Small, roughly cut and covered in strange symbols, these little stones have made their way through museum collections, passed from Classical departments to Egyptology ones, Medieval to European Prehistory. They’ve represented exotic religious doctrines and containers carried by devotees of Isis. Their central motif has depicted a “vase of sins” of the Gnostic Christian sect, a vase to collect water from the Nile, a pneumatically driven musical instrument, a cooking pot and no doubt many more entertaining conjectures which never made it to paper.
A more accurate understanding of these strange amulets emerged at the beginning of the 20th century when it was conjectured that the central motif of cupping-vessel-shaped objects on the amulets was in fact a human uterus. This was confirmed by the interpretation of the one-word inscription which appears on the reverse of many of this class of amulet, including that pictured above: Ororiouth. This name appears on other stone inscriptions and belongs to the daemon of the womb, who looked over the human uterus and ensured its proper functioning.
What more do we know about these uterine amulets? Lacking any secure archaeological context, they have been dated between the 1st and late 5th centuries AD. All the inscriptions – like the one above – are written in Greek and feature gods from the Egyptian Pantheon, suggesting an origin in the Roman east and Alexandria, known for its amuletic traditions. However, one amulet was even found in Hertfordshire, UK. Although written in the Greek alphabet, many inscriptions are transliterations of Aramaic, Assyrian and Egyptian. All these elements, however vague, point to a large tradition, crossing both physical and language barriers, suggesting a diverse range of users. Apart from this, we know very little about the context of these uterine amulets, with no known places of recovery (the Hertfordshire amulet aside), and rely for the most part on what their image can tell us.
The image above depicts a fairly standard uterine amulet, complete with the regular features one would expect. It is 18mm tall, 15mm wide and 4mm thick. While some vary in shape and figures, inscription and symbols, all feature a round shape in the centre, shaped like an upside-down cupping vessel. We will take our image above as our example, beginning with the obverse on the left. In the centre is our cupping vessel, which by now we know is a uterus. Directly below that is a seven toothed key with a handle on the right. Above the uterus are some figures. These vary from amulet to amulet, but here they are Anubis, Chnoubis and Isis. Surrounding this compilation is Ouroboros, a snake eating itself, thought to have symbolised eternity and regeneration as well as imprisonment and enclosure. Encircling the edge beyond Ouroboros is magical formula called “Soroor-Logos”. On the reverse the word Orouriouth inscribed, referring to the guardian of the womb.
Anubis is the Jackal-headed Egyptian god associated with the afterlife. Chnoubis takes the form of a coiled serpent with a lion’s head and was believed to prevent abdominal pain. Isis was the Egyptian goddess of fertility and motherhood. In their diversity, they highlight the range of impacts the uterus has on the body, not limited to reproduction. Some amulets contain more extended inscriptions which include commands such as “be contracted womb”, “contract womb, lest Typhon snatch you” and “put the womb of so-and-so in its place”. We should here understand ‘contract’ as the reduction of inflamation and irritation, rather than our modern sense, associated with birth. The ‘so-and-so’, rather than a reference to a particular name, suggests that these could be generic amulets sold after being inscribed, rather than made to order. There are some, however, which feature names. These strongly-worded commands, combined with the implications of a key, present the uterus as something which needs to be contained and controlled, almost an enemy to the body. This is reinforced by the enclosing Ouroboros, the protection of Ororionth and the frequent motif of Egyptian gods standing on top of the uterus, as if holding it down with their own body weight (as suggested in the amulet shown above), like a trampled enemy.
These amulets pose another interesting question through the diversity of their motif and inscriptions. The uterus is represented a a multifaceted organ which can harm and disrupt the body in multiple ways. The inscriptions on a majority of the amulets suggest ailments which do not concern birth or pregnancy, but rather the position and pathology of the uterus itself. While the ‘key’ could indeed represent the opening and closing of the uterus during conception and birth, it could just as likely relate to menstruation or the prevention of haemorrhage. Many scholars have noted that the Egyptian god of childbirth, Thouéris, does not appear on any of the amulets, a figure we might expect if the objects were purely to aid conception and birth.
Without any contextual information concerning these amulets, its hard to really say who used them and in what capacity, but we can make an educated guess. Their use is attested by a passage of Soranus, in which he disregards the amulets as superstitious rubbish. He writes, “amulets employed to staunch uterine hemorrhage through their antipathy… are equally ineffective, although their use should not be forbidden, since the hope they provide possibly makes the woman more cheerful”. In allowing for these amulets as a ‘placebo’, Soranus tells us two things: first that they were fairly widely used (or else he would not comment on them), and secondly, that they were used by women. A third conclusion we can draw from this statement is the separation between the academic written medical ideas we find in texts, and the beliefs held by the majority of people. The amount of uterine amulets found suggests they were not the beliefs of a few, but of the many.
Then clean cut on the reverse of this amulet, and many others, suggests it might have been inserted into a ring or setting and be worn by the owner regularly, like that pictured here (left). Elsewhere it has been suggested they would be inserted into a small material pouch and kept on the body. In any case, they were most likely personal objects, used by the owner in reference to their own bodies.
The variation in the combination of deities, the inscriptions, and the different symbols which appear on these amulets highlights the range of problems associated with the uterus, existing outside of birth and reproduction and focusing, rather, on the ailments which this organ caused to the lives of women. This interpretation allows us to conceive of an ancient notion of women’s bodies independent of fertility and reproductive capacity and recognises the uterus as an organ which threatens the body and requires control.
Marino, K. R., ‘Setting the Womb in Its Place: Toward A Contextual Archaeology of Graeco-Egyptian Uterine Amulets’ (2010)
Ritner, R. K., ‘A Uterine Amulet in the Oriental Institute Collection’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jul., 1984), pp. 209-221