Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest gender of them all? If one were to go back in time and ask Aristotle this question, it’s a fair bet he would say: “Men are the fairest of them all!” In a previous blog I go through an overview of why I believe Aristotle’s high status in academia is overrated. In this blog I want to specifically discuss what Aristotle had to say about women and mirrors.
‘If a woman chances during her menstrual period to look into a highly polished mirror, the surface of it will grow cloudy with a blood-coloured haze.’(On Dreams, part 2)
He explains the reasoning for this phenomenon as follows:
‘… Because it is natural to the eye to be filled with blood-vessels, a woman’s eyes, during the period of menstrual flux and inflammation, will undergo a change, although her husband will not note this since his seed is of the same nature as that of his wife. The surrounding atmosphere, through which operates the action of sight, and which surrounds the mirror also, will undergo a change of the same sort that occurred shortly before in the woman’s eyes, and hence the surface of the mirror is likewise affected.’(On Dreams, part 2)
From a contemporary point of view the idea that women can tarnish a mirror by simply looking at it is absurd. Nonetheless, we are talking about ancient Greeks here and they also believed that hysteria was caused by a woman’s uterus wandering around her body. Further, it was believed that to cure hysteria, a woman needed sexual intercourse. The logic being that the sad uterus was made happy by a penis so, therefore, would return to its rightful place at the end of the virginia, as opposed to her elbow, or upper thigh, or wherever it was the physicians thought a uterus wandered to. Men, of course, could not have hysteria because they didn’t have uteruses, moreover, the superiority of a male’s rational soul worked far too logically to ever allow emotions to get the better of them. Clearly, believing a uterus can wander about the body is a fine example of rational male thinking, and putting it back in its place through sex has nothing to do with men’s irrational, passionate soul.
Anyway, getting back to Aristotle’s mirror. The association between a dirty mirror and a woman’s gaze is an obvious indicator of misogynistic values. So too is the idea that a man can become blind to the effect of a woman’s ability to make things dirty with her gaze.
To the best of my knowledge, no scientific study has been conducted to confirm or dismiss the dirty mirror and menstruating woman phenomenon. If any readers are aware of one, please forward the article to me. Nonetheless, Aristotle’s authoritative tone and skills in the art of rhetorics, have led many men to believe that a woman can indeed tarnish a mirror by simply looking at it. For example, the Doctor of Catholic theology, Thomas Aquinas.
In the late Medieval period, Aquinas was praised and given the honour of sainthood. His legacy extends from his writing of Summa Theologica which is an extensive document summarising Christian beliefs. Admittedly, I haven’t read all 4000+ pages, but from what I have, it’s a fascinating insight into Medieval Church beliefs that covers topics such as “Is virginity lawful?” and “Did Jesus have a soul?” While reading through these sorts of topics, I was struck by how often Aquinas quotes Aristotle. For instance, in a section devoted to “Whether man by the power of his soul can change corporeal matter?” Aquinas directly refers to Aristotle’s theory of menstruating women and mirrors:
‘ … the eyes infect the air which is in contact with them to a certain distance: in the same way as a new and clear mirror contracts a tarnish from the look of a “menstruata,” as Aristotle says (De Somn. et Vigil.; [*De Insomniis ii]).’Summa Theologica, pg.914
And Aquinas then takes it further:
‘Hence then when a soul is vehemently moved to wickedness, as occurs mostly in little old women, according to the above explanation [of menstruating women tarnishing mirrors], the countenance becomes venomous and hurtful, especially to children, who have a tender and most impressionable body. It is also possible that by God’s permission, or from some hidden deed, the spiteful demons co-operate in this, as the witches may have some compact with them.’Summa Theologica, pg.914
If you’re beginning to see a connection between Aquinas’ summary of theology and witch hunts, then you’d be on a very sustainable train of thought …
Aquinas was a Dominican Monk. The Dominican order was developed upon the influence of Aristotle’s philosophies. Aquinas’ public lectures and writings extended Aristotle’s influence within the Church. Heinrich Kramer (c.1430 –1505) was also a clergyman of the Dominican order and he wrote a book called Malleus Maleficarum (1487) which became the authority on recognising witches and was used to justify burning countless women at the stake.
It is obvious yet subtle that Aristotle’s philosophising on metaphysical differences between genders directly, and via Aquinas’ interpretations, underpinned the justification that women have inferior souls to men which, in turn, was a contributing factor to witch hunts, i.e. the perception of females having weaker, ignoble souls made women more susceptible to the devil’s influence than men who supposedly had stronger, more noble souls. For instance, in cases where babies died in stillbirths and midwives were accused of being witches could be perceived as “logical” because a woman supposedly had the ability to impact physical objects or people with her eyes. If the midwife was a little old women, the odds of her being perceived as a conjugate for evil increased. Although men could be accused of witchcraft, this did not happen nearly as much as it did to women.
Putting it simply, women were the main focus of witch hunts because paranoid, and dare I say it, hysterical men, believed a woman could cause harm by simply looking at an object or other being. Aristotle did not invent sexism but his works fuelled the imagination of men who had a distrust towards women; he gave misogyny a “scientific” flavour. Moreover, I would argue that as a culture we are still yet to completely recovery from the collective trauma that thousands of years of sexism and false scientific claims have caused.
Assuming a mirror experiment could disprove menstruating women have the ability to tarnish a mirror by simply looking at it, perhaps sharing the results on mass media could help undo centuries of false assumptions and prevent future witch hunts?
Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a draped woman, Ancient Greece, mid-5th century B.C. Source: The Met Museum
PS. While finalising this blog, I came across an article titled “Aristotle, Witchcraft and Witch Hunts” that is published on a United Kingdom History website. The author, Claudia Elphick, shares a similar view of the connections between Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kramer to what I have expressed, however, Elphick goes a little deeper into the demonology aspect. The article can be found here and is well worth reading.
Ancient Greece. (2021). Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a draped woman. In Metmuseum.org. The Met Museum. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/256949mid-5th century B.C.E
Aquinas, T. (1947). Summa Theologica (Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Trans.; Benziger Bros. Edition). https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas-Summa%20Theologica.pdf
Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). On Dreams. Classics.mit.edu; The Internet Classics Archive | On Dreams by Aristotle. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/dreams.htmlTranslated by J. I. Beare
Hans Peter Broedel. (2003). The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft : theology and popular belief. Manchester University Press ; New York. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/35002/341393.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Tasca, C. (2012). Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health. Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 8(1), 110–119. https://doi.org/10.2174/1745017901208010110