When is a womb not a womb?

Helen King is Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at the Open University. She has a particular interest in midwifery and gynaecology and has published widely on ancient medicine and its reception, as well as gender and the history of the body.

Is it time to revisit the identification of votive body parts? Specifically, votive wombs; those hot-water-bottle-shaped, mould-made, terracotta objects with a sort of ribbed effect on the exterior, which sometimes can stand upright and sometimes lay down, and which may have an extra pouch at the side. They’re very common: Rebecca Flemming’s invaluable 2017 chapter ‘Wombs for the gods’ summarises ‘hundreds (if not thousands) of votive wombs have been identified at around 80 of these [150] locations’ in central Italy. Some have argued for a concentration at certain sites; evidence, perhaps, of a ‘gynaecology specialism’ or ‘sexual specialism’, particularly if they turn up with a lot of votive vulvas or breasts or penises. Steven Oberhelman, for example, has argued for such a ‘gynaecology specialism’ at the sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos on the Pnyx Hill, because of finding so many breasts and ‘female anatomy, including vulva and abdomen’.


Terracotta wombs in the Casa Buonarotti (photo: Helen King).

I’d like to introduce to this discussion the elephant in the room: are these even wombs?

Why do we think they are? There’s a sort of virtuous circle here; we assume that issues of fertility would have been taken to healing sanctuaries, so we expect to find wombs. Having identified these objects as wombs, we then believe that the other objects at the sanctuary reinforce the impression of ‘fertility things’.

And then there’s the actual appearance of these objects. The standard shape and the ribbed/wrinkled exterior, which some assume is trying to represent contractions, seem to scream ‘uterus!’ at modern interpreters, regardless of the actual variations among the objects themselves: not ribbed – ribbed; curvy ribbing – straight lines; big base to stand on – not; extra chamber at the side – not. Attempts to classify these objects into subtypes include that of Annamaria Comella (1978) on Gravisca, where over 200 of what she identified as wombs were found; mostly around 15 cm high, the shapes being described by her as almond, furrowed, pear, and egg. Instead of ribbing, some have what look like bands or cords over them. Some have various protuberances which she called ‘tumours’. Laura Ricciardi (1993), who looked at another Etruscan sanctuary, divided the uteri into a total of 48 types. Variations included how much ribbing is shown, whether there’s a distinct ‘neck’, how big the mouth is, and whether there’s an ‘appendage’ too. The ‘pine cone’ type has protuberances all over it. Some seem to have a ‘backbone’. Some have a narrow ‘neck’, others a wider one.

Flemming (2017) referred to the ‘formal diversity’ of these wombs. That seems to be a very understated way of putting it. She argues for the value of what she calls a ‘focused indeterminacy’ – that is, the votive keeps the options open, whether it’s offered for conception, pregnancy, delivery, or something else scholars have considered, pathology.  I would like to push that indeterminacy even further, and here’s why.

In reality, the part that is ribbed is the vagina, not the womb, and it’s ribbed on the inside not the outside. So if we are going to say that these are wombs because they look like wombs, first, they don’t, and second, even if we think they are near enough, we need to decide how anyone would know what a human womb looks like. We have no evidence of human dissection in antiquity other than in 3rd c BCE Alexandria. Kristina Killgrove, in a 2012 blog post, noticed this: ‘If the Etruscans and Romans really had no understanding of internal anatomy, can we safely say that this depicts what we know to be the uterus?’ That’s to say, if our identification of these as wombs is based on ‘they look sufficiently like wombs’, then how do we say that while still insisting that human dissection wasn’t performed?

Perhaps the appearance of the womb was known from prolapse, more common in antiquity than today. But would that give you the form of these votives? You can google pictures of human and animal uterine prolapse for yourself, but – trust me, or look at the diagrams here – the less severe forms look more like a baby’s head coming out, and only in the full prolapse of a pregnant uterus do you see a sort of wrinkled appearance at the end nearest the body, and that is because the vagina is prolapsing too. Womb movement is described in Hippocratic medicine; for possible prolapse, see Places in Man 47, ‘When the womb has moved but does not project its opening so as to touch the vaginal walls, this is a very trivial complaint’. But that text then goes on to describe what happens ‘If it goes down and turns, then protrudes in the anus’ – if that’s real we are talking very, very rare. And then, ‘If it goes up and turns around and causes a blockage … the womb causes pain in the hips and the head’. We seem to be in another world here. Is it right to take one bit of it very seriously and perform retrospective diagnosis, while cutting out the rest as fantasy?

This raises another important area: the connections between objects and texts. The assumption that the ‘ribbing’ represents muscles is tricky because the Hippocratic texts present the womb as passive in childbirth, the baby doing all of the work, like a chick pecking its way out of the egg. So, how should we respond? Take these ribbed, ‘active’ wombs as evidence of a different theory of birthing in some parts of the ancient Mediterranean? Or take them as the majority, or popular, view, opposed to the Hippocratic one, evidence perhaps that nobody much listened to Hippocratic theory? Or interpret the ribbing differently? Flemming, for example, suggests it is giving the impression of the womb being capable of expansion.

But back for a moment to prolapse. Even today, about 40% of women will suffer some degree of prolapse of the pelvic organs – not just the uterus, but the bladder. This, of course, raises an interesting question which is very rarely addressed – are these bladders, rather than wombs? The subset of ‘votive uteri’ which contain clay balls has been read as evidence that these are all fertilised wombs, the balls being embryos. If we stop assuming these are all wombs, could they be bladders and bladder stones, a suggestion also made by Killgrove? Bladder stone is a real condition – uterine stone isn’t.

In the Hippocratic Places in Man, in one of the rare references to patient sensation in ancient medicine, the list of different possible womb movements mentions ‘something like balls’ in neither the womb nor the bladder, but in the gaster; Craik translates as ‘in the stomach’, but in her notes observes that it could indicate ‘the general abdominal area, including the womb, or perhaps the womb alone’. Potter translates as ‘in the belly’. The Greek gaster is a vague container, sometimes digestive, sometimes gynaecological, as in echein en gastri, ‘to have in the belly’, meaning to be pregnant. There’s nothing here to suggest these ‘balls’ are embryos.

I propose therefore that the range of shapes – and what a range! – could be generic ‘container’ organs, purchased and dedicated for anything from womb to bladder to stomach. Ones with bands on could be used if you feel a tight sensation. Ones with sharp protuberances could be for a sharp pain. And so on. Rather than showing that fertility was one of the main issues brought to healing sanctuaries, the profusion of ‘votive containers’ could instead testify to the vagueness of feelings of unease or pain, the difficulty in working out where the seat of the problem is, as discussed in Emma-Jayne Graham’s blog post here.

Flemming’s ‘focused indeterminacy’ may not be enough: perhaps the votive itself is indeterminate, able to be any container organ, as required.

by Helen King


Comella, A. Il materiale votivo tardo di Gravisca (Rome, 1978).

Flemming, R. ‘Wombs for the Gods’ in J. Draycott, E.-J. Graham (eds), Bodies of Evidence: Ancient Anatomical Votives Past, Present and Future (London, 2017), pp. 112-30.

Killgrove, K. ‘Using Votives to Visualize Reproductive Anatomy in Antiquity’: http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/2012/02/using-votives-to-visualize-reproductive.html

Oberhelman, S. M. ‘Anatomical Votive Reliefs as Evidence for Specialization at Healing Sanctuaries in the Ancient Mediterranean World’, Athens Journal of Health March 2014, pp. 47-62. http://www.atiner.gr/journals/health/2014-1-1-4-OBERHELMAN.pdf

Ricciardi, L. ‘Dalla stipe votiva di Fontanile di Legnisina a Vulci’, in La Civiltà degli Etruschi (Rome, 1993).




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