As one might expect, childbirth in the ancient world was extremely dangerous. This was due partially to a lack of understanding about the female body, leading to societal assumptions about pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the use of potentially dangerous herbs.
The Hippocratic writings
A large portion of the written sources about women’s bodies in Ancient Greece comes from the Hippocratic corpus, which constitutes a large body of medical treatises, seven of which focus specifically on gynecological issues. The material is sufficiently diverse, and sometimes contradictory, that it is pretty much impossible to attribute it to one single author. To modern eyes, the statements made in these treatises are quite shocking, but many of the ideas that men had about women’s bodies came less from direct observation, and were more a result of pre-existing societal assumptions. For example, the general explanation for menstruation was that both men and women sucked up nourishment through their glands, but since women did less physical work than men, their excess nourishment had to come out in the form of menses. The quantity of menses was determined to have to be more than the amount of semen expelled from men in the course of a month, since women had larger breasts, and therefore spongier glands.
Diseases of Women
Diseases of Women, from the Hippocratic corpus, focuses primarily on the diseases that occur only in women and are generally the result of their wandering uteruses. For instance, it states that if a woman was having trouble breathing, it was because she either exerted herself or did not eat enough, causing her uterus to rise up in her body and suffocate her. The most common cure for illnesses in women, from fever, to back pain, to an inability to sleep, was to dampen the uterus in order to keep it in place, achieved through either intercourse, or ideally, pregnancy.
The writings also discuss issues around pregnancy, particularly difficulties around conception and miscarriage. If a woman could not get pregnant, it was always the fault of her body, whether from a cervix or uterus that is misshapen, or from an excess of phlegm and other fluids. One example given in the text as a way to treat infertility is to insert medication into the cervix immediately before intercourse with a lead probe, and then to lie with crossed legs for at least six days afterwards, avoiding bathing or eating solid foods. Once conception had occurred, however, it appears as though miscarriage in the ancient world was incredibly common, and once again always the fault of the woman. According to the Hippocratic writers, miscarriages happen in the third or fourth month of pregnancy if there were unhealthy matters in the uterus, or if the uterus itself was too smooth to prevent everything from slipping out. The text goes on to list a variety of reasons that the woman’s actions can induce a miscarriage: the woman lifts something heavy, is beaten, leaps into the air, goes without food, has a fainting spell, is frightened, shouts violently, loses control over herself, eats/drinks something contrary to usual habits. It then states that, “women need not be surprised at the fact that they have miscarriages although they do not want to,” and that it takes special skill and attention to be able to carry a baby to term.
In antiquity, women’s periods seemed to be quite different from those that women in the western world experience today. This is largely based on the fact that women today generally have access to much better nutrition. While some ancient women seemed to have menstrual cycles that lasted a month, the majority lasted much longer. The ancient writings also suggest that the healthy amount of blood loss over the course of a period was about a pint, and therefore seven to eight times more than modern scientists suggest. It is, however, hard to tell if women actually bled more, or if ancient physicians simply did not have the proper tools for measuring. Either way, it was suggested by those physicians that periods would become less painful only after having achieved pregnancy, which would stretch the womb to allow for enough room to hold such a large amount of menstrual blood.
Sources from the archaeological record
Attic Grave stele, c.330 BCE, found in Rome, Harvard Art Museums
This marble stele, almost three feet tall, depicts four people. The woman who has just died, while her clothes are hanging loose, does not show any other signs of having just given birth. Her stomach is fairly flat, and her expression rather tranquil, keeping within the traditional methods of depicting women in Greek sculpture at this time. Standing around her are three figures: a women supporting her, likely a servant; a bearded man holding her hand, possibly her father or her husband; and a figure whose head has not survived, who could possibly be the midwife standing aside to let family mourn, or the mother, grieving behind the father.
Peterson and Salzman-Mitchell (2012) have also provided the funerary inscription that was likely written by the husband or father of a woman who died in childbirth in the second century BCE. While written in the first person, it reflects a male perspective on childbirth: “the unstoppable Fury of the newborn infant took me, bitter, from my happy life with fatal hemorrhage. I did not bring the child into the light by my labor pains, but it lies hidden in its mother’s womb among the dead” (p. 85).
Dedications: clothing fasteners
Ancient Greek women often dedicated articles of clothing to female deities as a thank you after a successful birth. Since cloth dedicated at that time would not survive today, garment fasteners, such as belt clasps and dress pins, are largely what remain in the archaeological record today. These were related to the act of loosening the belt during birth, perhaps mimicking the act of loosening the womb. Of all the belt clasps found in Ancient Greece, while some were dedicated by men for male deities for other reasons, 84% were dedicated to female deities.
At the site of Argos alone, there are roughly 700-800 dress pins that survive. Other common dedications were keys before the birth in the hope of an easy delivery and amulets worn during the birth to help with pain. In addition to Hera, Artemis was another common receiver of dedications as a special protector of women and girls, particularly during transitional phases such as childbirth. Eileithyia, commonly associated with Athena or even represented as a part of her, played an important role in religious dedications as the goddess of midwifery and childbirth.
The birth was followed by a period of rest lasting roughly forty days for mother and child. They would stay in bed for five to seven days before being able to move around the house. On the tenth day, there was an official naming ceremony for the baby, who would later be formally presented to non-family members in a celebration after the forty days were over. This ceremony included a public purification ritual that seems to have included the sacrifice of a dog, along with the burning of incense to purify the bodies of mother and child, since childbirth was seen as a polluting act. A celebratory feast followed, with the ritual dedication of cakes and cake-baking figurines, still surviving in the archaeological record today.
Herbs and other medical treatments
Soranus of Euphesus, a Greek physician who lived during the Roman period, wrote a four-volume treatise on gynecology in which he speaks at length about the use of herbs as contraceptive and abortive methods. According to his writings, contraceptives were most often administered as pessaries (inserted into the vagina) since they “cause the orifice of the uterus to shut before the time of coitus and do not let the seed pass into its fundus” (Riddle, 1997, p. 37). The use of such herbs were not seen as immoral; family planning was an accepted idea since having too many sons would result in dividing the wealth too thinly. The herbs were only seen as evil since they could cause adverse physical reactions such as an upset stomach or congested head. Herbs were also sometimes taken orally as contraceptives, such as silphium, which was to be added to juice once a month. This plant was an export from North Africa and used as a contraceptive, as well as to treat various minor illnesses. Its popularity eventually led to its over-cultivation and subsequent extinction.
Click to watch the “10 Strangest Birth Control Methods Ever“, including some from Soranus!
Pomegranate seeds were commonly used as contraception since they were associated with a pause in fertility because Persephone ate them while in the Underworld. It was after tasting food from the Underworld that she would have to return for a third of every year, during the winter months, while there was a pause in fertility on earth.
In ancient Greece, medical termination of pregnancy was not seen as immoral, as long as the fetus did not yet have recognizable human features. For reasons such as the fact that women with their wandering uteri were prescribed intercourse to help with menstrual cramps, etc., abortion was probably a fairly common occurrence. Most often, women took the abortive substances on their own, and physicians were only really involved if there were complications. The Hippocratic writings name the squirting cucumber plant, known today as ecballium, as the most effective abortive.
Many of these plants were toxic and extremely dangerous if taken in too large of a dose. Pennyroyal, also taken as an abortive, can be fatal even when taken in small doses. Oil from the plant has been used throughout history by women in attempts to induce an abortion on their own, though many of these cases have resulted in death. In antiquity, this dangerous plant was often prescribed by physicians.
Aids during birth
Following the birth, medicines would sometimes be called upon to help expel the afterbirth, such as myrrh. Artimisia, the plant of Artemis, was also used to do so, again attesting to the importance of the goddess during the process of pregnancy and childbirth.
The agnos castus plant is said to have helped to expel the afterbirth, as well as encouraged menstruation, lactation, and conception, and helped to bring along birth after a long labour. Medications made with an extract from the plant are still sometimes prescribed for PMS (premenstrual stress syndrome) and acne.
In the patriarchal societies of Ancient Greece, the husband had the power to decide if the newborn child was to be declared legitimate or not, based on what he determined to be the child’s worth. He, or perhaps more often she, was declared illegitimate if frail or deformed, and, if so, was sold or given away as a slave, or more likely, exposed. Soranus of Euphesus wrote of the medical decisions behind whether or not a child should be reared or exposed. He said that the mother should be healthy, the child should be full-term, it should cry with vigor, it should be perfect in all its parts, its “ducts” must be free from obstruction, the natural functions of every member should be neither sluggish nor weak, the joints must bend and stretch, it must be the right size and shape, and be properly sensitive to stimulus. In his writings, Aristotle claimed that it was an absolute requirement that no deformed child be reared. Killing a newborn, or rather letting it die, was not the same thing morally or legally as killing a member of the family. This was, of course, ignoring any bond that may have occurred between mother and child.
*For exact citations, please contact the author*
Dean-Jones, L. (1989). Menstrual Bleeding According to the Hippocratics and Aristotle. Transactions of the American Philological Association, 119, 177-192. doi: 10.2307/284268
Engels, D. (1980). The Problem of Female Infanticide in the Greco-Roman World. Classical Philology 75(2), 112-20. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.mta.ca/stable/268918
Hanson, A. (1975). Hippocrates: Diseases of Women 1. Signs 1(2), 567-584. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173068
McClure, L.K. (2002). Sexuality and Gender in the Classical World. Oxford: Blackwell Press.
Patterson, C.B. (1985). ‘Not Worth the Rearing’: The Causes of Infant Exposure in Ancient Greece. Transactions of the American Philological Association, 115, 103-23. doi: 10.2307/284192
Petersen, L.H., & Salzman-Mitchell P., eds. (2012). Mothering and motherhood in ancient Greece and Rome. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Riddle, J.M. (1997). Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.