Saturday, December 08, 2007

The breast thing again

There was an excellent competition over at Project Rooftop to design a new costume for Wonder Woman. There is some amazing creativity there, and it's worth a look if you haven't seen it. But that's not exactly what I want to talk about.

One of the entries included an image of Wonder Woman with one breast removed, and one of the judges, Joel Priddy opined

"You know, with the dozens of Wonder Woman avatars running around out there (Power Princess, War Woman, Winger Victory, etc.), I can’t recall anyone making use of the Amazonian mastectomy before. Go figure."

I commented that perhaps it hasn't been used because it had been disproved a long time ago.

I happened to check back today and found that I had received a couple of responses that surprised me, and rather than sidetrack that thread on a detail, I'm going to address them here.

Dean Trippe said:

you’ll note we refered to the mastectomy AS a myth.

However, I’d say the exclusion of the breast-removal in popular representations has more to do with squeamishness and male boob-fixation than lack of research.

That's an interesting opinion, and there may even be some truth in it.

The Amazons in Y The Last Man have it, but they could be seen as a cult, using this as part of the indoctrination. The Amazons in Xena don't do it, but quite apart from considerations such as the cheesecake aspect or whether self-mutilation of this kind would be permitted on prime time TV, there's the problem of actually creating the effect with real actors. I'm not sure there are enough actresses with mastectomies to fill the ranks, but I suppose it might be achieved by hiring a lot of flat-chested women and giving them one large prosthetic boob, either way I don't see the idea getting that far.

Off the top of my head I can't think of any other popular representations of Amazons, apart from Wonder Woman herself, and she's been dual-breasted since 1941, so it seems a bit late to change that now. I suppose they could dig up another lost tribe of Amazons who did it, but why would they, unless they wanted to show how stupid the group were, since it is of no practical value?

Sonny said:

The Amazons were mythical warriors, Marionette, and if you’ll recheck the review,

Whether it was a part of the original myth or added later, the whole point of mythology is what it says about the creators (or those who adapt the creations) and the reactions of those witnessing them. Marionette’s strong reaction to it should make Jess proud. Getting such strong reactions from art (either positive or negative) is quite an accomplishment.

Whoever originally added the mastectomy idea to Amazonian myth obviously had a similar spirit to the creator of this website.

Yes, Sonny. The Amazons were mythical warriors. And the people who first wrote about them, created art about them, built statues and frescos depicting them all showed them with an even number of breasts. Quite clearly, in some cases. The fact that the word used to describe them was mistranslated to suggest that they were single-breasted does not make it an enhancement or variation on the myth, it makes it an inaccurate understanding of the source material.

If I choose to describe unicorns as having three legs, does that make it a valid adaptation of the myth of the unicorn? No. Does it enhance the myth in any way to add a lot of baggage suggesting that women mutilated themselves in order to give themselves a bit more bow-room, when all you have to do is go google women's archery to see that modern women manage quite adequately without this disfigurement? No.

And while you're right, it is an achievement to get an emotional response to a piece of art, A) I wasn't responding to the art, I was responding to Joel's comment, and B) I don't think that gaining the emotional response of annoyance at seeing an old inaccuracy perpetuated is an achievement of which to be especially proud.


Yann said...

"The fact that the word used to describe them was mistranslated to suggest that they were single-breasted does not make it an enhancement or variation on the myth, it makes it an inaccurate understanding of the source material"

I'd argue against that point quite fervently. Yes, it was a different myth to the original, but that does not make it an 'inaccurate understanding', any more than (say) the Iliad propagated an 'inaccurate understanding' of the Achilles myth. Because it was a valid myth in its own right, believed by the Greeks as much as any of their other heroic myths. A myth can no more be inaccurate than it can be accurate: that is rather the nature of the beast.

Taking your example of the unicorn myth (though I would more likely typify it as a legend, but that's arguing semantics), a three-legged variant of the myth /would/ be a valid adaptation if it became widely accepted, and influenced wider mythology.

And as for non-requirement of mastectomy - of course it's not required. But to the ancient Greeks, whose form of archery was somewhat different to ours, it would have made some sense. They thought it disturbing that women would mutilate themselves so - and that they would fight - and I'm sure that the imagery helped them to demonise the Amazons (though they are, interestingly, quite sympathetically portrayed in much of their literature, shown in the same light as the male heroes), but to then argue that the imagery, having been 'disproved', should not be used, is rather like suggesting that one should not use the concept of Achilles' despondency and sensitivity, as we now know these to be corruptions of the myth added by Homer.

Sorry for the fuss, but as a classicist I find the idea of one set of myths somehow being less legitimate than another to be somewhat offensive.

Dean Trippe said...

Hey! Glad to hear you checked back for my response. (I think you may have pasted part of my words into Sonny's by accident.)

Yeah, I totally get that it's not an element of the original myth (or the probable female warriors who inspired it) but it definitely is one now (despite, again, the extreme rarity of its depiction). I think it's a good element, and viable for use by artists and writers, depending on the kind of story and characters they want to show. Kryptonite wasn't in the original Superman comics (heck, it originated in the radio program), but it's still a viable Superman story element now.

Either way though, I'm so glad you commented, because it made me look into this further. I knew the mastectomy and the Amazons were mythical, but I did not know the element might not have been part of the earliest versions. Very cool, very interesting. :)

Marionette said...

Sorry if I mixed up the quotes a bit. I thought one of them looked a bit odd.

I guess what breaks my brain here is that the addition can not only be traced back to a specific error, but that it adds nothing useful.

Santa's costume going from predominantly green to predominantly red due to Coca Cola advertising doesn't change a lot. Santa poking himself in the eye to make his sleigh go faster makes no sense, and while it might be considered a valid variation on the myth if it is the result of a mistranslation, that doesn't make it any less stupid, and nobody in their right mind is going to depict Santa with an eyepatch.

I'm not sure why this annoys me so much that I keep on about it. I think it's the level of stupid involved. It's an element that makes no sense, we have clear indication how it got attached to the story and why, and yet it is considered a valid interpretation simply because it was a long time before anyone noticed it was an error.

Are proven mistranslations usually considered acceptable interpretations of information? I'd be curious to hear of other examples that are given this validity.

Yann said...

"Are proven mistranslations usually considered acceptable interpretations of information? I'd be curious to hear of other examples that are given this validity"

For one thing, I think you may be looking at this from slightly the wrong angle. The Greeks tried to suggest that the name 'Amazon' etymologically suggested they had but one breast, but that doesn't necessarily mean that their interpretation came from this mistranslation: it's very plausible that they came up with the idea before etymologically attempting to justify it (there are many, many other examples of this happening through ancient Greece, though I can't think of any off the top of my head). So, it may have come from a mistranslation, but equally the etymological link may well have come after the common usage (and as the Greeks use the term in myth pre-literature, we have no way of ever finding out which happened first).

So, you may be entirely correct, or not. It's just worth bearing in mind that the order isn't set in stone :)

"It's an element that makes no sense, we have clear indication how it got attached to the story and why, and yet it is considered a valid interpretation simply because it was a long time before anyone noticed it was an error"

Okay, this is more important an issue. For one thing, it's not just "a long time" before anyone noticed the error - the notice came /after/ the belief in the myth ended; we can't simply apply modern conclusions to ancient myth. We could, of course, make our own myths about the Amazons (hell, you could argue that this is just what Wonder Woman is), but it doesn't take away the validity of the Greek Myth.

Also, to the Greeks it would have made a little more sense. Whereas modern archers draw the bow to the eye, to my knowledge the ancient Greeks drew to their chest (unsurprisngly, they weren't particularly famed for their archery: in the rare occasions where their use in war is noted [such as the battle of Platea] they tend to fire at point-blank range) - as such, the impediment of having a lump in the way would have been slightly larger.

Of course, it's still an absurd concept - for one, it'd be lucky for the people of an ancient culture to have even a 50% survival rate from a mastectomy (yay gangrene). The point is, that none of this matters. The Amazons are mythical creations, believed-in by the Greeks to the same level as lapiths and centaurs, neither of which are particularly plausible creatures either.

The missing breast /does/ add something: it adds 'otherness' (though, intriguingly [having done further research], the vast majority of portrayals of Amazons in Greek myth show them in a heroic light, and liken them as much as possible to the Greeks themselves - the major exception being Herodotos' historiographical account of them), subverting the maternal and feminine nature of the Amazons (one of whose common epithets translates as 'man-like', though the connotations in Greek are more along the lines of 'equal to men').

Of course, we can see this as a natural development in the myth of a highly male-dominated culture, because that's exactly what it is. But it is still the prevailing Amazonian myth (thanks to the Greeks writing it down and fleshing it out more than any other culture).... and hopefully my response to your final point will demonstrate that the prevailing view of a myth is by necessity the accepted one, even if we can demonstrate an earlier form which is different:

"Are proven mistranslations usually considered acceptable interpretations of information? I'd be curious to hear of other examples that are given this validity."

There are many ancient examples of corrupted myths leading the the prevailing ones used then and today, though it's often hard to know the 'true' original (if such a thing exists).

Perhaps the best one is Eros/Cupid. Eros and Cupid are generally seen as being interchangeable: the son of Aphrodite/Venus, child-like (even babyish) figures.

And yet... Eros predates /all/ of the other Greek pantheon. He is god of lust, distinctly sexualised, and powerful (indeed, following the introduction of the rest of the pantheon he remained one of the most powerful gods, impossible to defy). But, he gradually became associated with Aphrodite, then subordinated to her, and now is accepted as her child-like 'aide'. And it is right that this should be the case, as this was the prevailing view during the best-recorded (and last) period of classical Greco-Roman religion.

Such things occur in modern belief-systems too, and the best example I can think of comes from Catholicism: namely, the virgin Mary (my definition here may be flawed - I can't read Hebrew - but I've received this on good authority [i.e. an actual Hebrew specialist]). The Hebrew bible described her as an 'unmarried woman', as legally she was in the state of betrothal, a 'buffer' of many months in which the husband- and wife-to-be are due to be married, but must wait for legal documents to be processed (a useful system, which enabled the parents to make sure the husband was not abusive before it was too late). During which time, it was expected that the couple would have sex.

Unfortunately, in ancient Greek, you are either married, or a virgin (or a prostitute, but in that case you are effectively no longer /human/ by Greek standards). Since Mary wasn't married, she became 'parthenos' - a virgin.

But, the virgin Mary is still accepted, because that's the way she's always been perceived by the Catholic faith.

Ooh, that was a little bit long. Sorry. Still, hopefully it clears things up a little about the acceptance of 'disproved myths'.

Marionette said...

Yann, I would agree with you except that there is plenty of evidence that the Greeks always depicted Amazons with the full set.

Depiction of Amazons in Greek art consistently shows them with two breasts. When I researched the subject I couldn't find any images from ancient Greece that supported the mastectomy story. If it was an accepted interpretation, why is there no art to support it?

Clearly you have more knowledge and experience of historical subjects than I; show me some evidence to support your view and I'll seriously consider it. I don't claim any connection to objective truth, or assume that I am right, but I haven't seen anything yet that is anything more than supposition.

Yann said...

The art question is an interesting one, but unfortunately it's not an area I really know much about - my area of knowledge is heavily slanted towards literature, with a little bit of history. My archaeological knowledge, particularly of the graphic arts, is acutely limited.

That being said I was aware that there were no extant images of the Amazon women, but to be honest I ignored it, which probably says a lot about my failings.

Unfortunately, we have no experts on ancient art in our department at all, though I shall go and bother some of the archaeologists to see if they can offer any insight. My personal slant would be that the art was likely to have avoided the one-breasted imagery because of its 'unpleasant' nature; pottery, paintings, mosaics etc. were created to decorate, and an ancient Greek probably didn't want a decoration which made them feel any form of discomfort.

But this is an utterly unqualified view. I'll see if I can find any better explanations (there's an awful lot of material out there about the Amazons, but a lot of it is a little too much wishful thinking for my taste, and relatively little deals with the breast cauterisation issue), and get back to you.

Yann said...

Quick correction: "That being said I was aware that there were no extant images of the Amazon women" - with a single breast, that is.

Proofreading - who needs it?

Yann said...

I believe I owe you an apology.

It is surprisingly hard to find discussion of the single-breasted theory, but having looked a bit harder at the literature I had to hand, I discovered that the Amazon's are not described by Herodotos as having a single breast - something I must have remembered in sympathy with my understanding of the belief as commonly described. Indeed, looking at some major sources for classical myths (the Oxford Classical Dictionary - multiple editions - and Graves's The Greek Myths) I was dismayed to note that both mention the mono-breast myth without citing a source.

In fact, following some fairly extensive searching the only account I could find (though I imagine there are some others, just not in the major texts I might have expected) was in Strabo, a distinctly late author (who also notes that the breast was cut off to facilitate javelin-throwing, rather than archery, which is odd, and makes me fairly certain we must have at least some other ancient sources discussing the myth).

So, the predominance of the myth that I thought existed... may well not have. I most humbly apologise, and must revise my interpretation of the myth. I have no excuse for my misconceptions on a topic I should know more about.

That being said, I did find a little modern discussion on the topic - very little, but still something. The best I could find was this paragraph, in Lorna Hardwick's article 'Ancient Amazons - Heroes, Outsiders or Women?', in the journal Greece & Rome, 2nd Series, Vol. 37, No. 1. (1990).

"The right breast [in classical Red Figure pottery] seems not to be depicted as mutilated. The inference to be drawn is problematic. Was that part of the legend not generally known at that time? If known, was it considered incredible? Or was it simply unaesthetically acceptable to painters? If it was generally known and acceptable might we not expect it to be used as an identifying feature, like Heracles' club and lion skin?"

So, in conclusion? I honestly don't know. But I am now more in agreement with your suggestion that the myth be 'incorrect', insofar as it seems to be considerably less prevalent in ancient thought that I believed. I am in your debt for revealing my flawed 'knowledge'!

Marionette said...

Yann, thanks very much for the effort you've put in here. I am always interested to learn more about this subject, but I don't have an academic background, and my skills and knowledge of the area are very limited.

I can't help but be amused by Lorna Hardwick's comments: "the evidence doesn't support my theory so the evidence must be wrong".

Is it a wonder that there's so much poor quality information around?