On April 17, 1639, a woman named Anna Omundsdatter gave birth to an egg.
Omundsdatter was the wife of a Norwegian farmer. Accounts of this strange event describe her as a mother of 12 living children, pious, otherwise completely unremarkable. She had been ill for a year before the birth, suffering from weakness and vertigo. No one had been able to cure her. I imagine the doctors muttered “female problems” into her husband’s ear, shook their heads and collected their fees.
Jan Bondeson, the author of The Two-Headed Boy, describes the birth as taking an entire day—from the early morning until the late evening. And by this point, if infant mortality rates from the time apply, Omundsdatter had given birth much more than 12 times. She was no slouch. But birth isn’t one of those things that you just get good at with practice. My mom, who has given birth eight times herself, reminds me that there’s no phoning it in when it comes to birth. You can imagine Omundsdatter, sweating and straining, heaving her breath through contraction after contraction. She knew what she was doing, spreading her legs wide as she pushed and pushed, maybe throwing up from the effort, maybe passing in and out of consciousness as her body expanded and contract.
Her children must have been shooed outside, distracted and restless: even if you are one of 12, a new birth is exciting. I imagine them lined up outside the house, which was nestled in the rocky countryside of Sundby near Stavanger in Norway. They listened to their mother’s screams and the murmured assurances of the tired women attending her.
When Omundsdatter made her final push, instead of the white vernix-and-blood-covered baby, emerged an egg, glistening as it fell into the hand of the attending friend. Bondeson writes that Omundsdatter wanted to keep the egg, but a friend broke it open: it contained a white and a yolk, just like any other.
The next day, according to Bondeson (as well as C.J.S. Thompson in The Mystery and Lore of Monsters) Omundsdatter again went into labor, and again produced an egg. This egg, unlike the first one, was preserved. Omundsdatter made sure of it, telling those around her that if the egg was destroyed everyone would suffer the wrath of God.
The clergymen who attended the birth attested to the miracle and sent the egg to a Dr. Tranius, who in turn sent the egg to Olaus Wormius (whose name was actually Ole Worm and who had once expelled a worm from his nose). Wormius concluded that the Devil himself had stolen the child in the woman’s womb and exchanged it for an egg. Years later, Dutch physician Antonius de Heyde would accuse Omundsdatter of having sex with a rooster.
The story of Omundsdatter’s birth was affirmed by three eyewitness clergymen, as well as their wives; it was written down and sealed. But Bondeson, who is a doctor in addition to being a historian of the odd, concludes that Omundsdatter was a fraud—that she hid the egg inside her vagina and faked birth. She wouldn’t, of course, be the first. There are hundreds of stories of other women doing the same, like the infamous Mary Toft, who hid bits of rabbit in her vagina and expelled them in dramatic births that awed the men around her.
Records of these births are found in unlikely places, like in the writings of sixteenth-century physician and cartographer Cornelius Gemma, who considered the recesses of the female reproductive system a dangerous and dark place—maybe even more mysterious, wondrous and terrible than the sky he mapped at night. Wormius, in his description of Omundsdatter’s egg in his book Museum Wormium, cites Gemma’s fascination with women birthing “needles, knives, razors, insects and other objects,” as well as the cartographer’s assertion that this was evidence of Satan embedded within.
Men generally considered these objects to be devilish. They surmised that perhaps the woman, still covered in sweat, reclining on the bed where she had just given birth to a needle, egg, knife or snake, had unnatural relations with the Prince of Darkness and she was now issuing forth his progeny. The men would whisper outside her door, wondering if she had been a willing participant. Was this a witch? Devil possession? Then, these men would peer into the woman’s vulva, like hunters outside a cave—too afraid of the darkness to go in. Men are always obsessing over what goes into a woman’s vagina and always amazed and squeamish by what comes out.
Stories of women giving birth to miraculous eggs and other marvels begin much earlier than Omundsdatter or Gemma. In Greek mythology, Leda, the queen of Sparta was raped by Zeus, who had taken the form of a swan—or maybe she was seduced, that mythical space in between. Leda then gave birth to an egg, which according to some versions of the myth contained Helen and Clytemnestra—the women at the center of some of Western history’s most enduring myths.
In his poem “Leda and the Swan,” William Butler Yeats recounts the event as a rape. “How can those terrified vague fingers push/ The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? / And how can body, laid in that white rush,/ But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?”
But for Yeats, this rape—though violent—was a beginning, not an end. The two poles are so tangled in this poem it’s hard to tear them apart: destruction, generation, life, death. Writing about “Leda and the Swan” in Break, Blow, Burn Camille Paglia notes, “Yeats portrayed Western culture as inseminated with treachery and violence from the start.” She compares it to another winged insemination, the annunciation of Mary, who also issued from her womb something odd—a savior, although not, of course, in an egg.
Women hiding eggs in their bodies: that frustrated, self-violating attempt at control. These fraudulent and mythical births are sites of so much complication. I have a friend who worked for years as a nurse in the ER, who tells me that women still come in with objects hidden in their genitals. She’s blasé about it, in the way only a healthcare professional can be about something so bizarre. Hair brushes in the butt. Nail polish in the cervix. So what? My friend surmises in the case of the earlier tales, perhaps shoving eggs inside the cervix was a cry for attention.
But cries for attention are never just that. It’s possible that Omundsdatter just miscarried a misshapen fetus. These stories, after all, were passed down by men—centuries before our contemporary lawmakers would ask if women could swallow cameras for gynecological exams.
Whatever it is, women still hide things in their vaginas today, for purposes other than the obviously practical (by which I mean drug smuggling). Recent cases include Pop Rocks, heroin, a poster of Donny Osmond, a Rolex, a gun. The list is eerily similar to the one by Gemma, which included knives and needles. A Donny Osmond poster is probably a weapon as well.
So what is the motivation to embed something inside you? Is it a drive for protection? Is it a secret locus of control? For centuries, women lacked the physical or social freedom to move and express themselves externally, like men could. Is this the literal and even logical conclusion of that? When limited from going out, we dig deep within—going further inside until the place we reach is as big and mysterious as the world.
Stories of women are rife with private compartments, hidden spaces, a longing for a place of one’s own. The Yellow Wallpaper. The Secret Garden. A Room of Her Own. Jane Eyre and the madwoman in the attic. I think of Scarlett O’Hara screaming out for her Tara. The story of women is a story of trying to find a place of control in a world where you have no control. The story of women has always been a story of conquest and insurrection. Destruction and generation.
And the female genitalia is a place so conquered and imprinted upon that fighting for the rights of our reproductive system, for access to birth control, to better healthcare, to the right to decide what goes in our womb and what stays there, often seems like a fight against the manifest destiny of an imperialist horde. We are the insurrectionist natives demanding our own governance and being told over and over that we haven’t earned it yet.
Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that every hero must pass through a metaphorical belly of a whale. Campbell notes, “This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation.” The hero goes inward, is destroyed and born again. I wonder, for Anna Omundsdatter, if giving birth to an egg was a form of reassertion. Anna Omundsdatter, exhausted from a lifetime on her back, bearing the never-ending offspring of her husband, fighting for control over her most intimate self, which had been conquered and conquered again and again. Perhaps he’d leave her alone now. Perhaps this was a form of birth control—push out an egg and he’ll never put his dick in there again. And maybe, this time, with the egg, she might have thought—twisted, bored, desperate, confused—the interior of this world would be hers.
Lyz Lenz has written for The Hairpin, The Toast, The New York Time Motherlode, and other various and sundry internet entities. Find her on twitter @lyzl.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.