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date: 19 January 2018


Hysteria, contrary to popular belief, was not so named by the Greeks. In Hippocratic gynaecology (see hippocrates(2)) the womb (Gk. hystera) was indeed believed to ‘wander’ around the body, as a result of menstrual suppression, exhaustion, insufficient food, sexual abstinence, or because it is abnormally dry or light (e.g. Hippoc.Mul. 1. 7). However, neither the classic picture of symptoms familiar from 19th-cent. literature, nor the disease label, existed. Hysteria derives not so much from Hippocratic medicine, in which a number of different disorders were distinguished according to the part of the body to which the errant womb moved (e.g. Mul. 2. 123–31), as from the category of ‘suffocation of/by the womb’ dating to the Hellenistic period. The discovery by Herophilus of the ligaments anchoring the womb to the abdominal cavity led to new explanations of how the womb could cause disturbances of breathing. Galen (De loc. aff. 6. 5) drew a distinction between suffocation caused by retained menstrual blood and that caused by retained female ‘seed’, the latter being more severe. Aretaeus suggested that ‘sympathy’ exists between the womb and the higher organs, allowing the breathing to be affected by the womb (On the Causes and Symptoms of Acute and Chronic Diseases 4. 11). In an attack of hysterical suffocation, the patient was generally thought to lie as if dead, with no perceptible pulse. Therapies included sneezing, the application of foul smells to the nostrils to drive the womb down, venesection at the ankle, and marriage and pregnancy. See menstruation.


H. King, in S. Gilman and others, Hysteria Beyond Freud (1993), 3–90.Find this resource:

B. Simon, Mind and Madness in Ancient Greece (1978).Find this resource:

I. Veith, Hysteria: The History of a Disease (1965).Find this resource:

H. von Staden, Herophilus (1989).Find this resource:

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