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Women & WeaselsMythologies of Birth in Ancient Greece and Rome$

Maurizio Bettini and Emlyn Eisenach

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780226044743

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226039961.001.0001

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Wilde Frau, Savage Midwife

Wilde Frau, Savage Midwife

(p.173) [12] Wilde Frau, Savage Midwife
Women & Weasels

Maurizio Bettini

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the midwife in Alcmene's tale—a character for whom the Rescuer could be considered a mythological projection. This character not only helps us find possible connections between the dissonant aspects of the weasel in the story but also understand the cultural meaning of the Rescuer's cunning.

Keywords:   Alcmene, childbirth, midwife, mythological projection, Rescuer, cunning, weasel

Up to this point we have examined how the weasel is described in the ancient cultural encyclopedia and in stories. We know, for example, that the weasel was imagined variously as witch, debauchee, and creature of cunning. What relationship could these figures have to the weasel of Alcmene's tale? While we can easily understand the attribution of cunning to Alcmene's weasel—the animal that can trick God can certainly trick the Enemy of the Woman in Labor—we find ourselves in some difficulty with witchcraft and debauchery, which appear at first glance to have nothing to do with those who assist at birth. These seemingly dissonant notes, however, reveal themselves unexpectedly harmonious and actually enrich the melody we are seeking if we insert a character for whom the Rescuer could be considered a mythological projection: the midwife. This character can help us not only weave the dissonant aspects of the weasel into the story but also understand the cultural meaning of the Rescuer's cunning.

The appearance of this new character in our story should have been expected for, as we have seen, according to Ovid, Galanthis was an assistant at the birth (una ministrarum) and, according to Istros and Aelian, the weasel was the trophós of Heracles, probably in the sense of a midwife or second mother of the hero.1 In some versions of the tale of Alcmene, then, it was a midwife who was transformed into the weasel. But even when Alcmene's friend the Rescuer is not explicitly identified as a midwife, her role still corresponds perfectly to that of this figure, who is often defined as a femme-qui-aide,2 or a woman who “brings help.”3 So we will look for possible connections between the dissonant aspects of the weasel (as witch and as debauchee) and the function the weasel serves in the tale of Alcmene.

1. The Goddess-Midwife Is a Witch

  • This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
  • That presses them and learns them first to bear,
  • Making them women of good carriage4

(p.174) We begin with the greatest dissonance: the weasel-witch. As we have seen, accusations of witchcraft leveled at the weasel not only appeared in Aelian and Apuleius but was extended over centuries, across vast geographical and cultural spaces.5 This is clearly a fundamental theme we cannot ignore. And it leads to a question: can the worlds of the witch and the midwife overlap?

This conjunction in fact emerges clearly in the very story we are analyzing. The Enemies are goddess-midwives who, in this instance, behave like witches. The Eileithyiai, the Moirai, Lucina, and Hera, all goddesses associated with birth, perform witchcraft by intertwining their hands and legs at the time of the birth. In one account, the Enemies are even explicitly called the Pharmakides, or witches, using the same word Aelian applied to “Weasel,” the witch pharmakís, before her transformation into an animal. Thus, depending on the situation and the storyteller, the divine midwives can as easily be evil witches as benevolent goddesses. Lucina in Ovid's Metamorphoses clearly manifested this ambivalence, sometimes pronouncing the verba puerpera to make the woman give birth with ease, other times, as in the story of Alcmene, instead reciting carmina, “spells [that] … held back the delivery.6 And of course Hecate, goddess/witch par excellence, is also linked to birth.7 So in both religion and traditional tales, the link between the worlds of magic and midwifery appears firm.

This could be a sufficient answer: a weasel-witch is suitable for the role of midwife in the tale of Alcmene because in the ancient world witches were also goddesses of birth. We will ask a further question, however: how might these mythical traits of the goddess-midwife correspond to the “real” figures of the Greek maîa or the Roman obstetrix? Answering this is not easy because even tracing the outlines of the midwife in the ancient world is a difficult task. We will try to understand why in a brief digression.

1.1 Curanderas, Profesoras, Hairdressers, and Other Theatrical Helpers

Two barriers, or, better, screens lie between us and the maîa or obstetrix, potentially distorting our image of her. The first barrier is a modern, ethnocentric prejudice that can mislead us into seeing the ancient midwife either as too similar to or else too different from the modern Western image of the midwife in non-Western cultures. The second barrier is created by gender: the possibility that the image of the midwife has been distorted by the accretions of male-dominated culture.

The ethnocentric prejudice is similar to the prejudice that sometimes prevents Western doctors from appreciating the worth of “birth attendants” (p.175) in traditional cultures,8 an attitude that recent research has sought to combat.9 This prejudice could lead us to imagine ancient maîai or obstetrices as essentially traditional midwives similar to those found today in many non-Western countries: middle-aged or elderly women, illiterate and lacking a regular education, who practice midwifery as a part-time occupation.10 Such women pursue this activity because of family tradition, supernatural vocation, or dream experiences and become figures who are often respected and even feared not only for their technical skills but also for their esoteric powers.11

It would be a mistake, however, to conceive of the ancient world as populated with curanderas rather than profesoras, to use the distinction between traditional and professionally trained midwives that is current in parts of Latin America.12 Indeed, professional midwives as we understand them today were already emerging in fifth-century B.C.E. Athens as part of the more general flourishing of Hippocratic women's medicine.13 While consigned to the periphery of the profession because of their sex, these practitioners would nonetheless be considered qualified professionals even by modern ethnocentric standards. Plato made reference to female doctors in the Athens of his day,14 while the fourth-century B.C.E. monument to a woman named Phanostráte identifies her as maîa and iatrós, that is, both “midwife” and “doctor.”15 Turning to the Roman world, funerary inscriptions from the eastern Mediterranean provide ample evidence of women who surpassed the status of midwife (maîa) to merit the title of obstetrician (iatròs gynaikeîos), and similar inferences can be made for the western Mediterranean.16 The professionalization of midwifery must have been quite advanced at the end of the first century C.E. for the physician Soranus to address his celebrated gynecological tract to a class for professional midwives. He characterized his intended audience thus:17

A suitable person will be literate, with her wits about her, possessed of a good memory…. She must be literate in order to be able to comprehend the art through theory too; she must have her wits about her so that she may easily follow what is said and what is happening; she must have a good memory to retain the imparted instructions.

According to Soranus, the midwife who had fully mastered her art,18

in addition to her management of cases[,] is well versed in theory. And more particularly, we call a person the best midwife if she is trained in all branches of therapy … if she is moreover able to prescribe hygienic regulations for her (p.176) patients, to observe the general and the individual features of the case, and from this to find out what is expedient.

The work continues in this vein, clearly forming part of a system of formal medical training aimed at midwives.19

While the ancient world knew profesoras, women who were (ideally) free of superstition,20 and who had more than elementary medical knowledge, it would be naive to assume that all midwives were like those Soranus addressed. The world of antiquity was vast and diverse. It contained aristocratic ladies and large centers of culture, but also poor plebeian women and small villages. Moreover, it is likely that for less complicated births, women relied on the simple help of kin and neighbors, much as women in many traditional cultures do today.21 Ancient sources bear ample witness to this phenomenon.

In Aristophanes' Assemblywomen, Praxagora explains her nocturnal absence to her husband by claiming that a “dear friend” from the neighborhood who was in labor had urgently summoned her. When a woman's time came, friends and neighbors were the first to be called.22 Providing birthing help would have been a duty no woman could avoid, an integral part of the mutual aid that characterized female friendship. As we have seen, Antoninus Liberalis's Galinthias is a “childhood friend” of the woman in labor,23 while Ovid's Galanthis is a ministra, a “helper” well known to the Theban women for the services she does for them.24 In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the women who surround the divine Leto during her labor are the women of her neighborhood, that is, the other goddesses of Olympus.25 Finally, as we have already seen, at the Athenian celebration of the Amphidromia held the fifth day after a baby's birth, “the women who had participated in the birth (maíosis) cleansed their hands.” These women must have been considered close to the family if they come to an intimate celebration like the Amphidromia, where the baby is carried around the household hearth and given a name.26

The women who circulate around laboring women in ancient comedies are a varied, interesting, and not always savory group. As we have already seen, in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae,27 an old woman without any particular qualifications gains entry to the birth room, while still another old woman assists the young Glycerium in Terence's The Girl from Andros. This second old woman, the “drunken and impetuous” Lesbia, we are explicitly told, does not seem the ideal person to be entrusted with a woman who is giving birth for the first time.28 The choice of midwife, it seems, could vary according to the situation. In Plautus's Truculentus, we meet a hairdresser who assists the fraudulently pregnant courtesan Phronesium in her intrigues;29 while in Cistellaria, the friend who is looking for a baby for the (p.177) courtesan Melaenis to pass off as her own is a procuress (lena) and likely also a courtesan herself.30 We can assume that both the hairdresser and the courtesan-procuress had access to the (pretend) birthing rooms as women who (pretend to) assist during the labor. In other cases, however, even Plautine comedies refer to actual obstetrices—who charged rather high fees.31

The ancient world, therefore, appears to have known both the professional midwife and the occasional, or traditional, midwife. It would be tempting at this point to apply the classic distinction between professional midwives and “birth attendants,” treating them as two distinct groups. On one side would be midwives educated by (male) doctors and similar to today's midwives; on the other would be lay midwives, women drawn from among friends and kin, who had no specialized training and were educated in traditional practices.

But could such a sharp distinction between types of midwives actually be made in the ancient world? An interesting debate is currently underway over how much female knowledge was incorporated in the Hippocratic Corpus's treatises on women's medicine.32 Although the question remains open, it seems improbable that male physicians, having developed an interest in controlling women's bodies, would then have created paradigms and therapies completely on their own. While typical male notions about the female body appear throughout the work—the image of the woman as a field ready for the plow, the prescription of sex as a cure for all female ills, the wandering womb33—it is also true that the Hippocratic authors often openly show that they consulted women on some issues, as well as obtaining information from female experts about conception, the length of gestation, and similar matters.34 One element of women's medicine above all was clearly owed to female lore: effective treatment.35 Authorities such as Galen and especially Pliny frequently cite women's opinions on women's medical issues.36 Indeed, it seems quite likely that in the course of the development of women's medicine, and therefore in the progressive formation of a class of professional midwives educated by male physicians, traditional women's lore about the female body provided basic information, expertise, and treatments. Therefore, in a sense, the traditional midwives, from whom professional midwives sought to distinguish themselves, in fact contributed to the development of their competitors.

Still, we must accept that the figure of the midwife in the ancient world remains difficult to categorize, particularly in modern terms. We cannot draw a bright line between the “scientific” and “folkloric” midwife, just as we ultimately cannot distinguish between the male and female contributions to ancient medical texts. There was a spectrum of midwifery, with Soranus's (p.178) professional at one extreme, the old women of the comedies at the other, and in between them a vast gray area.

Let us now return to our principal theme: the weasel. The introduction of the midwife into our account was intended to aid in understanding some of the traditional characteristics of this animal—its witchcraft, debauchery, and cunning—that seem at odds with the role of midwife or trophós that this animal plays in the tale of Alcmene. We must now try to keep this promise by asking if the ancient midwife was sometimes considered a witch, and if she could be considered debauched and cunning.

1.2 The Piacula of the Obstetrices

Intriguing information about the facility ancient midwives had with philters and magic potions first emerges in a celebrated passage of Plato's Theaetetus.37 Socrates' mother, Phainarete, was a midwife (maîa), and, as is well known, Socrates felt himself a particularly astute practitioner of this art, which he, however, exercised on men rather than women, his province “the labour of … minds, not bodies.”38 In developing the extended simile between midwife mother and philosophical-midwife son, the Socrates of Plato provides us with useful information on how the maîa was seen by the Greek culture of his age.

Phainarete was, first of all, called a “noble” gennaía,39 and was thus a figure with a certain prestige who was respected by the community. The Greek word for midwife, maîa, is also interesting considered from this point of view. When used as a term of address it conveyed respect and would be used only for a woman who had reached or surpassed middle age and who, by virtue of her age, could move freely in public and play an important role in her own household.40 In contrast, to call an elderly woman graûs, or “old woman,” was considered insulting.41 The midwife's name in Greek is thus reminiscent of the French word matronne, which is similarly used for a midwife as well as to indicate age and respectability.42

To continue the Platonic description, the midwife, according to Socrates, existed in some sense outside the realm of fertility and birth, for “no woman practices midwifery while she is still of an age to get pregnant and give birth herself.”43 In effect, then, to be called maîa implied having reached the age of menopause. According to Socrates, however, the reason for midwives' effective barrenness lay in the nature of Artemis, at once the goddess of birth and the virgin goddess par excellence, who had never herself borne a child. Plato's link between Artemis and the midwife will be useful later on; for now we will simply underscore the fact that in most traditional cultures midwives (p.179) were recruited from the ranks of women of a certain age and who had often passed menopause.44

Socrates' description continued:45 midwives' “chants (epáidousai) and the drugs (pharmákia) they administer can induce labor and relieve the pains, as they see fit; can bring a difficult birth to a successful conclusion; and can bring on a miscarriage.” Thus midwives like the “noble maîa” Phainarete were skilled in the art of potions and incantations, magical means they used to rescue laboring women in difficulty. Soranus, who as we know had an elevated conception of the midwife, also alluded to the magic used by midwives,46 and he advised them to “be free of superstition so as not to overlook salutary measures on account of a dream or omen or some customary rite or vulgar superstition.”47

Of all our ancient sources, Pliny provides the most useful information about midwives' witchcraft. In describing the medicinal powers of human body parts, he comes to those attributed to the female body:48 “Some reported products of women's bodies should be added to the class of marvels, to say nothing of tearing to pieces for sinful practices the limbs of still-born babies, the undoing of spells by the menstrual fluid, and the other accounts given not only by midwives but actually by harlots.” Midwives, like prostitutes, practice sorcery with the limbs of miscarried fetuses, menstrual blood, and other substances from the female body that Pliny declines to specify. There is no doubt that here we are in the thick of witchcraft. At the book's outset, just before Pliny declares that he is going list auxilia not piacula, that is medical remedies, not horrible spells,49 he goes into luxuriant (and horrifying) detail about piacula: the uses of a baby's head, of human intestines, and so on. These are exactly the kinds of practices that Horace and Lucan describe as traditionally attributed to witches.50 So midwives in antiquity are accused of practicing black magic and dismembering corpses. It is certainly worthwhile to emphasize at this point that weasels were also traditionally accused of attacking cadavers. The first similarities between our two characters—witch-weasel and witch-midwife—are beginning to appear.

To continue with Pliny, in his horrifying cemetery of bodies devastated by magic, it is hardly surprising to come across menstrual blood, a substance it is well known Pliny found extraordinarily grotesque (“nihil facile reperiatur mulierum profluvio magis monstrificum”, and to which he ascribed numerous incredible powers, such as turning new wine sour, making crops barren, and blunting knives.51 Elsewhere Pliny describes how prostitutes and midwives manipulate this abominable substance for their own ends: “Nor are women themselves immune to the effect of this plague of their sex [malum suum]; a miscarriage is caused by a smear, or even if a woman (p.180) with child steps over it.”52 This probably worked by sympathetic effect: menstrual blood was held to have the power to start the menstrual flow that had stopped with pregnancy, causing a miscarriage. Following this, Pliny continues,53

Lais and Elephantis do not agree in their statements about abortives, the burning root of cabbage, myrtle, or tamarisk extinguished by the menstrual blood … or in their other portentous or contradictory pronouncements, one saying that fertility, the other that barrenness is caused by the same measures. It is better not to believe them.

Menstrual blood has strong effects on women's bodies, Pliny is sure, even if he remains skeptical of some of the practices. Women claim to use this liquid, as horrible as it is powerful, to induce both miscarriages and conceptions. Pliny records that it can even cure the bite of a rabid dog.54

Who are these two women, Lais and Elephantis? We will discuss them further shortly, but given that Pliny refers to them both in connection with the use of menstrual blood, Lais twice in regard to this abhorred substance, we may assume that they were part of the group of obstetrices and meretrices associated a few paragraphs earlier with sorcery (piacula) performed with menstrual blood.55 Also part of this group is the midwife Sotira, whom Pliny mentioned elsewhere as an advocate of using menstrual blood to cure fevers. He said it must be smeared on the “soles of the patient's feet … without the patient's knowledge [!]”56

We should stop here a moment and consider a comparison. We have seen how Pliny ascribes a witchcraft-like character to midwives' and prostitutes' dealings with abortifacients. In the Christian era, John Chrysostom would consign acts like these to a catalog of nefarious female activities that strongly resembles Pliny's.57 After leveling accusations of murder at men who frequent prostitutes because, he reasons, the men's visits compel the women to have abortions, Chrysostom then takes on courtesans, who he says will stop at nothing to retain their beauty: “incantations, and libations, and love-potions, and countless other plans.” Following this, Chrysostom returns to the husbands who now force not only prostitutes but even their own wives to have abortions: “For sorceries (pharmakeîai)58 are applied not to the womb that is prostituted, but to [that of] the injured wife, and there are plottings without number, and invocations of devils, and necromancies.” Once again witchcraft intermingles with women's secret practices—even with their beauty rituals. What is worse, this time demons and the dead summoned from the grave peep into the boudoirs of the prostitutes and women corrupted by their husbands. Pliny never went this far—at least not explicitly.

(p.181) Midwives practice magic. They dismember fetuses and deal in the most grotesque product of the female body, menstrual blood. The insistent presence of this fluid in the midwife-witch's magical dealings testifies to the decidedly masculine attitude that infuses this information. Pliny especially seems to suffer from a particular obsession with menstrual fluid. His long catalog in book 7 of the monstrous marvels of this substance begins with a veritable epic poem of masculine horror and disgust at this most female of secretions.59 It is just that the mingling of magic and midwifery was not simply the product of Pliny's fantasies. Even Socrates' Phainarete dealt in potions and incantations, which she used not for horrific piacula but to perform her normal duties as a midwife.60 The various representations of the midwife-witch intertwine and multiply; terrifying projections of the masculine imagination seem to merge with the actual practices of “noble midwives.” This, however, should not surprise us.

The figure of the witch, like that of the midwife, was marked by cultural ambivalence. On the one hand, the witchcraft attributed to women was a masculine construction, the result of simple distortion and of a role women assumed in reaction to the societal conditions in which they found themselves. On the other hand, the ancient world really believed in and practiced magic. We should remember Pliny's words:61 “As individuals, the wiser men reject the belief in the power of magic words and incantations. In fact, though, life on the whole lends credence to it all the time, even without perceiving it.” Belief in and use of magical remedies were unthinking and permeated the culture. Women and men shared faith in magical practices and often considered women the most skilled practitioners of magic. Even the Hippocratic Corpus contains persistent traces of magical remedies mingled with women's medicine,62 while further reading of Pliny could only increase ad infinitum our store of magical remedies related both to birth and feminine complaints in general. Thus, when we encounter images of midwife-witches who use potions and sorcery on women in labor (or on women more generally), it is necessary to understand that behind these representations could indeed lie men's fear of women's knowledge, but also that these representations developed within a magical frame of reference that, as Pliny says, was widely shared throughout the culture of the ancient world.

1.3 The Sagae of Ancient Rome: Witches, Procuresses, and Prophetesses

Although evidence of connections between the witch and the obstetrix is sparse, at least in the earliest period of Rome's history, we can learn something about it from a category of female Roman soothsayer that was (p.182) suspected of association with midwives: the sagae.63 No ancient Roman seems to have been sufficiently concerned about these women to bother describing them. We will try to do so now.

Sagae, as far as we can determine, were first and foremost procuresses,64 and as such they were thought to have knowledge of male sexual tastes: “Women who investigate mens sexual pleasures are called sagae.”65 The saga's role, however, could also be likened to that of the more respectable conciliatrix, or matchmaker, also known as pronuba,66 who “obtains wives for husbands and husbands for wives.”67 Apparently, the saga was a woman who not only knew men's sexual tastes but also knew other women, which put her in a good position to assist in bringing together couples—for a fee.68

The saga's most distinctive role, however, was that of sorceress, witch, or prophetess, a figure who could perform enchantments on unlucky victims, make the sky fall, or predict the future.69 The Latin word saga, in fact, refers specifically to this role of witch or prophetess through its connection to the verb sagire, meaning “to know intuitively.” Cicero explained these words and their link:70sagire means ‘to have a keen perception’ (sentire acute). Accordingly certain old women are called sagae, because they are assumed to know a great deal (quia multa se scire volunt), and dogs are said to be ‘sagacious’ (sagaces).”71 Thus, a saga was seen as a kind of “sensitive,” whose knowledge was instinctive, rather than rational. But her knowledge also shared characteristics with magic. Petronius called some witches plussciae,72 a distinctive linguistic formation that highlights this aspect of “knowing more” than other people. Sagae were women who knew in a different way than other people.

What then can we conclude from the information we have collected about sagae? It is true that no one explicitly said that they practiced the profession of obstetrix in Rome, but sagae certainly had many similarities to midwives. From Cicero's passage above, we know that they were old, just as midwives traditionally were and are. The sagae were also prophetesses, like the most ancient Roman goddesses of birth, the Carmentes, who were both goddesses of birth and divinities who knew the past and future.73 Further, this “knowing” of the sagae, with their evocative name, recalls (if impressionistically) the wisdom that many modern languages attribute to the midwife in calling her a wise woman or sage-femme.74 Finally, while the saga's role as procuress or matchmaker with its accompanying knowledge of men's desires would seem to lie far outside the world of the midwife, this is not the case. Returning to the passage of the Theaetetus on the midwife, according to Plato, the maîai not only helped women in labor but also “know all there is to know about pairing types of women and men to produce the best children—in (p.183) other words … they are the most skillful matchmakers.”75 Thus, it is possible that matchmaking skills fell within the midwife's sphere of activity; just as they did within the saga's.

At this point it seems likely that the sagae, the “sensitives” of Rome, just as they served many functions parallel to midwives, could also exercise the midwives' primary function of helping women give birth, or else they were involved more generally with women's bodies and their problems. Their closest more modern equivalent would probably be Queen Mab of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio introduces her with the words, “She is the fairies' midwife.” His description continues,76

  • This is that very Mab
  • That plaits the manes of horses in the night
  • And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,
  • Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes.
  • This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
  • That presses them and learns them first to bear,
  • Making them women of good carriage.

Queen Mab—midwife, hag, erotic nightmare77—transforms girls into “women of good carriage,” teaching them to bear, in the double sense of carry on a sexual relationship and carry a child. Thus, as described by Mercutio (a character notoriously hostile to women), old Queen Mab seems to govern both the procreative and the erotic realms of women's bodies. And she is a hag—an old witch.

1.4 “In partu obstetrices mille daemonica operantu”

The link between midwife and witch became firm and explicit in medieval and early modern Europe. In 1494, a witch-hunting Dominican from Breslau wrote plainly, “in partu obstetrices mille daemonica operantur similiter et partientes”78 midwives, along with women in labor, consort with the devil, are witches. Pliny's words on midwives' piacula seem to echo in this sentence, but now the devil himself lies behind the midwives' spells, while the ominous shadows of torture and execution loom in the background. In the notorious Malleus Maleficarum, Heinrich Institor and Jakob Sprenger devoted particular attention to midwives, women they repeatedly emphasized surpassed all others in wickedness.79 The list of crimes that midwife-witches committed included witchery of every sort, driven by the women's desires (p.184) to please the devil by sending him unbaptized souls or else to obtain ingredients for their own cannibalistic feasts or for philters and unguents that required the tiny limbs of babies.80

Again, parallels with the evil deeds attributed to ancient midwives are unmistakable. As we will recall, Pliny recorded the “tearing to pieces for sinful practices the limbs of still-born babies, the undoing of spells (piacula) by the menstrual fluid, and the other accounts given … by midwives.”81 In medieval and Renaissance Europe, trials and testimonies multiplied, elaborating the hair-raising tales.82 Naturally not all midwives were considered creatures of the devil, and Institor and Sprenger recognized that some midwives performed their duties in an honest manner free of witchcraft.83 But the diabolical midwife-witch was always lurking nearby. The Malleus authors' ambivalence84 about the nature of the midwife reappeared in Tomaso Garzoni's sixteenth-century encyclopedia:85

When the midwife bathes her, rubs her … and sweetly kisses her, easing the mother's pain, then the happiness of the new birth consoles her for everything.

The opposite happens when the evil midwife does not help her in time, or does not know how to do her job, and (the mother) labors in great danger…. Among their defects there is one most serious: sometimes they cast spells on the children, like the witches that they are, and they enchant them in such a way that (the children) pass pitifully from this life, to the extreme sorrow of their mothers and great rage of their fathers. And others, like cursed infernal furies, batter the children's brains or suck out their blood or their breath.

This ambivalent view of the midwife as either a woman who insures the safety of birth or an evil fury who destroys babies corresponds closely to the picture of the ancient midwife (whether human or divine) that we have reconstructed. Indeed, from antiquity on the midwife was linked to magic as an ambiguous figure who was as likely to slip into the world of witchcraft as to remain within the bounds of licit behavior. This shows how wrong it is to claim as some scholars do that the link between magic and midwives was only established in the early modern period.86 Certain cultural models are more ancient and deeply rooted than temporally limited historical examinations can appreciate. Birth, a moment of extremity, fraught with risks of sorrow and death, evoked a multitude of terrors and superstitions.87 Similarly, the mysterious world of childbirth, closed as it was to men, aroused suspicion and fear in the men excluded from it. In a culture infused with magical beliefs, a woman whose work so closely involved childbirth could easily take (p.185) on the outlines of a sorceress—and this is how the midwife could become a witch without waiting for the Council of Trent.

1.5 Female Knowledge And Terror Of Cambiones

The links between witches and midwives lead us into a more general area of inquiry: female knowledge, and more specifically men's deep suspicions (already established in antiquity) of knowledge women possessed that men did not. Men did not simply fear the discussions of female matters that women kept to themselves and that, at least according to Euripides' Hippolytus, they never revealed to men.88 Rather, men's fears focused on such things as the female mastery of the art of veneficium in Rome (which sparked investigations and trials somewhat analogous to those that suspected witches underwent in medieval and early modern Europe),89 and the extensive herbal pharmacopeia of the priestesses of that supremely female goddess Bona Dea.90 While the latter included philters and medications that were less frightening than poison (or so one would think), they were still, like the entire cult of Bona Dea, mysterious to men.

Female knowledge in antiquity produced above all a vast array of abortifacients and contraceptives,91 as we have already seen, for example, in Pliny's report that midwives and prostitutes used menstrual blood to induce abortions.92 The use of such substances must have been very ancient even in Rome, because there and elsewhere authorities seem to have been interested in this problem from the earliest recorded times.93 And underlying the Roman legislation, we once again find magic: the contraceptives and abortifacients were considered medicamenta and thus indistinguishable from magic potions.94 According to Roman law, those who distributed such potions were setting a bad example (that is, encouraging others to use magical remedies) and could be punished with exile (for the upper classes) or the mines (for the lower classes). Marcian, commenting on the Lex Cornelia de Sicariis et Veneficis—the basis for subsequent Roman legislation regarding magic—repeated similar penalties, citing the case of a woman who was sent into exile by decree of the Senate for having given a contraceptive to another woman who died from it.95 Could this woman have been an obstetrix? It seems likely. A suggestive bit of evidence lies in a comment of Labeo on the Lex Aquilia, where we find the civil counterpart to the criminal action described in the Lex Cornelia:96

Labeo makes this distinction if a midwife (obstetrix) gives a drug (medica-mentum) from which the woman dies: If she administers it with her own hands it would appear that she killed; but if she gave it to the woman for her (p.186) to take it herself an actio in factum must be granted. … If someone administers a drug (medicamentum) to anyone by force or persuasion, either in a drink or by injection, or rubs him with a poisonous potion (venenum), he is liable under the lex Aquilia in the same way as the midwife is held liable who administered a drug (medicamentum).

An obstetrix' medicamenta were contraceptives and abortifacients.97 However, within the magic-infused culture that shaped Roman legislation, the midwife's drugs appeared equivalent to the malum venenum, poisonous potion, that would be administered to kill. As the evidence of midwife-sorceresses mounted, even Roman legislation played a part in defining the scope of their activities.

There is one final point to consider. Earlier we saw that some birth helpers were involved in (or were suspected of being involved in) the theft and substitution of infants—for example, the old woman in Thesmophoriazusae and the hairdresser in Truculentus.98 This practice was the natural counterpart to inducing abortions, the other questionable practice of which midwives were commonly suspected. Obviously men feared both: abortion deprived a family of an heir, while substituting one baby for another inserted an imposter into the patriline, an act similar to adultery in that it defiled the purity of the masculine line by trickery.99 While the ability to induce abortions clearly approached witchcraft, it is striking that to observers in the past the practice of substituting babies also smacked strongly of witchery. We know from Horace, for example, that people in antiquity thought that witches were desperate for children to use in rituals and that witches were therefore constantly looking for ways to obtain them.100 The Greeks also told stories about Gello, the ghost of a dead girl (who over time took on the aspect of more of a demon) who went around at night hunting for children.101 People also thought that witches feigned births that had not in fact taken place,102 as the courtesan did in Plautus's Truculentus and the cunning wife in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae. But it is above all an examination of Petronius and later medieval culture that will deepen our understanding of the connections between the witch and the midwife who trades in babies.

The Satyricon tells the horrifying story of a baby stolen by witches, who put in its place a vavato stramenticius, probably a sort of doll stuffed with straw.103 Petronius's brief tale Cena contains the earliest known example of the theme of the substituted baby, a theme that countless storytellers would take up and elaborate over the course of the Middle Ages. All across Europe people came to fear that witches were substituting stolen infants with changelings, or cambiones,104 a belief that provided an explanation for (p.187) why so many babies became ill or deformed after birth.105 Rituals also testify to the terror that people had of cambiones throughout the medieval period. In some parts of France, for example, women would go to specific locations to leave their changelings and beseech the devil to return their “original” children.106 The substitution, exchange, and trade of babies were understood to be part of what witches did, just as they were thought to be part of what midwives did—and these practices thus created still more potential connections between witches and midwives in the cultural imagination.

So we can conclude that the notes of the weasel-witch also harmonize rather well with our melody. Because a midwife could also be considered a witch, an animal that had associations with midwifery as well as a reputation for witchcraft was well suited to the role of a helper of the woman in labor. In the culture that underlay the tale of Alcmene, such a confluence of characteristics would have seemed natural.

Since myths reveal their structure slowly, especially those as ancient and as deeply rooted in a culture as the tale of Alcmene, perhaps now, with the model of the midwife-witch to help us, we can integrate better into our story two additional characteristics of the weasel: its associations with contraception and with abortion. We have seen that knowledge of contraceptive potions was traditionally part of female lore regarding sex and sexuality.107 And we also know that magical lore about the weasel included the contraceptive power of certain parts of the weasel's body. As Aelian reported, “The testicles of a weasel, placed upon a woman by trickery or with her consent, prevent her from becoming a mother and restrain her from intercourse.”108 Thus the weasel—witch and midwife—played a part in human contraception with its body, just as it played a part in facilitating human birth with fluids that came from the female's genitalia.

As for abortion, the midwife, as we know, facilitated both the birth and the loss of babies. This brings us back to what we were saying earlier about the overlap between these two spheres that also occurs in symbolic beliefs about animals such as the amphisbaena or the chameleon, two animals thought to be potent remedies for use in both birth and abortion, and the crow or the weasel itself, which, because they were believed to give birth through the mouth, could be suspected of inducing miscarriage/abortion. Our picture of the midwife shows us that these two aspects of women's medicine, facilitating births and limiting them, are united in the figure of this woman who was the primary depository of women's medicine. The weasel, the animal that similarly facilitates birth because of its ability to slip in and out with great ease, or that interrupts (or could interrupt) pregnancy because it gives birth orally, continues to serve well as the animal representation of the midwife.

(p.188) 2. The Midwife and Sex

Let us now look at another apparently dissonant passage in the Rescuer's melody: the weasel's debauchery, her mania for Aphrodite's bed, her depraved and repugnant sexuality. Can we consider these to be aspects of the midwife as passed down to us from antiquity? As strange as it may seem, yes. While our own culture certainly does not encourage us to see either professional or lay midwives as women excessively involved with sex, things seem a little different in the ancient world (and even later).

A first point of contact between the debauchery of the weasel and the (possible) debauchery of the midwife could be the witchlike qualities often ascribed to midwives. Indeed, in the ancient world people attributed dissolute qualities to witches,109 just as they did in the Middle Ages and later, when they considered depraved and abnormal sexual practices essential aspects of witches' relationship with Satan.110 This was so well established that in the Malleus the condemnation of witches often included particular emphasis on the insatiable sexual appetites that drove witches to seek sexual satisfaction even with the Prince of Evil himself, into whose possession they then fell.111

Therefore, if the midwife is a witch, and the witch is debauched, then the midwife could be debauched … But reasoning like that will not get us very far, and luckily we also have explicit testimony supporting this equation. The midwife was a woman whose occupation involved her with sexual matters, of which she had detailed knowledge. She managed women's sexuality as an expert on abortion and contraception, but also as an expert on sexual and romantic matters more generally.

2.1 Matchmakers, Prostitutes, and Beauticians

As we have seen, Plato considered maîai to “know all there is to know about pairing types of women and men to produce the best children—in other words … (to be) the most skillful matchmakers.”112 We should add to this what we concluded about sagae as matchmakers, procuresses, and also (probably) midwives. But let us look again at Pliny. He informs us that midwives (here in the most respected form: obstetricum nobilitas) also treated illnesses of the sexual organs.113 There is nothing particularly surprising about this: we already know how important the contribution of women's medicine was to the compilation of remedies and treatments, and it is not surprising that obstetrices would be competent to treat the reproductive organs. But Pliny does not stop here. In the category of those who perform piacula with substances from women's bodies, particularly menstrual blood, he places midwives (p.189) together with prostitutes. The saying “you will be known by the company you keep” seems applicable here, and we would be well advised to look more closely at this association.

Pliny specifically names two women, Lais and Elephantis, who he says used menstrual blood to induce abortions.114 Elsewhere, Pliny names Lais alongside Salpe, a woman explicitly labeled an obstetrix.115 Should we assume that Lais too was an obstetrix? While this is possible, what is certain is that Lais was a typical name for a prostitute,116 as was Elephantis, for Greek prostitutes in antiquity often took animal names.117 Other sources mention Elephantis as the author of a book on sexual positions that enjoyed a certain fame even in Rome—certainly in places and among people dedicated to the pleasures of the flesh.118 Elephantis considered herself a follower of the mythical Astyanassa, the slave of Helen and Menelaus who was believed to be the first to discover the different sexual positions.119 Thus we find the midwife Salpe in the company of prostitutes who make a science of pleasure seeking. Indeed, Pliny sometimes leaves us in doubt, as in the case of Lais, as to whether we are faced with a midwife or a prostitute.

Of Salpe, the obstetrix who, along with Lais, recommended menstrual blood as a remedy for the bite of a rabid dog,120 Pliny also tells us not only that she prescribed the application of donkey semen as a sexual stimulant,121 but also that she recommended tuna blood for the depilatories used to preserve the beauty of slave boys being readied for market.122 So here is another, unexpected dimension of the midwife's skill: the art of beauty. Such women's knowledge was not limited to the body as a subject of illness or as a reproductive organism, but included the body as an object of beauty and pleasure—an area in which, as we have seen, John Chrysostom suspected the interference of witchcraft.123 If midwives' science of beauty reached as far as the adolescent sex market, then it seems they were as ready to use their knowledge in the service of pleasure as a courtesan such as Elephantis or the mythical slave Astyanassa.

Could midwives themselves be prostitutes or courtesans? Certainly we cannot suspect this of women like Socrates' mother, Phainarete, the “noble midwife,” or the Attic Phanostráte, maîa kaì iatrós (midwife and physician), or the many Roman obstetrices whose funerary inscriptions show them to have been married and honored by their children.124 But as we have seen, the world of women who help in childbirth was complex and varied. Dramatic works contain suggestive bits of relevant information. We have seen that when the prostitute Phronesium in Plautus's Truculentus found it necessary to fake a pregnancy, she found a tonstrix, or hairdresser, to provide the baby.125 As Plautus tells us, the hairdresser's task was made easier by the fact that “her jobs tak[e] her among different families,” in whose houses (p.190) she could look for a baby suitable for the deception.126 The hairdresser of Truculentus thus resembles a traditional part-time midwife, a woman whom a prostitute might call to her house to perform a variety of services. And Martial even describes a tonstrix who was also explicitly a streetwalker, in a suggestive combination of roles.127 In Plautus's Cistellaria, the job of finding a baby is given to a woman who must have been a prostitute, a friend of the woman feigning pregnancy.128 The hairdresser of Truculentus and the prostitute of Cistellaria share important characteristics: both are single women who support themselves by doing odd jobs, among them assisting women with little tasks, and who, in the culture of the time, might also work as prostitutes.

Two Letters of the rhetorician Alciphron offer further intriguing hints of the connections between midwives and prostitutes.129 In the first letter, the elderly Anicetus writes to Phoebianê accusing her of taking all his possessions and then leaving him for someone else. This was evidently a common description of a prostitute: greedy, deceitful, and capable of profiting from the simplicity of a countryman, like Phronesium in Truculentus. There is nothing strange here so far, but the next letter contains a surprise. Anicetus evidently went to Phoebianê's house, tried to kiss her, and was refused. In recounting the event, Phoebianê describes herself as having been on her way to help a neighbor who had gone into labor, taking with her the tools of her trade. Phoebianê must have been a midwife who practiced fairly regularly if she possessed a kit of professional tools (tà pròs téchnen), but she also appears here as a greedy woman who was ready to give her body for money like any prostitute.

2.2 Too Deeply Immersed in Women's Sexuality

We clearly have reason to believe that in antiquity midwives were thought to be involved with sex in a wide variety of ways. Experts on the reproductive organs, able to help with conception, abortion, and birth, midwives also knew about sex as pleasure and debauchery, and they were named alongside prostitutes as well as sometimes working as prostitutes themselves. This is the representation of the obstetrix and maîa that we can recover today from the tangle of male distortions and evidence of actual practices in the past.

This notion of the midwife as excessively involved with the world of sex and the female body was long-lasting. Still at the time of the Malleus130

midwives, then, are condemned because they are women and as such ready to submit sexually to the devil; but they also possess the sexual expertise that allows them to control men and other women. They assume control not (p.191) only over their own reproductive functions but also over those of their victims. … The principal reason that midwives were feared and denounced was clearly their knowledge, or at least their claims to knowledge, of means and techniques relating to sexual performance, procreation, and the prevention of procreation.

The midwife dealt with sex in all of its manifestations, and because of this she was easily contaminated or corrupted by her contact with the sexual sphere and with the practices in which she was expert.

We can therefore conclude that this second apparently dissonant aspect of the weasel Rescuer—her excessive and perverse sexuality—actually harmonizes with the role of the helper of the Woman in Labor that the animal plays in the tale of Alcmene. The midwife was a figure who was deeply involved with the realm of sexuality, often in its most negative and depraved aspects. So a weasel with its “repulsive sexual practices” and “licentious” sexuality could in fact be a suitable animal manifestation of the maîa and obstetrix, just as the weasel-witch was a good representation for the midwife-sorceress skilled in potions.

3. Sage-femme and Cunning Woman

“If woman had been a thinking creature, she should certainly, as cook for thousands of years, have discovered the most important physiological facts, and should likewise have got possession of the healing art!”

(FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, Beyond Good and Evil)131

The figure of the midwife not only helps us understand possible dissonant elements, such as witchcraft and lasciviousness, but can also contribute to a fuller understanding of the animal's proverbial cunning, which is accompanied by both playfulness and a notable degree of maliciousness. In Alcmene's tale, these characteristics are reflected in the explicit allusions to intelligence in the name and paternity of Historis, the “investigator” daughter of Teiresias, and in the cleverly deceitful message contrived by the girl-weasel in the other versions of the tale. Ovid's weasel's laughter, its enjoyment of the trick played on the Enemy, also corresponds to the malicious amusement that, as we know, folklore attributes to this animal. Let us see how the midwife can help us here. Indeed, it seems likely that the girl-weasel in Alcmene's tale is not only clever because it is necessary to the plot but because the midwife (like the weasel that is her animal representative) had a reputation for exceptional intelligence and cunning.

(p.192) In the passage of Theaetetus that we have already considered several times, Plato highlights the fact that midwives not only “know” better than other women but that they are “very wise” (pansophoí) in bringing about unions.132 Tacitly following Plato in drawing parallels between the philosopher and the midwife, Cornutus sustains that midwives regularly engage in éreuna, or “inquiry,”133 a definition that calls to mind the name of Historis, the “investigator” who saved Alcmene by delivering her from her stalled labor. Aristotle was less metaphorical and more explicit in referring to the midwife's intelligence:134 “Now for the midwife the cutting of the navel-cord is a duty requiring attention to the aim in view (ouk astóchou dianoías). For not only must she be able to help over difficult births with her dexterity, but she must also be quick-witted in dealing with contingencies (pròs tà sumbaínonta anchínoun), especially over the tying of the baby's navel-cord.”

The midwife is thus endowed with two characteristics essential to the Greek definition of mêtis: anchínoia (“quick-wittedness” and eustochía (“a good eye or aim”.135 Similarly, Eileithyia, the Greek goddess of birth, can have the epithet praúmetis, “of benevolent cunning.”136 Eileithyia is thus explicitly a figure of mêtis, just as the maîa is a skillful, shrewd, and alert woman. Even male culture recognized the intelligence and skill that midwives possessed. Indeed, every European culture and language seems to recognize at least to some degree that the midwife is a “woman who knows.” In French, for example, the midwife is called a sage-femme, just as in English she is called a “wise woman,”137 or a “cunning woman.”138 We certainly must also recall the sagae, the “sensitives” who likely worked as midwives in Rome and who also appear to have had a particular sort of cunning intelligence. Further, Trotula of Salerno (also known as Trotula di Ruggiero), the woman doctor of the medical school at Salerno and author of the work The Diseases of Women, was called “Mulier Sapiens” by her contemporaries.139 Looking beyond European culture, it is also interesting to note that even in China male doctors could call midwives the equivalent of “clever women.”140

The explanation for the conception of the midwife as a woman distinguished by her intelligence or wisdom is straightforward. As men recognized, the midwife possessed a particular kind of knowledge that required a high degree of ability and skill.141 The fact that the midwife's intelligence, or in some cases her cunning, are explicitly highlighted in her names is explained by masculine attitudes that considered women to be by definition intellectually inferior to men or, in what amounted to the same thing, attributed to women a dangerous and nonrational cunning. As a result, the fact that midwives possessed not only a specific body of knowledge about the female body but also the intellectual ability to do their job was either explicitly (p.193) highlighted or else relegated to the supposedly female realm of cunning and instinct.

Men's suspicion of—or amazement at—female knowledge, along with the attribution of cunning to the sage-femme, emerge with particular clarity in the midwife myth of origin. Hyginus recounts that in early times there were no midwives,142 because the male doctors did not want “servants or women” to learn medicine. We know that male doctors' distrust of midwives was destined to be long-lasting, if intermittent,143 so it is not surprising that Hyginus's doctors show such suspicion of women practicing medicine. But see what happens next. It seems that out of embarrassment women refused to be seen by the exclusively male doctors and died as a result.144 A young woman by the name of Agnodice then wanted to learn medicine, so she cut her hair, dressed as a man, and went to study with the physician Herophilus. She then began visiting women in male dress, and when the women refused to let her examine them because they thought that she was a man, Agnodice would reassure them by pulling up her tunic to show them her genitals. As Agnodice's roster of clients grew, the other doctors began to accuse her of seducing her patients, who, the men claimed, only pretended to be ill in order to facilitate further seduction. The judges of the Areopagus were about to condemn Agnodice—but she again pulled up her tunic to show everyone her genitals. At this point the male doctors charged her with practicing medicine unlawfully, but the women rose up to defend their doctor. From that day on, the practice of midwifery was assigned to women (fig. 25).

While certainly without any historical foundation,145 the tale of Agnodice remains of interest to us. The mythical founding midwife, in order to affirm her right to practice her profession, was reduced to transvestism and had to submit herself to trial. She miraculously managed to extricate herself by revealing her sex which, according to Athenian law, excluded her from her profession. Most interesting of all, Agnodice is a midwife who, as a midwife, needs to trick male doctors.

The most striking element of the story is obviously Agnodice's exposing her genitals. What's more, she did it more than once: she did it regularly, to reassure her female patients, and again during the trial, in order to show the male judges her real sex. This action has its own verb in Greek, anasúromai, which means specifically to expose one's body by pulling up clothing.146 Doubtless, this action constituted above all a way for a person to declare his or her sex. There was a tension, a contradiction, between the male clothing that Agnodice wore and her actual sex, which Agnodice's act of lifting up her tunic resolved by dispelling any doubts about her.147

There is more to this gesture of Agnodice's, however. Indeed, when (p.194)

Wilde Frau, Savage Midwife

Figure 25. “Agnodice” from A. Delacoux, Biographie des sages-femmes célèbres (1834). Photograph: Wellcome Library, London, England.

performed by a woman anasúromai, the act of showing one's body, had rich anthropological meaning in Greece.148 When directed at men, this act seems to aim to confuse and shame them, to make them show embarrassment both for something they have done and for what they see revealed before them. The women's victory is this male embarrassment. There are many examples of this.149 Plutarch recounts how the women of Lycia, unable to convince Bellerophon to have the flood withdrawn that Poseidon had sent to help (p.195) him, performed anasúromai before the hero. When confronted with the women, Bellerophon, “from shame,” withdrew, and the flood with him.150 On another occasion, a group of Persian women met returning defeated soldiers with the same gesture, screaming at them, “Whither are you rushing so fast, you biggest cowards in the whole world? Surely you cannot, in your flight, slink in here whence you came forth.” Faced with this, the Persian soldiers, also “mortified (at the sight and the words),” returned to the attack.151 In Renaissance Italy, Caterina Sforza, the bold countess of Forlí, also used this gesture.152 And this type of story even forms a part of Irish tradition, as in a tale of the young CúChulainn. Once when the hero was threatening Emain, King Conchobar ordered “the naked women” sent to meet him. The women raised their dresses or showed their breasts, and CúChulainn, confused, hid his face and was seized by Conchobar's men.153 Agnodice's anasúromai also had this meaning: while serving to reveal her actual sex and thus refute the accusations of seducing her patients, Agnodice's act was also intended to shame and confuse the male doctors.154

When performed by women for women, however, the gesture of exposing the genitals seems to have a completely different meaning with deep roots in religion and ritual. By lifting her dress, the mythical woman Baubo managed to make Demeter laugh, even though the goddess was overcome by the loss of her daughter Persephone.155 It seems likely that, among the many possible meanings of Baubo's gesture, one is that it established a form of “complicity,” or female understanding, that leads to the acceptance of one woman by the other. Baubo lifted her clothes and the goddess laughed, thus signaling her acceptance of the relationship with the other woman and her return to life. In this sense, Baubo's gesture casts further light on the tale of Agnodice. The midwife in male guise showed her female genitals to her patients in order to “reassure” them. Beyond meeting the need to identify Agnodice as female, this gesture aimed to establish a sort of female solidarity, and to reassure and calm women who, like Demeter, were afflicted by sadness and lacked faith in their relationships with others. Moreover, we know that Baubo had links, if not with midwives, at least with wet nurses.156 And, as we will see shortly, the connections between midwives and wet nurses are actually rather close.157

Agnodice is a midwife who shows her genitals to women to reassure them and to men to shame them, certainly the acts of a courageous and adventurous woman with few inhibitions. It is striking that this woman who cures other women is considered a cunning, mocking character, who, in order to practice her profession, disguises herself, tricks men, and pokes fun at their rules. Indeed, this aspect of Agnodice's personality can throw some light on her name, which is quite mysterious. Normally, “Agnodice” would mean “chaste before justice,”158 except that in this case Hyginus should have (p.196) written “Hagnodice” instead of “Agnodice.” The spelling could be attributed to the carelessness of the author or to an error in the manuscript tradition were it not for Hesychius's explanation, “agnódikos: she who ignores the right.”159 This is a transgressive name, and as such certainly well suited to a woman whom physicians accused of being an imposter and whom the Areopagus stood ready to convict. To men, Agnodice was a woman who violated the rules of díkaion, and thus she deserved not promotion to the ranks of physicians, but punishment for her transgressions.

So midwives had as their mythical founder a transgressive and cunning woman, one who mocked stern male doctors. As we saw earlier with the old woman in the Thesmophoriazusae—another birth helper who mocks men160—the exclusion of men from the birthing room can explain the tales' tendency to transform the midwife into an ambiguous character ever ready to mock others. In disguising herself as a man, Agnodice made fun of husbands and male doctors, and she did this for the same reason that she showed her genitals to her female patients: to establish with the women, and above all with their bodies, a solidarity and an intimacy that men could never have. And men did not like it; they could not trust women like this. Because it excluded men, the knowledge that midwives had about other women could never be anything but a cunning and mocking knowledge.

4. The Savage Woman and the Spinner

It now appears that the weasel is a good Rescuer for many more reasons than simply because it can slide easily in and out of holes. The animal's shadowy relationship to the world of witchcraft, its overwhelming sexuality, and the cunning it shares with the sage-femme and cunning woman also explain the weasel's role in the tale of Alcmene. In the animal world, the weasel is the symbolic equivalent of a woman who is an expert in female lore, with both its benevolent and its disquieting aspects. The Rescuer of Alcmene's tale thus emerges as a sort of mythical projection of the midwife—witch, debauchee, creature of cunning. This important conclusion will be our starting point for the next phase of our search for the theme of La Folia.

At the close of this chapter, however, we have one remaining task, to consider the name of the midwife in some dialects of the Oberpfalz: wilde Frau, “savage woman.”161 For the reasons we have just seen, this name certainly expresses the fear that the midwife could arouse in the more timorous among the beneficiaries of her skills. Remarkably, however, in some of the German dialects spoken in the Italian Alps, the weasel is called by a practically identical name: Freula willa or Swil-vraüle, that is “savage girl.”162 As in Ovid's version of Alcmene's story, the midwife seems to be turning into a weasel.

(p.197) Germanic culture contains more intriguing connections between these two figures. In some northern dialects, the midwife is called norne, or Norne, the ancient Germanic goddess of fate and childbirth, who is also celebrated as a spinning goddess.163 This cultural configuration recalls what we learned earlier about the Moírai, mistresses of destiny, spinning goddesses, and goddesses of birth, and Eileíthyia, sometimes called “the good spinner,” as well as others.164 It is just that in German folklore, as well as in the folklore of modern Greece and the Balkans, the weasel also is known for having a particular passion for spinning. During wedding celebrations in nineteenth-century Greece, the weasel would be offered materials for spinning,165 while in Germany a peasant woman who wanted to make friends with the weasel (so that it would not hurt her) would sing to it, “Weasel, weasel, I'll give you things for spinning if you will leave my house alone!”166 The midwife-Norne and the weasel share a passion for spinning, as is fitting for good goddesses of fate and childbirth.

The connections between the models of the weasel and of childbirth in European folklore, on the one hand, and the role of the animal in Alcmene's tale, on the other, continue to multiply at an impressive rate. With these connections in mind, we will continue on to consider even more stories about weasels in order to see if the weasel's role of helper at childbirth in Alcmene's tale is also compatible with them. As we proceed, however, we will find the weasel involved not in scenes of witchcraft or sex, but in those of family life. In stories about the many names given to the weasel in various European languages and cultures, the weasel appears as a participant in the human world as a creature that is identified as a woman and often as a kinswoman. The research of linguists and folklorists of earlier centuries has shown very clearly the importance the name given to an animal has for understanding the animal's cultural meaning: the name implies images, actions, and stories.167 But alongside these stories about weasel words we will also encounter proverbs and other, more typical, tales about this intriguing little animal.


(1) . For Heracles' trophós, see above, chap. 1, sec. 6; for the godmother, wet nurse, and trophós, see below, chap. 13, sec. 2.

(2) . Yvonne Verdier, Fagçns de dire, façons de faire: La laveuse, la couturière, la cuisinière (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 93–100.

(3) . Donatus ad Terentii Andriam 299.1 (in Paul Wessner, Aeli Donati quod fertur Commentum Terenti. Accedunt Eugraphi commentum et Scholia Bembina [Leipzig: Teubner 1902]): “quae opem tetulerit, obstetrix dicitur.”

(4) . William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.92ff.

(5) . For the weasel accused of witchcraft, see chap. 11, sec. 1.

(6) . For Ovid's tale, see above, chap. 1, sec. 2, including n. 12.

(7) . Isis is also called “midwife,” and she is involved in magic of the uterus; see J. J. Aubert, “Threatened Wombs: Aspects of Ancient Uterine Magic,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 30 (1989): 421–49, p. 429.

(8) . See Sheila Cosminsky, “Traditional Birth Practises and Pregnancy Avoidance in the Americas,” in The Potential of the Traditional Birth Attendant, ed. A. Mongar Maglacas and John Simons (Geneva: World Health Organization, 1986), 75–99.

(9) . On this, see the essays in Maglacas and Simons, Traditional Birth Attendant.

(10) . This is the definition frequently given of nonprofessional birth attendants in traditional cultures. See Cosminsky, “Traditional Birth Practises,” and “Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Midwifery,” in Medical Anthropology, ed. Francis X. Grollig and Harold B. Haley (The Hague: Mouton, 1976); see also the story of “Juana” and her practice of midwifery in Guatemala in Marta Weigle, Spiders and Spinsters: Women and Mythology (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), 127–28.

(11) . Cosminsky, “Cross Cultural Perspectives.”

(12) . Ibid.: the Mexican curanderas are described as “part time street vendors or dirty old crones.”

(13) . Nancy H. Demand, Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 132.

(14) . Plato Republic 454d2. See Demand, Birth, Death, 67 (esp. n. 95) and 132. The interpretation of this passage is not settled, however, and it seems to me that taking this as evidence of the existence of women doctors is rather rash. On the difficulty of distinguishing the maîa from the iatrína, see Paola Manuli, “Donne mascoline, femmine sterili, vergini perpetue: La ginecologia greca fra Ippocrate e Sorano,” in Madre materia: Sociologia e biologia della donna antica, ed. Silvia Campese, Paola Manuli, and Giulia Sissa (Torino: Boringhieri, 1983), 186–87; and Soranus, Maladies des femmes, ed. and trans. Paul Burguière, Danielle Gourevitch, and Yves Malinas (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1988), 94.

(15) . S. Pomeroy, “Technikai Mousikai” American Journal of Ancient History 2 (1977): 51–68. See Demand, Birth, Death, 132 and 121ff., which comments on a series of labor or birth scenes in Attic or Atticized funerary traditions. See also Lesley Dean-Jones, Women's Bodies in Classical Greek Science (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994), 31–33. On the story of Agnodice, the “first” midwife, and the debate on her historicity, see below, n. 145.

(16) . French, “Midwives and Maternity Care in the Roman World,” Helios 13 (1986): 69–84.

(17) . Soranus Gynecology 1.3.4ff. (translation from Soranus, Soranus' Gynecology, trans. Owsei Temkin [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956]).

(18) . Ibid. 1.4.1ff. (translation from Soranus, Soranus' Gynecology, trans. Owsei Temkin [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956]).

(19) . “L'enseignement de Soranos n'est pas destiné a former des auxiliaires médicales, simples executantes des décisions du médecin … il se propose de former des specialistes à part entière”: Yves Malinas, “Modernité de Soranos,” in Burguière, Gourevitch, and Malinas, Maladies des femmes, lxxff., who attributes to Soranus's midwives even greater independence than they have today in many countries, including France.

(20) . Soranus Gynecology 1.4.25ff.

(21) . That birth attendants are normally female kin or neighbors is, moreover, once again a transcultural phenomenon; see Clellan Stearns Ford, Comparative Study of Human Reproduction (New Haven, CT: Yale Publications in Anthropology, 1964), 55 and 59. In China between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, only aristocratic women used professional midwives, while ordinary mothers relied on the help of neighbors, relatives, old women, and the like; see (p.315) C. Furth, “Concepts of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infancy in Ch'ing Dynasty China,” Journal of Asian Studies 46 (1987): 17.

(22) . Aristophanes Assemblywomen 528ff. (Translation from Aristophanes, Frogs, Assemblywomen, Wealth, ed. and trans. Jeffrey Henderson [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002].) It is unclear why Henderson (J. Henderson, “Older Women in Attic Old Comedy,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 117 [1987], 122) considers Praxagora a midwife; she is only a friend. Arianna is also assisted by local women: see Plutarch Life of Theseus 20.5. See also, Longus Daphnis and Chloe 3.15, where Lycaenium is called to serve an analogous function in assisting a neighbor.

(23) . It might be expected that in Greece, as elsewhere, mothers-in-law often served in this position, but this was not the case. Demand, Birth, Death, 15ff.

(24) . For Ovid's tale, see above, chap. 1, sec. 2, including n. 12.

(25) . For the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, see above, chap. 3, sec. 2.

(26) . For the Amphidromia, see above, chap. 3, n. 9>. The writings of the Hippocratic Corpus also identify other women besides the maîa who help during labor: “akestrídes who assist women giving birth,” apparently traditional birth attendants. See Corpus Hippocraticum, De carnibus 19 (in Emile Littré, ed. and trans., Œuvres complètes [Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1961–78], 8:614). Furthermore, in Rome, a figure known as an assestrix appears, unfortunately mentioned only in the fragments of a drama by Lucius Afranius entitled Fratriae (Sisters-In-Law), but from the context it is fairly clear that she was summoned to help a pregnant woman; see Afranius Fratriae frag. 5 and 6 (in A. Daviault, ed., Comoedia togata: Fragments [Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1981], 170–72). The verb adsidere, which is related to adsestrix or assestrix, means “to assist someone who is ill,” and Pliny uses it explicitly to mean assistance for a woman giving birth (see Nonius, De compendiosa doctrina [in Wallace M. Lindsay, ed., Nonii Marcelli De compendiosa doctrina libros XX, Onionsianis copiis vsvs (Hildesheim: Olms, 1964), 1:103 and 220]; Celso De medicina 3.4.7; E. Romano, Medici e filosofi [Palermo: Edizione Grifo, 1991], 97; Seneca De beneficis 6.16.5; and Pliny Natural History 28.59). Sadly, Fratriae has not come down to us in its entirety, for it would have added to our understanding of Roman birth helpers. In one of the fragments of Fratriae (in Daviault, 172), in fact, someone says: “(the woman) sends away the adsestrix and calls me to her” (“dimittit adsestricem, me ad sese vocat”). Who is speaking? It is difficult to say. Another fragment (in Daviault, 183) records a nutrix, who is certainly a candidate, in which case the role of the birth attendant would have been played by an old woman with long-standing and intimate ties to the birthing woman. There is, however, another possibility. The play is entitled Fratriae, and Nonius De compendiosa doctrina (in Lindsay, 3:894) says explicitly that in Latin that the wives of two brothers call each other fratriae. See also Paulus Diaconus Epitome to Festus De significatu verborum (in Wallace M. Lindsay, ed., Sexti Pompei Festi De verborum significatu quae supersunt cum Pauli epitome [Hildesheim: Olms, 1978], 80); and Corpus Glossariorum Latinorum 7.562. Given that the play revolves around the wives of two brothers, that is, around two sisters-in-law, it could be that one of the two, pregnant and about to give birth, calls for the other's help, preferring her to the adsestrix.

(27) . For Aristophanes, see above, chap. 6, sec. 3.

(28) . Terence The Girl from Andros 228ff.: “temulenta … et temeraria.”

(29) . Plautus Truculentus 405–9; for this story, see below, secs. 1.1 and 2.1.

(30) . Plautus Cistellaria 120ff.

(31) . Plautus Miles gloriosus 697: “tum obstetrix exspostulavit mecum, parum missum sibi.” See French, “Midwives,” 71–73; and Demand, Birth, Death, 67, esp. n. 95.

(32) . See esp. Demand, Birth, Death, 63ff. and 130ff., which makes this point and describes the opinions of earlier scholars; on this, see also Dean-Jones, Women's Bodies, 27 and n. 81.

(33) . Demand, Birth, Death, 64, which also takes up earlier works. For tensions between male and female doctors, see above, sec. 1.1, and below, sec. 3.

(34) . Demand, Birth, Death, 68; and Dean-Jones, Women's Bodies, 29.

(35) . Demand, Birth, Death, 64ff.

(36) . G. E. R. Lloyd, Science, Folklore, and Ideology: Studies in the Life Sciences in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 63 n. 11.

(37) . Plato Theaetetus 148ff. (This and subsequent translations from Plato, Theaetetus, trans. Robin A. H. Waterfield [London: Penguin Books, 1987], except as noted.)

(38) . Ibid., 150d.

(39) . Ibid., 149a (translation from Plato, Plato: Theaetetus, Sophist, trans. Harold North Fowler [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987]).

(40) . See Henderson, “Older Women,” 108.

(41) . Ibid., 110.

(42) . Traditional European terms for midwife often indicate honor or respect. See HDA, s.v. “Hebamme” (3:1589); and also below, chap. 13, sec. 2.

(43) . Plato Theaetetus 149b.

(44) . Ford, Comparative Study, 36; and Cosminsky, “Traditional Birth Practises.”

(45) . Plato Theaetetus 149d.

(46) . See also Soranus, Gynecology 2.11.7ff. (midwives' “superstitions” regarding cutting the umbilical cord).

(47) . Ibid., 1.4; see also G. E. R. Lloyd, Magic, Reason, and Experience: Studies in the Origin and Development of Greek Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 169ff.

(48) . Pliny Natural History 28.70 (translation from Pliny, Natural History, vol. 8, trans. W. H. S. Jones [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963]).

(49) . Ibid., 28.8 (translation from Pliny, Natural History, vol. 8, trans. W. H. S. Jones [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963]).

(50) . Anne-Marie Tupet, La magie dans la poèsie latine (Lille: n.p., 1976), 82–86, and “Rites magiques dans l'antiquité romaine,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1986), 2664. See also above, chap. 11, n. 7; and R. M. Danese, “L'anticosmo di Eritto e il capovolgimento dell'inferno virgiliano (Lucano Phars. 6, 333 sgg.),” Atti della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche 3 (1992): 215–19.

(51) . Pliny Natural History 7.64ff., and 19.176. See also Aubert, “Threatened Wombs,” 431. Dean-Jones, Women's Bodies, 227ff., insists on the thesis (which is not new) that female menstruation was not a taboo in classical Greece, but became so only in the Alexandrian and Roman periods. Following Mary Douglas, the shift is attributed to the different degrees of social threat that women posed to men in these periods. The particular Roman horror of menstrual blood would thus be interpreted as the result of the greater freedom Roman women had compared to Greek women. However, (p.317) while the historical facts are not in dispute, this sociological interpretation seems difficult to defend.

(52) . Pliny Natural History 28.80. On the theme of “passing over” a substance that induces an abortion/miscarriage, see above, chap. 9.

(53) . Pliny Natural History 28.79ff.

(54) . Ibid., 28.82. This is based on the belief that menstrual blood was capable of making dogs rabid (ibid., 7.64).

(55) . Ibid., 28.70. Lais is known only from Pliny Natural History 28.81–82. Other scholars share the opinion that she was a midwife. See P-W, s.v. “Lais” (vol. 12, pt. 1:516); and Lloyd, Science, 63 n. 11.

(56) . Pliny Natural History 28.83.

(57) . John Chrysostom In Epistulam ad Romanos Homilia 25 (in Migne PG, 60:627; translation from Philip Schaff, ed., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [New York: Christian Literature Company, 1886–90], v. 11).

(58) . This term can be understood as “abortifacient” as well as “magic potion.” See n. 93 below.

(59) . Pliny Natural History 7.63ff.

(60) . For the use of painkillers during labor, see Helen King, “The Early Anodynes: Pain in the Ancient World,” in The History of the Management of Pain, ed. Ronald D. Mann (Park Ridge, NJ: Parthenon, 1988).

(61) . Pliny Natural History 28.10; for this text, see above, chap. 10, sec. 3, including n. 35.

(62) . Demand, Birth, Death, 42ff.

(63) . W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: An Introduction to the Study of the Religion of the Romans (London: Macmillan, 1899), 292; John Scarborough, Roman Medicine (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979), 18; and French, “Midwives,” 73. None of these authors, however, seems interested in reconstructing the figure of the saga or explaining why she was associated with birth.

(64) . Tibullus Carmina 1.5.59; Martial Epigrams 11.49.7ff.

(65) . Nonius De compendiosa doctrina (in Lindsay, 33). The grammarian is evidently playing on the relationship between saga and sagax in reference to the dog explicitly named immediately following. See Cicero, On Divination 1.31.65; for sagax see below, n. 71.

(66) . Lucilius 271 (in Friedrich Marx, ed., C. Lucilii Carminum reliquiae [Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1963] [=1904]): “aetatem et faciem ut saga et bona conciliatrix.”

(67) . See Paulus Diaconus Epitome to Festus De significatu verborum (in Lindsay, 54): “conciliatrix dicitur, quae viris conciliat uxores et uxoribus viros.” At other times, the conciliatrix resembles a procuress, but not a professional one (as in the case of Plautus Miles gloriosus 1410: “ancilla conciliatrix”).

(68) . Turpilius frag. 8 (in Otto Ribbeck, Comicorum romanorum praeter Plautum et Terentium Fragmenta [Leipzig: Teubner: 1873]): “non ego hoc per sagam pretio conductam, ut vulgo solent.”

(69) . Horace Odes 1.27.21f.; Ovid Amores 3.7.27f.; Columella On Agriculture 11.1.22; Frontinus The Strategems 1.11.12; Apuleius The Golden Ass 1.8. Another figure is somewhat similar to the saga in this sense, the old perimáktria recorded by Plutarch On Superstition 3.166a, to whom a person turned when terrorized by dreams. (See also (p.318) Pollux Onomasticon 7.188 [in Erich Bethe, ed., Pollucis Onomasticon (Leipzig: Teubner, 1900)].) Further along (168e), Plutarch describes a scene in which a superstitious man smears himself with mud (perimassómenos) while “the old crones, as Bion says, ‘bring whatever chance directs and hang and fasten it on him as on a peg.’” (Translation from Plutarch, Moralia, vol. 2, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962], 477.) For the old women who performed purifications and dealt in philtres in ancient Athens, see Henderson, “Older Women,” 122.

(70) . Cicero On Divination 1.31.65 (translation from Cicero, De Senectute, De Amicitia, De Divinatione, trans. William Armistead Falconer [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959]). See Paulus Diaconus Epitome to Festus De significatu verborum (in Lindsay, 427): “saga quoque dicitur mulier perita sacrorum, et vir sapiens, producta prima syllaba propter ambiguitatem evitandam.”

(71) . Plautus Curculio 110b, says of an old procuress: “It's a dog she ought to be by rights; she has a sagax nose.” (Translation from Plautus, Plautus, vol. 2, Casina, The Casket Comedy, Curculio, Epidicus, The Two Menaechmuses, trans. Paul Nixon [London: William Heinemann, 1932], 199.)

(72) . Petronius Satyricon 63.9.

(73) . In their connection to fate and prophecy, the Carmentes recall the Greek Moirai, who assist at childbirth: see above, chap. 4, sec. 1. For the divinatory power of the Carmentes, see, among others, Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7, 20; Servius on Aeneid 8.336; Tertullian Ad nationes 2.11; and Plutarch Life of Romulus 21. See also Roscher GRM, s.v. “Carmentes” (vol. 1, pt. 1: 851ff.). The Carmentes are also connected to the position of the child in the uterus: Varro in Aulus Gellius Attic Nights 16.6.4; and Ovid Fasti 1.617ff. See also Nicole Belmont, Les signes de la naissance: Étude des représentations symboliques associées aux naissances singulières (Brionne: Berard Monfort, 1971), 142ff.; and Maurizio Bettini, Antropologia e cultura Romana (Rome: Nuova Italia Scientifica, 1986), 164–66.

(74) . On the sage-femme, see above, sec. 3.

(75) . Plato Theaetetus 150.

(76) . William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.88ff.

(77) . William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 77 (at 1.4.53).

(78) . In HDA, s.v., “Hebamme” (3:1589–90), which contains many other materials on the relationship between the midwife and the witch.

(79) . Heinrich (Kramer) Institor and Jakob Sprenger, The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, trans. Montague Summers (New York: Dover, 1971 [=1928]). The Malleus explicitly treats midwife-witches in 1.2 (pp. 12–21); 2.1.13 (pp. 140–44); and 3.34 (pp. 268–71). See also Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born: Representations of Caesarean Birth in Medieval and Renaissance Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 105ff.

(80) . Institor and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, 2.1.13. Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born, 108–9.

(81) . Pliny Natural History 28.70; for this text, see above, sec. 1.2.

(82) . Thomas Rogers Forbes, The Midwife and the Witch (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966). On the relationship between the midwife and the witch in the Middle Ages, see esp. M. Green, “Women's Medical Practice and Health Care in (p.319) Medieval Europe,” in Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages, ed. Judith M. Bennett et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 39ff., which has many observations (some problematic) about common depictions of the midwife in the medieval world. See also Jean-Claude Schmitt, Le saint lévrier: Guinefort, guérisseur d'enfants depuis le XIIIe siècle (Paris: Flammarion, 1979).

(83) . Institor and Sprenger Malleus maleficarum, p. 269, where they raise the possibility of allowing women to practice midwifery who have “been first sworn as a good Catholic.”

(84) . Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born, 109. See also Green, “Women's Medical Practice.”

(85) . Tomaso Garzoni, La piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo, Discorso 130: “Delle comari e delle balie, o balii, o nutrici” (in Tomaso Garzoni, La piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo, ed. Paolo Cherchi and Beatrice Collina [Turin: Einaudi, 1996]: 2:1342).

(86) . For example, Jacques Gélis, L'arbre et le fruit: La naissance dans l'Occident moderne, XVIe–XIXe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 1984).

(87) . Francis B. Gummere, The Popular Ballad (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1907), 298; Forbes, Midwife, viii.

(88) . Euripides Hippolytus 293ff. See also Corpus Hippocraticus, De morbis mulierum (in Littré, 8:126.5ff.); and Soranus Gynecology 1.2.4. For a discussion, see Demand, Birth, Death, 62; and Dean-Jones, Women's Bodies, 34. For the woman-pharmakeútria, see Manuli, “Donne mascoline.”

(89) . See Valerius Maximus Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings 2.5.3 for a prosecution for veneficium brought against wives accused of killing their husbands. See Jean Gagé, Matronalia: Essai sur les dévotions et les organisations cultuelles des femmes dans l'ancienne Rome (Bruxelles: Latomus, 1963), 137; L. Monaco, “Veneficia matronarum, magia, medicina e repressione,” in Sodalitas: Scritti in onore di Antonio Guarino, ed. Vincenzo Giuffrè (Naples: Guarino, 1984–85), 4:2023; and E. Cantarella, “La comunicazione femminile in Grecia e a Roma,” in I signori della memoria dell'oblio, ed. Maurizio Bettini (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1996), 3–22.

(90) . See Macrobius Saturnalia 1.12.26: “in aede eius omne genus herbarum sit, ex quibus antistites dant plerumque medicinas.” On Bona Dea as a goddess of women's health, see Georg Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer (Munich: Beck, 1912), 218; and Hendrik H. J. Brower, Bona Dea: The Sources and a Description of the Cult (Leiden: Brill, 1989), 346–47.

(91) . See John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 16ff., 81–82, 91–92; and Aubert, “Threatened Wombs,” 427 n. 8 (with much interesting information). For medieval and early modern Europe, see Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born, 110–17.

(92) . For menstrual blood, see above, sec. 1.2. For another example, see Pliny Natural History 20.226 on Olympias and the use of mallow as an abortifacient. For Olympias in Pliny, see also Natural History 28.246 and 253. She is indicated among Pliny's sources for books 20 and 28; see P-W, s.v. “Olympias” (vol. 18, pt. 1:185).

(93) . According to Plutarch Life of Romulus 22, the law of Romulus allowed a husband to repudiate his wife “for using drugs against children” (epì pharmakeíai téknon, (p.320) but the text is debated). See the detailed historical and legal analysis by Enzo Nardi, Procurato aborto nel mondo greco-romano (Milan: Giuffré, 1971), 16–29.

(94) . See John T. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 25ff. The conflation of drugs, magic potions, and poison was typical of ancient Greek and Roman terminology. Expressions such as phármaka (and its derivatives), venenum, and medicamentum could be used interchangeably in all these senses. See C. Pharr, “Interdiction of Magic in Roman Law,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 63 (1932): 269–95.

(95) . Digest 48.8.3: “sed ex Senatus consulto relegari iussa est ea, quae non quidem malo animo, sed malo exemplo medicamentum ad conceptionem dedit, ex quo ea, quae acceperat, decessit.” For the interpretation of ad conceptionem as “contraceptive” see Noonan, Contraception, 26–27.

(96) . Digest (translation based on Alan Watson, trans., The Digest of Justinian [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985], 1:280).

(97) . See Cicero Pro Cluentio 11.32 (medicamenta as “abortifacient”). See also Digest; Noonan, Contraception, 26ff.; and Riddle, Contraception and Abortion, 63ff., which discusses the Roman attitude toward limiting births.

(98) . For Aristophanes and Plautus, see above, chap. 6, sec. 3, and below, sec. 2.1.

(99) . For the substitution of babies in Rome, see above, chap. 6, n. 24. For the fear of adultery, see Lucia Beltrami, Il sangue degli antenati: Stirpe, adulterio e figli senza padre nella cultura romana (Bari: Edipuglia, 1998).

(100) . See the actions of Canidia, Sagana, Veia, and Folia in Horace Epodes 5.

(101) . The notion that witches struck babies in particular is ancient. For Gello (the ghost who brought about the premature death of children and was identified with Lamia and Empusa) see Zenobius 3.3 (in E. L. Leutsch, ed., Corpus paroemiographorum Graecorum [Hildesheim: Olms, 1965], 1:58); Hesychius Lexicon s.v. “Gelló” (in Kurt Latte, ed., Hesychii Alexandrini Lexicon [Hauniae: Munksgaard, 1953], 1:368); and scholia to Theocritus 15.40. For the demon Lamia, who was thought to steal children, see Horace Ars poetica 340; and scholia to Aristophanis Vespas 1035 (in F. Dübner, ed., Scholia graeca in Aristophanem [Paris: Didot, 1855]). See also S. G. Oliphant, “The Story of the Strix,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 44 (1913).

(102) . Horace Epodes 5.5: “si vocata partibus / Lucina veris fuit.” See Tupet, “La magie,” 296–97.

(103) . Petronius Satyricon 63.

(104) . Edwin Sidney Hartland, The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology (London: Walter Scott, 1891), 93–134; and the texts in Joseph Hansen, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Hexenwahns und der Hexenverfolgung im mittelalter (Bonn: Georgi, 1901), 66–69, 86–87.

(105) . Forbes, Midwife, 128.

(106) . Schmitt, Le saint lévrier.

(107) . See Riddle, Contraception and Abortion.

(108) . Aelian On the Nature of Animals 15.11. See above, chap. 1, sec. 6.

(109) . See, for example, the characters of Meroe and Pamphile in Apuleius The Golden Ass 1.7–8 and 2.5. See also Aelian's description of the pharmakís, above, sec. 1.

(110) . See, for example, Montague Summers, The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (London: Kegan, 1926), 81–109.

(111) . Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born, 114. Of course, here again European culture was using older cultural models. The conviction that women's sexuality was uncontrollable and that their libidos were stronger than men's was an integral part of ancient misogyny extending from Hesiod to Alcaeus to Ovid. See Alcaeus frag. 347 (in Edgar Lobel and Denys L. Page, eds., Poetarum Lesbiorum fragmenta [Oxford: Clarendon, 1955]); Hesiod Works and Days 582ff.; and Ovid Ars amatoria 1.281–341, and others.

(112) . Plato Theaetetus 150.

(113) . Pliny Natural History 28.67.

(114) . Ibid., 28.81.

(115) . Ibid., 28.82.

(116) . See P-W, s.v. “Lais” (vol. 12, pt. 1:513–16).

(117) . See O. Crusius, Elephantis (P-W vol. 5, pt. 2:2324–25).

(118) . Suetonius Tiberius 43; Martial Epigrams 12.43.4; and Priapeia 4. See also P-W, s.v. “Elephantis” (vol. 5, pt. 2:2324–25).

(119) . Suda s.v. “Astuánassa” (in Adler 1:393, n. 4261).

(120) . Pliny Natural History 28.82.

(121) . Ibid., 28.262; see also 32.140.

(122) . Ibid., 32.135.

(123) . For John Chrysostom, see above, sec. 1.2.

(124) . French, “Midwives,” 72. Phanostráte, the maîa and iatrós, also seems to have been married. See S. Pomeroy, “Technikai Mousikai.”

(125) . Plautus Truculentus 405ff.; see above, sec. 1.1.

(126) . Ibid. See also, P-W, s.v. “Barbier” (vol. 3, pt. 1:3–4), for the fact that Roman barbers had assistants, known as circitores, who performed house calls.

(127) . Martial Epigrams 2.17.

(128) . Plautus Cistellaria 120ff.

(129) . Alciphron Letters 2.6 and 2.7. 130. Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born, 116–17.

(130) . Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born, 116–17.

(131) . Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 1947), 163.

(131) . For Plato, see above, sec. 1.2.

(132) . Cornutus Theologiae Graecae compendium 16 (in Carl Lang, ed., Cornuti Theologiae graecae compendium [Leipzig: Teubner, 1881], 23).

(133) . Aristotle History of Animals 7.9.587a. (Translation from Aristotle, History of Animals, ed. and trans. D. M. Balme ([Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991].)

(134) . See Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Les ruses de l'intelligence: La mètis des Grecs (Paris: Flammarion, 1974), 293–95, for this analysis of this passage of Aristotle. For the behavior of the Seven Sages, who combine cunning and “sagacity” in a form of superior wisdom, see Richard P. Martin, “The Seven Sages as Performers of Wisdom,” in Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece: Cult, Performance, Politics, ed. Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 108–28.

(135) . Pindar Olympia 6.43.

(136) . The Oxford English Dictionary, s.v., gives both the meaning “female magician, soothsayer, witch, sorceress” and “midwife.”

(137) . Ann Oakley and Susanne Houd, Helpers in Childbirth: Midwifery Today (New York: Hemisphere, 1990), 11ff.

(138) . Pina Boggi Cavallo, ed., Sulle malattie delle donne, trans. Piero Cantalupo (Palermo: La Luna, 1994), 10. But see also Ferruccio Bertini, “Trotula, il medico,” in Medioevo al femminile, ed. Ferruccio Bertini (Bari: Laterza, 1989), 100 and 105, for Rutebeuf, who defined Trotula in the Dictionnaire de l'Herberie as “la plus sage dame qui soit enz quatre parties du monde.”

(139) . Furth, “Concepts of Pregnancy,” 17.

(140) . Plato Theaetetus 149a-e defines the knowledge of midwives as téchne. See Manuli, “Donne mascoline,” 186–87.

(141) . Hyginus Fables 274.10–13 (in H. J. Rose, ed., Hygini Fabulae [Lugduni Batavorum: A.W. Sythoff, 1963]), in quis quid invenerit: “antiqui obstetrices non habuerunt, unde mulieres verecundia ductae interierant; nam Athenienses caverant ne quis servus aut femina artem medicam disceret. Hagnodice quaedam puella virgo concupivit medicinam discere, quae cum concupisset, demptis capillis habitu virili se Herophilo cuidam tradidit in disciplinam. Quae cum artem didicisset, et feminam laborantem audisset ab inferiore parte, veniebat ad eam, quae cum credere se noluisset, aestimans virum esse, illa tunica sublata ostendit se feminam esse, et ita eas curabat. Quod cum vidissent medici se ad feminas non admitti, Hagnodicem accusare coeperunt, quod dicerent eum glabrum esse et corruptorem earum, et illas simulare imbecillitatem. Quod cum Aeropagitae consedissent, Hagnodicem damnare coeperunt; quibus Hagnodice tunicam allevavit et se ostendit feminam esse, et validius medici accusare coeperunt, quare tum feminae principes ad iudicium venerunt et dixerunt, vos coniuges non estis sed hostes, quia quae salutem nobis invenit eam damnatis. Tunc Athenienses legem emendarunt, ut ingenuae artem medicinam discerent.”

(142) . To cite just one example among many, the famous medieval surgeon Henri de Mondeville placed in one category “illiterates, barbers, gamblers, courtesans, procuresses, midwives, old women, converted Jews, and Saracens who all meddle in discussing medicine.” Cited in Sylvie Laurent, Naître au Moyen Age: De la conception à la naissance, la grossesse et l'accouchement, XIIe–XVe siècle (Paris: Léopard d'Or, 1989), 172, along with other examples. As Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski has written (in reference to the exclusion of midwives from the Caesarean operation), “the marginalization of midwives must be seen in the wider context of misogynistic attitudes in the medieval medical profession and in society at large.” Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born, 91ff., and see also 15ff. On the traditional tensions between male doctors and female medicine, see esp. Helen King, “Agnodike and the Profession of Medicine,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 32 (1986): 53–77. It is interesting that identical tensions existed in Chinese society between the seventeenth and the early twentieth centuries; on this, see Furth, “Concepts of Pregnancy, 16–19.

(143) . For women's modesty as an obstacle to the practice of medicine in antiquity, see D. Gourevitch, “Pudeur et pratique médicale dans l'Antiquité classique,” La presse médicale (March 2, 1968), 544–46. For this theme in the Corpus Hippocraticum, see Demand's references in Birth, Death, 65–66. The same theme also appears in Trotula, The Diseases of Women, chap. 17 (in Boggi Cavallo, 84), which advises avoiding looking (p.323) in the face of a woman who is in labor: “Let the woman be led with slow pace through the house. Do not let those who are present look in her face (non respiciant eam in voltum) because women are wont to be bashful in childbearing and after the birth.” (Translation from Trotula, The Diseases of Women by Trotula of Salerno, trans. Elizabeth Mason-Hohl [n.p.: Ward Ritchie Press, 1940], 23.)

(144) . See Heinrich Von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 38ff. and n. 11, with bibliographical references. Supporting the historical truth of the tale are Pomeroy, “Technikai Mousikai,” 59–60; and G. Most, “Callimachus and Herophilus,” Hermes 109 (1981), 194 n. 14. Correct in opposing it are Von Staden, as well as King, “Agnodike.” This tale is a work of literature or folklore that resembles later works like The Trial of St. Eugenia, which share the theme of a girl who cures a woman while disguised as a man but ultimately has to reveal her sex in order to avoid unjust condemnation. See C. Bonner, “The Trial of St. Eugenia,” American Journal of Philology 161 (1920): 253–64.

(145) . Herodotus Histories 2.60; Theophrastus Characteres 11.2; and others. On the negative judgment this gesture expressed (the “dishonor,” aischúne) when performed by a woman, see the references in M. Olender, “Aspects of Baubó: Ancient Texts and Contexts,” in Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, ed. David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 103–4.

(146) . For another similar case, but this time of a man in women's clothing, see Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 32.10.2ff.; and also L. Brisson, Le sexe incertain (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1997), 32–39.

(147) . See Bonner, “Trial of St. Eugenia,” who interprets this gesture as intended to avert evil and encourage fertility based on the paradigms popular at the time from the work of S. Reinach, to which Bonner explicitly refers. On this act, see also J. Moreau, “Les guerriers et les femmes impudiques,” Annuaire de l'Institute de Philologie et d'Histoire orientale et slave 11 (1951): 283–300; Olender, “Aspects of Baubo,” 93–95 and 103–104, with many textual and interpretive references; and King, “Agnodike,” who analyzes this theme with great clarity.

(148) . Reported above all in Bonner, “Trial of St. Eugenia.”

(149) . Plutarch Virtues of Women 9.248b (translation from Plutarch, Moralia, vol. 3, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961], 503).

(150) . Ibid., 5.246a; see also Plutarch Sayings of Spartan Women 4.241b; and Justinus Historia Philippica 1.6.14. According to King, “Agnodike,” the gesture that the Persian women made toward the routed soldiers had the following meanings: “you are like women”; “you are like babies”; “we are being the women” (that is, performing their reproductive function), while these men “do not act like men.”

(151) . Lodovico Guicciardini, L'ore di ricreazione, ed. Ann-Marie Van Passen (Rome: Bulzoni, 1990), 104; also cited in Bonner, “The Trial of St. Eugenia.”

(152) . In the version in the Book of Leinster the women lift up their dresses, while in the older versions they show their breasts. See M. Cataldi, Táin Bo Cúailnge: La grande razzia (Milan: Adelphi, 1996), 72; and Bonner, “The Trial of St. Eugenia,” 260.

(154) . King, “Agnodike,” suggestively argues that the gesture of anasúromai likens the male doctors of Athens to soldiers of the sort referred to in the tales discussed above, that is, cowards who were incapable of protecting their women. In effect, Hyginus's (p.324) text said that the women reproved their husbands by declaring, “vos coniuges non estis sed hostes.”

(155) . See on this the excellent essay by Olender, “Aspects of Baubo”; and also M. Arthur, “Politics and Pomegranates: An Interpretation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” in The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, ed. H. P. Foley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 214–42 (esp. 228–30). On the relationship between Baubo's gesture and the Agnodice incident, see King, “Agnodike,” 62–63.

(156) . Olender, “Aspects of Baubo,” 99–100.

(157) . For midwives and wet nurses, see below, chap. 13, sec. 2.

(158) . Bonner, “Trial of St. Eugenia,” 258. King, “Agnodike,” 54, takes up this interpretation.

(159) . Hesychius Lexicon (in Latte, 1:25): agnódikos: agnooûsa tò díkaion; see Photius Lexicon 211 (in Christos Theodoridis, ed., Photii patriarchae Lexicon [Berlin: De Gruyter, 1982], 28); and Anecdota graeca 24.5 (in Ludwig Bachmann, ed., Anecdota graeca [Leipzig: Heinrichs, 1828]). In Rose's edition of Hyginus, the traditional “Agnodice” is systematically corrected to “Hagnodice.” On the textual difficulties with Hyginus, known only through the edition of Mycillus, see H. J. Rose, ed., Hygini Fabulae (Lugduni Batavorum: A.W. Sythoff, 1963), xvi–xx: “Hyginus enim ad nos olim uno codice servatus, nunc ne uno quidem pervenit.”

(160) . For Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, see above, chap. 6, sec. 3.

(161) . Laistner, Das Rätsel, 2:383, citing Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, Aus der Oberpfalz: Sitten und Sagen (Augsburg: M. Rieger, 1857), 1:155. On this characterization of the midwife, see also HDA, s.v. “Hebamme” (3:1588): “das scheiche, wilde Weib.”

(162) . R. Riegler, “Zoonimia popolare,” Quaderni di semantica 2 (1981); and esp. Mario Alinei, “Belette,” in Atlas linguarum Europae (ALE), ed. Mario Alinei (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1986), 165.

(163) . Laistner, Das Rätsel, 2:383. On the Norne, see Belmont, Les signes, 175ff.

(164) . On Eileíthyia “the spinner,” see above, chap. 4, sec. 1.

(165) . T. S. Duncan, “Weasel in Religion, Myth and Superstition,” Washington University Studies 12 (1924), 47; and R. Riegler, “Zwei mythische Tiernamen,” Wörter und Sachen 2 (1910). On the connections between the weasel and the spinner, see esp. Marlène Albert-Llorca, L'ordre des choses: Les récits d'origine des animaux et des plantes en Europe (Paris: C.T.H.S, 1991), 259–67.

(166) . Similarly, a woman at the loom spinning with her left hand would sing, “wisula wisula, span oder entran!” See E. Schott, Das Wiesel in Sprache und Volksglauben der Romanen (Ph.D. Dissertation, Tübingen, 1935), 19ff.; Riegler, “Zwei mythische Tiernamen”; and HDA, s.v. “Wiesel” (9:591) for the peasant woman who bangs together two pieces of iron, goes to the edge of the field, and says, “Ich werde dir zu spinnen geben damit du mein Haus in Ruhe lässt.”

(167) . For this in regard to the weasel in particular, see the impressive research of Alinei, “Belette.”