The Wandering Uterus

in Women and Society

By Elissa Stein

While the uterus is a remarkable part of a woman’s anatomy—it can house a growing baby, then shrink back to its original size, work month after month for 40 or so years regenerating its lining, keeping hormones in check—it is part of a greater whole.

But ancient Egyptians believed the uterus was a free-floating, independent, autonomous organ that wandered the body, its traveling ways causing all sorts of mental and physical maladies, disturbing and disrupting women from the inside out. A visit upward created respiratory issues, with anxiety thrown in, too much movement down south—intestinal distress.

To combat these problems doctors tried solutions at both ends, either feeding noxious substances to women, hoping to force the uterus away from the lungs and throat, or placing sweet smelling substances on the vulva, trying to coax the errant traveler back into place. Another solution? Marriage. Actually, sex. But, back then, sex alone was not prescribed by doctors as a viable treatment.

The ancient Greeks also blamed the female-centric organ for everything from seizures to depression. Their word for uterus, hystera, is the root of both hysterical and hysteria. From the beginning of recorded history, hysterical behavior—out of control emotions, irrational fears, unregulated, over-the-top conduct—was associated with women, the uterus the epicenter of blame. In fact, for centuries, a hysterectomy, or removal of the uterus, was thought to cure emotional instability, as well as a host of other unrelated symptoms.

Hysteria was a medical diagnosis in the United States until 1951. 1952? The term PMS was coined, a catchall diagnosis that picked up where hysteria left off. And while people no longer believe the uterus has a mind of its own, it’s still used as the hapless scapegoat for countless unexplainable symptoms.

Elissa Stein’s latest book, with Susan Kim, is Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation. Other projects include visual histories of iconic pop culture, New York City adventures with kids, and interactive thank you notes. She lives in New York City with her family.

IMAGE: from Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex, 1950, Cadillac Publishing Company

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  • http://franceshunter.wordpress.com Frances Hunter

    Great post! It’s amazing what misconceptions were perpetrated to try to keep women in their place. And still it goes on. I have truly always wondered why it is women who are supposedly out of control due to their hormones, etc. It certainly seems to fly in the face of reality.

  • http://alchemipedia.blogspot.com/ Alchemipedia

    There is also some rationale in believing that the uterus could wander. Some medical conditions are related to the timing of menstruation ie catamenial epilepsy, catamenial pneumothorax. There is also a condition – endometriosis – where endometrial tissue (from the lining of the uterus) can be found outside the uterus, such as the abdomen, intestines, bladder, lung, skin, even arm and thigh.

    In historical times before microscopy, it is easy to see how ectopic endometrial tissue could be interpreted as a wandering uterus.

  • Isetnofret

    This is such an interesting article thank you for posting it! I have heard in ancient egypt – particularly in the royal court in the age of the New Kingdom – that life revolved around fertility and that exchange of life fluid. A woman who had not entered in to marriage and was without children was thought to be more prone to physical ailments due to spirits surrounding that woman which could enter through any orifce in the same way that Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul entered and left via the mouth. In a couple bringing together their bodies in sexual union the very entering of a woman by a man and the coating of each other in life fluid of both male and female ejaculation the very up thrusting motion of penetration was thought to force foreign spirits out of the body through the mouth so regular sexual activity was encouraged. This sexual union was to help both male and female partners maintain their soul free from external spirits. I think of it in the same way as there are Chakras the sense of spirits and negativity being forced out of the body through this line of energy with the positivity of creation.

    Menstruation was a time of upset due to it being a period during which conception had not taken place and the loss of blood was mourned a period of cleansing was then taken in the aftermath and rejoicing at the ability to once again have the possibility of sexual union and life force creation. It was not a source of shame but something that was grieved over.for to have a child was a celebrated experience. Women who were unable to have a child were cleansed and purified and prayed for. Women who did not want children and were unmarried were cast out due to the thought they attracted negative spirits.

    Children were sacred and not to be touched any child who was violated the perpetrator was thought to have been contaminated by a spirit which had to be removed if this was a man it would be through male copulation – this was not encouraged at any other time, it was an act to remove the spirit. Masturbation was encouraged in women to regulate the hitta energy of the uterus in men it was a waste of life force which could attract spirits if not contained within the sanctity and safety of the uterus and the waste of life fluid outside of the uterus thought to make men stupid they were encouraged instead to engage in regular sexual activity with their wife. Same sex pairings were thought to be due to opposite genders spirits inhabiting the body and filling the host body with it’s gender preference. The child would be thought too young and too damaged to survive healthily after such an experience and it was thought better to end the life force of the child and commit their soul to Ra rather than have them live and suffer.

    Prostitutes -hatta – used contraception. Married women would not, regular sexual activity was thought to be healthful and the act of procreation a joy. There are two words used regularly hitta – fill me, up , in and haa – out -also interchangeable with yes and no. There was an idea that the uterus on maturity would interact and send out signals of fill me up, if a woman did not have a husband to help satisfy her then spirits would enter due to these energies being sent from the uterus and she would become ill due to these energy sucking spirits. Marriage was therefore encouraged.

    There was also the sense of ‘father out husband in’ and this was repeated like a mantra the removal of a father’s energy once you reach an age of sexual maturity and the replacement by the energy of a husband. Once children had reached a certain age they were shooed away by their mothers and encouraged to stay among their own age group. Mothers who clung to their children were thought to affect them negatively in that they prevented them from going on to make happy unions and left their children prone to illness. Mothers who hung on to their children and mothered them past an age where it was necessary were thought to be doing this because their desires were not being fulfilled adequately by their husbands and this was thought problematic. It was important that a woman have her own home and that her mother or mother in law did not interfere in her life. The staying at home of a marriageable age woman was thought to cause conflict especially if the uterus of the mother was not receiving a response to its hita energy to expel or induce haa the removal of spirits and negativity. and the daughter was not able to answer the impulses of her own hita by being bound to her parents.

    Father’s had an important role in pregnancy in that this was not a mother on her own experience sex was thought to be an important part of pregnancy to protect everyone involved from spirits sex was celebrated and was thought healthful especially when a mother was in labour. Making love during labour to ensure the child entered the world covered in protective life force and to ease the pain and trauma of childbirth and make it an enjoyable experience while covering each others mouths in what we would call a kiss to prevent the entrance of spirits was encouraged.

    Courtship – men had to work to earn a woman, playing music writing proving that he could protect his wife and that she would in turn protect him through her magic. Women of this age practised magic usually involving their own bodily fluids and sex magic. Men were expected to stay with the men hunting, fishing, men’s activities due to the fact that women seemed to think them not as articulate or intelligent. If a man attempted to invade a woman’s space playfully or not so playfully all of the women would defend against him, through magic. They would make him drop down in to a sleep, this was in some ways a matriarchal society in that women held some of the power through their abilities. This said they did join together and spend time together as a couple, but women wished to pamper and preen and have their feminine energies together. There was a sense during this time that being a woman is a good thing and that why would you wish to emulate a man and that being a man is a good thing and why would you wish to emulate a woman. Positive to be true to yourself and negative if against and hurtful to the self and more prone to spirit invasion. Again if men and women tried to go against their sexual desires this was thought to be due to invading spirits taking over their enrgies with their own opposite gendered desires. Women were empowered in chosing a husband their friends would assist and
    advise this one is good this one not for you, I think this one will
    work. If a man approached a woman and she was not interested in him she would walk away furiously swaying her hips side to side she would not react angrily in a masculine way she would employ her feminine energy to warn him to stay away from her and if he did not other women would surround and protect her. Men were thought at times to be too stupid to function in a rational way which is why it was thought as important for sexual activity if they could not masturbate off their energy as women could in order to regulate their mutual desires sex was encouraged in both sexes denial of desire was thought to encourage negativity and an innundation of spirits.

    The Ankh as well as being a symbol of the sun, and a person is also a fertility symbol of sexual union. A line penis , 2 lines labia, circle uterus.

    The hieroglyphic’s in Ramses II name as here with the two concentric circles and a line is a symbol of the potential meeting of male and female genitalia and therefore the concept of life force or Ra.

    Merneptah his successor has a bullock or bull in the hieroglyphs of his name this meant in ancient egyptian what we would say colloquially as ‘hung like a horse’ it was to hint at being well endowned again next to concentric circles indicating female genitalia and the potential for fulfilment of life force through progeny.

    http://gei.aerobaticsweb.org/egypt_pharaohs_new.html

    In this text from the Kahun Gynaelogical Papyrus menea are labia, It is the labia -clitoris as we would think but one and the same in Ancient Egyptian hita force energy-which are being touched and the vagina and body which is twitching in response this is what is being tested. If a woman has sexual desire and is ready for sexual activity to produce a child.

    Strike (?) thou as to her 2 upon her lip (?), the tip (?) of thy
    finger upon the top of her menaa (shoulder ? or part of arm); [if she]
    twitches (?) 3 [she will bear a child] [but if she ? does] not twitch
    (?), she will not bear a child ever.

    Number 29

    http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/timelines/topics/kahunpapyrus.htm
    http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/people/procreation.htm

    In the Merneptah Stele it is the people who are being laid to waste the seed is a metaphor it is a boast that Egypt’s population will flourish while the invaders will falter. The avoidance of the generation of life was thought of as unnatural and a curse and not at all healthy and leading to severe illness.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merneptah_Stele

    Ed hoo is a term for sex a euphimism of a fish swimming up a channel or river, similar to the eastern concept explained in memoirs of a Geisha of an eel seeking a cave in which to hide. Hieroglyphics like this one

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Season_of_the_Harvest

    combined with a symbol for which I have not seen a hieroglyphic of an eye shape without a dot in the middle so a fish viewed from above was the word for sex as well as harvest. The natural cycle, fertility and sexuality were all interlinked in ancient Egypt.

    and this one

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Season_of_the_Emergence

    would be interchangeable with giving birth. The square with an opening is at once a field springing forth a flowering sprouting seed and a uterus or also meaning the birth of an idea of thought, the mind. One hieroglyph had many interchangeable meanings and connotations as does modern day words in the English lexicon.

    Ancient Egyptian as a language has a lot more vowel sounds and is spoken nothing like the romanised alphabet would suggest

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