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Voices and Bodies: The Afterlife of the Unborn

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This article discuses the fate of a special class of child, the unborn, in the afterlife, as well as the gradual criminalization of abortion in Antiquity. Particular attention is paid to a possible prohibition of abortion in Orphism that may underpin the nekyiai in P. Bon. 4. and Vergil Aen. 6. Then it turns to depictions of the aborted in the Apocalypse of Peter and its late antique off spring to show how the aborted fetus gradually acquires a visible body and an articulate voice. At the same time, the theology of sentiment works out its solutions to mitigate the problem of the innocent in hell. The fate of the almost bodiless fetus in the Resurrection became a bone of contention by the early 5th C. The satirical questions posed Christians about the resurrection of the unborn may first have been raised by Porphyry. His interest in the embryo and its ensoulment in the Pros Gauron are adduced as evidence. Attention is drawn to Augustine's doubts about the status and fate of the human embryo, and some reasons are suggested about why he hesitated to adopt an unambiguous “human from conception” position. In the 5th C., after the Pelagian controversy, attention began to shift from the unborn to the unbaptized, who dominate the nekyiai of the Middle Ages. The rise of the Mizuko kuyō cult in Japan shows astonishing parallels to what happened in Late Antiquity.

Affiliations: 1: Department of the Classics, University of Illinois, 4080 Foreign Languages Building MC-174, 707 South Mathews Avenue, Urbana, IL 61801-3676, USA;, Email:


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