Midwives and Birth in Ancient Egypt
"Little is known about the process of childbirth itself in ancient Egypt. The hieroglyph determining words relating to birth shows a kneeling woman with the head and arms of a child appearing beneath her in the process of birth. The actual delivery is rarely depicted in art..." (Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt, 82)
ancient Egypt, as in Greece and Rome and even in the modern day, fertility
was of the utmost importance. The Egyptians even had their own tests for
determining pregnancy that included taking the pulse, examining the breasts
and the skin color and observing the effects of the mother's urine on the
germinating of barley and emmer wheat.
Women are often depicted in childbirth as squatting on two large bricks in order to facilitate the birth of the head through the pelvis. There is also some evidence in the New Kingdom that if it was possible and within the means of the laboring mother and partner, a structure was erected in the garden or on the roof of the house especially for the birthing of the child. This is a custom that could have been meant to isolate the new mother and child from the community meant to facilitate a sort of bonding time, a custom found all over the world.
Bes was a male deity whose primary
function was one of protection. A figure of Bes would often be depicted
on bedroom furniture to protect the members of the household in sleep.
One aspect of Bes's protective role was to watch over women in childbirth
and to provide protection for the mother and infant after birth. Amulets
featuring the image of Bes would be worn around the neck by a pregnant
woman or young mother to ward off evil.
Hathor is the goddess of female
sexuality, childbirth and fertility. A woman who wished to speed up a labor
already in progress would often identify herself as the goddess Hathor,
or Isis in some cases, in a specific magical text in order to facilitate
a quick labor: "Hathor, the Lady of Dendera is the one who is giving birth!"
The goddess Isis, through her
role as sister, wife and resurrector to the God Osirus and "great mother"
to her son Horus, became known as the embodiment of motherhood. She would
have been frequently invoked in spells for the protection of children and
was also an important funerary goddess who it was hoped would bring about
the resurrection of the deceased.
Taweret is the only female deity who is frequently shown pregnant and is known as the protector of pregnant women. Taweret takes on the form of a hippopotamus with the arms and legs of a lion, the tail of a crocodile, and human breasts.
The presence of midwives in ancient Egypt is not one that we can be sure of for simple lack of documentation. However, scholars do know of a Middle Kingdom story of a mother named Rudjedet who gave birth to the first three kings of the Fifth Dynasty's children as triplets.
In the story Rudjedet is attended by the goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet and Hekat. It is said that Isis stood in front of Rudjedet (in order to catch the child, as midwife?) while Nephthys stood behind her (perineal support?) and mentions that Hekat attended as well (as emotional support perhaps?) and Meskhenet approached the child after the birth (a baby nurse?!).
Clearly this story does not implicitly
imply the attending of midwives at birth in Egypt, however, it does serve
to imply that women were always, or at least frequently in attendance at
birth in order to help other women. This is the concept from which midwifery
(Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993)
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