Imagine ‘an animal inside an animal’, a thirsty creature, dragging itself in search of water, pushing aside everything that was on its way… Do you think that sounds sinister? So do I. Yet that was how the womb was imagined to behave in the past. Does that make you think of Alien? Me too.
In ancient Greece, the physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia described the uterus as a ‘living thing inside another living thing’ (or ‘an animal inside another animal’ – but that’s not really a good translation). He had clearly read the Hippocratic corpus, or, if not, Plato’s Timaeus, in which the womb was described as capable of movement inside the body, causing blockages and serious medical problems. But why? Well, the uterus was like an oven, whose main job was to make babies – keep in mind that we still say that people have a ‘bun in the oven’ when they are expecting a baby today. Anyway, when the womb/oven was empty, it could potentially overheat, and so it would move through the body looking for moisture to cool it down.
Not all medical writers agreed with this theory: the influential Soranus of Ephesus and Galen of Pergamon did not believe the womb could ‘wander’ at all. Also, there was no agreement as to how far the uterus could go. Plato believed it could move ‘through the whole body’ but the physician Herophilos argued that this was not possible: he had just ‘discovered’ the ligaments making extensive movement impossible by keeping the womb in its place. However, even if it couldn’t move that far, the effects could be wide-ranging, as the uterus could sympathetically influence other organs.
Despite all these debates, the ‘wandering womb’ continued to be a popular idea among medical writers, as the cause of many issues in the female body. To the Hippocratics, this was a central tenet of medicine, both in theory and in practice. For instance, if the uterus moved forwards, it could obstruct the menstrual flow, and cause serious pain. If it moved upwards, it could cause difficulty breathing and even headaches. These uterine movements would manifest as conditions specific to the female body, and the obstructions were often called the ‘suffocation of the mother’ (‘mother’ or ‘matrix’ were synonyms of ‘womb’).
So, what to do? Physicians advised patients on lifestyle changes, such as diet, exercise, and sleep, but they also recommended bloodletting to encourage the womb to move away from inappropriate areas, such as the liver, in its search for fluids. (Keep in mind that this idea is very dependent on the humoral theory.) Baths were also recommended, as was wrapping the body in oiled bandages to keep the uterus in place. However, the most usual treatment was ‘scent therapy’. Like an animated creature, the uterus was believed to be attracted to sweet and pleasant perfumes and repulsed by foul smells. For instance, to treat a prolapsed womb, a person could use scented herbs under their nose to attract the organ upwards, while unpleasant-smelling substances such as animal excrement would be placed near the vulva or through a pessary. This would encourage the womb to ‘flee’ the stench by going back up to its place. Fomentation and fumigation therapies were enormously popular to treat uterine ailments – and many other ‘diseases of women’, too. (You can read a little more about this here.)
Later, when the womb started to be depicted as wet and spongy, writers adapted their descriptions, but the idea of the ‘wandering womb’ persisted, not only in many medical texts but in popular literature, domestic recipe books, plays and ballads. Fumigating therapies were still printed in midwifery manuals way into the 18th century, suggesting coriander and cinnamon be used to encourage uterine movement down to facilitate childbirth. Sniffing spices like pepper was recommended to make a person sneeze, facilitating the delivery of the placenta, as the womb ‘descended’.
The ‘wandering womb’ survived in medical literature, coexisting with contradictory theories and new finds. But this creative interpretation of the workings of the female body was about to take another sinister twist. The threat of the ‘wandering womb’ was increasingly used as a way for men to exert power over women. For starters, frequent sexual activity and pregnancies were encouraged as ways of avoiding ‘diseases of women’. Moreover, in Edward Jorden’s 1603 The Suffocation of the Mother, uterine disorders (‘hysteria’, from the Greek hystera, ‘womb’) were used to explain mysterious circumstances. The ‘wandering’ of the womb could cause hysteria, which was connected to witchcraft. This is a complex topic, which I will explore at another time. For now, suffice it to say that, even though ‘hysteria’ was described as having Hippocratic origins and being a millenary condition, that is hardly true.
Connecting the increasingly popular label of ‘hysterical’ to Hippocrates added legitimacy to it. It made the new diagnosis of disruptive people more authoritative, especially at a time of social and religious upheaval. The phenomenon of ‘hysterics’ was largely created by (usually male) doctors. Yet, at its core, there was the haunting Greek image of ‘an animal within an animal’, a parasite within us who could control us and cause havoc inside, at its will. Crucially, there was the underlying belief that wombs made women irrational: if for the Hippocratics, the womb caused physical symptoms, later doctors believed it to cause psychological dysfunctions. But more on that later – I’m off to have some tea with my ever-thirsty, wonderful womb.
Hippocrates, Diseases of Women, edited and translated by Paul Potter, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
Edward Jorden, A Brief Discourse of a Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother (London: John Windet, 1603)
Plato, Timaeus (London: Trubner, 1937).
Jacques Jouanna, Hippocrates (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999).
Helen King, Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (New York: Routledge, 1998).
Helen King et al., Hysteria Beyond Freud, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).