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The Ancient Emotion of Disgust$
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Donald Lateiner and Dimos Spatharas

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190604110

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190604110.001.0001

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Witches, Disgust, and Anti-Abortion Propaganda in Imperial Rome

Witches, Disgust, and Anti-Abortion Propaganda in Imperial Rome

(p.189) 9 Witches, Disgust, and Anti-Abortion Propaganda in Imperial Rome
The Ancient Emotion of Disgust

Debbie Felton

Oxford University Press

Witches in Roman literature exhibit a predilection for harming infants in utero. Descriptions connecting witches with the womb express even more disgust than stories about witches killing young children and present the witch as the antithesis of a midwife: rather than helping children be born, witches prevent birth. Roman authors emphasize their physical filthiness, providing a stark contrast to the hygienic mindfulness of midwives as described in ancient medical texts. Although such passages foreground the bestial, uncivilized nature of witches, these disgusting descriptions also add to the marginalization of elderly women in Roman society and evoke a feeling of horror that then becomes subliminally attached to abortion. Abortion was not technically illegal in ancient Rome, but the state strongly disapproved of it. Depicting witches as perversions of midwives added to the propaganda against the practice and may have provided a precedent for medieval depictions of the midwife as witch.

Keywords:   witch, midwife, women, elderly, childbearing, abortion, propaganda, disgust, physical disgust, moral

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