Friday, 22 May 2015

Childbirth in Ancient Egypt (Part One)

Surgical scene at the Temple of Kom Ombo depicting birthing stools on the left (photo taken by me)

Childbirth was difficult and sometimes dangerous in ancient Egypt. Women delivered their babies kneeling, or sitting on their heels, or on a delivery seat as depicted on wall reliefs in the temple of Kom Ombo. The hieroglyphs 'To give birth' also depict the squatting position and use of birthing stool or bricks.

There is no documentary evidence to suggest women in labour were assisted by the physicians (swnw). The medical papyri hardly pay any attention to complications that arise during the time of delivery but the swnw were known to treat gynaecological problems after birth.
The following extract by Hyginus (cited by von Staden in (1989) may relate to the Herophilis who practised in Alexandria in the Ptolemaic period (JF Nunn)

“The ancients had no midwives, and therefore women died {in childbirth}, led on by their sense of shame. For the Athenians had taken heed that no slave or woman should learn the science of medicine. A certain girl, Hagnodice, as a young woman desired to learn the science of medicine. Because of this desire, she cut her hair, put on male clothing and entrusted herself to a certain Herophilus for her training. After learning this science, when she heard a woman was having labour pains, she use to go to her. And when the woman refused to entrust herself {to Hagnodice}, thinking that she was a man, Hagnodice lifted her undergarment and revealed that she was a woman. In this way she used to cure women.”

Cleopatra with her son Cesarean at the Temple of Dendera (photo taken by me)

Ancient Egyptian medicine relied not just on the expertise of the physicians but also involved the work of the magicians and priests. Chanting and magical spells were used in healing and deities were invoked to assist the patients.

Deities That Assisted in Childbirth

God of pregnancy and childbirth; protector of the home and particularly of women and infants. Bes was believed to have a positive influence during pregnancy and childbirth and therefore was often represented in birth houses attached to temples. He was a bearded dwarf god and quite unusual from all the other Egyptian gods. He was often shown carrying a rattle and with his tongue sticking out. During the birth, Bes would dance and shake his rattle whilst yelling to frighten away demons that would otherwise put a curse on the child. It was believed that after the child was born Bes would stay around to amuse the child and that a baby’s smile was a sign that Bes was there pulling funny faces.

Taweret, the great one, was the goddess with the head of a hippopotamus, the legs and arms of a lion, the tail of a crocodile and human breasts. She had a special role in assisting women in childbirth and was a favourite subject for amulets.

Taweret, the great one (Photo taken by me at the British Museum)

Meskhenet’s symbol of two loops on top of a vertical stroke represented the two horned uterus of the heifer. She was the goddess of childbirth and believed to be the creator of each childs ‘Ka’ which she breathed into them at the moment of birth.

Isis was a very important goddess and known to be the divine mother. As the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus she had a very special status in ancient Egyptian mythology.


Hathor was the goddess of fertility and childbirth. She was one of the most popular deities in ancient Egypt and was invoked to help with problems related to conception, childbirth and women's health.

Images of Hathor on blocks in the Temple of Montu at Tod (Photo taken by me)

Image of Hathor on a block in the Temple of Mut, Luxor (Photo taken by me)

Hathor on a block on the Temple of Mut, Luxor (photo taken by me)

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