In ancient Egypt, the birth of a child was considered an almost magical event, and childbirth customs were heavily influenced by religious beliefs. As in all ancient societies, childbirth was risky; infant mortality was high, as was the risk to mothers. Mothers giving birth were never left alone. Typically, a midwife assisted with the delivery.
Ancient Egyptians devised rudimentary fertility, pregnancy and gender tests. One pregnancy test involved watering barley and wheat with the urine of a woman who thought she was expecting. If the wheat germinated quickly, it was thought that the woman would have a girl. If the barley germinated first, she was assumed to be having a boy. If neither plant germinated, it was believed she was not pregnant.
Several papyrus texts describe the rituals of childbirth in ancient Egypt; however, very few actual artifacts relating to the childbirth process have been found. Women giving birth were most commonly attended by midwives and female relatives. It was customary for women to deliver babies while squatting on two large birth bricks painted with religious scenes meant to invoke the gods’ protection. Ancient Egyptians usually had big families, and women often became pregnant not long after marriage at the age of 11 to 13.
Hathor, Goddess of Fertility
Hathor, often depicted as a cow or goddess with the head of a cow, was widely worshiped in ancient Egypt. People believed that she controlled everything involving fertility, conception and childbirth. Childbirth was a very religious event and the power of the gods, particularly Hathor, was invoked to keep mother and baby healthy and safe. Hathor figures prominently in the primary scene painted on one of the only birth bricks ever found; it was excavated from a 3,700 year old house by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania.
Unsanitary conditions made childbirth difficult and dangerous for women in ancient Egypt. Children were often breastfed until the age of four or five. The first five years of a child’s life were particularly tenuous; little was known about diseases or their transmission, so children were very vulnerable. Young children are especially susceptible to illness when they are weaned, and several cemeteries have been found in which the death of children is highest at age four. Despite the risks, women in ancient Egypt often had several children. Family was important to ancient Egyptians and children were expected to take care of elderly parents.
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