BMCR 2014.03.16

Women and Weasels: Mythologies of Birth in Ancient Greece and Rome. Translated by Emlyn Eisenach; first published 1998

, Women and Weasels: Mythologies of Birth in Ancient Greece and Rome. Translated by Emlyn Eisenach; first published 1998. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2013. xi, 369. ISBN 9780226044743. $65.00.


This book is the English translation of Maurizio Bettini’s 1998 monograph Nascere: Storie di donne, donnole, madri ed eroi [Turin: Einaudi]. As the “Preface” clearly outlines, Bettini sets out to examine the myth of Alcmene’s childbirth, the most extensive treatment of which is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in order to explain its popularity and longevity, as well as its association with one specific animal, the weasel. To achieve these ends, he uses a variety of Greek and Latin literary and non-literary sources, together with material from other cultures that span continents as well as centuries. What follows is a summary of the argument in each chapter, an overall appreciation of the book, and finally a few comments on its presentation.

The introductory chapter focuses on the earliest source for the birth of Heracles, Homer’s Iliad, and embarks on a very interesting discussion of timings, twins and doubles, revealing points of contact between this and other stories about heroes’ births in myth and folklore. Homer’s lack of interest in Alcmene, the woman who gives birth to the hero, prompts the shift in the following chapter to later texts that focus precisely on her trials and introduce a character that helps her out. The first part of the book thus begins with an outline of various ancient sources, literary (Pausanias, Ovid, Libanius, Nicander – via Antoninus Liberalis, and Aelian) and artistic (Palestrina votive statues), regarding Alcmene’s childbirth. The second chapter acknowledges the fragmentary nature of our sources for this tale, and proposes to recover its “theme” using an analogy from music; Bettini does, however, admit that mythical variations do not stem from an originally composed theme, as is the case with music, but rather the elements that these variations share are what makes them part of a specific theme. In the case of Alcmene’s story, Bettini identifies five elements or constituent parts, “The Woman in Labor”, “The Enemy”, “The Knots”, “The Resolution” and “The Rescuer”, which constitute the topics of subsequent chapters (3-7).

By guiding readers through each element, Bettini convincingly demonstrates that the enemy in the tale is either a witch or a goddess intimately linked to childbirth; that knots are used to prevent as well as facilitate childbirth, as part of analogical magic based on notions of the female body and particularly the womb as something that can be tied and untied; and that in order to defeat the enemy and help the woman in labour, a human rescuer needs to pit her cunning against the hindrances of the knots. The analysis of the first four elements clearly show that they reflect the actual world of childbirth, whether the role of midwives offering assistance and relief, or women in labour attributing their fears and problems in delivery to hostile actions of childbirth goddesses. Chapter seven focuses on those variants of the story where the rescuer is transformed into a weasel, or is a weasel all along. Bettini explains the weasel’s suitability for analogical magic by means of evidence in ancient sources that links it to childbirth in a number of ways, including its agility, care for its pups, and presence within the house as a domesticated animal. He examines Greek beliefs that the weasel conceives through the ears and gives birth through the mouth, and compares them to Biblical and Christian sources that either keep or reverse this reproductive cycle, and that seek to explain it through the analogy of language. In these sources, he traces the shift from conception through the ear to conception through the mouth to an effort to dissociate the weasel as much as possible from the Virgin Mary who was considered to have conceived through the ear.

Chapter eight introduces the biological theory of affordances that Bettini intends to apply to mythical narratives, arguing that an object has certain physical and cultural traits which allow it to carry a symbolic meaning. In the case of the weasel the physical traits are its length, flexibility, and affection for its pups, which made it a suitable animal to become a symbol for childbirth for the Greeks; in the process the weasel was transformed into the helper of Alcmene as well as into other mythical expressions. Because the transformation into a metaphor depends on the particular cultural project and its realisation in a culture’s imagination, the same animal can become various symbols in different cultures, or the same symbol in cultures that could not have interacted with one another. Before embarking on Part Two, Bettini anticipates an objection to the weasel’s suitability as a symbol for childbirth because it was considered to give birth through the mouth, just like the crow, which ancient sources clearly associate with miscarriage: yet successful delivery, miscarriage, and abortion, as he observes, all involve the baby’s removal from the mother’s body; thence a single animal used in different ways may be linked with either the positive or negative outcome.

Part two begins by discussing the use of animals in human cultural imagination. It emphasises the suitability of animals as objects useful to think about ourselves and especially about embarrassing topics such as childbirth. Creating hybrid or monstrous animals, or attributing abnormal behaviours to normal animals, enable humans to approach matters that are complicated, ambiguous or contradictory. In order to understand the meaning of a particular animal in a story, however, we need to know not only its physical characteristics and behaviours, but also the system of cultural beliefs and practices associated with it. Bettini proposes to look at the various stories about the weasel in order to reconstruct its identity, which, he cautions, is not straightforward and one-dimensional as in the case of human characters, but constructed by each storyteller within each story.

The following chapters focus on the intersection of stories about the weasel and stories about Alcmene, in order to understand the meaning of the animal as a helper of the woman in labour. Chapter eleven examines evidence from the ancient and medieval world associating the weasel with witchcraft, and attributing to it unusual sexual habits, sexual ambiguity, and cunning, concluding that all these beliefs stem from observing the animal’s actual behaviour in nature. Chapter twelve turns to the specific context of childbirth, arguing that the figure of the midwife, whose role the weasel plays when not identified with her, is also associated with cunning, witchcraft and sexual licentiousness. In particular the midwife’s dual function as helping childbirth as well as stopping pregnancy matches the animal’s ambiguity, manifested in the use of its body in medicine and witchcraft to achieve both ends, as well as in its unusual reproduction. The midwife’s expertise in female anatomy and sexual pleasure, and her association or even identification with prostitutes, justify her affinity to the weasel in view of the animal’s abnormal sexuality. Finally, evidence for the midwife’s cunning comes from her origin myth in Hyginus, which is interpreted once again as an expression of male fears concerning women’s intimate knowledge.

Chapter thirteen focuses on the names used for the weasel by different cultures. It starts by examining the weasel’s association to marriage, either as an enemy or as a protector, as originating in myths presenting the weasel as a failed bride; hence her designation as “bride”. The weasel’s contradictory nature once again matches the midwife’s role as a woman who helps others give birth without giving birth herself. Bettini then turns to another name, “godmother”, attributing its appropriateness to the similarity between the roles of midwives and godmothers, both of whom may first help the delivery and then have a spiritual relationship to the newborn child; the affinity of both midwife and godmother to the figure of the nurse explains why the weasel is said to be the nurse of Heracles in some variants of Alcmene’s tale. Finally, the similarity between the Greek words for “weasel” and “husband’s sister” is used to advance an argument in favour of another association of the weasel with a woman close to the woman in labour, who may have assisted her in childbirth (although there is no evidence for her actual presence in the delivery room), which would justify the use of the term “sister-in-law” to designate the animal.

The results of the investigation into the weasel as an animal ‘good to think’ for childbirth are summarised in chapter fourteen, while the concluding chapter fifteen considers a number of stories about childbirth that are remarkably similar to Alcmene’s tale although the weasel does not feature in them. The most recently documented of these dates to the beginning of the 20th century in the American South and could arguably be traced back to Scotland in the 18th century, but its source cannot be considered as directly influenced by Ovid’s tale. The same applies to comparable stories from Denmark written down in the 16th and 17th centuries, which have parallels in other parts of Scandinavia but also Sicily. Bettini ends by claiming that it is impossible to establish Ovid (or anyone else) as the ancient source of these stories, and that the whole effort is ultimately meaningless. The story of Alcmene with all its variations owes its popularity and persistence through the centuries to the fact that it is about a topic, childbirth, that concerns, frightens and grips the minds of humans, as does any other story about real life.

This book is essential not just for the classicist, but also for anyone interested in cultural studies. Its persuasive arguments and clever insights absorb the reader into the world of symbols and myths. The variety of sources discussed is truly impressive, as is Bettini’s ability to communicate his understanding of how a cultural imagination works. This study’s ’s major contribution is arguably the application of the theory of affordances in symbolism in order to explain the choice of the weasel as a symbol for childbirth, an innovation already adopted by other scholars of myth (e.g. Johnston 2009 1). It is to be hoped that this very welcome (if overdue) translation into English will help Bettini’s book reach, motivate and enchant an even wider audience.

The book is well-organised but there are quite a few typos (e.g. p. 18, line 12 “bears egg inside”, read “eggs”; p. 19, section 2, line 2 “obsession with insuring”, read “ensuring”; p. 21, title section 7 “Fecal Doubles”, read “Faecal” – also p. 22, line 19; p. 53, line 17 “the hem of the priests robe”, read “priests’ robe”; p. 61, line 23 “Eileithyia, who have”, read “Eileithyiai”; p. 62, line 21 “shaped likes spindles”, read “like”; p. 169, line 2 birth though the mouth”, read “through”; p. 224, lines 33-34 “seem to remains surprisingly”, read “remain”). There is a very useful and extensive “Notes” section, about a third of the book; bibliographical references are embedded in these notes. The edition could benefit from coloured illustrations, as in some cases it is difficult to make out the details.


1. Johnston, S. I., ‘A new web for Arachne’ in C. Walde and U. Dill, eds. Antike Mythen. Medien, Transformationen und Konstruktionen, 1-24. Berlin: DeGryuter, 2009.