Milky love

 So I have not blogged for a month. I guess I have been a bit busy juggling family life and full-time academic work. Baby G. and Big-Boy T. have also decided that they would celebrate the Summer Solstice for a couple of months by refusing to go to sleep in the evenings. All good fun… Anyway, I was also struggling to settle on a topic for this post. I finally decided when my friend Nicky posted a link to this great poem on the joys of hiding oneself when breastfeeding. A few days earlier, I had read an article enjoining the Duchess of Cambridge to breastfeed publicly when her child is born. While some women have absolutely no issues with breastfeeding publicly, I must confess that I have at times found it very hard, and have retreated on numerous occasions to the loo. Of course, all depends on one’s definition of ‘public’ and on the circumstances. I have no problems breastfeeding in front of other women in Penarth Baby Latte meetings. I don’t hide at home, where I have breastfed in front of guests. I have breasfted on planes because it really helps when landing, and clearly I was not going to leave my seat at that time. But when I am at a restaurant, I’d rather go to the loo, where things are quieter.

kourotrophos. Cyprus. The Metropolitan Museum.

kourotrophos. Cyprus. The Metropolitan Museum.

I know that some may accuse me of being the victim of our oversexualised society: I have internalized my society’s fetishation of the breast. Fair enough. In response, however, I would say that the taboo that surrounds breastfeeding has deep roots. There are very few representations of nursing women that have come down to us from the ancient Greek world. And those that are preserved are usually of goddesses: the kourotrophic goddesses. Some have interpreted this as sign that a respectable woman in the Greek world should not have shown her breast, unless she is a goddess, in which case different rules apply. Women represented bare-breasted in Greek art are prostitutes or courtesans. Perhaps. However, I think there is something more, something that is linked to milk rather than breasts. Breastmilk is powerful stuff!

Celery (selinon). Vienna Dioscorides

Celery (selinon). Vienna Dioscorides

The ancients believed that milk was transformed blood. Women do not menstruate when they breastfed intensively – it does make sense. Nursing mothers and nurses were told not to have sex, as it may bring back their menses. Similarly, they were told not to eat allegedly aphrodisiac plants that would dry up the milk. For instance the Geoponika (tenth-century)state that:

Celery when eaten makes women more inclined to sexual activity. Whence women who are breastfeeding should not be allowed to eat celery, especially because it dries up the milk. (Geoponika 2.23).

Also prevented for the same reason were mint, radishes and basil. But milk was not the only white substance believed to be transformed milk: semen was too. Elsewhere, I have presented texts where the act of generation is compared to the curdling of milk. There is more. Several plants that were believed either to draw down the milk or to dry it up were also considered to be either aphrodisiac or an-aphrodisiac. Thus Pliny the Elder (first century CE) writes that hemlock dries up both milk and sperm:

What is certain is that hemlock applied to the breasts of women in childbed dries up the milk, and when rubbed on the testicles at the time of puberty, it prevents sexual intercourse. (Natural History 25.154)

The lettuce, on the other hand, draws down the milk but dries up the sperm, according to Dioscorides (first century CE):

The cultivated lettuce is wholesome, rather cooling, soporific, it loosens the bowel, and draws down the milk… Its seed, drunk, helps those who have frequent wet dreams and prevents sexual intercourse. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.136]

It is interesting to note that, in Latin, the lettuce was called lactuca, which was interpreted as ‘containing much milk (lac). And in Greek, because of its an-aphrodisiac effect, the Pythagoreans named the lettuce ‘eunuch’, and women called it ‘astytis‘ (impotent) (Athenaeus 2.69e; Geoponika 12.13).

What I am trying to show here is that there is a certain equivalence between milk and sperm in the ancient world. I would say that milk was seen with awe (in the old-fashioned sense of the word). Now Greek and Roman women who had given birth were excluded from sanctuaries for a period of several weeks. I had always assumed this was because of the lochial flow, but I now wonder whether the onset of lactation is not to taken into consideration too. Indeed, it is interesting to note that in the Greek and Roman world, as in many other cultures, the consumption of the first-milk (colostrum) was not encouraged. It was seen as too thick, unwholesome.

Anyway, I think there is much work to be done here; work that would involve anthropological comparisons. I leave you with this strange story preserved by the historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE). Cambyses, the king of Persia and the son of Cyrus the Great, married his full sister and killed her. Various stories surrounded her death, including this one:

The Egyptians report that, as they both [Cambyses and his sister] sat at a table, the woman grabbed a lettuce, plucked its leaves, then asked her husband whether the lettuce was more beautiful plucked or shaggy. He replied ‘shaggy’. And she said ‘you have stripped Cyrus’ household as bare as this lettuce’. Angry at this, Cambyses jumped upon her as she was with child, and she died having miscarried. (Herodotus, Histories 3.32)

Lettuces, illegitimate sexual unions, pregnancy and miscarriage: I hope I did not put you off reading Peter Rabbit!

This entry was posted in History of gynaecology, History of medicine and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Milky love

  1. Pingback: A Mother’s Milk | Early Modern Medicine

  2. Emma says:

    C’est drôle comme article… J’ai lu également que les Romains ne buvaient pas de lait, c’est vrai?


  3. Pingback: A Mother's Milk - Early Modern Medicine

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