The culture of ancient Egypt mesmerised people throughout the centuries. The pyramids, the tombs, the carvings brought thousands of tourists through Egyptian borders each year. The land of the pharaohs, life giving river Nile and stories of gods and goddesses captured the imagination of children and adults alike. From the first moment I’ve heard about Egypt I wanted to go there and see its wonder for myself. And like everybody else I’ve been captivated by its magic and magnificence. We know so much about the rulers of this country, the custom of mummification and death rites. What we don’t know so much about is the custom of giving birth – the very first thing in the life of every single human being, pharaoh, priest or worker alike.
To look at the birth we should first quickly have a look at the lives of Egyptian women. When the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt at the end of the dynastic period he was quite shocked by the nature of both the land and its people. The women of this period created quite a “gossip” in the ancient world. Legally free of the strict male supervision they appeared to their contemporaries as fortunate beings leading extremely independent lives spiced by an alluring romance. The whole country seamed exotic and full of unusual customs – the king lived as god, the gods took the form of animals, and death and its rites were the most important practice filled with religious purpose. But women were perceived as the strangest of all. Their exotic beauty, fantastic rumours of lax Egyptian morals and sexual readiness of Egyptian females captivated the male imagination for the centuries to come. Even today we all know the imaginative stories and the names of Nefertiti or Cleopatra. The Egyptian paintings and sculpture however, show the picture of a woman as a dutiful wife, daughter and mother, while in literature she provides a loyal support for her more adventurous husband. Although no Egyptian book of law has survived, there is enough evidence in the form of court documents and legal correspondence to prove that the men and women within each social class stood as equals in the eyes of the law. This equality gave Egyptian women (married or single) the right to inherit, purchase and sell property and slaves as she wished. She was able to make a valid legal contract, borrow or lend goods and even initiate a court case. But most importantly of all, she was allowed to live alone without the protection of a male guardian. Unfortunately, during the Greco-Roman period when the Greek laws, customs and language started to have a profound influence on the Egyptian way of life, the women’s right to equal status slowly eroded away.
It’s quite surprising that with the high knowledge of embalmment methods, the knowledge of the way the human body worked wasn’t that developed. Only one particular type of document enables us to see the real Egyptian woman – The Medical Papyri. This evidence indicates that the average Egyptian woman was relatively short in stature with dark hair, dark eyes and a light brown skin. She had an average life expectancy of approximately forty years, assuming that she survived her childhood and frequent pregnancies. The Ebers Medical Papyrus, dating to the 18th Dynasty, shows a long section dealing with women’s matters – primarily with reproduction and associated problems such as contraception, breastfeeding and child welfare. Gynaecology wasn’t the strongest of Egyptian arts, and there were some strange explanations of how the female body worked. For example, although the position of the cervix was known, no mention is recorded of ovaries, and the uterus itself was believed to be fully mobile and capable of floating freely within the female body. As this wondering womb was thought to cause patient great harm, various means were developed to help in putting the organ back in place – the most widely used being the fumigation of the patient with dried human excrement. There was also a mistaken assumption that a healthy woman had a free passageway connecting her womb to the rest of her body. Many fertility tests were designed to locate any obstruction in this corridor which would prevent conception. The Kahun Medical Papyrus advised that the patient should be seated on a mixture of date flour and beer; a fertile woman would vomit after this treatment and the number of retches would give an indication of the number of potential pregnancies. Alternatively a garlic or onion pessary could be inserted in the vagina and left overnight; if by morning garlic could be detected on the patient’s breath she was thought able to conceive.
Fertility and conception were the most important areas in woman and family lives. The marriage was a simple economic contract between a man and a woman and Egyptians placed no official restrictions on unions with foreigners. But having children was the most important aspect of everyday life. Egyptians love children and even in today’s world the newlywed couple is expected to have a baby or get pregnant within 12 months from the wedding day. If it won’t happen they will be straight away referred to the fertility clinic to deal with the problem.
In the days following her wedding the young bride would have eagerly looked for the signs of the pregnancy. A fertile woman was a successful woman. She was regarded by men as sexually attractive, was the envy of her less fortunate sisters and, as the mother of many children, she gained the approval of both society and her husband. Fathering as many children as possible was the only way for a man to prove his masculinity. Being a mother enhanced a woman’s status in the community. Mothers had an important and respected role within the family, and were frequently represented in positions of honour in the tombs of both their husbands and sons. But children were not only the status symbols. Both parents appeared to love them dearly and Egyptian men weren’t embarrassed or ashamed of showing their affection for them. To produce a large and healthy brood of children was every Egyptian’s dream, and babies were regarded as life’ richest blessing. Although girls were loved by their parents, boys conveyed greater status. They not only worked for the benefit of the household, but in ancient Egypt the eldest son had an important role in his parent’s funeral rites. Nevertheless, the Egyptians never developed the tradition of female infanticide (killing or abandoning baby girls straight after birth), which become accepted practise in both Greece and Rome, and it was considered not a murder, but a late form of abortion, and as such it remained a valid Roman law until AD 374.
Although the mechanism of menstruation wasn’t fully understood in ancient Egypt, the significance of missing periods was clear. Most Egyptian women could diagnose their own pregnancies and even forecast the expected delivery date, but those who were in doubt could consult a doctor, who for a fee would conduct a detailed examination of the woman’s skin, eyes and breasts. As additional test, a urine sample was collected and poured over sprouting vegetables or cereals – strong growth of which confirmed pregnancy (the changes in the levels of hormones present in the urine had a stimulating effect on the vegetation). By a further study of the growing power of the mother’s urine it was possible to anticipate the sex of the unborn child. If it was sprinkled on both wheat and barley, a rapid growth of barley would indicate a boy, wheat a girl. Infertility was almost invariably blamed on the wife and childless marriages were often cured by a divorce, with the husband simply taking a different and hopefully more fertile wife. Men killed themselves rather than admitted that they could not father a child. A second practical mean for fertility problem was adoption (the short life expectancy and high birth rate meant that there was a readily available supply of orphaned children). The lack of basic medical help and the air of mystery around the pregnancy and birth made people to turn to religion and magic. There was a variety of amulets available and the most popular deities to turn to were the hippopotamus goddess Taweret, the bringer of babies to childless women, and the dwarf god Bes.
Childbirth was generally considered as a feminine business and was assisted by midwives. A woman during labour may have used a specially constructed “birth bower”, a tent-like structure with walls hung with garlands, but most births occurred within the family home. For the delivery the naked mother-to-be either knelt or squatted on two low piles of bricks or sat on a birthing-stool, a seat with a hole large enough for the baby to pass through. Gravity was used to assist the birth, and the midwife who squatted on the floor was able to help the mother by easing the baby out. Most women were left to birth unaided, although for more difficult cases there were several approved procedures intended to “cause a woman to be delivered”. These included bandaging the lower part of the abdomen and the use of vaginal suppositories. The only surgical instrument used by the midwife was the obsidian knife which was used to cut the umbilical cord after the delivery of the afterbirth. There is no clear evidence to suggest what happened with the afterbirth, but it seems likely that it would have been carefully disposed of. Traditionally in Egypt the fate of the placenta is believed to be directly linked to the life of the baby, and it was often safely buried at the threshold of the house or thrown into the Nile to ensure the survival of the infant. It may even be that the afterbirth, rich in iron, was partially eaten by the new mother. A piece was occasionally offered to the new-born child, and if it was refused, or if the baby turned its head downwards, groaned, or cried “no” rather than “yes”, this was taken as a very bad omen, indicating that the infant would die. Twins do not seem to have been particularly welcomed and there were prayers to protect mother from a multiple birth.
Unfortunately, tragedies associated with childbirth were very common. Female pelvic abnormalities sufficient to have made childbirth difficult, if not impossible, have been recognised in several mummies. Surprisingly few mummified or buried babies have been recovered, which can suggest that an infant who was stillborn or died soon after the birth was not regarded as a full member of the society. The recovery of infants buried under village houses implies that the dead baby itself may have had some religious or superstitious value.
The new mother was expected to “purify” herself for fourteen days following the delivery. It means that she was allowed a time of rest after the childbirth and that her female relations were taking over her household duties allowing her to concentrate on recovering and on looking after and getting to know the new baby. Mothers named their new babies immediately after the birth. The father may have chosen the name, but it was the mother’s responsibility to name the baby as quickly as possible, so even if the baby would die soon after the birth, it would have a name. Names were very important for the Egyptians, and one of the biggest fears was that the personal name would be forgotten after death. That would lead to the “second death” in the afterlife.
It was customary to breast-feed infants for up to three years. Breast milk not only provided the most nutritious, convenient and most sterile form of food and drink available, but also had a certain contraceptive effect, reducing the chances of the new mother to become pregnant again too soon after the previous birth. Egyptians weren’t embarrassed by breast-feeding, and the image of woman squatting or sitting on the low stool to suckle a child at her breast became a symbol of successful and fertile womanhood, and was frequently depicted in Egyptian art. To ensure a copious supply of milk The Medical Papyri advised rubbing the mother’s back with a special mixture or feeding her with sour barley bread. Mother’s milk, especially the milk of a woman who had borne a male child, was regarded as a valuable medical remedy useful for increasing fertility and healing burns. It was often collected and stored in small anthropomorphic pots shaped like a woman holding a baby. Mothers of high birth or those who were unable to breast-feed used wet-nurses. Wet-nursing was one of the few well paid jobs open for women of all classes, and the high rate of female mortality during childbirth meant that it was a profession always in demand. Parents drew up a legal contract with the chosen nurse, who would feed a child for a fixed period of time for a fixed salary. Late-Period contracts usually included a clause stating that the nurse should abstain from sexual intercourse for the duration of the employment, as the possible intercourses may result in pregnancy and may end lactation. Working as a royal wet-nurse was a position eagerly sought after and was the most important and influential position that a non-royal woman could hope to hold. Royal wet-nurses were often married to, or were mothers of high-ranking court officials. During the Roman period a position of wet-nurse became less valued. There are number of contracts from that period which make it clear that nurses were being paid for feeding the abandoned babies rescued from the local dump. These children were later sold by their owners as slaves.
The high level of infant mortality meant that parents dreaded any childhood illnesses. Very few parents could afford to take their sick children to the doctor and there was not a lot of effective treatment available. If the child had teething trouble the standard cure was to offer the infant a fried mouse to eat. Illnesses such as measles were fatal, so mothers often turned to folk wisdom and magic to protect their children, placing their trust in a variety of charms, amulets and spells. These spells were known as so effective that they were often written on a small scrap of papyrus packed into a specially carved wooden or gold bead and carefully suspended around the neck of a child to ensure maximum protection.
Parents bought or made a wide range of toys for their children, and both boys and girls were able to enjoy carved wooden animals, miniature boats, wooden balls and spinning tops. For those who could not afford such luxuries there were the open fields, river and canals to play in. Thick Nile mud was in plentiful supply for use as modelling clay, and several primitive clay dolls and animals (maybe even made by children themselves) have been recovered from workmen’s villages. Unfortunately in this hard-working society where teenage marriages were common and formal education a luxury that only few could afford, childhood was a short-lived experience in ancient Egypt.
Joyce Tyldesley, Daughters if Isis: women in ancient Egypt, Viking, London 1994.
- The goddess Taweret protected women during childbirth. Late Period 746-336 BC. Fitzwilliam Museum.
- On the left, clay rattle of a woman giving birth, probably used during childbirth. About AD 100-150. Fitzwilliam Museum. On the right, clay amulet of a woman giving birth. About 100 BC-AD 50. Fitzwilliam Museum.
- Ebony, wood and ivory furniture fittings in the form of Bes. Bes protected pregnant women and children. New Kingdom 1550-1070 BC. Fitzwilliam Museum.
ALL PICTURES PUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION OF FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE.
If you would like to discover more treasures of Ancient Egypt visit Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.