The class of so-called “uterine gems” was identified by Bonner, in SMA, 79 (D 129–143). The number of gems known today amounts to over two hundred, thus representing the third category after the Anguipede and Chnoubis. This series is essentially composed of haematite stones, more seldom of red jasper. The iconography is bilingual, mingling Greek and Egyptian elements, verbal and visual.
In 1914, Armand Delatte demonstrated that the vessel engraved on the gems represents the uterus because some stones bear inscriptions that designate the womb, mētra, controlled by the daimōn or theos Ororiouth. In 1950, Campbell Bonner was the first to note that the image of the pot looks like a medical cupping vessel, sikua (SMA, 94), round on top and open at the base. He mentioned that Soranus of Ephesus (Gynecology, 1.9) associated the shape of the uterus with that of the medical device.
Dasen and Ducaté-Paarmann 2006
Mastrocinque 2014, 83–92, nos 196–231.
Michel 2001, 220–246, nos 350–388.
Michel 2004 334–341, § 54.
At first sight, the depiction of a medical object on a magical stone is intriguing. A cupping vessel was primarily used to act on bodily fluids and hence was associated with rational humoral theory and practice. Its presence on a magical stone may seem to be out of place. However, medical as well as non-medical references are at work. Haematite, like red jasper, was chosen for its medical qualities as well as its metaphoric symbolism combined with the power of the engraved picture. The vessel symbolising the human womb is an image rooted in Egyptian and Greek traditions, but with different associations that create a powerful protection.
The cupping vessel and humoral mechanics
The image of the womb as a vessel refers to a familiar Greek metaphor. Medical texts often compare the organ with different types of pots, such as the generic angos (jar, jug), askos, or lekythos (Dasen 2015; Angos: Epidemics 6.5.11 (Littré, 5.318–319); lekythos: Diseases of Women 1.33 (Littré 8.78–79); askos: Diseases of Women 1.170 (Littré 8.350–351). More specifically, the image of the cupping-vessel is already used in Hippocratic treatises. The author of On Ancient Medicine thus compares the cupping device with various organs attracting fluids:
“Cupping instruments (sikuai) which are broad and tapering, are so constructed on purpose to draw and attract blood from the flesh [...]. Of the parts within the human frame, the bladder, the head, and the womb are of this structure.” (Ancient Medicine, 22 /Littré I. 626–628; transl. W. H. S. Jones, Loeb/)
In the Generation of Animals (2.4.739b), Aristotle uses the same analogy to describe the sucking up action of the uterus: sperm ascends in the uterus because it is drawn up by heat.
Other iconographic elements are related to medical concern. A 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7-bitted key closes the base of the cupping vessel (3-bitted key: CBd-727; 4-bitted key: CBd-136; 5-bitted key: CBd-735; 6-bitted key: CBd-100; 7-bitted key: CBd-1).
The key symbolises the opening and closing mechanism of the womb, which was central in ancient Greek gynaecology. Different movements must happen at the proper time. The womb is expected to open periodically to release menses, attract male seed, then close to retain it, and let the child grow. At the time of delivery, the uterus opens again to release the child.
A variant depicts Horus the child seated on the cupping vessel, holding the key, as if he controlled the moment of his birth (see CBd-1055).The image expresses the notion of foetal activity described in the Hippocratic treatises. In the Eight Months’ Child (Littré 7.436), the author explains how the foetus participates in the delivery; like a chick emerging from its shell, the child breaks the membranes because food is lacking in the womb (Dasen, 2013, 30–33, fig. 1.4; Dasen 2015, 136–138, fig. 4.15).
The key thus had to seal the womb symbolically, preventing abortion and loss of nourishment for the foetus; the frightening risk of haemorrhage was warded off by the staunching power of haematite that was believed to have an action on the body as a drug. The styptic qualities of the stone were in use in pharmacology until the nineteenth century. Moreover, haematite was symbolically associated with the blood issued from the mutilated sex of Ouranos castrated by the god Kronos. The Orphic Lapidary (21.658-663) explains that the mineralized drops of blood falling to the earth produced the stone. Hesiod (Theogony, 180–198) tells that from this blood are also born giants and the avenging Erinyes, whereas Aphrodite is born from the foam produced by this castration. In the Orphic Lapidary (21.674) the stone was thus endowed with a strong male generative power explaining its capacity both to control blood flows and to cure reproductive organs (Dasen 2015, 34–37).
Some modern authors relate the wavy lines on top and at the sides of the cupping vessel to the anatomical discoveries of Herophilus of Chalcedon, a Greek physician who founded the medical school of Alexandria. Human dissections – and even vivisections – allowed him to make major advances on the knowledge of reproductive organs. He thus observed and described ligaments, ovaries and the Fallopian tubes (called “spermatic ducts”) (cf. Heinrich von Staden, Herophilus: the Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria /Cambridge, 1989/, 167–169 /Fr 61, T 105–114/). These details could designate Alexandria as the place of creation of a design associating a medical instrument and anatomical discoveries. However, a literal interpretation must be nuanced. The various shapes of these elements, often fanciful, suggest that the engravers had no actual anatomical models or knowledge. On some stones, the wavy lines serve as a floor line for the divine figures (cf. CBd-100, London British Museum G 1986,5-1,26). Other references, Egyptian this time, explain these devices (see below).
How far do uterine gems refer to medical practice, aside from the therapeutic qualities attributed to haematites? The cupping vessel was never used for treating gynaecological diseases. It was part of a doctor’s standard medical equipment and acted mechanically on the movements of bodily fluids that determined health in the humoral theory. First attested at the turn of the sixth century BC, the item is the regular emblem of medical technē in Greek and Roman iconography; on tombstones of the Roman period, its image designates the profession of the deceased. On the famous stela of Jason, an Athenian doctor, an oversized cupping device is depicted on the floor as a symbol of his knowledge and activity (cf. Stela from Athens, 2nd cent. AD, London, British Museum 1865,0103.3).
In a magical context, the meaning of the device thus changes. It no more refers to healing methods, but is reduced, with a new focus. It symbolises a specific body part, the womb. It conveniently visualises its attractive capacity that reveals its secret, demonic life (cf. Christopher A. Faraone, 'New Lights on Ancient Exorcisms of the Wandering Womb,' ZPE 144 (2003), 189–200; Dasen 2002). Carved on haematite, a “male” stone with generative power, the image was a powerful protection for women in all kinds of situations (Dasen 2015, 37–41). It must be noted that this transfer of meaning occurs only on magical gems. Anatomical ex-votos use another visual vocabulary, such as the possible reference to wineskins in the terracotta offerings from central Italy and Etruria, as well as in Plinius, Naturalis Historia (11.209: utriculus unde dictus uterus).
The god behind the cupping device
Did the image of a well-known medical instrument aim at increasing the efficacy of the gem, adding a scientific value to the magical practice? Other associations operate. The picture occurs in a religious context in a miniaturised form on Greek coinage, a media comparable with gems. Several Greek cities use the picture on coins by the end of the Classical period (Raymond Georges Penn, Medicine on Ancient Greek and Roman Coins /London, 1994/, 141–143, with coin list on 158). The earliest example is a bronze issue from Atrax in Thessaly (ca. 360 BC), depicting on one side a cupping device and forceps with the bust of Asclepios on the other (Bronze, from Atrax, Thessaly, London, British Museum 1866,1201.4268; Jürgen W. Riethmüller, Asklepios: Heiligtümer und Kulte II /Heidelberg, 2005/, 299–300, no. 154). Similarly, silver and bronze coins from Astakos in Acharnania depict on one side a cupping device with forceps (Riethmüller, Asklepios, II, 286, no. 140). Similar items are shown on the coinage of Epidaurus (ca. 225–200 BC; Bronze, London, British Museum GC10p157.12). On coins, the depiction of the device indicates a sanctuary of Asclepius as a place of healing activity. In other terms, a medical instrument associated with rational practices designates the action of a god on coins. Thus, on magical gems, as on coins, it invoked the healing presence of Asclepius, not of human practitioners. At the same time, the function of the device changed.
The motif of the key closing the womb is found as a votive offering in sanctuaries of deities presiding over marriage and procreation, such as Hera and Artemis (Paola Zancani Montuoro, 'Paestum. 5. Chiavi,' AttiMGrecia, n. s. 6–7 /1965–66/, 152–158). Festus, de Verborum Significatu, s.v. Clauim (second century AD) reports that Roman women offered keys in order to have an easy delivery (consuetudo erat mulieribus donare ob significandam partus facilitate, ed. Müller 1839, 56), an assertion confirmed by archaeological finds in Falerii Veteres and other Italian sites. A bonze key was thus dedicated in the sanctuary of Tufillo in Central Italy to Herentas, an Oscan deity protecting birth: herettates : sum | agerllùd, “I am Herentas Venus from Agello” (Dasen and Ducaté Paarmann 2006, pl. 18, 5.)
Khnum and childbirth
The images of the pot and of the key, surrounded by an ouroboros snake, were also meaningful to Egyptian eyes. Ensuring the closing of the uterus for a safe pregnancy and an easy opening for giving birth was central in Egyptian gynaecology too, as Robert K. Ritner demonstrated (Ritner 1984, 212). Medical as well as magical papyri also provide recipes for a timely opening of the womb for the delivery. The ram-headed god Khnum, who moulds the embryo on his potter’s wheel, traditionally acted as the “opener” of the womb. In the Ptolemaic temple of Esna, his competences are invoked:
“Respect Khnum, pregnant women who have passed their term. For he is the god Shu of the House of Birth who opens the lips of the vagina and makes firm the birth brick in his form of Amon.” (transl. Ritner 1984, 215)
Some magical gems allude to the power of the god. On a haematite stone in Cologne, wavy lines on top of the cupping device resemble the ram horns of Khnum (CBd-1957, cf. Dasen 2015, 64–65, fig. 2.6). They also evoke the headdress of the four Meskhenets, goddesses of childbirth, on Ptolemaic reliefs (Dasen 2015, 63, fig. 2.5). On some gems, the god holds the handle of a key that designates his unlocking function, see CBd-1355. Other Egyptian deities may perform this role that involves protection in Egyptian imagery as well. On a haematite in the British Museum, the handle of the key is canid-headed (CBd-748. The animal is most likely the jackal Anubis, seated with a four-pronged key tied to a cord around the neck on coffins, shrouds, and mummy labels, from the beginning of the 2nd cent. AD until the fourth century AD (cf. K. Parlasca, 'Anubis mit dem Schlüssel in der Kaiserzeitlichen Grabkunst Ägyptens,' in Isis on the Nile, Egyptian Gods in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, Proceedings of the IVth International Conference of Isis Studies, Liège, November 27–29, 2008, ed. L. Bricault and M. J. Versluys /Leiden and Boston, 2010/, 221–232). On mummies, the key refers to the doors of the afterlife and to the travel in the underworld. The motif seems to be common in the Thebaid region. On gems, the key, a Greek device, is thus mingled with Egyptian symbolism. It is endowed with the new function of ensuring a safe birth, seen, like death, as a passage and a travel, watched over by guardians.
The uterus as a pot: an Egyptian metaphor?
Why select the picture of a vessel, an inert object, to depict a living organ? The idea that conducted the choice may be Egyptian. Spell 996 of the Coffin Texts thus mentions matricial vessels called qrHt, also cared for by the god Khnum. Similarly, in Spell 479 of the Coffin Texts, the qrHt of Nephthys designates the divine uterus which must ensure the rebirth of the dead (C. Spieser, 'Vases et peaux d'animaux à fonction matricielle dans l'Egypte ancienne,' BibO 63 /2006/, 219–222).
Different ritual receptacles, such as the hydria, the cist or the mould, also served as substitutes for the uterus in the rite of the germinating Osiris. In order to be regenerated, the divine embryo was placed in a mould, also called qrHt, or a situla, as depicted in Papyrus Salt (Late Period, fourth century BC) (Ph. Derchain, Le papyrus Salt 825 (B.M. 10051), rituel pour la conservation de la vie en Egypte /Bruxelles, 1965/, 93–94, fig. IXc and fig. XX).
The Canopic jars preserving the stomach, intestines, liver, and lungs also evidence the visual correspondence between organs and vessels in the Egyptian tradition. The heart, left in place in the mummified body, is represented by the pictogram of the ib-vessel. It stands for the heart, weighed on a balance, in scenes of the underworld. Heart-amulets too are in the shape of an egg-shaped vessel placed on mummies since the New Kingdom. (Cf. EA15619 in the British Museum.)
The choice of the image of the cupping device for depicting a uterus is thus an exemplary cross-cultural product: it translates an Egyptian concept using the Greek picture of the cupping device. It may reflect the influence of Alexandria where a reputed medical school was established. But only Egyptian deities govern this Graeco-Roman instrument: the ram-headed Khnum, Isis, Nephthys, Chnoubis, and Bes, surrounded by the Ouroboros, the serpent eating its tail, symbol of protection and renewal.
Medical or magical?
Using a rational device in a magical context visually expresses the contiguity of medical and magical practices. The similarities are especially strong in gynaecology. In Egyptian medical texts, as in the Hippocratic treatises, the demonic dimension of uterine diseases is associated with specific treatments, such as fumigations and Dreckapotheke, well documented by Heinrich von Staden (H. von Staden, 'Matière et signification. Rituel, sexe et pharmacologie dans le corpus hippocratique,' AntCl 60 /1991/, 42–61).
The combination of iconographic elements from Graeco-Roman and Egyptian traditions visualise metaphorically the magical action and ensure its performative efficacy. The mingling was realised by ritual experts, offering a bilingual reading recalling the Egyptian priestly milieu of magoi (Dasen 2019).