Sunday, July 23, 2006

Odors, now and then

Reading in the New York Times (7/21/06) that "French psychiatrists…have found that lavender-laden air can reduce agitation among certain psychiatric patients", I was reminded of ancient beliefs about hysteria.
Regarding the various symptoms of hysteria as the result of the migration of the womb, Aretaeus of Cappadocia, an ardent second century A.D. follower of Hippocrates, explains that the womb "delights, also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and, on the whole the womb is like an animal within an animal." He goes on to say that the "uterus in woman has membranes extended on both sides of the flanks, and also is subject to the affections of an animal in smelling; for it follows after fragrant things as if for pleasure, and flees from fetid and disagreeable things as if for dislike. If, therefore, anything annoy it from above, it protrudes even beyond the genital organs. But if any of these things be applied to the os, it retreats backwards and upwards. Sometimes it will go to this side or to that,--to the spleen and liver, while the membranes yield to the distension and contraction like the sails of a ship."
These theraputic suggestions were criticized by Soranus if Ephesus, a leading authority on gynecology in the 2nd century A.D., in his discussion of hysteria:

"the majority of the ancients and almost all followers of the other sects have made use if ill-smelling odors (such as burnt hair, extinguished lamp wicks, charred deer's horn, burnt wool, burnt flock, skins, and rags, castoreum with which they anoint the nose and ears, pitch, cedar resin, bitumen, squashed bed bugs, and all substances which are supposed to have an oppressive smell) in the opinion that the uterus flees from evil smells. wherefore they have also fumigated with fragrant substances from below, and have approved of suppositories of spinenard [and] storax, so tht the uterus fleeing from the first-mentioned odors, but pursuing the last-mentioned, might move from the upper to the lower parts."

No mention of lavender.

Quotes from Ilza Vieth, Hysteria: The History of a Disease, (University of Chicago Press, 1965) 23-30.

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