Pregnancy and childbirth in long-ago cultures were chancy situations, rites of passage that women devoutly prayed for and desperately feared at the same time.
Prenatal care, vitamin intake, baby showers, and other pastimes? Not bloody likely. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman women were more apt to wear protective amulets and spend time on their knees, praying to an array of goddesses who concerned themselves with pregnancy and safe delivery. Egyptian mothers-to-be asked for help from Hathor, goddess of fertility, and from the hippo goddess Tawaret, who guarded newborns and women in labor. They also made offerings to Bes, a dwarf god who warded off evil spirits. As reported by the Smithsonian magazine, some researchers now believe that pregnant women in predynastic Egypt wore tattoos as protective amulets on their abdomens, thighs, and breasts. They cite certain tattoos that have been found solely on female mummies, which range from patterns of dots and diamond shapes to small images of the god Bes.
Pregnant Greek women were pretty much stuck with one goddess, called Eileithyia, for prenatal guidance and childbirth protection. Roman women, however, called on a number of specialized deities. To ask for the help of Candelifera or Lucina, expectant moms lit a candle. Carmentis had a childbirth festival to observe, and she was invoked in one of two ways as the baby came into the world: Postverta, meaning “feet first,” and Prorsa, meaning “head first.” Diana and Di Nixi were also major goddesses of childbirth.
Although children were longed for and childless couples often adopted, pregnancy was a high-risk gamble way back when.
Not to overlook the help of male gods, women also prayed to brother deities named Pilumnus and Picumnus who kept newborns from evil spirits and doubled as gods of happy matrimony. Mater Matuta, goddess of growth and childbirth, had famous temples in Rome that dated from Etruscan times. Her festival, the Matralia on June 11, involved mysterious rites and sacred cakes. Lastly, Juno, queen mother of the gods, presided over various aspects of fertility and offspring; Juno Opigena guarded women in labor, whereas Juno Sororia protected girls at puberty and Juno Caprotina was in charge of fertility in general.
To make labor easier, women also relied on sympathetic magic. They carefully untied any knots in their clothing and unbound their hair to remove any symbolic obstacle to safe delivery.
Despite heavenly help, high anxiety reigned, and understandably so. Working from human remains and from the tattered historical record, archaeologists and historians have guesstimated that in the pregnancies of long-ago Egyptians, one child in three births might have died as newborns. During Greco-Roman centuries, it’s estimated that 5 to 8 percent of newborns died at birth or within one month. The mortality among new mothers was grievously high as well, most of these deaths being due to germs and infection, it’s thought.
Methods to ease and speed labor ranged from the helpful (drinking lots of liquids) to the merely bizarre (putting a vulture’s feather under the mother’s feet, or placing a sloughed snakeskin on the mother’s thigh). More dubious aids included the ingestion of truly nauseating materials, such as fat from hyena loins.
On the plus side, women gave birth with the help of midwives, among female friends and relatives, and in a warm and supportive environment— usually at home, since hospitals and birthing centers as we know them did not exist. Among the Greeks and Romans, a low birthing chair or stool with a crescent-shaped hole in it was the main “equipment.” The Birds,
While in labor, Egyptian women preferred squatting or kneeling on birthing bricks, which left just enough room for a deft-handed attendant to catch the baby. In 2001, a southern archaeological dig in Abydos turned up an actual birthing brick. It was covered with still-colorful paintings of the new mom, her attendants, and her newborn son. It may have been used by a princess named Renseneb some 3,700 years ago.
During labor, she and her helpers might have chanted certain incantations to speed a safe delivery. One such chant began, “Come down, placenta, come down!” and continued with elaborate pleas to the goddess Hathor and to Horus, the falcon-headed sky god.
Childbirth was such a huge risk that midwives always kept certain tools at hand in case labor proved difficult—or impossible. This included a long, slender saw, used in extremis to cut a baby to bits to extract it from the womb.