PREGNANCY AND CHILDBIRTH
The two great imperatives in the ancient world were to get married and to have children. There were two reasons why having a family was considered so necessary. With no medicare, senior residences, or pension plan, people throughout the ancient world relied on their adult children to look after them in old age. Perhaps the Ancient Egyptian euphemism for an eldest son---the staff of old age---says it all. While most people died of injury or sickness long before they had a chance to grow old, many did live long enough to have to rely on others to care for them. Without at least one son to assist them the aged were in serious trouble. The second reason was the need in all pre-industrial societies for an increase in population. More people meant more workers. More workers meant greater wealth and a better chance of preventing conquest by aggressive neighbors.
Both of these factors applied to Ancient Egypt as much as they did to all of the other ancient societies. In addition, however, Ancient Egyptians loved children. They would have wanted a family even if there were no other compelling reasons. Many family portraits attest to the love and devotion that bound together the members of a family. There was enormous social pressure to get pregnant, and the risks associated with childbirth must have been very frightening for many, but most women really did want to be mothers.
Ancient Egyptians were fully aware of the male role in pregnancy but they lacked the detailed knowledge of anatomy and physiology to explain why one woman could get pregnant and another could not. Without such knowledge, it was probably not unreasonable that both sexes tended to look at the woman whenever there was a problem. Everyone assumed that women with wide hips and large, firm breasts would have an easier time getting pregnant than their sisters who were less well endowed.
Just as our society looks to blood tests and X-Rays to provide a specific diagnosis, Ancient Egyptians demanded tests that would explain why a woman could not get pregnant. A common way to measure a woman’s ability to get pregnant involved placing a clove of garlic or an onion in her vagina. She was considered fertile if the smell could be detected on her breath the following morning. Such a test, of course, could not possibly work, but there was an interesting logic behind it. Ancient Egyptians believed that the alimentary canal (from the mouth), the anal canal, and the uterus all opened into the belly. In a healthy person, then, all three channels were linked. If the odor did not pass from the vagina to the mouth, there was a blockage and pregnancy would be impossible. The ancient Greeks believed the same thing.
Another test to measure a woman’s fertility involved smearing new oil on her breasts and shoulders as she lay down. If in the following morning her blood vessels were “fresh and good, none being collapsed” then she will be able to bear children. The idea seemed to be something like, “if she looks healthy then she can deliver.”
While it was certainly important to know if a woman could conceive, it was even more important to know if she was pregnant. The standard test involved keeping emmer wheat and barley seeds moistened with a woman’s urine. If the seeds sprout she is pregnant. This part of the test is actually fairly accurate. They also believed, however that if the barley sprouts first the child will be male; if the emmer grows first the child will be female. This part of the test worked only about half the time.
A less common, and totally unreliable test, involved giving a woman some crushed melon mixed with the milk of a woman who had born a male child. If the concoction made her sick, then she was pregnant.
Putting a date in the vagina was thought to be a cure for sterility. Another cure was to rub the belly and thighs with menstrual blood. It is unclear why they thought the date would work, but menstrual blood was believed to be a particularly potent force and was used in many situations. The long-leafed cos or romaine lettuce with its milky, white juice reminiscent of semen was thought to improve potency in both women and men.
Women usually breast-fed their children for three years. This is never a guarantee but it would cut down the number of pregnancies across the country. Medical papyri suggested two other ways to eliminate unwanted pregnancy. One method was to put crocodile excrement in the vagina. It is likely that this prescription refers to a hardened plug of dried dun inserted at the mouth of the uterus to block the entrance of sperm, but the papyrus is not clear. A similar prescription suggested lint, moistened with a mixture of acacia, carob, and dates ground into honey “should be placed at the mouth of the uterus”. Both of these methods would operate in much the same way as the modern diaphragm.
We have no way of knowing the extent to which these or other methods were employed, but it would be reasonable to expect larger families, at least among the nobility, if there were no family planning.
The medical papyri contain many remedies intended to induce labor. Unfortunately it is not yet possible to identify all of the ingredients, but none that have so far been translated would have any effect on the uterus. Depending on the prescribed remedy, it could be placed in the vagina, sat upon, taken by mouth, or applied to the abdomen. Saffron powder mixed in beer and then rubbed on the belly was thought to induce delivery.
Although there are some obstetrical prescriptions in the medical papyri, physicians seem to have had nothing to do with delivery, except perhaps in the case of serious difficulty. Since it is unlikely that women delivered themselves, we must assume they had assistance, but the record says nothing about who supplied the help. We have several documents describing or portraying delivery, but in every such case the mother is being assisted by goddesses. It is quite possible that these goddesses are behaving in the same way that mortal woman would in similar circumstances, but we cannot be sure.
One rather curious fact is that the Ancient Egyptian language does not have a word for midwife. In other ancient societies each village had a handful of older women who had had enough experience delivering babies that they were invited to bring their expertise to each new delivery. Does the absence of a word to identify such women suggest that prospective mothers simply called upon family and friends, regardless of experience, to assist at their delivery?
It would appear that women delivered their babies while kneeling or squatting, either on birthing bricks or directly on the ground. The hieroglyph identifying words having to do with birth shows a kneeling woman with the head and arms of a child emerging beneath her. There are documents affirming that a woman gave birth to a child in her own home, but other evidence suggests that most deliveries, at least in the New Kingdom took place in special buildings we might call birth-arbors. These structures consisted of a matted roof, to provide shade from the hot sun, supported by wooden pillars carved to look like stalks of papyrus. This was decorated with a covering of vines. They were built in an isolated corner of large estates, or on the roof of smaller houses. It is possible some villages built a birth-arbor just outside the village wall, but no such structure has survived.
There is one reference to a two-week period of purification, a common practice in many parts of the ancient world. Menstruation and giving birth were both regarded as unclean activities, but unfortunately we know almost nothing about Egyptian practices in this regard, beyond that one reference. It would be easy to believe that the mother of a large family would be thrilled at the idea of being declared “unclean” after yet another delivery if it gave her the chance to get away for a few days to recuperate. It seems unlikely that poor women would have had the opportunity for such luxury.
New mothers were advised to have their backs rubbed with the oil in which a Nile perch had been stewed if they wanted to increase the flow of milk. Eating a mouse was thought to cure a number of ills. If a mother ate the mouse she could pass along its curative powers through her milk. Menstrual blood was another potent medicine. Rubbed all over an infant it would drive away any demons that might wish to harm the child.
It was normal for Egyptian women to breast-feed their children for a full three years. There were several distinct advantages to the practice. First, as noted above, it offered a chance to increase the length of time between pregnancies. Breast milk is nutritious, readily available, and inexpensive. The Nile River was good for irrigation and transportation, but with so many people living along its shores it was not always safe to drink. Children and adults alike satisfied their need for water by drinking beer. The alcohol content was lower than our beer, but it was enough to kill the bacteria and make it safe to drink. This solution would not work for infants, however, and mother’s milk was a safe alternative. Breast-milk is also an effective way to pass along adult immunities until such time as the infant has had a chance to develop his own.
As has already been noted, the maternal death rate was high. Add to that the few women who did not produce enough milk, and the many upper-class women who simply did not want to do so, and there was a market for women who had milk but no baby. A wet-nurse would be paid for her services, and reimbursed for any expenses, but would have to promise to allow the parent or parents regular access and to return the infant after weaning. Some of the written contracts contained provisions guaranteeing the wet-nurse would have sufficient milk, would continue her services for the full three years, and would not get pregnant or share her milk with any other children.
Among the poor, it was normal for the infant to move into the home of the wet-nurse. Upper class parents would expect the wet-nurse to move in with them. She often remained in the child’s household long after weaning, becoming what we would call today a nanny. As might be expected, a very close relationship often developed between wet-nurse and child that continued through adulthood. Wet-nurses are often attested in tombs, suggesting the affection was genuine and existed without jealousy alongside the normal parent-child relationship.
DIVINE HELP FOR MOTHER AND CHILD
Pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy were the three most dangerous times in ancient life. With very little understanding of the biological processes and none of the modern tools for dealing with birth injuries and infection, it was natural that Egyptians would turn to magic and religion for assistance.
Hathor was a goddess with an impressive list of responsibilities. She was mistress of far lands, mistress of the cardinal points, sovereign of the four corners of the sky, protector of Theban necropolis and wet-nurse to the king. She was also, however, thought of as the goddess of love, and protector of the home. If gods and goddesses can be ranked, Hathor was definitely in the big league. While Hathor had the power, she was a very busy lady, and many Egyptians, especially those not part of the nobility, chose to depend on lesser deities. They may not have the muscle, but they did have the time. Bes and Taweret fit the bill perfectly.
Bes is always portrayed as a bearded, misshapen dwarf. He has a grotesque appearance but is otherwise quite amiable looking. His ears are prominent, his cheeks puffy, and his mouth is small: he stands with bowed legs and arms akimbo. A corner of the Abydos temple to Sethos was set aside for his worship, but otherwise he was a domestic, not a state god. At night his grotesque dances and horrible grimaces could be counted on to drive evil spirits away. Most homes would have a small shrine in his honor and it would be to Bes that most women would turn for help in delivery.
The goddess Taweret was every bit as much a part of childbirth and the home as Bes. She was a composite goddess: her paws were those of a lion, her back belonged to a crocodile and her body was that of a pregnant hippopotamus. Her head usually matched the hippo body, but sometimes she would be shown with the face of a beautiful woman. Often her hands carried or rested on the sa symbol for protection. Her appearance varied, but she was always upright, very pregnant, with short legs and the paws of a lion.
The gods could be beseeched, assimilated or controlled. One prayer proclaims the heavens are rejoicing at the coming birth and beseeches Hathor to be with the mother while she delivers in her birth pavilion. This is the same approach that is common in many religions today, when a believer prays to God for assistance. After completing such a prayer, however, an Ancient Egyptian woman might go one step further and proclaim that she herself is Hathor, in the hope of frightening off any malignant forces that might try to interfere with a normal delivery. In other spells the various body parts of the person needing protection are assigned to different gods and goddesses. “Your neck is the neck of Osiris; your head is the head of Re….” Just in case neither of those approaches worked, there was a spell in which a goddess is threatened with all sorts of calamities if anything untoward happened during the delivery.
After the baby is born the mother or a friend might announce that the infant is Horus or some other deity. Again the intent would be to frighten off the malignant forces that might visit harm on the infant. Alternatively, the mother might proclaim that she herself is Isis or Hathor so that her arms around her baby will save it from all harm.