The roles of women as symbolic counters in men’s codes of honor and the special function of virginity within those codes have been a major concern in what has come to be called “Mediterranean Anthropology.” Maureen J. Giovannini’s observations (1981) on the function of Woman as Sign in symbolizing and mediating various aspects of the family can help us in understanding this complex of contradictory ideas. Giovannini identified six archetypal categories into which women were placed by the citizens of the Sicilian town that she calls “Garre.” At the center is the pair la Vergine (the Virgin) and la Mamma (the Mother), representing woman in her two societally sanctioned roles, unpenetrated and penetrated. Each has an anti-type: la Puttana (the Whore) and la Madrigna (the Step- or Anti-mother). On the supernatural level, just as la Madonna unites the beneficent aspects of woman, so la Strega (the Witch) unites the figures of la Puttana and la Madrigna. The honor of the family is synonymous with the chastity of its women, who, because of their inherent vice of feminine sexual weakness, are in constant danger of becoming whores and adulteresses. For la Vergine, Giovannini notes (1981,412):

Her physical intactness is also viewed as a sign that her family possesses the unity and strength necessary to protect its patrimony…. As family member, la Vergine can synecdochically (part for whole) convey the message that her family is a viable entity with its boundaries intact …. la Vergine‘s (and, as we shall later discover, la Puttana‘s) corporal being constitutes a kind of cognitive map for the family unit by concretely representing the boundaries of this social group along with its internal unity.

For ancient Rome, the cult of Vesta was the symbol for the unity of all families. Hence Giovannini’s analysis applies not merely to the individual units but to the Roman state as a collective.

Holt N. Parker, “Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State” (2004)


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