|Art by Heather Ramsey|
Zeus sat the infant Artemis on his knee and asked her what gifts she would like from him. She said: to be forever a virgin, to rival my brother Apollo, to possess a bow and arrow. Born directly from Zeus’ head, the goddess Athena also chose a life of perennial virginity. The Olympian pantheon thus introduced to the world the potency of a fierce detachment. Alongside the powers of earth, air, fire and water, there now emerged the refusal to mix, the refusal to copulate. Notably, its standard-bearers were women.
Perhaps a thousand years later, the early Christian church would tell its followers they were called out of "this world," would make virginity a primary virtue and would even discuss the abolition of marriage. With the Second Coming so close, what was the point of tainting oneself with sex? Hadn’t Our Lord himself said, "The children of this world marry and are given in marriage, but they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage"? Some 1,300 years after Jesus of Nazareth reputedly used those words, and despite the now notoriously delayed Apocalypse, a young girl called Caterina, based in Siena, Italy, could still find that a saintly vocation for virginity was the only way of thwarting a domineering mother and avoiding an unwanted marriage. Caterina, however, added another string to the goddess’s ancient bow, something that would hardly have been necessary for the divine Artemis: The girl chose not to eat. It turned out to be the most radical, powerful and fatal detachment of them all. Revered and influential, manipulator of cardinals and popes, the virgin Caterina fasted to death at 28.
Virginity and the decision not to eat — 700 years after Caterina, a man in a bar in Germany said to me with a smile and a sigh, "The whole thing began when I noticed one of the girls in my class wasn’t well." He looked deeply troubled, perhaps above all confused. We were both attending a conference in Cologne for teachers of English. On a tour of the city’s great cathedral — a brief break from conference proceedings — our guide was relating the story of the fourth-century St. Ursula and how she was martyred on this very site with her entourage of virgins.
Apparently one inscription said there were 11 virgins, another 11,000. Too obviously telling a routine joke, the guide said, "I suppose what mattered wasn’t the numbers, but the virginity." At which the man standing beside me muttered, "You bet you!" Thomas introduced himself, and I asked him what he meant. He seemed excessively upset by this gruesome tale of 1,500 years ago, eager to unburden himself somehow. "Is there something the matter?" I asked. Almost at once he was confessing that he had one of his high school students, 17 years old, installed in a hotel only 100 yards from the conference center. "Beautiful," he said, "blond," he elaborated, and "very" — his face took on a haunted look — "very very virgin." "Let’s cut the tour and have a beer," I suggested.
So, he began — he had noticed one of his better students looking ill. The poor girl — Veronica was her name — was barely able to hold her head up over her books, and deteriorating from day to day. "Finally I ask her why she’s so pale. She denies there’s anything wrong, says she’s fine, but then a few days later, at a parents’ evening, the mother tells me they’re at their wits’ end, it’s anorexia nervosa." The mother, Thomas remarked appreciatively, was a charming, truly charismatic woman, extremely engaging, perhaps a bit possessive. In any event, she had persuaded him to get involved in helping the daughter. In fact, the woman came to see him regularly to discuss the matter. They even went out to dinner a few times.
"Charming," he repeated. Thinking of the mother seemed to cheer him up.
Anyhow, in response to his concerned attention, Veronica blossomed, was now terribly eager, but also became teacher’s pet. Next thing he knew, the two of them were kissing in a side street not 100 yards from school. "Madness!" Madness because Thomas had been married for 22 years, and had never once been unfaithful. "In a way," he said, "I’m as much of a virgin as she is." His whole identity was wrapped up in his marriage.
Wasn’t this, after all, the solution the early church fell back on when Jehovah dragged his feet over the Second Coming: sex, yes, but with a monogamy so rigid that the couple themselves would be detached from "this world" as a single unit, and would gain identity and power from that detachment. Wedlock — the key turned and tossed away — became almost as holy as the total lockout of virginity. So Thomas confessed that after moving heaven and earth to get the dear Veronica to this hotel for a few days — and he had been in a frenzy of romantic anticipation, something he hadn’t experienced in years — nevertheless, when it came to bedtime, well, the first night she had burst into tears at the last moment and refused him, talking endlessly about her virginity, then the second she had been determinedly, even frighteningly, amorous — she must lose her virginity now, she said! — but right at that moment he hadn’t been able to perform, had thought about his wife. "And this morning the girl refuses her breakfast," he wailed. "She won’t eat!" Tonight was the last night, and Thomas was at his wits’ end. What to do?