature and Iconography,” 153-175). She focuses on a treatise attributed to the famous mythical seer Melampous that she convincingly argues is more likely a Late Antique version of a Hellenistic work. This treatise provides an interesting alternative to the standard dismissal of corporeal imperfections in antiquity. Instead of rejecting anomalies as deficiencies, the ancient author provides a guide for interpreting them based on their placement on the body and the relationship between different marks. Dasen shows how elaioscopy was likely a prevalent practice in antiquity that was related to physiognomy. This conclusion is more convincing for the Roman period where there is parallel evidence from the literary record. The earlier history of this practice in ancient Greece, however, remains murky and consists of the treatise’s doubtful attribution to Melampous. Dasen ends the essay with an interesting suggestion that this treatise on elaioscopy could be applied to future scholarship on Imperial portraiture. It would have been of value for the reader if she had demonstrated the benefits of this interpretation. Instead, she concludes her discussion with the suggestion that moles and scars on extant portraits may indicate the wider social relevance of this method of divination in Roman society.

Helen King’s analysis of the bearded woman, Phaethousa of Abdera, in the Hippocratic Epidemics, examines how “reading the body is not a neutral activity, but occurs within a wider set of beliefs” (“Between Male and Female in Ancient Medicine,” 249-263, at 251). She demonstrates how the Hippocratic author interpreted Phaethousa’s beard as resulting from her husband’s absence. According to the ancient author, the first symptom was the cessation of menstruation caused by the husband’s exile. Phaethousa’s beard was interpreted in antiquity as the cause of a sickness that could be treated, meaning that she was not a hermaphrodite. King’s expert analysis of Phaethousa’s case study is a compelling example of how the interiority of the body is reflected through external markers on the body’s surface. An important issue for the ancient author is how to properly interpret the visible signs to access the body’s interior.

Alan Shapiro (“Alkibiades’ Effeminacy and the Androgyny of Dionysos”, 287-312) presents the reader with the clearest response to scholarship on sexuality and the body from the 90s in the volume. He compares Alkibiades’ effeminacy to the increasingly androgynous iconography of Dionysos visible on architectural sculptures, on vase-painting, and in the theater in fifth century Athens. This comparison sheds light on a range of attitudes towards masculinity that problematizes the rigid construction of sexuality that emerged from earlier scholarship. Shapiro concludes that while Dionysos presents the positive aspects of androgyny in the context of marriage, Alkibiades’ character demonstrates the detrimental effects of effeminacy.

Overall, the production of the volume is poor, with missing words, typos, and inconsistent formatting of citations (e.g. 38, 77, 95, 109). None of these errors impedes overall legibility. The illustrations include black and white figures in the text and high quality colored plates at the end. References to the plates are either confused or missing (as in the first essay by Jan Bremmer and that by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones). Finally, an index would have increased the utility of this volume to future researchers. The abstracts accompanying the essays help one to navigate the density of the material presented, although the lack of consistency in the quality of the summaries will surely affect how readers evaluate the essays.

In sum, the volume brings a range of materials from antiquity under the central theoretical rubric of the body in Classical studies. That said, most of the contributions focus on Greek images and texts stretching from the Classical period to Late Antiquity. Eric R. Varner’s essay on the practice of redacting Imperial portraiture (“Fluidity and Fluctuation: the Shifting Dynamics of Condemnation in Roman Imperial Portraits”, 33- 88) and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ discussion of the Persian Great King in the context of Near Eastern ideologies of the monarchic body (“That My Body is Strong: the Physique and Appearance of Achaemenid Monarchy”, 211-248) are important exceptions to the Hellenocentric emphasis of the volume. The essays collected here will surely provide a way forward for further research on lesser known objects and texts relating to non-ideal bodies from antiquity.


1. For example, Cohen, B. ed., Not the Classical Ideal: Athens and the Construction of the Other in Greek Art. Leiden, 2000.

2. Lacquer, T., Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990. Halperin, D., J. Winkler, and F. Zeitlin. eds., Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, Princeton, 1990.