ancient egypt: history and culture
Procreation in ancient Egypt:
Fertility, family planning, pregnancy, childbirth

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Procreation

Min     Creation, procreation and resurrection were–according to Henri Frankfort–what the ancient Egyptian religion was about, [4] and the gods took part in these acts to create and sustain world order, Maat. Humans too played an important role in the upholding of Maat, but being mortal they had to procreate and were in need of divine help in doing so. Min and Hathor were two of the most important fertility deities, involved in all aspects of human reproduction.

The ithyphallic god Min

    It was Hathor, the goddess of love, who brought the man and the woman together:
I prayed to her (i.e. Hathor) and she heard my prayer,
She destined my mistress for me.
And she came of her own will to see me.
How tremendous is that which overcame me.
I rejoice, I exult, I am very proud, Since the moment when it was said:
See, here she is.
A. H. Gardiner, The Chester Beatty Papyri No.I, 1931, p.33
even if at times people didn't rely on her intervention and tried to further their cause with some magic which often had more to do with subjugating the object of their obsession than with love.
    It was Hathor who fulfilled the lovers' wish for children. It was one of the great fears of the ancient Egyptians to remain childless:
...that the goddess has your wives
Give birth to boys and girls,
In order that they become not sterile
And you not barren
From a hymn from Medinet Habu
Bleeker, op.cit., p.40
    Min, a male god depicted with an erect penis, conferred sexual prowess on men and during the New Kingdom orgiastic festivals were held in his honour. [5] The plant dedicated to him, lettuce, was thought to be an aphrodisiac, probably because of the milky sap reminiscent of semen it contained.
    With the help of these gods and at times under the watchful eye of Bes  [6] the Egyptians engendered successors, who provided continuity, security in old age and, through their offerings, the best guarantee for an eternal life.

Fertility

Taweret     To ensure fertility women used from early times among other things charms like frog and locust amulets, monkey amulets, the latter also having connotations of sexual gratification, or cowrie shell pendants, real or imitated in metal, because of their shape which is reminiscent of female genitalia.

Taweret
Source: Jon Bodsworth

The goddess Taweret, depicted as a hippo standing on her hind legs was a protective deity of motherhood and her amulets were worn since the Old Kingdom and became very widespread in the New Kingdom. From the Middle Kingdom on Hathor, Mut and Isis were perhaps the most prominent goddesses of female fertility and motherhood, [7] but there were others such as Bastet who, having the shape of a cat, embodied fertility. [8]
    Fertility of the woman was important to the Egyptians and the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus includes a number of tests for it, such as the following:
Strike (?) thou as to her 2 upon her lip (?), the tip (?) of thy finger upon the top of her menaa (shoulder ? or part of arm); [if she] twitches (?) 3 [she will bear a child] [but if she ? does] not twitch (?), she will not bear a child ever.
    Is not quite clear what, in the eyes of the Egyptians, the role of male fertility in conception was and what it entailed, apart from the observable facts of an erection necessary for penetration and the ejaculation of semen. Some even think that the fertility of a couple was considered to depend on the male only, [9] though in this case it is doubtful there would have been fertility tests for women other than tests for their capability of carrying a pregnancy to term. That the role of the man was critical must have been clear to many, watching how certain men had a number of wives without any of them becoming pregnant:
You are not a man since you cannot make your wives pregnant like other men.
Rautman, op.cit., p.190
    The gods embodying male fertility and sexual prowess were given shapes such as ithyphallic mummies, bulls and rams. Some of these like Khnum, Atem or Amen were original creator gods, creating the world through a sexual act.

Family planning

    While children were considered to be a blessing, at the same time there seems to have existed the need for planning pregnancies. Silphium grown in Cyrene was famous for many medical qualities, among them its contraceptive properties. It was taken orally as a potion or inserted into the vagina as a silphium soaked suppository. [1]. Some Egyptian women used honey and natron for this purpose. Others soaked cotton in a paste of dates and acacia bark which has a spermicidal effect, because of the lactic acid it contained.
 
    Whether abortions were also performed is unclear. The Ebers papyrus mentions two remedies which "cause all to come out which is in the stomach of a woman", possibly referring to inducing a miscarriage.

Pregnancy

    A foetus was created by sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, an insight reached in prehistoric times probably by observation of domesticated livestock, when female animals failed to conceive unless they copulated with a male. [10]
You fertilize women by means of semen (coming) from the bones [3]
Gordon & Schwabe, op.cit., p.98
The foetus's white parts were formed by the semen while its coloured parts derived from the menstrual blood. In the later life of an individual this male-white/female-coloured relationship became reversed: when the baby began to suckle, the milk replaced the white magic of the semen and later the meat of a bull became the nourishing red magic. [11]
 
    As a pregnancy test a fine thread might be tied around the neck of a bride, which would break as the woman's neck got thicker because of the enlargement of the thyroid glands due to hormonal changes in the pregnant woman, [12] or the woman's urine might be used to germinate some grain and conclusions as to whether the woman was pregnant at all or even what the sex of the foetus was were drawn according to how the grain germinated:
Means for knowing if a woman will give birth or will not give birth: (Put) some barley and some wheat (into two bags of cloth) which the woman will moisten with her urine every day, equally barley and grain in the two bags. If both the barley and the wheat sprout she will give birth. If (only) the barley germinates it will be a boy, if it is the wheat which alone germinates it will be a girl. If neither germinates she will not give birth. [2]
Berlin papyrus 3.038
Lefebvre, op.cit., p.102

 
    The support of family, friends and trusted servants was of great importance to a pregnant woman , affording her peace of mind during a rather stressful period. Letters show that relatives put off journeys or were willing to travel great distances to be close to her, [13] above all during the latter, more difficult stages of pregnancy, when a miscarriage might also endanger the woman's life, [13] and during delivery, an extremely dangerous time for both the mother and the newly born.

Childbirth

Birthing stool     Attested for the New Kingdom but probably observed in some form throughout history is the practice that either shortly before or after giving birth the woman retired to a secluded place, sometimes a temporary birth arbour [23] or perhaps a birth box,[22] where she stayed until she was ready to rejoin her family some time after birth, having undergone cleansing and physical grooming to restore her sexual attractiveness. [14]

Woman sitting on birthing stool

    In Ptolemaic times, upper-class women may have given birth in the mammisi, birth-houses attached to temples, where pictures of Bes, the patron god of pregnant women and Hathor, goddess of healing, adorned the walls; though it is generally thought that these were just sanctuaries dedicated to the child deity of a triad and his mother and had no practical purpose. In the Sobek temple at Kom Ombo there is a depiction of pregnant woman sitting on a birthing chair. The newborn dropped through a hole in the seat and was caught by a midwife. [15]
 
    The ancient Egyptian women gave birth in a crouching or kneeling position. She was supported by a woman sitting behind her, holding her in her arms. Massaging the womb may have hastened labour,[19] which was at times induced by the use of fenugreek seeds [17] or vaginal suppositories drenched in juniper seed oil.[21] It appears that only women attended the birth, in most cases probably close relatives or neighbours.
    Birth itself was dangerous both to the mother and the baby. Complications during labour and childbed fever killed many women, and infant mortality was high, perhaps reaching about 30 percent. [16] It is impossible to give a precise estimate of the percentage of stillbirths and neonatal deaths, but today the rate of death of new-born infants in Africa is between 10 and 25%, and it is doubtful it would have been lower in ancient times. [22] Birth brick

Birth brick
Picture source: University of Pennsylvania Museum website

    The Egyptians sought to protect their women in labour by magical means. The bricks on which they crouched while giving birth, were decorated with depictions of Hathor and other goddesses and were believed to bestow protection on the mother and baby, just as magical depictions on head-rests were hoped to guard the sleeper from evil. Bastet watched over the whole birth process, while Bes looked after the woman in labour and the Seven Hathors after the child and his soul. [18]
 
    Childbirth was considered a natural occurrence even if a somewhat risky one; and like most ordinary activities, above all those concerning women, few sources refer to its practicalities. The Westcar Papyrus contains a story about a birth: Disguised as dancing girls and musicians the goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet and Heqet were sent by Re to assist Rawoser's wife Rud-dedit who was pregnant with three future kings. When they arrived at Rawoser's house, they found him in disarray worried about what looked like a difficult birth. They immediately entered the room of Rud-dedit, locking the door, Heqat hastened the birth and they delivered Rud-dedit of her babies. They cut their umbilical cords, washed them and placed them on a piece of cloth spread over a brick.
    The story describes childbirth and the relationship men have typically had with it until the emasculation and feminization of Western males in the recent decades. Ancient Egyptian men must have felt inadequate and helpless in the face of imminent childbirth just as modern men still mostly do, and they were excluded from attending, but they knew what happened behind the closed door–the facts of childbirth were not a secret which women kept to themselves. [20]

Footnotes
[2] In a demotic text about Memphite theology the creation of the cereals by the creator god is described as follows:
He made the barley come forth from man.
He made the wheat come forth from woman.
After Serge Sauneron, A propos d'un pronostic de naissance, BIFAO 60 (1960)
Serge Sauneron suggested that the reason for the association of barley and wheat with masculinity and femininity respectively may be magical based on punning.
[3] It was above all the bones of the spine which were considered to be the source of semen. (Gordon & Schwabe, op.cit., p.98)
[4] Bleeker, op.cit., p.19
[5] Kandeel, op.cit., p.3
[6] Manniche 1987, p.35
[7] Capell & Markoe, op.cit., p.70
[8] Andrews, op.cit., p.22
[9] Rautman, op.cit., p.190
[10] Gordon & Schwabe, op.cit., p.129
[11] Gordon & Schwabe, op.cit., p.169
[12] Rosenthal & Volpe, op.cit., p.126
[13] Bagnall et al., op.cit., p.76
[14] Capel & Markoe, op.cit., p.68f.
[15] The term midwife is used loosely here. There is no known Egyptian term for this profession, if profession it was. A passage in the Ebers Papyrus has been interpreted as meaning that there was a school of midwifery in the temple of Neith at Sais (David, op.cit., p.125)
[16] As late as the beginning of the 20th century CE mortality of infants up to one year old in Egypt was 30%. (Scheidel, op.cit, p.214)
In antiquity infants were much less likely to be commemorated than adults, therefore statistics based on inscriptions strongly underrepresent them. (Scheidel, op.cit, p.31)
[17] Manniche 1989, p.151
[18] Rabuzzi, op.cit., p.82
[19] Maspero, op.cit., p.37
[20] Nichols & Smith, op.cit., p.54
[21] Manniche 1989, pp.111f.
[22] It has been suggested (e.g.E. T. Koen, Women in Ancient Egypt: the religious experiences of the non-royal woman, University of Stellenbosch 2008, Chap.3, 1.5) that the 'cupboard beds', enclosed raised platforms in the entrance room of the workers houses at Deir el Medina were birth boxes.
[23] Graves-Brown 2010, p.64
 
Bibliography
Carol A. R. Andrews, Amulets of ancient Egypt, University of Texas Press, 1994
Claas Jouco Bleeker, Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion, Brill, 1973
Roger S. Bagnall, Raffaella Cribiore, Evie Ahtaridis, Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC-AD 800 University of Michigan Press, 2006
Anne K. Capel, Glenn Markoe, Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt, Hudson Hills, 1996
Ann Rosalie David, The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh's Workforce Routledge, 1996
A. H. Gardiner, The Chester Beatty Papyri No.I, Oxford University Press 1931
Andrew Hunt Gordon, Calvin W. Schwabe, The Quick And The Dead: Biomedical Theory In Ancient Egypt, Brill 2004
Carolyn Graves-Brown, Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt, Continuum International Publishing Group 2010
Fouad R. Kandeel, Male Sexual Dysfunction: Pathophysiology and Treatment, CRC Press, 2007
G. Lefebvre, Essai sur la médecine égyptienne de l'époque pharaonique, Paris 1956
Lise Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, Routledge, 1987
Lise Manniche, An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, University of Texas Press, 1989
Gaston Maspero, Popular Stories of Ancient Egypt, translated by A. S. Johns, Kessinger Publishing, 2003
Francine H. Nichols, Sharron Smith Humenick, Childbirth Education: Practice, Research, and Theory, Saunders, 1988
Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi, Mother with Child: Transformations Through Childbirth Indiana University Press, 1994
Alison E. Rautman, Reading the Body: Representations and Remains in the Archaeological Record, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000
M. Sara Rosenthal, Robert Volpe, The Thyroid Sourcebook: Everything You Need to Know, McGraw-Hill Professional, 2000
Serge Sauneron, A propos d'un pronostic de naissance, BIFAO 60 (1960)
Walter Scheidel, Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, Brill, 2001

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Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
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Silphium[1] Silphium: Ancient wonder drug? by John Tatman
Silphium[22] Identifying infants and children in the archaeological record

 

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© October 2008

 

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