The University Record, May 6, 1997

Amulets used in Greek and Roman female medicine on display at Kelsey Museum

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Modern mothers-to-be rely on prenatal vitamins and today's menopausal moms resort to soy and hormone replacement therapy.

But Greek and Roman mothers of all ages put their trust in uterine amulets with inscriptions invoking ororiouth---the spirit of the womb.

"Amulets were widely used for all kinds of reasons, beginning in about 300 B.C.," says Ann Ellis Hanson, U-M classicist who specializes in the history of medicine.

Among the most common reasons they were used: to help women conceive, to prevent miscarriage, to facilitate childbirth, and to protect against various gynecological ailments, including what was later called "hysteria," from a Greek word for womb.

For women lucky enough to live to middle age at a time when life expectancy at birth was a little over the age of 22, uterine amulets might have served as the ancient equivalent of estrogen therapy or other modern menopausal medicaments. In fact, Hanson notes, although slightly less than half of all baby girls born in ancient times reached the age of 15, half of those who did make it to age 15 lived until the age of 48.

"Many uterine amulets are made of hematite, or bloodstone," notes Hanson, who wears such an amulet herself, for reasons that are "mainly sentimental."

Often, the uterus is depicted with a lock at the mouth, encircled by the Egyptian symbol for regeneration and eternity---a snake devouring its own tail. On the reverse, some kind of incantation is inscribed, usually calling upon ororiouth, a Greek word that Hanson translates as "the spirit of the womb."

"Today, if something is wrong, we call a doctor and expect to be given some medicine or treatment that will make things better in 76 hours," Hanson says. "Back then, various approaches were taken, including the use of amulets.

"The Greek physician Soranos, in his gynecological textbook, expresses the common medical opinion of the time that uterine amulets were ineffective at preventing hemorrhages, and facilitating conception and childbirth. But he also advises other physicians that `their use should not be forbidden, since the hope they provide possibly makes the woman more cheerful.'"

Amulets from the Taubman Medical Library are on display at the Kelsey Museum through June 15.