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Deformity and Disfigurement in the Graeco-Roman World

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Robert Garland draws on both mythology and accounts of everyday life to probe attitudes to physical misfortune in the classical era.

Deformity and disfigurement are in the eye of the beholder. What is monstrous, and what is not, is a matter of opinion. In the eyes of Saddam Hussein's contemptible uncle, 'God made a mistake when he created Persians, Jews and flies'. The philosopher Aristotle also had his prejudices; or perhaps we should say, more charitably, that he believed in a hierarchy of physical perfection, with male human beings at the summit. Asserting that being female represents the 'first step' along the road towards deformity, the philosopher magnanimously conceded that the weaker sex is 'required by nature', on the entirely practical grounds that 'the race of beings which is separated into female and male has to be preserved'. Aristotle was a realist. Driven to its logical conclusion, his point is that if this were a perfect world, it would possess a perfect system of reproduction, in which case the human race would consist entirely of males. Since it is not a perfect world, we are required to tolerate the presence of females, viz. deformed males, in our midst.

The attitude of an individual and of a society towards deformity is a cultural product informed by a particular value-system, even though we may expect to discover similarities across time and place. Modern investigations of human deformity identify two main categories of malformation, of which the less severe involves a defective or excessive number of body parts. Defective number of body parts is found in the case of Cyclopian malformation, which occurs in individuals who are born with a single median eye. A more common mutant is the sirenoid individual, who has only a single foot or else limbs that are joined throughout the length of his body with no separate feet. Both such types appear to have been known to Homer, from whom our modern scientific terminology derives, although interestingly the poet avoids any explicit description of their deformity, perhaps in order to avoid arousing the incredulity of his audience. The more extreme form of malformation involves partial or complete doubling of the body along one of its axes. In acute cases this condition results in the joining of identical (i.e. 'Siamese') twins by a bridge of tissue through which the two circulatory systems communicate. Such a pair, identified as the Moliones, are referred to in epic poetry and represented on vases dated to the eighth-century BC.


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