Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Nymphs and Nymphomania: Mythological Medicine and Classical Nudity in Nineteenth Century Britain

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Nymphs and Nymphomania: Mythological Medicine and Classical Nudity in Nineteenth Century Britain

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the history of medicine, the role of Greek and Latin as medical languages has resulted in the presence of Greco-Roman mythical characters in medical terminology. The phenomenon of "mythical medical naming" was particularly prominent in psychoanalysis at the end of the nineteenth century, producing such examples as the Oedipal Complex and Narcissism. However, "mythical medical naming" is also present in anatomical disorders such as Priapism, the term for a persistent erection, after Priapus, the phallic god. (2) Similarly, the Roman goddess Venus has been invoked as the term for sexually transmitted diseases, "venereal", since the mid-1600s. (3)

This paper will focus on Nymphomania as an instance of "mythical medical naming": it aims to find the "nymph" in Nymphomania and explain its presence. Investigating the term "Nymphomania" is particularly important because this is a term with a history of changes: "Nymphomania" became preferred over the earlier term Furor Uterinus in the nineteenth century and continued its legacy into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The institutionalisation of nymphomaniacs in insane asylums such as Eberbach in Germany, highlights the increased perceived threat of Nymphomania in the nineteenth century, before which promiscuous women were mainly treated as delinquents, not medical cases (Goldberg, 1988 p. 35-52). It is the basis of my argument that the displacement of Furor Uterinus by Nymphomania is significant, and that the "nymph" in Nymphomania is relevant. Exploring art, especially nude paintings, is a way of accessing sexual discourses which were elided from written discussions, as the classicising tendencies of these paintings allowed sexual representation to be more explicit. Therefore, the classical nymphs of nude paintings provide a way in to making sense of Nymphomania in the nineteenth century.

Nymphomania is usually discussed in terms of its symptoms and treatments, not its etymology. Previous scholars who have discussed links between classical nymphs and Nymphomania are limited. Cora Gilroy-Ware in her Bodies of Nature exhibition (2014) has focused on eighteenth century paintings of pastoral nymphs and their relation to contemporary discourses about Nymphomania. Also Simon Goldhill, writing on Victorian reception of the Classics has discussed Waterhouse's painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) (Goldhill, 2011 p. 52-56). He argues that considering the different linguistic resonances of "nymph" from the period, including Nymphomania, offers a more useful method of viewing classical nymphs portrayed in Victorian paintings. However, whilst Waterhouse's depiction of the moment before the nymphs' erotic abduction of a young man fits in with the idea of the sexually aggressive nymphomaniac, the pictorial range of nymphs in nineteenth-century paintings is large and inconsistent, displaying different expressions of sexuality. There are many paintings of nymphs which do not display active desire. This paper aims to cover a range of nineteenth century paintings of classical nymphs in their varied relations to Nymphomania. I will argue that Nymphomania's staying power as a term is due to the image of the nymph and her mythic ambiguity, as both victim and threat. The contradictions within the image of the nymph are useful and correlative to the inconsistencies of the term Nymphomania. Whilst considering the wider context of European and American medical history, I will investigate paintings exhibited in Britain in particular, so I can situate them within specific discourses on dissident female sexualities endemic to Victorian Britain.

Words and Images in the Construction of Nymphomania

There is evidence for a common cultural consciousness of Nymphomania in Victorian Britain. Most references to Nymphomania in newspapers are in the advertisements section for ordering volumes with coloured plates of an erotic nature. (4) These references appear from the mid-nineteenth century. …

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