Sunday, January 4, 2009

Childbirth in Ancient Egypt

Probably due to the assumption that no one would ever read inscriptions or papyri and not be completely familiar with the world depicted there is very little evidence of childbirth in the remaining record of Ancient Egypt. While goddesses are frequently depicted nursing, and nursemaids or wet nurses are often mentioned or shown with the family, there is very little to indicate the procedures of childbirth and the subsequent rearing of kids amongst the ordinary populace.

Most of what remains are spells and amulets indicating Het-Hert (Hathor), Bes, Ipet, Tawaret, Heqet, and Aset (Isis) as protecting deities or spirits. Childbirth, universally, was a very dangerous event in a woman’s life, both for her and the child. It is pretty clear that the Ancient Egyptians understood the moment of conception as intercourse between a man and a woman, and that birth followed after nine months. It’s probable that no physician attended the event or midwives, but perhaps some kind of attending females. It seems like birth took place in a special building or section of the building in the case of poorer people separate from the main building. Purity was very important to the Egypt and it seems that women also needed to purify before and after for at least two weeks. There are also references to the Birth House but this was a chapel used in service to the Pharaoh, representing his divinity and not the same as the huts or chambers used for the women to give birth in.

Women are shown squatting on a couple of bricks to deliver. These bricks are represented by Meskhenet who is a sort of goddess personification of the role of bricks in adding the birth process. The hieroglyph representing birth is a kneeling woman with the head and arms of a child protruding from her. It also seems that breast milk was used in magical or medical rituals and there are several vessels that have been found that depict a woman expressing breast milk that are clearly made to hold liquid. Most women probably nursed their own children, though the rich and the noble often would employ wet nurses, for three years which would reduce the risk of getting pregnant again so soon, but not guarantee it. Whether or not mother or wet nurse was the one doing nursing there were many spells to keep the milk flowing.

While the depictions of childbirth and nursing are rare that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important. The sheer volume of spells and medical papyri devoted to safe childbirth, fecundity, as well as the amulets and birthing wands indicate a people very concerned with the safety of mother and child. Having a large family was considered very auspicious in Ancient Egypt. It was probably just too much part of daily life to need to be immortalized on tomb walls.