Friday, April 24, 2009

Wandering womb

The comment about maternal impressions in my last post was the segue to tonight's topic: wandering wombs! The illustration is by Canadian artist Bonni Reid and was chosen because of its modesty and its inclusion of - you guessed it - octopus tentacles! So here we go...

For hundreds of years in Western Europe, women who experienced symptoms such as faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and "a tendency to cause trouble" were diagnosed with hysteria. Specific to females, the word - meaning womb - and the idea - that it traveled throughout the body - derived from the ancient Greeks. Physician Galen (129-200 A.D.) wrote this description, which held for more than 1,000 years:

In women, in the hollow of the body below the ribcage, lies the womb. It is very much like an independent animal within the body for it moves around of its own accord and is quite erratic. Furthermore, it likes fragrant smells and moves toward them, but it dislikes foul odors and moves away from them… When it suddenly moves upward [i.e., toward a fragrant smell] and remains there for a long time and presses on the intestines, the woman chokes, in the manner of an epileptic, but without any spasms. For the liver, the diaphragm, lungs and heart are suddenly confined in a narrow space. And therefore the woman seems unable to speak or to breathe. In addition, the carotid arteries, acting in sympathy with the heart, compress, and therefore heaviness of the head, loss of sense perception, and deep sleep occur… Disorders caused by the uterus are remedied by foul smells, and also by pleasant fragrances applied to the vagina…

The womb was lured back into place, when necessary, by the application of sweet-smelling spices, perfumed oils, and incense. By the 17th c., these "womb-calming" therapies had given way to methods of manual stimulation (euphemized as pelvic massage) by the physician treating a woman for any number of nervous disorders that are now understood as schizophrenia, phobia, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The therapy, with its goal of achieving hysterical paroxysm by which the symptoms were alleviated, was soon left to midwives. They were then relieved of the duty by the invention of massage devices in the Victorian era. These were used in the doctor's office and made the massage therapy quicker, but when electricity was introduced to the home, these appliances were offered to individuals by way of the Sears catalog (see illustration) and allowed women to relieve themselves in privacy. And thus the birth of the vibrator...9 years before the electric vacuum cleaner and 10 years before the electric iron!

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