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Seeing Through the Womb

Lisl Walsh

A.E. Hanson has thoroughly explored the agency granted to the human uterus in the Hippocratic corpus and Plato’s Timaeus: according to the Platonic treatise, the uterus is much like a sentient animal living within the female body, and the Hippocratic treatises regularly make use of “odor therapy” to attract or repel a misplaced uterus back into its appropriate location, as if it were mechanically or voluntarily affected by sweet or pungent scents. As Hanson and Flemming have shown, the Hippocratic treatise “On the Diseases of Virgins” connects the idea of sexual activity (and resulting pregnancy) with a healthier state of the female psyche once she has entered puberty. A misplaced or unoccupied uterus is understood to cause all manner of psychological and physical maladies for the body it inhabits.

            This essay builds on the work of Hanson and Flemming to explore the extent to which the uterus, in select Platonic and Hippocratic depictions, can be understood as a sensory organ particular to the female sex, one which mediates an interaction between the internal self and the external world. The essay makes use of comparisons specifically between the Hippocratic and Platonic views of the uterus and those of the eyes, showing 1) that the uterus can be understood as a sensory organ, and 2) that a comparison with the sense of sight reveals an interesting aspect of female health and bodily boundaries. The essay concludes with a hypothesis of the interaction between the eyes, the uterus, and cognition in the advice from Soranus that a woman, gazing on images while trying to conceive, will be able to affect the appearance and nature of the child.

            If we accept, first, that the uterus does in fact function as a sensory organ (understood in this sense as “a pathway to the non-material world of cognition, consciousness and emotion”), it is interesting, both for ancient psychology and for ancient medicine, that the Hippocratic ideal of female health (regular heterosexual sex and pregnancy) necessitates, on the one hand, that this particular sensory organ be regularly stimulated and occupied by external material. A comparison with the eye is instructive: a deprivation of vision can (as is often the case with ancient prophets and poets) induce madness and psychological instability. A deprivation of external stimuli will not, however, dislocate someone’s eyes in the way the uterus is supposedly displaced by its lack of proper use. The Platonic conception of the senses, on the other hand, provides a stark contrast between the stimulus presented to the uterus (which must enter the interior space of the female body) and the externalized projection of vision onto the world outside one’s bodily boundaries (e.g., Timaeus 45b4-c6). It is a peculiar feature of the female body that the health of its most crucial sensory organ relies on a breach of bodily boundaries and an occupation of the internal space of the body by external materials. Finally, Soranus’ advice to women about what they should envision while trying to conceive hints at a diachronic shift in the understanding of the interaction of vision, cognition, and the uterus, which perhaps reflects a more Stoic conception of the internalization of sensory stimuli.

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Aisthêsis: Sense and Sensation in Greco-Roman Medicine

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