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Medicine and Anatomy

358. The women of Miletus (a traditional story). (Plutarch, The Bravery of Women 11, Moralia 249b-d, 2nd cent. A.D. G)

One time the young women of Miletus were afflicted by a dreadful and irrational trouble, of uncertain origin. It was suggested that the atmosphere had become polluted with an ecstatic concoction and poisonous character and so caused them to lose control of their senses. For suddenly all of them were seized with a desire to commit suicide, and there was an insane rush to hang themselves, and many managed to hang themselves before they could be stopped.[1] Neither their parents' arguments nor tears nor their friends' advice got through to them, but the got round every plot and trick their watchers could devise in order to destroy themselves. The affliction appeared to have been sent by some god, and to be more than human ability could handle, until the time when a sensible man proposed an ordinance that the women who hung themselves must be carried naked through the market-place in their funeral procession. This ordinance, once approved, not only prevented, but completely stopped the young women from hanging themselves. Precaution against ill repute is a clear indication of goodness and virtue, and the women who were not afraid of the most dreadful of all possibilities, death and suffering, could not bring themselves to bear the thought of the disgrace that would come to them after their deaths.


Notes:

1. Cf. the suicidal tendencies in virgins with the onset of menarche described in number 349; H. King in Kuhrt-Cameron 1983, 118.