Ancient Egyptian Midwifery and Childbirth
In ancient Egypt there were no known words for midwife, obstetrician, or gynecologist. But because ancient Egyptians did not have words for these things does not mean that they did not exist. In Ancient Egypt the midwife came in many forms. For peasants the midwife was a friend, neighbor, and/or family member who helped deliver the baby. For noblewomen and wealthier classes the midwife was usually a maidservant or nurse who already lived in the household. Midwives at this time did not have formal training to learn their trade. Instead they learned by apprenticeships where the knowledge was passed down from family member to family member or from friend to friend. The work of the midwife included providing emotional support, encouragement, medical care, and religious help and protection to women during their lives. The areas that midwives focused on were pregnancy, labor, fertility, and contraception.
Most ancient Egyptian women labored and delivered their babies on the �cool roof of the house or in an arbor or confinement pavilion, which was a structure of papyrus-stalk columns decorated with vines� (Parsons p. 2). In Ptolemaic times, women from the noble class gave birth in birth houses that were attached to temples. The positions that these women took when they delivered their babies were standing, kneeling, squatting, or sitting on their heels on birthing bricks, or sitting on a birthing chair. The midwife would then be positioned in front of the mother to help the delivery and catch the baby. Two other women or midwives would be placed on either side of the mother to hold her hands and arms while she was pushing and to give encouragement. Sometimes the midwife would place a dish of hot water under the birthing chair so that steam could help ease delivery. The birthing bricks that ancient Egyptian women used were 14 by 7 inches long and decorated with colorful painted scenes and figures of the birth process. Birthing chairs were made of brick and had a hole in the center. They were decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions of the owner and painted scenes of the mother, baby, and goddesses.
Since birth and delivery could be dangerous for both the mother and child, ancient Egyptian midwives used many goddesses and gods for help and protection. Goddesses and gods which ancient Egyptian midwives and women thought would help during pregnancy and birth were Hathor, Bes, Taweret, Meskhenet, Khnum, Thoth, and Amun. Hathor was the guardian-goddess of women and domestic bliss and watched over women giving birth. She took the shape of a cow. Bes was a dwarf-goddess who vanquished any evil things hovering around the mother and baby. Taweret was the pregnant hippopotamus-goddess and the chief deity of women during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. She carried a magic knife or the knot of Isis. Meskhenet was depicted in the shape of a birthing brick with a human head and gave strength and support to the laboring mother. Khnum was the creator-god who gave health to newborn babies after birth. The god Thoth helped the delivery along and the god Amun helped sooth severe labor pains by blowing in a cool northern breeze (Parsons, p. 3). Statues and pictures of these goddesses and gods were placed throughout room and painted on the walls, birthing bricks and chairs that the laboring women used. Another way that midwives called on divine help and protection during labor was to �place a magic ivory crescent-shaped wand, decorated with carvings of deities, snakes, lions, and crocodiles, on the stomach of the women giving birth� (Parsons, p. 3).
On the Ebers, Kahun, Berlin, and Carlsberg papyri there are many tests and methods described for fertility, pregnancy, and contraception that ancient Egyptian midwives and women used.
-Silphium, honey, and natron used for their contraceptive properties.
-Soak cotton in a paste of dates and acacia bark and insert into vagina.
-Acacia, carob, dates, all to be ground with honey and placed in the vagina.
-A woman should squat over a hot mixture of frankincense, oil, dates, and beer and allow the vapors to enter her.
-Emmer and barley seeds, the lady should moisten with her urine every day, like dates, and like sand in two bags. If they all grow, she will bear a child. If the barley grows it will be a male, if the emmer grows it will be a female, if neither grow she will not bear a child.
-Examine the blood vessels over the breasts. Smear the breasts, arms, and shoulders with new oil. Early in the morning if her blood vessels look fresh and good, bearing children will occur. If the vessels are green and dark, she will bear children late.
-Give a women milk from one who had already borne a male child mixed with melon puree. If it made the women sick she was pregnant.
-Place on the woman’s abdomen a plaster of sea salt, emmer wheat, and rushes from the Nile River.
Contracting the Uterus:
-Mix the kheper-wer plant, honey, water of carob, and milk. Strain and place in the vagina.
Spells to Assist the Birth Process:
Come down, placenta, come down! I am Horus who conjures in order that she who is giving birth becomes better than she was, as if she was already delivered…Look, Hathor will lay her hand on her with an amulet of health! I am Horus who saves her!� Repeat four times over a Bes-amulet, placed on the brow of the woman in labor.
Make the heart of the deliverer strong, and keep alive the one that is coming.�
Permission for the re-printing of this article came from Emily Hildebrant, EMuseum Manager.
Thank you Emily!
Archaeologists uncover 3700-year-old `magical’ birth brick in Egypt. Eurekalert http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-07/uop-au3072502.php 30 Nov. 2002.
Parsons, Marie. �Childbirth and Children in Ancient Egypt. Tour Egypt http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/mothers.htm 30 Nov. 2002.
Ancient childbirth seat found in Egypt. Blueyonder http://www.ancienthistory.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/enter/news/272.htmlhttp 04 Nov. 2002.
Women’s Health and Obstetrics in Ancient Egypt.
Geocities http://www.geocities.com/honda841/Egypt.html 04 Nov. 2002.
Health�Egyptian Approach to Illness, Pregnancy and Childbirth. Members http://members.rogers.com/jasthompson/healthinegypt.htm 04 Nov. 2002.
Ancient Egypt: Medicine-Pregnancy and childbirth. Reshafim http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad.egypt/timelines.topics/medicine.htm
Written by Alison Thiele, 2002
- Sue MacGregor