Wandering womb was the belief that a displaced uterus was the cause of many medical pathologies in women. The belief originates in the medical texts of ancient Greece, although it persisted in European academic medicine and popular thought for centuries.
The belief in the "wandering womb" was found in ancient Greece. Some scholars have argued that it originated in Egypt, but this has now been disproved. One description of the theory of a "wandering womb" comes from Aretaeus, a physician from Cappadocia, who was a contemporary of Galen in the 2nd century AD. He wrote that the uterus could move out of place, and float within the body. In the translation of Francis Adams (1856) this reads:
In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscus, closely resembling an animal; for it is moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax, and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or the spleen, and it likewise is subject to prolapsus downwards, and in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and, on the whole, the womb is like an animal within an animal.
The Greek translated here as "like an animal within an animal" would be better translated as "like a living thing inside another living thing". The belief that the uterus could move freely, which this imagery evokes, was linked to the use of scent therapy to entice it up or down within the body. This may have been part of ancient cultural beliefs in Greece, but the earliest known written accounts of it are in the fifth- and fourth-century BC texts associated with the name of Hippocrates. The movement of the uterus was believed to cause symptoms throughout the body, depending on the destination to which the uterus moved in search of fluid.
Soranus of Ephesus, another second century AD physician, opposed the theory of the "wandering womb". In a description of what he labelled "hysterical suffocation" - suffocation arising in the uterus - Soranus wrote, "the uterus does not issue forth like a wild animal from the lair, delighted by fragrant odors and fleeing bad odors, rather it is drawn together because of stricture caused by inflammation". Where Aretaeus used the more neutral "living thing", Soranus used the term for "wild beast", therion. Galen also insisted that the uterus was stationary and that symptoms were due to substances being retained inside it. This suggests that Aretaeus was unusual among physicians of his period in believing in a mobile and animate womb. Despite the fact that Soranus was an influential writer on gynecology, and that Galen was the Greco-Roman medical writer with the greatest overall influence on Medieval and Renaissance medicine in Europe, the belief in the "wandering womb" continued for centuries, for example in Edward Jorden's influential 1603 treatise on the supposed bewitching of 14 year-old Mary Glover.
The idea of a condition called hysteria caused by "wandering womb" developed from the "hysterical suffocation" of ancient Greek writers. Medical researchers developed a better understanding of anatomy after the invention of microscopes in the 17th century and cellular research in the 19th century. Sigmund Freud's theory of the free-floating unconscious, the "mind within the mind", was similar to the ancient belief in the "animal within the animal". Both "wandering womb" and "hysteria" are unused in medical theories of today.
- Ancient Greek medicine
- Childbirth and obstetrics in antiquity
- Medical research
- Women in medicine
- Female genital prolapse
- Merskey, Harold; Potter, Paul (1989). "The womb lay still in ancient Egypt". British Journal of Psychiatry. 154 (6): 751–753. doi:10.1192/bjp.154.6.751.
- Aretaeus, of Cappadocia; Adams, Francis (1856-01-01). Aretaiou Kappadokou Ta sozomena = The extant works of Aretaeus, the Cappadocian. London : Printed for the Sydenham Society.
- Gilman, Sander L. (1993). Hysteria Beyond Freud. University of California Press. p. 26. ISBN 0520080645.
- Gilman, Sander (1993). Hysteria Beyond Freud. University of California Press. pp. 17–25. ISBN 0520080645.
- Gilman, Sander (1993). Hysteria Beyond Freud. University of California Press. pp. 18–20. ISBN 0520080645.
- Dean-Jones, Lesley (1994). Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. New York and London: Oxford University Press. p. 199.
- Gilman, Sander (1993). Hysteria Beyond Freud. University of California Press. p. 41. ISBN 0520080645.
- Gilman, Sander (1993). Hysteria Beyond Freud. University of California Press. pp. 116–118. ISBN 0520080645.
- Gilman, Sander L. (1993). Hysteria Beyond Freud. University of California Press. p. 118. ISBN 9780520080645.