Layla’s Thesis Idea: “What’s up with those magic wombs?” Exploring agency in ancient magical womb amulets.

I did the Hannah Holborn Gray Fellowship on the agency of the uterus on ancient magical womb amulets and adjacent medical and magical texts. I also explored object agency and the object’s affordances to examine the agencies of the amulets themselves as they act as a conduit through and regulate the interactions between the amulet user, the symbolized womb, and divinities on the amulets. The amulets come from Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Egyptian tradition. The textual sources I will be examining include Hippocrates’ On Diseases of Young Girls, On Diseases of Women; Soranus’ Gynecology, Galen’s On the Anatomy of the Uterus, Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony (mainly pulling from Zeitlin’s discussion of Pandora’s jar), Kahun Medical Papyrus, the Ramesseum Papyrus, and the Greek Magical Papyri (maybe if I have time Plato’s Symposium). I know this seems like a lot, but I am only pulling the relevant excerpts from the works rather than looking at them in their entirety. I would also like to dedicate a section to the uterus as a demonic and chaotic being, connecting the idea of the cosmogonic, chaotic quality of the womb as an organ to personifications of the uterus as demonic. In ancient Egypt, the entire conceptualization of the uterus also centered around chaos and the qualities of demonization also shared this chaotic quality. Faraone has already discussed personifications of the uterus as demonic in Greek texts, I would be exploring this idea in Egyptian texts as well which may explain some of the womb’s agencies and evil intent. After these sections, I will move on to discuss the amulet user’s agency within amuletic practice by exploring the affordances that the amulet has and its object agency. I will be looking at medical anthropology (agency of those with illness) and the main agentive act of personification of the uterus which appears on these amulets. I have done extensive work handling and documenting 12 womb amulets from the University of Michigan Special Collections and the Kelsey Museum over the summer from which I have plenty of notes. This will provide evidence for my object agency section. 

I expect to have trouble narrowing things down and getting through all of my ideas and material. The amulets have no archaeological context which makes determining use/dating/origins difficult. This is why I have taken a new materialist approach to these womb amulets. I am a double major in archaeology so I am taking at least three seminars this semester. I hope to stay ahead of everything before it becomes a problem. I also am worried about the organization and logical flow of my thesis.

The personification of illness or a body part is part of a larger trend of interaction that humans use to gain control of a situation in which they are often losing control (illness). By interacting with their illness, they employ an act of agency that is an attempt at controlling a narrative in which they are ultimately losing control. We see this with our personification of Coronavirus or other chronic illnesses. It absolves the individual of culpability because it is the personified illness/organ (with intentions and agencies of its own) that is causing the individual to lose their agency. The ideas and ways in which I am exploring the ideas presented here are new to the field of womb amulet and amuletic study. 

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