Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Skin Deep? Reading the Surfaces of the Body in Ancient Greek Literature and Science

The skin has recently gained attention within body studies for its many specific cultural and social associations, in addition to its biology. This project aims to examine the different layers of meaning and the functions invested in the skin in ancient Greece: how did ancient Greek literary and medical authors conceptualize the skin?

2019 - 2023
Glyn Muitjens
NWO Zwaartekrachtsubsidie ‘Anchoring Innovation’ NWO Zwaartekrachtsubsidie ‘Anchoring Innovation’
A male écorché figure by Giulio Bonasone, 16th century, Wellcome Library, London
A male écorché figure by Giulio Bonasone, 16th century, Wellcome Library, London

In 2018, a special issue of the journal Body & Society was released, devoted to defining the field of Skin Studies. It was felt that the skin should be taken seriously as an object of study not only in medicine and biology, but also within the humanities and social sciences. After all, the skin can have many (psycho)social and cultural associations, as the recent example of the Black Pete controversy makes abundantly clear.

This is as true now as it was in antiquity. My PhD project therefore focusses on the sociocultural meaning of the skin and skin marks in ancient Greek literary and scientific texts, from the Homeric poems up to the second century BCE. It is part of the OIKOS Anchoring Innovation research agenda, and supervised by prof. dr. Ineke Sluiter, and dr. Tazuko A. van Berkel.

I approach skin in ancient Greek texts from a conceptual angle, but I am also interested in its communicative and sensory functions. More generally, for example, I ask how ancient Greeks wrote about skin: what kind of vocabulary did they use? How do the Greek terms we may translate as ‘skin’ actually differ in meaning? To us, the skin is an organ with its own specific biological functions, but did the Greeks even think of skin as a separate part of the body?

As the outermost layer of the body, the skin is one of the first things one might notice about a person, and it is marked by all sorts of visual features: colour and colorations, scars, and tattoos, for example. For the ancient Greeks, all these features communicated specific kinds of knowledge about a person: they make the skin into a portable archive. The hero Odysseus is famously recognized by his nurse because she touches a scar on his leg. The skin facilitates much more than personal identity in ancient Greek texts, however, and I discuss its visual features in the second part of my thesis.

The recognition of Odysseus flags another interesting functional aspect of the skin: it touch. Touch, it would seem to us, is inextricably bound up with the surface of the body, both as we use it to touch, but also because it is where we touch others. This begs the question of where exactly the Greeks situated this sensory function of the body: was it linked to the skin in any way, or are there other parts of the body just as or even more important? I think further on the haptic qualities of the skin in the final part of my thesis, in which I also focus on the ways literary and medical authors thought about touching, the kinds of knowledge it yields, and the possibility of inflicting pain through touch.

Following the call of the 2018 Body & Society Issue, I aim to take skin seriously as an object of study within classics. In demonstrating how biological and sociocultural ideas about the skin, and therefore of the body, interact and change over time, the project also once again emphasizes the body is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is biological.

LUCAS Explains #10: Why is it so important to us to feel comfortable in our own skin?

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