The idea that the womb moved freely about a woman's body causing spasmodic disease enjoyed great popularity among the ancient Greeks, beginning in the classical period with Plato and the Hippocratic writers and continuing on into the Roman and Byzantine periods. Armed with sophisticated analyses of the medical tradition and new texts pertaining to the magical, this essay describes how both approaches to the wandering womb develop side by side in mutual influence from the late classical period onwards. Of special interest will be the tendency in both traditions to imagine both demons and errant wombs as wild animals and to use fumigations to control both. It concludes with a discussion of the historical development of and consequences for the idea that women alone possessed an internal organ that was variously interpreted as a mechanically defective body-part, a sentient and passionate animal, and then finally a demon with malicious intent, who bites and poisons the female body. It also argues against the hypothesis or assumption that midwives or wet-nurses were the original source for the idea of the wandering womb, suggesting that the syndrome never fit comfortably into the category of gynecological illness, because the womb was not the site of disease, but rather a cause of spasmodic disease in other areas of the body.
Magical and Medical Approaches to the Wandering Womb in the Ancient Greek World
Earlier and shorter versions of this paper were given at the University of Zaragoza (September 2005), as the Dennis A. George Lecture in Hellenic Culture at Tulane University (April 2006), at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Hebrew University (July 2006), University of Southern California (February 2007), Columbia University (December 2007), William and Clark University (April 2008) and Bryn Mawr College (November 2008). I am grateful to my various hosts and for the questions and critiques I received at each venue. Different sections and versions of this paper have benefited from conversations with and the comments of Ann Hanson, Lesley Dean Jones, Brooke Holmes, Roy Kotansky and Heinrich von Staden. Some of the material treated in the third section appeared previously in a truncated and less developed form in Faraone 2007 and Faraone 2011. I completed writing this essay in the autumn of 2008 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton on a fellowship supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as well as the Hetty Goldman Membership Fund. I am thankful to the staff and faculty of the School of Historical Studies for making my stay especially rewarding. Any errors that remain are, of course, my own.
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Christopher A. Faraone; Magical and Medical Approaches to the Wandering Womb in the Ancient Greek World. Classical Antiquity 1 April 2011; 30 (1): 1–32. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/CA.2011.30.1.1
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