Ancient History & Civilisation

Hysterical wanderers

Gals two thousand years ago were plagued by a variety of female disorders, not the least of which was that vagabond organ, the womb. This impertinent piece of tissue, according to most Greek and Roman medical professionals, behaved more like a garden mole than a proper organ. If a woman weren’t careful, her womb was apt to burrow into her chest, causing feelings of suf-22 focation and breathlessness. When womb wanderlust hit, sometimes the gadabout would head south. When that happened, female patients complained of nervous tension, hot spells, and cryingjags.

This syndrome began back in the misty past, long before Hippocrates showed up. Healers of that day called this condition “hysteria,” from the Greek word hysteron or womb. Then, during a eureka! moment, Hippocrates and his followers figured out the cause: if a woman was careless enough to let her womb dry out, it would soon take to the open road, looking for a moister organ to attach to.

After devoting much thought and discussion to the topic, the medicos arrived at a general consensus: that wombs could only be made to return to their proper sites through fear. Some practitioners tried straightforward magic to quell the hysterical wanderers. Curse tablets written on lead or papyrus became a popular prescription. A typical one contained execrations such as, “Womb, I invoke you, stay in your place! I adjure you by Iao, and by Saboa and by Adona, not to hold onto the side but stay in your place.” Tablets and amulets inscribed with this and other scolding messages have been found from Roman Britain to Roman Egypt.

More serious treatments for hysteria were action-oriented. Doctors believed that the nature of the uterus was to run away from bad smells. Thus medicos would surround the afflicted woman with a variety of stenches, from burned wool to squashed bedbugs. If that didn’t terrify the womb into submission and back into position, the patient was subjected to loud noises. The doctor might accompany his yells with a symphony on metal plates. Blowing vinegar through the patient’s nose was another of the milder therapies.

A dislocated womb called for even sterner measures. One recommended treatment began with a garlic and ewe’s milk dinner, followed by a fumigation of the womb with fennel, absinthe, and a good purge, and finishing up with vaginal suppositories of opium poppies, almond oil, and rose oil.

Hysteria was a stubborn ailment; over the centuries, a significant number of chronic cases proved to be hardcore. Finally, however, there was a true medical breakthrough of sorts. This remedy, deployed only when all other options had been explored, was a type of physical therapy that involved external (and sometimes internal) massage of the pelvis. Euphemisms aside, what that actually meant was doctor-enabled masturbation!

Female patients did seem to get relief, doctors noted approvingly. Some of them even appeared to pass out during therapy. The only dilemma? Massage therapy was but a temporary cure. The problem kept returning, as did the patients. Not that a lot of long-ago Greek and Roman healers complained, mind you.

You may be chortling, but the same nonsensical beliefs persisted well into modern times. In fact, during two hysteria-prone centuries from the 1700s into the early 1900s, so many women on so many continents flooded medical offices with their complaints that a number of physicians developed an early but virulent form of carpal tunnel disorder.

Although doctors knew a bit more about female anatomy than their counterparts had two millennia prior, the whole idea of female orgasm and sexual pleasure was terra incognita. They called the relief experienced by women receiving genital massage “hysterical paroxysm.”


Wombs had a nasty habit of wandering about women’s bodies. To remedy that, medicos used bad smells, loud noises, and milder cures, such as the fennel plant.

Physician-assisted healing manipulations came to occupy so much time that an emergency program, an all-out War on Wandering Wombs, was launched to find mechanical aids to carry out such therapy. Thus in 1869 was born the prototype of the mechanical vibrator and its revolving, ever-evolving versions. Doctors Taylor and Granville invented the first ones, followed by a flood of imitators. Most devices were powered by steam, water, or batteries; when electricity came into consumers’ lives, so did the plug-in vibrator.

Doctors and midwives continued to service women patients who were not do-it-yourselfers. Vibrating machinery in doctors’ offices got ever more impressive, culminating in such devices as the four-foot-tall Chattanooga Vibrator. Little-known technology factoid: in the United States circa 1905, there were only five household appliances considered “essential” enough to electrify. And the vibrator was one of them!

In other sections of this book, you’ll find more details on orgasm, masturbation, and on the ingenious sex toys of long ago.

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