Hysteria and the Wandering Womb
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources


In ancient Greek times women were not viewed in the same way as men. Women had very few rights. They were still under the control of men that held political office, and participating in the city-state or polis was prohibited. One of the possible reasons for this exclusion was due to their biology. Their constant mood swings and erratic behavior, which was referred to as "hysteria", made them incontinent and unable to make rational decisions. The concept of "hysteria" is described in Hippocratic Corpus. The "Wandering Uterus" was another familiar term that went hand in hand with "Hysteria" . It was an ancient Greek belief that "a wandering uterus" needed to be confined and controlled caused women's health problems.

Historical Background

The term "Hysteria" is traced back to the late fifth-early fourth centuries BC.  A large part of our information about the physical side of women's lives in the classical age is derived from a collection of writings known as the Hippocratic Corpus. These are medical treatise by a variety of anonymous authors, some of  which were attributed to the great fifth century doctor Hippocrates. Also known as the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates sought natural explanations for natural phenomena. Basing his opinions on empirical knowledge, not on religion or magic, he taught that natural means could be employed to fight disease.

During the classical Age 500-336 BC Greek Philosophy was in bloom, but women still had very few rights. They were still under the control of men and holding political office, and participating in the city-state or polis was prohibited. "In Athenian law women had no independent existence. She was always under control of a man. First her father, then her husband." Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher, used the idea of hysteria as a principle reason why women were unfit to participate in the polis or city-state.

Research Report

The term hysteria comes from the Greek word hysterika, meaning Uterus. In ancient Greece it was believed that a wandering and discontented Uterus was blamed for that dreaded female ailment of excessive emotion, hysteria. The disease's symptoms were believed to be dictated by where in the body the offending organ roamed. It was not religious belief but a social belief.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was one of the first to identify this disorder. He noticed hysteria was common in women and thought it was caused by a displaced or "wandering uterus". Because there was very little understanding of women's biology the term "Hysteria" was used to describe most of the physical and emotional female illnesses.

In my opinion, it is important to make a connection between the ideas about women's biology and their social status during this time period. This correlation is important because for Aristotle, women were not factored into his philosophical teachings because of their "bad biology". In his book Nicomachean Ethics, he regards women to be unfit to participate in political justice because during their menstruation they experience many hormonal and emotional changes.  According to Aristotle these changes directly effect their character, and thus they should not be able to participate in the polis since they are unable to hold their character, or keep it under control (as my philosophy teacher so nicely put it.) Aristotle uses this theory of "hysteria" for proof as to why women shouldn't be educated or allowed to partake in politics.

Even in history textbooks, we read very little about women. It was the men who held political offices, became priests and bishops, conquered land and became knights. "No Greek State ever enfranchised women. In Athens, they could not attend or vote at meetings of the assembly, sit on juries, or serve as council members, magistrates, or generals." ( Blundell, 128) Often, one will find that women were "viewed as a special case, a deviation from the masculine norm. This should serve to forewarn us that there is an element in the medical treatises which runs counter to the writer's emphasis on empirically acquired knowledge, and which derives from an ideological view of the physical nature of women."  In the discussion of gynecology in particular, ideas about women's physiology are shown to reflect and reinforce ideas about their social and moral identity.

The people of Greece believed that the womb is the origin of diseases of women. There is one Greek myth that greatly influences this belief and the portrayal of women in Ancient Greece. That myth is about the first woman Pandora. "In ancient Greece, gynecology originated in the myth of the first woman Pandora, whose beautiful appearance was seen to cover her dangerous insides. Pandora represented to male humanity as beautiful, marriageable (Parthenos), threatens the work of the healer because her outside is deceptive, concealing the fact that her body contains a voracious womb- Jar and the mind of a bitch" (King, 40).  Pandora's dangerous insides are her womb. We can relate this passage to writings found in Hippocratic corpus where the wandering womb was responsible for all illnesses. Hysteria was the name given to a number of female illnesses.

"Hysteria has been a label used for potpourri of female ailments and non-ailments alike since antiquity....The Greeks and Romans called almost all female complaints hysteria, and believed the cause of all these female maladies to be a wandering uterus...In various Hippocratic texts the term hysteria is applied to a large variety of female complaints." (King, 206) To reiterate, the word hysteria is derived from the Greek language and means womb. Greco-Roman medical writers believed that hysteria was an illness caused by violent movements of the womb and that it was therefore peculiar to women. Medical writers, like those in Hippocratic corpus, believed that the womb was not a stationary object, but one that traveled throughout the body, often to the detriment of the women's health. Most authors agree that the womb is an organ liable to move in situations of menstrual suppression, exhaustion, insufficient food, sexual abstinence, and excessive dryness or lightness of the organ itself. Following are actual writings about what happens when the womb wanders and the effect it has upon a woman. " The Hippocratics thought that the womb moved upward in the woman's body when ever it became hot and dry from overwork, or lack of irrigation from male seed, searching for cool and moist places in an effort to restore its equilibrium. As the womb tried to force its way toward the crowded places at the centre of a woman's trunk, it wreaked havoc with her physical and mental well being, causing her to faint or become speechless. Foul odors at the nose and sweet smells at the vagina were prescribed, to lure the uterus back to itís seat." (340, Rowlandson) This next excerpt is Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a contemporary of Galen, accepts the basic Hippocratic doctrines about hysteria. "In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscous, closely resembling an animal; for it moves itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax, and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or the spleen; and it likewise is subject to prolapsus downwards, and, in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights, also, in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it had an aversian to fetid smells and flees from them; and, on the whole the womb is like an animal within an animal." In Ancient Greece people actually believed that a women's uterus moved about the body! Doctors prescribed all kinds of different remedies to lure the uterus back to its seat. Women were told to rub honey on their vagina and chew cloves of garlic. The idea was that the uterus would be lured back by the sweet smell of honey and repelled by the scent of garlic. In the case where the womb has moved towards the liver the doctor will push it down and then tie a bandage below the ribs to stop it from rising again. Other Hippocratic authors recommended treatments involving potions, fumigations, and hot and cold baths. But sex and pregnancy were the ultimate cures. It was thought that when a women does not have intercourse, her womb becomes dry, and is liable to become displaced.

So far we have seen that women were not treated as equals to men in Ancient Greece, and that their biology was largely misunderstood. This misunderstanding of a woman's gynecology was Aristotle's sole reason for justifying why women were unfit to partake in Ancient Greek politics. In antiquity, it appears that no one really understood menstruation or the rest of the female anatomy. Just like today, women experience changes in the hormones that result in cramps, crankiness, and tremendous mood swings. Because women could not control the emotions they felt each month they were thought to be incontinent. Since they could not control their feelings they were unfit to be a part of the government system. In conclusion the "bad biology" of women was one reason why they were not allowed to participate in society.

Historical Significance

It is very evident that a women's biology had a huge influence on her in antiquity. It handicapped her in such a way that men viewed the female race as incapable to participate in their society. In present day America women have made great strides to be recognized as both a voice and a person. Years later the idea of the wandering uterus has become a myth, proven a fallacy by technological advances and present day physicians. But the myth of the "Wandering Uterus" and the theory of "Hysteria" have not been forgotten.

A new music band is currently on its "Wandering Uterus" tour, the group named this tour after a belief in ancient Greek culture that a woman's hysterical fits of emotion could be blamed on a wandering and discontented uterus. Cheryl Meyer, assistant professor of psychology at Northwest Missouri State University, offers a broad discussion of the interface between the legal, medical, and political aspects of women's reproduction in her new book The Wandering Uterus: Politics and the Reproductive Rights of Women. She takes her title from the ancient Greek belief that women's health problems were caused by "a wandering uterus" that needed to be confined and controlled, Meyer exposes the way in which myths and prejudices about female sexuality continue to influence the practice of law and medicine today. (http://www.weeklywire.com/ww/06-26-00/memphis_afea.html)


Blundell,Sue.Women in Ancient Greece. London: British Museum Press,1995.

Humphreys, S.C. The Family, Women and Death. 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: The University Michigan Press: 1993.

King,Helen. Hippocrates' Women. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Lefkowitz, Mary. Women's Life in Greece and Rome. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.,1982.

Rowlandson, Jane. Women & Society In Greek & Roman Egypt. UnIted Kingdom, CambrIdge UnIversIty Press, 1998.

Saxonhouse, Aaron. Women In the History of Political Thought. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985.

Web Resources

http://www.aolsvc.worldbook.aol.com/wbol/wbpage/na/ar/co/27034  A present day definition of the term Hysteria.

http://www.aolsvc.worldbook.aol.com/wbol/wbpage/na/ar/co/41270  A description of Pandora in Greek Mythology.

http://www.med.virginia.edu/hs-library/historical/antiqua/textg.htm  A discussion on gynecology in Ancient Greece.

http://www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/htmlver/index.html  Description of a new pbs series about ancient Greek empires.

http://www.museum.upenn.edu/Greek_World/Daily_life/Women_life.html  This page contains information about the daily life of  Greek women.

Created by:  Vanessa Traniello