The paper researches the cultural and social bias of ancient medicine and evaluates the evidences about women body image, diseases, and physiology features basing on the contemporary medical texts. The main information about the women physiology in the Classical Age was taken from the works of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Plutarch, and Soranus. Moreover, these works describe not only women body but also the role of women in society. In addition, in these medical texts, the physiology features are explained through women’s nature and their role in society. It is necessary to highlight that all these texts were based only on medical practice without special testing or investigation, and their results were supported by traditions, social statuses, and morale of the people of the Classical Age. Consequently, nowadays it is impossible to consider these medical works credible. However, the texts explained the gender situation of that period fully. This way, they could be used for historical and social education. The research paper highlights special aspects of the ancient gynecology and provides information about the social position of women in Ancient Greece.
The aim of this paper is to analyze the relevant information and examine the views and approaches used by ancient medical writers who studied the women physiology, and their consideration in the context of sociology. This paper highlights the topic through the following items: comparison of the male and female body images and nature, examination of the puberty period through anatomic and social prism, description of attitude towards weddings and women’s behavior and duties in marriage, considering the question of conception and female infertility, and examination of pregnancy and contraception.
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First of all, it is necessary to examine the main theories of the famous ancient medical writers, who seemed to be the most respective at that time. Hippocratic pointed that the main woman’s aim is the childbirth. The main object of his research was the woman’s transformation from the childless and unmarried person (parthenos) into a person who has delivered a child. This transformation must be done through the intercourse with man in a legal marriage. Hippocratic claimed that women have differed anatomical characteristic called hodos (in translation road). It is a tube that stretched from the vagina to the ostiums of the head. Ancient doctors believed that the womb can move to the head through the tube, and this displacement was the reason of pain in different regions of the body. This tube has a stoma (mouth) at every end, and through these stomas, doctors can treat women with fetid or sweet odors. They used fumigations with sweet scent beneath the vagina and with fetid scent at the nose. Moreover, they suggested to eat cabbage, and to drink the cabbage juice as the additional treatment. Doctors believed that this treatment could place the womb at its original position. It is obvious that this kind of therapy was not effective.
Hippocratic and other ancient medical writers compared the woman’s womb with oven, field, and jar (stomas of the tube). Also, they claimed that woman’s body has a diverse texture; it can be loose, or spongy, like wool. Doctors claimed that flash absorbs humidity very well because fluid shapes the body. They also pointed that bleeding during the menstruations is essential to the health and called this process the recession of surplus fluid from the body. Hippocratic claimed that the abundance of blood in the woman’s body occur the pain, and if this blood does not escape from it, the woman can be ill. Ancient Greeks also called womb hystera (after, next) and metra (mother). The womb was a reason of diseases, and hysteria because it wanders inside the woman’s flesh. Greek medical writers thought that the womb’s displacement through the body affects different vitals, and induces the pain. Doctors suggested different therapies, like the change of nutrition regime (to regulate the amount of fluid in the body), odor therapy (sweet and fetid odor fumigations), and oiling, washing, applying of bandages on the body to hold womb in one place. Hippocratic also believed that intercourse with man makes woman healthier than she was before it. During the intercourse, the womb became moisture, and when it dries it becomes tightened and this condition was the reason of pain in the body. Intercourse also heats the blood and makes it more fluid, and it moves easier and quickly during menstruation. Hippocratic based his theories at the stories of midwives, nurses, prostitutes and other female informers.
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Aristotle, another ancient doctor, has different views on the woman’s body than Hippocratic. He pointed out that female is an imperfect male because man elaborates more heat than the woman, and in his opinion heat was a source of health and dominance. Also, the quantity of heat is influence the intellectually inferior. Aristotle ascribed different negative mental characteristics to women, like jealous, impulsiveness, prone to depressions, and other. He explained these states by the different anatomical structure. Also, Aristotle claimed that men have the capability to reproduce another form of life through semen, when women can reproduce only in themselves through fluid (menstrual blood). Moreover, Aristotle had another view on menstruation. By contrast with Hippocratic, he seemed that menses weakened female bodies, and also, menses were the symptom of some disease. Also, Aristotle considered that the only function of woman in childbearing was to gestate the embryo.
Herophilus wrote the guidance for midwives. He had another idea on woman’s body that Hippocratic and Aristotle. Herophilus practiced the autopsy, which showed him the real structure of body and location of organs. He drawn a parallel between male and female organs, and he totally deflected the theory of heat and the ideas about the wandering womb. Herophilus works changed the development of medicine. Another medical writer, who had progressive ideas, was Soranus. As Herophilus, he also wrote the guidance for midwives and nurses. He propounded contraception and he was against abortions because he believed in their harm for the female’s health. He discussed the role of menstruations and menopause. Also, he explained the influence of bad habits on the creation of the fetus, and he also refused the idea of wondering womb. It is obvious that medicine had positively developed century by century and finally reached the modern stage.
In the Classical Age, the female body was considered as porous and wet and male body as dry and hard. This Hippocrates’ concept was the basis of the ancient medical works, and entire Greek gynecology was based on this theory. Moreover, Heraclitus mentioned, “A dry soul is wisest and best.” That is why, in the ancient world, men were involved in different activities of social and politic life unlike women, whose main functions were household chores and raising children. According to the view of the ancient medical writers concerning marriages, a woman was taken into her husband’s house not only for household, or because of feelings but to protect her from herself. This statement means that, because of the female eros, the woman was isolated from society, and this strategy and its conventions, notions, and rituals surrounded the woman’s life in that period. In addition, Hippocrates compared the woman’s body to a field and her womb to a jug. He mentioned that the mature woman had a large quantity of liquid that oozed out of her body, for example, blood during menstruation, milk, and lochial fluid. Moreover, Hippocrates said that it happened because of sponginess of the female’s body; unlike women, men body was dense, hard, and nonabsorbent.<
The ancient medical doctors also studied different female physiological features and explained them through the social prism. Many Greek scientists like Aristotle and Hippocrates claimed that, during the period of puberty, girls were vulnerable, and at the menarche, they could suffer from different psychological diseases like hallucinations. They explained that the reason of this condition was the closed womb, because of sexual intercourse absence, and the fact that “blood cannot flow out.” Doctors explained that the blood rushed through the body, and a young woman became anxious and even insane. In this case, the only treatment was marriage. In Greece, early marriages were a common practice because pregnancy and intercourse were considered the best therapy.
In ancient medicine, sex was called an effective therapy. According to the medical writers, without the intercourse, the womb became dry, and blood could be transiting toward the body, what caused different diseases. Hippocrates and other doctors, considered menstruation a pathological condition that required treatment; it was considered that, during menstruation, the normal blood loose had lasted for two or three days. Greek doctor Soranus also believed that menstruation was a pathology; consequently, sterile women were healthier than those who were not sterile.
Ancient Greeks had the special attitude towards weddings and sexual intercourse in the marriage or out of it. Moreover, according to Plutarch’s theory, the intercourse that resulted in laboring was called “work,” and any other sexual activities were called “play.” Plutarch distinguished “whorish” women and proper wives; he said that a “whorish” female was willing to get sexual pleasure instead of to bear children. Thus, Greeks contrasted women that were involved in “work’ to others who were involved in “play”. Prostitutes and virgins were included into the last category because of their unproductivity. Unwed young women were considered children, and the wedding ceremony underlined the transition from the “wild” state into the status of a legitimate wife. Moreover, in Greek society, marriage and defloration were under the male control, and women could compel only to their husbands.
Conception was very important in the Ancient world; as a result, this issue was learned by medical writers, especially Hippocrates. From his point of view, a woman was like an empty vessel, and her space was intended for babies and men. When a woman had problems with conception, doctors provided her with treatment. Moreover, in the opinion of the ancient doctors, only women could be sterile, and they had different explanations for this phenomenon. For example, the reason of sterility could be the fact that the womb’s mouth was closed, or the vagina had a prone angle. The treatment of women’s infertility involved opening and softening the womb’s mouth; this method required fumigations of myrrh, beeswax, laurel leaves, garlic, and other substances. Also, there were many remedies for sterility, but none of them was effective, that was why women resorted to the help of Asclepius, the god of medicine in the Greek pantheon. For example, Epirus described the experience of Andromache in “Dream Cures.” In addition, in his comic plays, Aristophanes described the black market where women could buy babies. In this case, the woman had simulated pregnancy and labour while the midwife was searching for a baby; however, these cases were not confirmed.
In the Classical Age, it was common to have small families. In Greece, it was a tradition to divide the men’s property among his sons after his death; thus, there was a tendency to have only one male successor. That is why, abortion, sexual neglect of wives, homosexual relationships, and exposure of babies happened rather often. Medical writers were not interested a lot in contraception because it was the women’s responsibility. The only reference to this problem is described in the work of Soranus; he wrote that women used different substances like honey, olive oil, or cedar resin to grease the mouth of the womb. Also, some medical writers, in their works confirmed the positive effect of plant contraceptives, most of this plants were potherbs. Modern medical tests showed that these herbs have the ingredients, which reduces fertility. Ancient medical writers called pregnancy an awkward and delicate state. Aristotle noticed that pregnant women were exposed to headaches, sickness, and rapid mood changes, and if these symptoms were strong, the future baby was supposed to be a girl. Hippocrates examined the cases of miscarriages and stated that the main reasons of this phenomenon were: the size of the womb, excessive physical activities, hyperalimentation or undernutrition, and fright. Ancient medical writers disagreed with each other; thus, Aristotle advised sexual intercourse and other physical activities during pregnancy. In the Greek society, pregnant women were considered sensitive to the dangers of pollution. Under the pollution, they meant the profanation of the human’s soul. Nevertheless, they had never been forbidden from visiting temples.
In conclusion, it is necessary to highlight that the views of ancient medical writers were rather one-sided, and today, it is hard to consider them applicable from the medical point of view. They describe the life of people in the ancient period, their traditions, gender situation, and social policy in full. The medical works of that time show that, in Greece, men had full control over women in all spheres and aspects of life. All physiological features were explained, not by anatomy but through the cultural and social prism that wrenched the real female nature. In medical texts, women were described as vagarious, mutable, and very emotional creatures, whose main functions were the reproduction and householding. In addition, unlike men, women were prone to different diseases both mental and physical and, according to Greek doctors, they profaned people and things around them. Today, all these theories seem to be preposterous and outdated because social life has changed. The defining moment that had changed women’s public position was the feminist movement. Moreover, this event has determined the historic development because women have started to take part in political, economic, and social life on equal terms with men. Nevertheless, nowadays, in some countries, the rights of women are almost the same, as they were in the Classical Age.
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