Childbirth in Ancient Egypt: Nature’s Unique Work of Art

The complementarity between science and magic was an innate aspect of Egyptian medicine that manifests itself in even the most highly regarded scientific ancient gynecological texts.

From rituals to determine the sex of an unborn child to prescriptions for common female health issues, gynecology occupied a central role in ancient Egyptian medical practice. Both scientific approaches and magical rituals were employed for the treatment of women (1). In its investigation of ancient Egyptian gynecology, modern scholarship imposes and emphasizes a duality between these rational and magical medical methods. While modern literature recognizes that both methods were perceived as equally reliable, it overwhelmingly represents them as mutually exclusive, arguing that science was utilized to treat visible conditions, whereas magic was reserved for conditions with a hidden or unknown cause (Dawson). However, this perspective fails to recognize the true intimacy of science and magic persisting in Egyptian gynecology from the Old Kingdom through the Ptolemaic Period (3). By highlighting the sophistication of ancient Egyptian technical gynecological practices, present-day scholarship disproportionately values the treatment of physical health. Magical approaches were not simply the consequence of an inadequate body of scientific knowledge. Analysis of a variety of ancient gynecological artifacts, including rituals and incantations along with tools and treatment instructions more contemporarily regarded as scientific (2), illustrates that they are profoundly intertwined with science to promote not only the physical health but also the mental wellbeing of Egyptian women.

A prominent theme of these ancient medical rituals, tools, and treatment plans, is childbirth, which endured throughout the period from the Old Kingdom to the Predynastic Period. The extent of its significance is perhaps best exemplified by its close association with the deities, the conception of Horus in particular. According to the Pyramid Texts spell 632, which dates to the Old Kingdom, the impregnation of Isis with Horus is described as follows: “[Osiris] hast placed her on [his] phallus, that [his] seed may go into her, (while) it is pointed like Sothis,”. Inherent in this spell is a rudimentary understanding of the biological mechanism of procreation. While anatomical misconceptions were common, ancient Egyptians did recognize the relationship between sexual intercourse and pregnancy as well as the importance of fluid, or “the seed,” in facilitating this natural phenomenon (Brewer and Teeter). However, this occurs after Isis and Nephthys have discovered Osiris’ dead body, introducing the conception of Horus as a form of mystical self-impregnation by Isis. By placing the power to conceive solely within Isis’ control, as Osiris has been killed, the myth creates a reverence towards not only the process of childbirth but also the central role that women occupy within it. The myth of Osiris, including spell 632, was widely accessible to elite women, primarily verbally, through its use in funerary rites (Assman 130), augmenting the societal respect for the natural childbirth process.

 Horus

Horus

 Temple of Kom Omb

Temple of Kom Omb

 Birthing Brick

Birthing Brick

The integration of both science and magic in relation to childbirth persisted across ancient Egyptian history as evidenced by a relief at the Temple of Kom Ombo, a double temple (combining two temples in one) constructed during the Ptolemaic Period. The double nature of the temple is not its only aspect that has warranted significant attention. A relief located on the inner side of the rear wall is often referenced as one of the earliest representations of medical and surgical instruments. Its scientific nature is apparent through its depiction of approximately forty medical instruments, not limited to scalpels, forceps, and speculums (Cameron). Several of the tools illustrated continue to be used in modern gynecology. For example, speculums are employed with regularity to obtain vaginal smears for Papanicolaou tests (Pap smears) and routine exams. Among the myriad of medical instruments is an image of two goddesses sitting on birthing-stools (Cameron). Delivery was performed with the woman in a vertical position, squatting on top of such birthing-stools. Not coincidentally, Hathor, whom the eastern portion of the temple is dedicated to, is the goddess of women, fertility, children, and childbirth (Dawson 282). Therefore, the depiction of the two goddesses safely atop the birthing-stools appeals to Hathor to protect the delivery process for women who called upon her. Again, science and magic are juxtaposed within the same piece of gynecological artwork to relieve the psychological burden that the expectation and reality of childbearing can have on pregnant women and those of a fertile age. The variety of medical tools stresses the technical advancement of Egyptian medical practice, and the request to Hathor instilled in women a sense of hope, illustrating to them that the emotional stress they often experienced with pregnancy was acknowledged by both the professional community and the deities. The relief at the Temple of Kom Ombo was located in the main passageway of the temple, which was one of the few locations of the temple open to the public. Therefore, it can be inferred from this prominent location, coupled with the minimal use of elaborate medical text, that comforting women of elite and lower working classes was a principal purpose of this relief.

Gynecological works of art were not confined to the public realm of religion. Their use extended into the private sphere of the household, occupying vital roles during delivery. Births occurred at home with the assistance of midwives, who cut the umbilical cords and washed the newborn infants (Dawson 282). Midwives were also a source of emotional support for women in labor. A figure vessel from the late 18th Dynasty accentuates the importance of their twofold role through its attention to technical practice and magical purpose. The vessel is a small statue (9.7 x 5.1 cm) of a kneeling elderly woman made from green-glazed statite. The woman can be identified as a midwife by the objects she is holding in her two hands. She is holding a small pot in her left hand, likely used to store oil for rubbing on the newborn. In her right hand, she holds a hooked-shape instrument that possibly served as a retractor or a probe. Interestingly, Dr. Gustave von Braun, a Viennese obstetrician, invented a medical instrument resembling this ancient one that is called ‘Braun’s hook’ (Rand 209-212). It is utilized in the modern gynecological procedures of episiotomy and embryotomy.

 Vessel in the form of a Kneeling Woman

Vessel in the form of a Kneeling Woman

While the vessel’s subject references practical aspects of the midwifery profession, its form illustrates the integration of magical rituals to instill emotional security in prospective mothers. The vase was open at both the top and bottom. The Ny Carlsberg Papyrus, dated between the 19th and 20th dynasties, explains how such figure-vases were employed to test for pregnancy and predict the sex of the child. These rituals involved pouring urine of the prospective mother through the top opening of the vessel onto a small pile of wheat grains and dates stored inside for a certain length of time. The excess urine drained off through the hole in the bottom of the vase. The prognosis was determined based on which sprouted, the grain, pits, or neither (Rand 209-212). Providing women with an answer to whether or not they were pregnant or regarding the sex of their child likely helped to diminish uncertainties they may have had and to assuage a portion of the stress associated with pregnancy. This reassurance was heightened by the figure’s calm expression along with its blue-green color, which modern studies have illustrated is more likely to induce calmness than reds and yellows (Lankston et al. 2010). The figure-vase as a sign of the midwifery profession also strengthened the prospective mother’s trust in the midwife’s experience. The extent of the ancient Egyptian female population that had access to midwives remains unclear. However, temple stelaes, which illustrate gods acting as midwife figures, and a recently discovered birthing brick at Abydos suggest that this may have been a practice accessible only to the elite social classes (Wilford). This birthing brick at Abydos was the first birthing brick discovered. It was found in a palatial house at Abydos, where the mayor lived. It is believed to have belonged to a princess named Renseneb. The limited quantity of other uncovered bricks and the elite ownership of this one supports midwifery as a profession that primarily benefited the upper class.

All of the previously analyzed ancient artifacts were directed towards an audience that was composed in part or entirely of potential mothers, with the aim to enhance mental wellbeing during the psychologically demanding role of childbearing. However, due to the drastically low literacy rates, estimated to range between one to five percent, the majority of women were excluded from accessing one of the most admired and referenced ancient gynecological artifacts, the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus. Written during the Middle Kingdom in ca. 1800 B.C., it was translated and published by F. Griffiths in 1893 and was published in The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob (Smith 2011). Recognized as one of the earliest sources of evidence for ancient gynecology, it describes diagnoses and treatments for several female health issues, as well as other practices related to childbirth. Divided into thirty-four sections, with each addressing a specific condition, the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus is overwhelmingly formulaic in nature. Each section begins with the phrase “Examination of a woman” followed by a concise description of the symptoms. The next line starts with the phrase “You should say of it” and details the appropriate diagnosis. Finally, the last line explains a proper treatment, preceded by the phrase “You should treat it” (Kahun Medical Papyrus). The low literacy rates during the time period suggest that the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus and other similar medical texts, such as the Ebers Papyrus, were intended to be used by trained medical professionals rather than their female patients. Literacy rates are based on limited evidence. A myriad of papyri from the late Middle Kingdom town of Lahun suggest that the rate may have been as high as fifteen percent for this urban population, but, even so, the vast proportion of women remained incapable of accessing such medical documents (“Literacy”). While the Kahun Papyrus did not directly contribute to promoting the mental wellbeing of women, it may have facilitated patient confidence in physicians as it served as a source of knowledge, lending credibility to physicians as experts. Additionally, it cannot be exclusively categorized as a scientific approach to medicine because several of its recommendations combine both rational and magical techniques. The papyrus contains accurate observations, such as the use of acacia gum in contraception, which modern research has determined to be spermatocidal (Riddle, Worth, & Russell). Moreover, the text abounds with magical spells. For instance, the treatment for, “a woman who is ill from her womb wandering…[is] fumigating her with whatever she smells as roast,” (Kahun Medical Papyrus). The complementarity between science and magic was an innate aspect of Egyptian medicine that manifests itself in even the most highly regarded scientific ancient gynecological texts.

While the Kahun Papyrus did not directly contribute to promoting the mental wellbeing of women, it may have facilitated patient confidence in physicians as it served as a source of knowledge, lending credibility to physicians as experts.

In addition to elucidating the experience of childbirth for women, these gynecological artifacts allude to the benefits of integrating art with modern medicine to ensure emotional wellbeing. Unlike in ancient Egyptian society, mental health is often overshadowed in the present-day by increasingly advanced medical techniques directed at guaranteeing patients’ physical health. A poignant example of this phenomenon within the field of gynecology is postpartum depression, a mood disorder that can occur following childbirth. According to the Center for Disease Control, it occurs in 11 to 20% of women who give birth each year in the United States. Perhaps even more astoundingly, only 15% of these susceptible women seek treatment, resulting in an estimated 850,000 women who suffer from postpartum depression without proper care. Art provides a potential remedy for this social health issue by mediating psychological responses during the stressful delivery process or subsequent hospital stays. Studies, such as a 2010 study conducted by Lankston et al., involving patients undergoing chemotherapy have indicated that those patients exposed to visual art experienced lower levels of anxiety and depression. Further studies have demonstrated an association between visual art and, “shorter postoperative hospital stays…fewer moderate analgesic doses and … slightly lower scores for minor postsurgical complications,”. These improved health outcomes are significant to a patient’s mental health because they reduce the overall physical and emotional strain experienced during their treatment.

Numerous ancient Egyptian technical gynecological advancements have been acknowledged and revered in modern literature. Magical rituals and incantations are generally regarded as a separate category, used to address those questions that could not be answered due to insufficient sophisticated knowledge. By focusing on the differences between these two approaches to medicine, contemporary scholarship neglects their uniting and, perhaps, most invaluable commonality: the holistic approach to healing. Further investigation of ancient Egyptian gynecological art forms should strive to erase the notion of a dichotomy between science and magic in ancient medical practice for, just as the body and mind, they are truly inextricably linked.

 

Footnotes: 

(1) The term gynecology is used to describe ancient Egyptian medical practices regarding female reproductive health. This term was chosen because it is strongly associated with the child birth process, a dominant theme in ancient medical art forms, and it encompasses surgical as well as preventative practices.

(2) These gynecological artifacts will be classified as works of art during the following analysis. While ancient Egyptians did not have a word to encompass the modern abstract concept of “art”, they were acutely aware of the aesthetic component of their work and its impacts. The beauty of each artifact often extended their functionality to include supporting the emotional health of women in addition to the technical healing of the body.

(3) The eastern portion of the temple was dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god of the Nile, Hathor, his wife, and Khonsu, their son, whereas, the western half was dedicated to Horus, the falcon god of the sky, Tasenetnofret, his wife, and Panebtawy, their son.