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Plato and Aretaeus: the Wild Womb?

It is significant for later medicine that these descriptions of scent therapy also contain no suggestion that the womb is animate; that is, that it is a living being with a desire for sweet smells and a revulsion for foul smells. This brings us to a further important passage, Plato's Timaeus 91a-d, a description of the womb as animal, which has been highly influential in the history of hysteria. The womb is seen by Timaeus of Locri as a living creature desiring union, which, if it remains unfruitful (akarpos ) beyond its proper season, travels around the body blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing diseases. C. M. Turbayne says "Plato's account


follows that of Hippocrates who, in his Sicknesses of Women , coined the word 'hysteria' and ascribed hysteria to the wandering womb."[113] As one would expect, Veith is cited in a footnote.[114] Furthermore, this link between womb and animal is taken by F. Kudlien to be the assumption behind the "well known ancient concept" of uterine suffocation.[115]

Plato lived from about 498 to 347 B.C . and was thus writing at the same time as the authors of Diseases of Women , or a few years after. Is it therefore valid to merge his theories with theirs and conclude that the Hippocratic scent therapy necessarily implies the belief that the womb is animate, "a living thing inside another living thing," as the second-century A.D . medical writer Aretaeus later wrote?[116] The difficulty with this approach is that there are clear differences between the gynecology of Timaeus and that of the Hippocratic corpus, and there is ample evidence that the idea of the womb being—or being like—an animal was disputed even in antiquity. Its best-known expression, apart from the passage in Timaeus , is in Aretaeus, who states that movement of the womb mostly affects younger women, whose way of life and judgment are "somewhat wandering" so that their womb is "roving" (rhembodes ). Older women have a "more stable" way of life, judgment, and womb. This in itself varies from the Hippocratic theories, which tend to link movement of the womb with older women, whose wombs are lighter.[117] It is in this section too that Aretaeus describes the womb as hokoion ti zoon en zooi , usually translated as "like some animal inside an animal" but which could be less emotively rendered "like a living thing inside another living thing."

It has been suggested that the words of Aretaeus are based on a recollection of having read Timaeus at school:[118] as may be seen from the work of Soranus, also writing in the second-century A.D ., this was certainly a very outdated idea in second-century medicine. Soranus explicitly rejects the claim of "some people" that the womb is an animal, although he admits that in some ways it behaves as if it were, for example, in responding to cooling and loosening drugs. He reinterprets the success of therapy involving sweet—or foul-smelling substances to attract or repel the womb, saying that these work not because the womb is like a wild animal emerging to seek pleasant scents and fleeing from foul ones, but because the scents cause relaxation or constriction.[119] Galen, writing shortly after Soranus, discusses and rejects what he regards not as Hippocrates' but as Plato's theory of the womb as a living creature in On the Affected Parts 6.5. After quoting from Timaeus he writes, "These were Plato's words. But some [physicians] added that, when the uterus during its irregular movement through the body touches the diaphragm, it in-


terferes with the respiratory [movements]. Others deny that the uterus wanders around like an animal. When it is dried up by the suppression of menstrual flow, it extends quickly to the viscera, being anxious to attract moisture. But when it makes contact with the diaphragm during its ascent, it suppresses the respiration of the organism."[120]

It is thus clear from Soranus and Galen that, at least by the second century A.D ., medical opinion was split on whether womb movement necessarily entailed assigning the status of "living thing" or "wild animal" to the womb. It may further be questioned whether Plato's account—or, perhaps, the Locrian's account, since it is by no means certain that the passage represents Plato's own views[121] —is in any way following the Hippocratic Diseases of Women , as Turbayne argues. In general, Timaeus shows a strong humoral theory of disease in which the four humors are linked to the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The use of humoral theory in the Diseases of Women is minimal, perhaps because the female body is so heavily dominated by blood.

The description of the womb and of conception in Timaeus should be read in the context provided by the preceding sections on the human body, which show that analogies in which certain parts of the body are compared to living creatures are common in Timaeus . That part of the soul which is concerned with bodily desires is tied up in the body "like a wild creature";[122] a disease is described as being like a zoon , in that it has a natural span of life.[123] At the start of the second generation of mankind, all those who have proved cowardly or unjust in the first become women; it is at this point that the gods put into all human beings a zoon that desires sexual union. In males, the penis has a disobedient and selfwilled nature, "like a zoon " and, like the savage part of the soul, it does not obey reason, the logos .[124] When the womb is described, all that is different is that it is no longer put beside the zoon in a simile, but appears in a metaphoric relationship; not "like a living thing," but "a living thing desiring to bear children."[125] In both cases what is significant is that the organ moves independently of the will, in an uncontrolled way. Since Plato/Timaeus has already mixed apparently nonfigurative uses of zoon (the gods put a living creature in all humans) with obvious similes (the penis is like a zoon ), it would be unwise to make too much of the way in which the womb is described. It should also be noted that animal analogies are used elsewhere for the organs. Not only woman is thought to have a zoon inside her, since Plato himself likens the penis to an animal, and in Aristotle it is the heart that is like an animal, this in turn being likened to the genitals in a further analogy.[126]

In men, the zoon empsychon that makes the penis behave "like an ani-


mal" is in the seed, which comes from the spinal marrow.[127] The theory of the origin of the semen is consistent with Hippocratic anatomy, which traces its path up the spinal cord, behind the ears and to the head.[128] In the description of the corresponding part in woman, the womb, there are however some obvious differences from Hippocratic theories. Timaeus says that in coitus minute invisible and shapeless zoa are sown in the womb, where they will grow to maturity. Apart from the very general sowing analogy, this does not correspond to anything in the corpus; indeed, in the Hippocratic Generation 6 and 8, both male and female contribute seed, the sex of the child being determined by the strongest seed.[129]

Aretaeus's analogy is thus not characteristic of the medicine of his time but, on the contrary, stands out as an anachronism: Plato's (or Timaeus's) medicine, while sharing some anatomical features with Hippocratic theories, demonstrates many individual points. Galen and Soranus mention the belief that the womb is not just like an animal, but is an animal, yet Galen ascribes this only to Plato. From the list of treatments of which he disapproves, Soranus apparently thinks that the use of scents in therapy tends to imply the belief that the womb is an animal. However, the central role of scent therapy in disorders of the womb in the Hippocratic texts does not mean that the Hippocratic writers would inevitably have regarded the womb as an independent animate part of the body; as Soranus's own explanation of why scent therapy works shows, it would be possible to use this technique within an entirely different conceptual framework, openly rejecting the animate womb theory.

I would also question whether we would be so ready to read into Hippocratic medicine ideas of the womb as an animal, were it not for the influence of the imagery of Timaeus on Aretaeus and on other writers to the extent that Galen finds it necessary to refute the theory. Our own medical theories play a part in this: because it is self-evident to us that the womb not only is not a living creature, but also cannot move around the body, any suggestion that it does so move is startling, demands explanation, and may be given more weight than it deserves.

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