Women’s health – health of the mother

Watch out, Paleothea is about to get partisan. What little readership I have does not come here for this, but this is how I see the world, and yes, I think it relates to ancient Greece.

Women’s health, it is helpfully explained to us, is not like men’s health. For one thing, simply being a virgin past the “appropriate age” (14-17?) makes a girl susceptible to hysteria and suicidal insanity. Hippocrates’ solution to this: “My prescription is that when virgins experience this trouble, they should cohabit with a man as quickly as possible. If they become pregnant, they will be cured.” There are plenty of variations on this them, but it all reinforces the idea of women as, essentially, mothers.

That said, even Hippocrates recognized that pregnancy held many dangers for women. If abortion was anathema (and it wasn’t for everyone, Galen gives a useful prescription of jumping up and down to expel a fetus which he says actually worked in his office when his kinswomen brought in a slave-girl she was prostituting – it wasn’t an act of kindness, the kinswoman just didn’t want to lose her money-maker), it was at least partly because abortifacients were generally so dangerous, including severe bloodletting and “sharp-edged” things that wounded adjacent parts.

Remember, these are people who thought that the womb moved around the body like a furry animal and could be moved back into place (if it had traveled too low) by giving her sweet-scented wine to drink  (the carrot) and burning “foul-scented vapours below her womb” (the stick).  But damn, at least these people were trying …

All the ancient Greek medicine is from Women’s Life in Greece and Rome by Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant.


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