Layla’s Thesis Portrait

This is the general argument that my thesis will make:

An analysis of these womb amulets shows that wombs were imagined to have agencies of movement, consumption/desire, and smell. At the same time, the users sought to exercise proactive and reactive forms of agency, the main agentive force being the personification of the womb. The amulets themselves had agency in their visibility, feeling, and size (object agency) which influenced the interactions between the amulet user, womb, illness, and divine defined by affordances that the objects have. These affordances are based on 12 amulets handled at the University of Michigan Special Collections and the Kelsey Museum. The concept of the demonic womb relates to the idea of chaos and the cosmogonic womb in Greco-Egyptian society.

I will start my thesis by going over the different agencies the womb has in textual sources and the amulets themselves. The textual sources that I will be looking at include the Hippocratic Treatises (On Diseases of Women, On Diseases of Young Girls, Nature of Women), Soranus’ Gynecology (mostly Book 3), PGM, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, and the Ebers Papyrus. The secondary literature that will help me with this is written by Froma Zeitlin, Christopher Faraone, Veronique Dasen, Ann Hansen, Anna Bonnell Freidin, Catherine Marino, etc. I might clash with Faraone and Freidin a bit, but it is mainly on modes of interpretation that requires alternate reasoning. Most of my research is highlighting a new, different way of interpreting the evidence that draws upon work already done. There are multiple interpretations of womb amulets and texts on wombs. There can exist multiple interpretations with merit and correctness. I will examine smell while touching on practices of fumigation and smoke in the ancient world, drawing on Faraone’s article on fumigation and spasmodic disease. I will discuss the idea of the cosmogonic womb in conjunction with chaos and demonization in ancient Egypt. This section may or may not make it into my thesis as I focus on expanding the other sections, but it is an avenue I think is worth exploring in the future. I will then discuss the agency of the amulet user using Faraone and Hay. I will then go on to discuss object agency and affordances pulling from Gosden and the work I did at the University of Michigan. I may or may not have time to discuss how these objects might have been made for a final section of my thesis. It all depends on time. I would start by looking at the general trends surrounding the carving of different materials between the 2nd century CE and the 4th century CE and trace the trade routes for the amulets’ materials. I would then see if the evidence I gathered in Michigan fit within my findings.

I think that focusing on the agency of the uterus, the agency of the amulet user, and object agency right now is the priority and more realistic. My two other sections pertaining to demonization, chaos, and how the amulets were made will be contingent upon time and/or part of my future research.

My research is relevant, not just to the ancient world, but to our present world as well. We personify illness in similar ways to the ways those in the ancient world personified the womb on these amulets. Such personifications are endemic to the human condition and the ways that we see agency with regard to illness. We can better understand our tendencies and value systems when we look at this more distanced form of processing and curing illness.

By looking at the different realms of agency and imagining ways in which the amulet user might have interacted with the womb and object, we can better represent underrepresented groups within the archaeological and textual records. We can give them a voice and better understand our own in relation to illness.

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