Throughout Greek and Latin scientific and medical literatures, women’s bodily fluids are described with metaphorical language evoking the dynamics of rivers and springs. Agricultural language, especially irrigation, also features prominently in metaphors for human reproduction and the female body, emerging in a variety of early Greek sources (see, for example, duBois, 1988). In this paper, I consider the persistence of water metaphors as tools for understanding the reproductive process primarily in scientific and medical literature from the Roman Empire. Beyond basic observations (i.e., reproduction involves bodily fluids: semen, blood, amniotic fluid, lochia, breast milk), why was this metaphorical language so persistent? What can it reveal about attitudes towards pregnancy and birth? Cole (2004) has suggested a connection between risk and agricultural metaphors for the female body in the Hippocratic corpus. Looking to later sources that engage with the tradition she examines, I argue that water was one significant way of talking about reproductive risk and the complex dynamics of pregnancy and birth. Through an exploration of these issues, it is my aim to historicize reproductive risk in Greco-Roman medical culture.
Water fosters life, but can also threaten the very life forms it nourishes. Its potential for inflicting great harm emerges as a theme in various genres of literature: oceans and rivers can be sources of overwhelming violence. Simultaneously, water is necessary for flourishing—for vegetal, animal, and human life. My paper focuses on metaphorical language that captures this ambiguity. Agriculture is described in various sources as a human response to loss of Edenic bounty, the golden age’s spontaneous generation of sustenance from the land (e.g., Ovid, Met. 89-124; Virgil,
G. 1.125-59). Growing crops exemplifies people’s effort to sustain human life by exploiting the natural landscape. Like human reproduction, it is essential for the maintenance of human communities. Agriculture is a vulnerable process: too much or too little moisture devastates a crop, its success relies on mixture. Whatever the risks, agriculture is a necessity, and water embodies that necessity.
Hippocratic texts invest fertile women with particular fluid dynamics that map on to a vision of the body as “a miniature agricultural landscape,” through which fluid circulates in channels and blood flows “like water rising from springs” (Cole, 2004: 170, 162). In classical Greek science, furthermore, women were understood to be “wetter” than men. The female body’s economy of moisture has been closely examined in classical Greek sources (e.g., Hanson, 1992; Dean-Jones, 1994; also see King, 1998; Padel, 1992). In the first/second century CE, Soranus also described the female reproductive body as farmland (Gyn. 1.36.1 Ilberg = 1.12.3-7 Brugière et al.), and nutriment for the fetus is compared to spring water (1.53.1-2 Ilberg = 1.17.142-43 Brugière et al.; and see, Galen, De Sem. 2.4, CMG V, 3, 1, 178.8-15). Excessive dryness or wetness, as well as impure nutriment, imperil embryonic life.
These metaphors all have destructive corollaries—water may grow foul, rivers run dry, and plants can be overwhelmed by rain or wither in drought. Women may suffer from excessive “flux,” rhoos in Greek (which also can mean “stream” or “current of water”), a pathological flow that can be bloody or watery. Improper mixture or imbalance in the body may lead to difficult birth: overly thick or pungent bodily fluids can complicate labor, as can retention of moisture, or excessive width or narrowness of the body’s channels, poroi (poros can also mean “straight” or “stream”), through which fluid is conveyed. It seems unsurprising that certain water sources were also thought to be invested with properties that could aid or complicate the reproductive process. Pliny the Elder
reports that the spring Linus in Arcadia “guards (custodit) the fetus,” but the river Aphrodisium makes women barren (steriles; NH 31.7; cf., Richlin, 2014: 259).
Women and Water