BMCR 2020.10.21

Haut und Haar: politische und soziale Bedeutungen des Körpers im klassischen Griechenland

, Haut und Haar: politische und soziale Bedeutungen des Körpers im klassischen Griechenland. Philippika, 133. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2019. xiv, 594 p. ISBN 9783447112857. €118,00.

While hair in the ancient Greek world has been the subject of a recent monograph,[1] a comprehensive book on skin was lacking. To be sure, certain aspects of the skin have received particular attention in recent years, e.g. the lexical semantics of skin terms[2] or the (un)importance of skin colour for discussions of perceived ancient constructions of racism.[3] In general, however, research on the skin was limited to a number of articles and the occasional section tucked away in work on other features of the body. Grundmann’s book, the revised version of her 2017 PhD thesis, is the first monograph fully dedicated to the sociocultural meaning of both skin and hair in classical Greece.

The book is divided into three major parts, each with its own thematic and methodological focus. As a result, each part can be read by itself. The same goes for the individual chapters, which are divided into further subchapters, which in turn often include titled subsections. A conclusion is added after every chapter, and cross-references to other related chapters in the book are often provided in the footnotes. Grundmann clearly signals the book’s detailed structure, and as a result it is easily navigated despite its size. Its magnitude does prevent me from doing justice to all the details of Grundmann’s findings and concepts here. Instead, I will discuss several important features of the three principal parts in turn, before moving on to some more general remarks about the book.

The first part of the book (Haut und Haar – Verbindungen und Zwischen_Räume, see pp. 92-93 for the spelling with _) discusses the main methodological features and theoretical concepts, illustrated by discussions of mainly Hippocratic texts. In chapter 1 (Haut und Haar als Forschungsgegenstand), after positioning her book in relation to other scholarly literature on (especially) hair, Grundmann goes on to clarify her focus on the classical period. She focuses on a specific group of authors mainly from the fifth and less often the first half of the fourth century BCE: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; Aristophanes; Herodotus; Lysias; the Hippocratic Corpus; as well as Pindar and some of the Presocratics. The main advantage of this focus is that it allows for a detailed treatment of the occurrences of skin and hair in these authors, but it inevitably begs the question of why others were left out. In particular, the omission of fuller discussions of Plato, who, e.g., treats the genesis of the skin in Timaeus, [4] strikes this reviewer as odd. Grundmann’s reason for this – that Plato’s separation of body and soul means the latter should be analysed as well, as the body is mainly discussed in its relation to the soul (p. 13) – fails to convince, especially considering the fact that few of the authors mentioned focus on the body for its own sake.

In the next chapter (Die Verbindung von Haut und Haar), the book’s double focus on both hair and skin is explained: they are both part of the outward appearance of the body, physiologically closely related and often mentioned together in the sources. The point is illustrated through an analysis mainly of several Hippocratic treatises, with a central place for Nature of the Child. The same goes for the next chapter (Haut und Haar als Zwischen_Räume), in which Grundmann formulates the main theoretical concept of the book. Skin and hair together often (but not always) act as what she calls ‘Zwischen_Räume’: in-between spaces linking the inside of the body and the world surrounding it, rather than sealing it off. This mediating role is demonstrated, e.g., by an analysis of sweat in the Hippocratic treatises. Although this focus on ancient biology might suggest a narrow focus, Zwischen_Raum is a flexible concept, as Grundmann elaborates in the final and more theoretical sections of the third chapter and as can also be gleaned from its use throughout the rest of the book. It not only connects the physical body and the outside world, but can also link less material entities, e.g. different social classes (p. 224). This Zwischen_Raum concept serves as an underlying assumption in the analysis of the source material, and is only occasionally made explicit in the remainder of the book.

Crucially, this connective function as Zwischen_Raum is expressed through practices that take skin and hair as their objects, which are the focus of the second and longest part of the book (Haut- und Haarpraktiken). Grundmann here provides an inventory of practices related to skin and hair in nine chapters, eight of which discuss particular sets of these practices, moving from least to most invasive (from undressing to flaying). As is repeatedly emphasized, hair and especially the skin are often not mentioned explicitly in the source texts, but are implied by the practices discussed, which allows for a wide range of practices to be included. Undressing, for example, uncovers the skin, even if this is not made explicit in the Greek.

The broad thematic scope is one of the strong points of the second part of the book, demonstrating as it does the widespread sociocultural and political importance of skin and hair, with particular attention to gender and ethnicity, throughout different genres of texts and in many areas of ancient Greek life. That said, subsections of these chapters often read as lists of relevant source material and/or summaries of the preceding scholarly literature (the second and sixth chapter, Berühren and Tätowieren, are cases in point), sometimes making it hard to gauge what Grundmann’s own contribution to the discussion is. One will generally not find pioneering conclusions here, but this is exactly the point: the book nuances many of the dichotomies and overarching meanings represented in earlier scholarly literature. Instead, Grundmann focuses on placing the sources in their specific context, emphasizing the many ambiguities and multiplicities of meaning attributed to skin and hair practices at any given occasion. She drives the point home in the final chapter of part 2 (Praktiken im Zwischen_Raum), which includes (alongside summary remarks on the preceding chapters) a debunking of the dichotomy in anthropological literature that hair is either always or hardly ever connected to sexuality for the classical Greek material. There is much to learn in this second part of the book, and the chapters are rife with thought-provoking and at times original analyses and observations. These often transcend genre boundaries: Grundmann, e.g., suggests to take the Hippocratic comparisons of post mortem skin discolorations to those caused by whipping and beating as evidence for the ubiquity of these forms of punishment in a Greek context (pp. 327-28), as a counter to the idea of whipping as primarily a Persian practice.

This nuancing continues in the third part of the book, which focuses on skin and hair colour, and in particular their characteristic changeability in the classical sources. This is discussed in the first chapter (Die Veränderbarkeit von Haut- und Haarfarben), mainly in relation to medical texts. For example, a shift in hair and/or skin colour could be a sign of disease, related to the balance of fluids in the body, or the expression of emotion. In the following two chapters (Bedeutungen der Hautfarben and Bedeutungen der Haarfarben), Grundmann explores the links of skin and hair colours respectively with a wide variety of sociocultural axes of differentiation: gender first and foremost, but also social status and ethnicity. As she demonstrates by focussing on, e.g., ancient climate theory, skin and hair colour are always at least in theory able to shift, and thus cannot serve as fixed or essential markers of particular attributed identities.

These findings play an important part in the next chapter (Hierarchisierung der Haut- und Haarfarben), where Grundman challenges the assumption that light colour was in antiquity somehow always valued over darker colours by again pointing out the ambiguities in the sources, drawing attention to, e.g., the idealized light skin of women or the notably frequent occurrence of blonde hair within the cursed Atreid family in tragedy. In the final sections of the chapter, Grundmann invokes these ambiguities and the characteristic changeability of especially skin colour to argue against using the term racism for classical Greek sources, which she argues forces modern prejudices onto ancient material. The chapter concludes with seven theses on racism in antiquity, including the observation that trying to read modern concepts of racism in ancient sources runs the risk of trivializing their specific historical contexts and is therefore in the end not conducive to the fight against racism.

This balance of nuanced treatment of Greek passages alongside more theoretical reflection makes the different parts of the book interesting for different groups of readers, even outside classical studies. The book fits remarkably well within the recently established subfield of skin studies in the 2018 special issue of Body & Society, which calls for more dedicated study of the sociocultural properties of the skin.[5] As the first comprehensive monograph on skin, along with hair, in the ancient world, this book deserves a place among the publications central to this field, which generally does not look further back than the Middle Ages.[6] Those interested in body theory more generally, furthermore, will find Grundmann’s theoretical reflections on the Zwischen_Raum and the concepts from which she draws in the first part of the book useful. In particular, Grundmann’s emphasis on what she has termed the dynamis of skin and hair–their material aspects that allow their changeability, but which also limit the ways in which they can be influenced–will be of interest to scholars of the material turn.

For students of classical antiquity, Haut und Haar shines as a reference book, which can quickly be picked up and consulted on specific topics related to hair or skin, thanks to its navigable structure. Consultation of individual parts is facilitated by this book, but when read as a whole, it does feel repetitive at times. The narrow focus on a specific group of authors ensures that whenever one comes across a passage related to hair or skin in any of them, a reader can be sure it is discussed in great detail by Grundmann, and will easily look it up due to the extensive index locorum.

One slight issue is translation. Grundmann generally cites translations by others, occasionally adapted by her, but these should at times have been more literal. A few examples will suffice: on p. 182, λιπαρώτεροι ἐγίνοντο (Hdt. 3.23.2) is translated as “glänzte ihre Haut richtig,” when there is no literal mention of the skin in the Greek, and a similar issue occurs on p. 187 (Hdt. 4.75.3). Seeing how Grundmann repeatedly foregrounds that the skin is often implied in practices rather than mentioned literally, precision here is key. As another example, on p. 409, λευκοτάτη becomes “lilienweiβ” (Ar. Ec. 699). In a part of the book concerned with (shifts in) specific shades of colour, this translation could be confusing to someone without knowledge of Greek. I should add that in all cases the Greek text is provided in the footnotes.

As impressive as the book’s thematic scope is its 60-page bibliography, with many publications discussed and evaluated throughout the book. One item lacking is Von Staden’s 1992 article on anatomy in hellenistic Alexandria, in which he also provides some classical evidence for his suggestion that the skin was a sacred boundary, not to be broken unless in cases of crisis.[7] This analysis would constitute an interesting alternative to Grundmann’s permeable Zwischen_Raum. However, this single omission in no way detracts from the monumental achievement this book constitutes. If anyone harboured doubts about the cultural importance of the outer edges of the body in ancient Greece, Haut und Haar will lay these to rest.


[1] Brulé, P. (2015). Les sens du poil (grec). Paris.

[2] Pigeaud, J. (2005). “La peau comme frontiére” Micrologus 13 [La pelle umana – The Human Skin], pp. 23-52; Gavrylenko, V. (2012). “The ‘Body Without Skin’ in the Homeric Poems” in M. Horstmanshoff et al., eds., Blood, Sweat, and Tears: The Changing Concepts of Physiology from Antiquity into Early Modern Europe, Leiden;Boston, pp. 479-502.

[3] E.g. Isaac, B. (2004). The Invention of Racism in Antiquity. Princeton; Goldenberg, D. M. (2009). “Racism, Colour Symbolism, and Color Prejudice” in M. Eliav-Feldon et al., eds., The Origins of Racism in the West, Cambridge, pp. 88-108. See also the bibliography on pp. 464-468 of Grundmann.

[4] Pl. Ti. 76a1-2. Some Platonic passages are mentioned in the footnotes, as, rightly, are sections of the Aristotelian Problemata, which display a deep interest in matters surrounding the biology of skin and hair.

[5] For the ‘dermalogical turn’ (sic) to skin studies, see Howes, D. (2018). “The Skinscape: Reflections on the Dermalogical TurnBody & Society 24.1-2,  Special Issue – Skin Matters: Thinking Through the Body’s Surfaces, pp. 225-239.

[6] For key texts of skin studies, see Lafrance, M. (2018). “Skin Studies: Past, Present and FutureBody & Society 24.1-2, pp. 3-32. The first chapter of Connor 2004 [Connor, S. (2004) The Book of Skin. London], does provide a (very) cursory overview of different conceptions of the skin in antiquity.

[7] Staden, H. von (1992). “The Discovery of the Body: Human Dissection and Its Cultural Contexts in Ancient Greece” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 65, pp. 223-241.