The Hippocratic Corpus on Women: A Wandering Uterus and Fox Possession

The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of dozens of Ancient Greek texts that were originally attributed to Hippocrates but which were composed by various, unknown authors somewhere between the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.E.  The texts cover an astonishingly wide range of descriptions of bodily functions, ailments of body parts and possible treatments for diseases.  In the descriptions of the Diseases of Women, for instance,  the uterus is described by the physicians as wondering and not set in one place.  Depending on where a woman’s uterus travels in the body, she will experience different types of pain.  Possible movements of the uterus within the body include towards the head, the heart, the liver, the hips, the liver and the bladder: (137 L.—translation is my own)

With respect to all the ailments that correspond with the uterus of a woman, I say this:  the uterus moves down from its space, and it moves around to different places at different times; and the place on which it comes to fall upon, it causes severe pain of that body part.  If the uterus fastens itself to the bladder, it brings on pain and does not accept urine, nor does it draw offspring into itself. Both parts, uterus and bladder,  suffer with pain and if quick relief is not brought about, then in time the uterus will rot and wither in the that same place.

This description of a wandering uterus came to mind as I was reading Christine Wunnicke’s The Fox and Dr. Shimamura. a mythical, mystical, and at times bizarre tale of a late nineteenth-century Japanese doctor who 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.

My full review of this intriguing book due out in April and more details about the connections between Japanese fox possession and Ancient Greek medicine can be found on the Music & Literature website: