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The Hippocratic Corpus: A Wandering Uterus and Fox Possession

The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of dozens of Ancient Greek texts which were originally attributed to Hippocrates but were actually written by several unknown authors from the sixth through the fourth centuries B.C.E.  The writings contain an astonishingly wide range of descriptions of bodily functions, ailments of different body parts, and cures for diseases.  The section entitled “Diseases of Women,” for instance, describes the uterus which the physicians believed did not stay in one part of a woman’s body but instead wandered around causing great pain and discomfort.  Movements of the uterus within the body can include towards the head, the heart, the liver, the hips, or the bladder (137 L—translation of the Ancient Greek is my own):

Of all the diseases pertaining to the uterus that come about for a woman, I say this: whenever the uterus is set in motion away from its space, sometimes falling in one direction and sometimes in another direction, and where it comes to fall, causes this spot severe bodily pain.  And if it comes to fasten itself to the bladder, it causes bodily pain and does not accept urine, and it does not draw in any seed to itself.  And if both uterus and bladder suffer, and if a swift release does not come about, then in time the uterus will rot in that same spot and it will wither away.

As I was reading Christine Wunnicke’s latest book, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, the author’s descriptions of women who were said to be possessed by a fox seemed eerily similar to the wandering womb described by the Hippocratic physicians.   In Wunnicke’s mythical, mystical, and at times bizarre tale, a late nineteenth-century Japanese doctor is sent to remote areas of the Shimane prefecture to cure women of fox possession. The book begins at the end, as Dr. Shimamura’s career as a renowned neurologist has passed, and his memories of curing fox possession and other forms of female hysteria are told in a feverish state from his sick bed. His hazy memories also bring us through his time in Europe, where he meets and studies with other famous doctors, Charcot and Breuer, who have an interest in ailments that particularly affect females.

For my complete review of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura and the connections between fox possession and Ancient Greek medicine, please follow this link to the Music & Literature website:

Thanks to Taylor and David, who were a true pleasure to work with, for publishing my piece.


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Lives of the Poets: Donne and Milton

I still making my way through Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets.  I can only read about 20 or 30 pages a week because I keep stopping to read the poems he discusses in his text.  What is equally fascinating are the details he chooses to include in his brief biological sketches of each poet.  The poets from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries have some common threads: poverty, affairs, political intrigue and imprisonment in The Tower.  But he also works in stories and anecdotes that I have not typically encountered when reading about these poets.  My two favorite chapters, so far, are those describing the lives of Donne and Milton.

John Donne, like many of the poets from the 17th century including Herbert, Marvell and Vaughan, did not consider themselves professional writers.  His manuscripts were circulated among a small group of friends but most knew him as a political and religious orator and not as a poet.  One of Donne’s preoccupations was with death and how his demise would be handled by his relatives when he passed from this earth.  Schmidt writes, “Most men allowed their survivors to bury the as they thought appropriate.  Donne took his death into his own hands.  The rehearsals as much as the memorial tell us more about him than we could learn from the rooms he lived in.”  Schmidt goes on to quote from Izaac Walton’s “Life of Donne”:

Dr. Donne sent for a carver to make for him in wood the figure of an urn, giving him directions for the compass and height of it; and to bring with it a board of the just height of his body.  These being got, then without delay a choice painter was got to be in readiness to draw his picture, which was taken as followeth.—Several charcoal fires being first maed in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and, having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed, as dead bodies are usually fitted to be shrouded and put into their coffin, or grave.  Upon this urn he thus stood with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale and deathlike face.”

I will never look at Donne poem the same again after reading these morbid, and somewhat creepy, details.

The biographical summary of Milton’s life includes more charming personal stories.  For example,  Milton’s father encouraged his son to read and, “If Milton as a boy of nine of ten wanted to read late, his father made sure that a maid sat up with him until midnight and after.”  The details of his education I found especially interesting:

When he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1625 he found the place disappointing, the curriculum dry and narrow.  He craved a broader, more liberal education than was offered.  He composed Latin poems in the manner of Ovid and Horace, epigrams, a Latin mock-epic on the Gunpowder Plot, Italian sonnets, more English paraphrases of the Psalms, and the eleven stanzas “On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough.” His Latin elegies are in some ways his most personal utterances, including details of his life and thought not recorded elsewhere.  He was at the time as much at home in Latin as in English verse.

I’ve tracked down some of his Latin which I will try to translate for myself.  And Schmidt has also inspired me to reread Paradise Lost which I haven’t looked at since I was an undergraduate.  At this rate I will be spending my time with Schmidt’s book for the better part of this year…



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I Love a Good Surprise: Catullus Carmen 107

If anything ever happens to someone who is desirous and eager yet not anticipating a surprise,

then the unexpected is especially pleasing to person in such a state of mind.

Therefore, it is particularly dear to me because you have restored yourself

to me, my desire; you restored yourself to an eager and unsuspecting man, and you

did it all yourself. Oh light, more favorable than a lucky day!

What man could possibly live a luckier life than me, or what man could

possibly want to lead a better existence?

(Translation is my own.)

It seems fitting this week that as I begin teaching a Catullus course to my upper level Latin students that I am also reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Catullus and Frederic both receive quite the “sentimental education” at the hands of an older woman. The anticipation of seeing the beloved is palpable in Catullus’s poems and Flaubert’s text.

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Meaningless Impermanence: Dorothy Richardson on the Symbolism of Walls

The timing of my reading Dorothy’ Richardson’s paragraph in Deadlock on the symbolism of walls could not have been more perfect:

“For so long the walls had ceased to be the thrilled companions of her freedom, they had seen her endless evening hours of waiting for the next day to entangle her in its odious revolution.  They had watched her, in bleak daylight, listening to life going on obliviously all round her, and scornfully sped her desperate excursions into other lives, greeting her empty glad return with the remainder that relief would fade, leaving her alone again with her unanswered challenge.  They knew the recurring picture of a form, drifting, grey face upwards, under a featureless grey sky, in shallows, ‘unreached by the human tide,’ and had seen its realization in her vain prayer that life should not pass her by; mocking the echoes of her cry, and waiting indifferent, serene with they years they knew before she came, for those that would follow her meaningless impermanence.  When she lost the sense of herself in moments of gladness, or in the long intervals of thought that encircled her intermittent reading, they were all round her, waiting, ready to remind her, undeceived by her daily busy passing in and out, relentlessly noting its secret accumulating shame.”

During a long, sleepless night I kept mulling over Richardson’s words about walls and how perfectly relevant they are to the sad and useless debate about walls currently unfolding in my country.  Apparently we have learned nothing from antiquity, the ruined walls of which old nations are scattered around the world and now merely serve as tourist attractions.  The Trojans were absolutely convinced that their walls were impenetrable.  But I have a feeling that they would tell us now that there is no such thing.  Scholars are often amazed at the lack of walls in the archaeological record at the Minoan, Bronze Age site at Knossos.  Since they lived on an island, did the sea serve as their “wall”?  The Bronze Age site at Mycenae, by contrast, had massive, thick walls built with stones that are weighed by the ton.  Did the Mycenaeans feel more secure, safer, more free because of their walls?  I doubt it.

And, of course, we can’t forget about Hadrian’s wall in Roman Britain which, many have argued, was intended to keep the barbarian tribes to the north out of Roman territory.   Was this massive structure successful?  Scholars can’t even agree on the purpose of the wall, let alone its efficacy—was it merely for defense or was it simply a boundary marker?  Was Roman Britain safer, more secure, more free because of this wall?  I doubt it.  But at least now Hadrian’s famous wall serves as an archaeological treasure trove of information about the Roman military.

Miriam Henderson, too, initially views the walls of the room in her boarding house as symbols of her freedom—they represent her independence from her family and the need to get married.  But these walls quickly become oppressive and suffocating.  Mariam learns that a wall as a symbol of freedom is an absurd idea.  If only our current leadership would follow that advice.



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Goethe’s Roman Elegies Translated by Michael Hamburger

I was just going to tweet the text of this poem, but Michael Hamburger’s translation of Goethe’s Roman Elegies is so sublime and beautiful that I decided it deserved a blog post instead.  I have been reading, along with his autobiography A String of Beginnings, the Michael Hamburger Reader from Carcanet Press.  In addition to his translations, this fabulous volume contains his own poetry and essays.  Hamburger, who began translating Goethe at the age of fifteen, comments about his poetry: “To reflect on the untranslatability and elusiveness of Goethe’s poetic work as a while is to go straight to the heart of his uniqueness, his staggering diversity and the extent to which many of his most original poems—especially the earlier lyrics—are inextricably rooted in their own linguistic humus.”

From Goethe’s Roman Elegies


Happy now I can feel the classical climate inspire me,

Past and Present at last clearly, more vividly speak—

Here I take their advice, perusing the works of the ancients

With industrious care, pleasure that grows every day—

But throughout the nights by Amor I’m differently busied,

If only half improved, doubly delights instead—

Also, am I not learning when at the share of her bosom,

Graceful lines, I can glance, guide a light hand down her hips?

Only thus I appreciate marble;  reflecting, comparing,

See with an eye that can feel, feel with a hand that can see

True, the loved one besides may claim a few hours of the daytime,

But in night hours as well makes full amends for the loss.

For now always we’re kissing; often hold sensible converse.

When she succumbs to sleep, ponder, long I lie still,

Often too in her arms I’ve lain composing a poem,

Gently with fingering hand count the hexameter’s beat

Out on her back; she breathes, so lovely and calm in her sleeping

That the glow from her lips deeply transfuses my heart.

Amor meanwhile refuels the lamp and remembers the times when

Likewise he’d served and obliged them, his triumvirs of verse.

—Michael Hamburger, trans.



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