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Birth and the Many-Legged Womb

Anna Bonnell-Freidin

For Plato, a woman’s womb was a ζῷον (Tim. 91c), a “living thing.” Centuries later, Aretaeus wrote that it is “like an animal within an animal” (SA 2.11). Despite repudiation by learned physicians and anatomists, such views persisted, and their cultural meaning has been a source of interest to scholars (e.g. Dean-Jones, Flemming, Hanson, King). If the womb was consistently imagined as (or like) an animal, what sort of animal was it? This paper traces the visualization of the uterus as one animal – the octopus (πολύπους) – arguing that analogies between the creature and the organ reveal important aspects of Greek conceptions of reproduction and womanhood. 

The octopus appears in numerous gynecological texts – from the Hippocratics through Soranus and Galen – sometimes as a food beneficial to uterine health, sometimes in descriptions of the organ itself. Soranus cites (and rejects) Diocles’ theory that the interior of the uterus is covered in κοτυληδόνας (“suckers”) for the embryo to practice breast-feeding (Gyn. 1.14.2, CMG IV.10.14-22), which is the same term Aristotle employs to describe suckers on a cephalopod’s tentacles (cf. Galen, Ut. Diss. 10.8, CMG V. Soranus also cites Herophilus’ belief that the cervix can prolapse and is recognizable by its softness, like the “head” of an octopus (Gyn. 4.36[85].2-3, CMG IV.148.17-20; Von Staden 1989; Dasen 2005).  These passages are worth investigating alongside a group of uterine amulets. Popular throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods, uterine amulets are medico-magical devices featuring a uterus, often pictured as an upside-down pot or jar. Designed to protect and heal the uterus, they were probably worn on women’s bodies. Some may have more specific purposes, such as accelerating birth (Hanson 1995, 2004). Certain amulets feature an octopus-like uterus, evoking medical descriptions. Two such amulets, probably dating to the third century CE, serve as a case study. Both feature women in labor and so-called octopus uteri – hollow disks with tentacles stretching upwards or downwards – though this interpretation has been debated (e.g. Bonner 1950; Barb 1953; Michel 2001). Building on Marino’s intervention (2010), I make a further case for their interpretation as octopus uteri by emphasizing the relationship between the seen and the unseen that has framed recent work (Holmes, 2010) in the history of ancient medicine.

The octopus was an object of fascination in the ancient world. Cephalopods (μαλάκια) had a reputation as archetypal “boundary-crossers” in early Greek thought and could also be characterized as deceitful – the females in particular (cf. Aristotle, HA 608b 16ff; Marino 2010, 154; Lloyd 1999, 45). If we link the deceitful octopus with jar-like depictions of the womb, Pandora’s jar and her treacherous nature come to mind – a nature rooted in the discontinuity between her interior and exterior. The notion that uterine prolapse (which physicians recognized as a complication from childbirth) reveals the octopus-like quality of the organ also suggests boundary-crossing behavior: a prolapsed uterus passes from within the body to its exterior. The same is true of the octopus’ relationship to birth and fertility, suggested by amulets and gynecological descriptions. Birth brought the concealed fetus into the realm of the seen, and the child’s physical characteristics not only revealed information about its parents, but also its uterine environment.

These amulets draw together ideas about female nature and reproduction, and blur the boundary between the human and non-human. The physical form of the octopus, with its powerful tentacles, also raises questions about the animal’s gendered nature, suggesting further layers of complexity in its relationship to the uterus as a physical entity and a way of imagining the organ’s presence in the female body.

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ORGANS: Form, Function and Bodily Systems in Greco-Roman Medicine

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