What Is A Uterus?

By Tracy Delaney

"Uterus: 1. In the primates; The organ in which the young are conceived, developed, and protected till birth; the female organ of gestation; the womb. b. In other animals: The matrix; the ovary 1753. 2. Bot. a. = PERICARP 1676. b. In fungi: The envelope of the sporophore 1829." -- Oxford English Dictionary.

Uterus, then, appears to be a medical or botanical term. My uterus is there to perform a reproductive function, as in other animals (and fungi), and in some ways it is not dissimilar to a nut shell (pericarp -- the pod, husk or shell of a fruit). This description does seem to lack depth and breadth, being purely about physical form and function, but then that's exactly why I recognise it as a scientific definition.

A strictly Western approach to medicine is based on science, and favours this kind of physical definition. Western medicine can tell me that my uterus is around five inches long by three inches wide, about one inch thick, and shaped like an upside-down pear. It can describe the three layers of tissue that make up the walls: the lining, or Endometrium; the Myometrium, the thickest layer, which is smooth muscle capable of powerful contractions, and the Serosa, the fibrous covering. It can also tell me how it thinks of the uterus in terms of three distinct vertical segments: the Cervix; the Isthmus, which is the narrower part (think of the upside-down pear); and the Fundus, the wider section (1). It adds that men have a vestigial uterus (utriculus masculinis) inside the prostate (2).

Western medicine can tell me the physical characteristics of my uterus in great detail, particularly in relation to reproduction. The only thing it can't tell me, on the physical level, is the detailed structure of my abdominal nervous system, and hence how or whether my uterus is involved in sexual response and orgasm. That hasn't been researched yet (3, 4). The nerves important to sexual response in men have been identified though, so that they can be avoided during prostate surgery (4).

I can glean a lot of information about a tradition by its definition of uterus, as much from what it can't tell me as what it can. Conceptualising the uterus as three distinct vertical segments reveals a tradition with a penchant for cutting things up. The Western medical definition focuses on the physical, on reproductive rather than sexual function (which is more important in men), and does not deal with wider issues which are not scientific.

What would those wider issues be? Uterus is the Classical Latin word for womb or belly (5), but if we look up "womb," it does not say "see uterus." Womb comes from Old English. It pre-dates uterus (in English usage) (5,6), and is richer in meaning. As well as being the belly, abdomen, stomach (when full) or uterus, it also refers to:

"A hollow space or cavity, or something conceived as such
(e.g. the depth of night)."

"A place or medium of conception and development; a place
or point of origin and growth." (7)

Which puts me in mind of the Vision List. A womb is any creative space, where a point of origin is allowed to emerge from the apparent void and grow. Pretty poetic for the O.E.D. This definition also points to the Earth as a womb, and to darkness as a rich and fertile kind of emptiness, so you can see that womb is an older word than uterus. My womb, then, is a place of creativity within, and I don't have to get pregnant, have a uterus, or be female to qualify.

To follow the etymology a bit further: 'kidney' is thought to be a combination of the Old English words for womb and egg (8), and Traditional Chinese Medicine bears out the connection. In this tradition the Uterus is almost part of the Kidney, which governs "skill and ability," including reproduction and development. In fact, the Uterus is attached to the right Kidney (9), and is also related to the Heart, Liver and Spleen, since they all deal with the blood (10). It's usual to capitalise the Chinese organ names to differentiate them from Western equivalents of the same name; they mean something quite different. TCM is a holistic approach and it groups together mental, emotional, social and spiritual qualities, as well as physical attributes and functions, to define an organ. Here, the Uterus, rather than being segmented, is an integral part of a much wider system, and has non-physical attributes such as emotions and energy, as well as the physical.

The origins of this particular approach illuminate why Western and holistic disciplines sometimes find it impossible to understand one another. It's beautifully explained by Francesca Diebschlag in her long article: "Psychospiritual Aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine"(9). To summarize, the underlying world views are so different that the conclusions coming out of them, several stages removed, can each appear plainly ridiculous to the other. Simplistically, strictly Western thought divides the world into physical and non-physical (Cartesian philosophy), whereas the Chinese view divides it into Yin and Yang. You can see how deriving all further facts from those two starting points will lead to very different results. One important result is that in mainstream Western medicine, anatomy is learned by studying dead bodies, and in holistic medicine, anatomy can only be observed in the living.

In energy terms, the idea of Chakras underlies many Eastern approaches, and in these terms, the Uterus would be part of the second chakra, Svadisthana, "Her special abode," which is located in the pelvic area (11). The second chakra is about creative and sexual energy, relationships and issues of power and control over your own life. All of these have obvious connections to the uterus, and according to Caroline Myss in Anatomy of the Spirit the loss or fear of loss of control in these areas can express itself physically. For example: "Fibroids result from second chakra creative energy that was not birthed and from life energy that is directed into dead end jobs or relationships."(11) Here we have the idea that the uterus is capable of responding to the emotions or spirit, particularly on second chakra themes. Creativity comes up again, and it's not necessarily dependent on the physical uterus. Everyone has a second chakra, just as everyone has a womb in its wider sense; in fact maybe they're the same thing.

There are as many views as there are people to ask, but nothing that I have found fully expresses what anyone who's ever had a uterus already knows about it. The uterus is all about cycles of change. It governs the timing of the Maiden, Mother, Crone life cycle (at least physically), and within that it seems to channel moon energy and manifest it as the menstrual cycle. Its association with creativity may be partly due to that ability to channel energy from beyond. The uterus is the centre of a cycle of emotions, libido and energy, which you can either fight or flow with, but you will find it hard to ignore. It's a source of both pleasure and pain. It pulsates during orgasm and it's the source of an earthy kind of pain that you can really get into under the right circumstances, like in the early stages of labour, or when your period arrives on a day, that you actually have all to yourself.

It feels like a tangible connection to the moon and the Earth. In practice we fight its cycles and curse them at least some of the time, and it can be the source of an extremely annoying and wearing kind of pain. It's treated as an object of veneration by some (the literal translation of yoni from Sanskrit is 'womb, vulva' [12]) and an optional, disposable extra by others, which reflects the spectrum of attitudes that people can have towards us purely because we are women. We are often expected to discuss our uterus at job interviews, mainly to reassure prospective employers that we're not planning to use it in the near future (which may not be legal but a lot of us have experienced it), and we either undergo or keep putting off smear tests thanks to its capacity to turn on us.

So to answer the question (which reminds me of all the essays I've had returned with 'answer the bloody question' written at the bottom): The definition of uterus seems to be dependent on the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of the source you ask. There is much conflicting and confusing information available. When you decide what information or approach is true for you, then you're in a better position to make decisions about your own uterus, and about who can best advise you.

References and Links:

1. Centre for Uterine Fibroids: Basic Anatomy and Physiology of the Uterus

2. Overview of AIS

3. Sexual Dissatisfaction

4. Nerve Sparing Hysterectomy

5. Online Etymology Dictionary: Uterus

6. Online Etymology Dictionary: Womb

7. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, Volume II, Guild

8. Online Etymology Dictionary: Kidney

9. Psychospiritual Aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Francesca

10. TCM Extraordinary Yang Organs
Traditional Chinese Medicine

11. Anatomy of the Spirit, Caroline Myss, Bantam Books

12. Online Etymological Dictionary: Yoni

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Space graphic above from the Rosette Nebula in Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Sulfur.
Credit: T. A. Rector, B. Wolpa, M. Hanna.