Spiked Ball

From the late 19th century onwards, collectors in Tyrol went in search of interesting folkloristic objects 

One of these objects, the spiked ball, supposedly represented a uterus. In pilgrimage chapels, such spiked balls are offered to Our Lady

Women who suffer from unexplained abdominal pain or an unfulfilled desire to have children have these spiked balls made to ask for heavenly help

The spiked ball served as a reference point for the emerging discipline "ethnology" to engage in the fervent discussion about the hot topic "hysteria" 

Object data

Date of production: Beginning of the 20th century
Acquisition by the museum: 1906 from Karl Wohlgemuth


Europe/Italy/South Tyrol/Pustertal/Vintl


Wood, metal, red paint




L 24 cm W 12 cm D 12 cm

Inventory Id:


With the wire eyelet, the spiked ball could be hung on a statue of the Virgin Mary or an altar
Intercession with the spiked ball

This wooden ball,
coated with red varnish, with long spikes glued into it and a wire eyelet for hanging, can only be found in Tyrol. It served as a votive offering, that is to say, an offering that is accompanied with a request or an acknowledgement. In Tyrol, it also bore the name "mother's ball" ("Mutterkugel") or "womb" ("Bärmutter"). For centuries the male-oriented science of medicine saw the uterus, in Greek "hystéra", as a problematic organ attributed with evil and diabolical properties.  

Since antiquity, scholars such as Hippocrates, Paracelsus, Galenos and Leonardo da Vinci have assumed that the uterus, if not regularly fed with male semen, would roam around the body, searching as far as the heart and brain, where it would cause pain by stinging or biting. From this, it was believed, came the "hysterical", the hypertensive and nervous behavior of women. The spikes on the ball personify this. 

Spiked ball made of wood, MARKK Inv. No. 1328:05

Around 1900, psychoanalysis had been developed and was exploring the causes of the alleged female disease "hysteria" in the unconscious mind. Events and discussions on the subject had tremendous outreach. Men continued to dominate the discussion about the female organ. Meanwhile, the newly emerging field of “Volkskunde” (“cultural anthropology”) instead foucused on collecting “regional” and “original” ritual objects, as well as preserving them for the generations to come.

Eye votive offered as thanks or as a request for alleviation from eye diseases, MARKK Inv. No. 213:06

The spiked balls and other votive offerings, which in contrast to the uterus, are usually identifiable at first glance as human body parts (such as a heart, eyes or nose), migrated from the pilgrimage sites to local museums and became exhibition objects. Scholars studied them as "prehistoric" and "superstitious" among other things, and tourists were encouraged and expected to recognize them as "typical" of the particular region. At the same time,
the actual use of spiked spheres in the lives of the people of Tyrol came to an end. However, votive images and objects are still used all over the world and can be seen in various places of worship. Furthermore, they are used to pray or give thanks for salvation and healing. 

Votive nose, MARKK Inv. No. 83:06

The MARKK acquired the "Mutterkugel" together with other objects from Tyrol in 1906 from the Bolzano collector Karl Wohlgemuth under the then museum director Georg Thilenius, who wanted to research all folk cultures - including European ones. This particular object shows the different interpretations of psychoanalysis, ethnology and tourism together, which emerged almost simultaneously and fundamentally changed our view of the world.

  • Map teaser from "Fundorte der Votivgaben", see: Rudolf Kriss: Das Gebärmuttervotiv. Ein Beitrag zur Volkskunde nebst einer Einleitung über Arten und Bedeutung der deutschen Opfergebräuche der Gegenwart, Augsburg 1929
  • Object images: © MARKK, photographs: Paul Schimweg
  • References: Hamburg und Tirol. Eine Alpenfreundschaft? Exhibition catalogue, MARKK 2023; Elisabeth Timm: Die Ästhetik der Hysterie zwischen Ritual und Realie, ca. 1900. Kulturanthropologie und Wissensgeschichte einer Votivgabe, in: Anthropologie und Ästhetik, ed. by Britta Hermann, Paderborn 2018, p. 55-95, https://doi.org/10.30965/9783846759660_004; Elinor Cleghorn: Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World, London 2021;  Richard Andree: Votive und Weihegaben des katholischen Volks in Süddeutschland. Ein Beitrag zur Volkskunde, Braunschweig 1904 
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