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Childbirth in Ancient Egypt

How were children born during the era of the pharaohs? Were girls as valued as boys?

The only female pharaoh of ancient Egypt, Hatshetput, had her visage effaced from the ancient records and her name covered up as if she had never been. However, there is other evidence that women were respected in Egyptian society, although it might be going too far to imagine that they were equal to men. Many illustrations of family life, for example, show daughters enjoying themselves along with their parents; then again, it is possible to imagine that the mummified cats found here and there demonstrate the love that the Egyptians had for their pets.

In any case, it seems likely that the birth of a daughter was just as much an occasion for joy as was the birth of a boy. The ways in which childbirth took place no doubt varied according to the station in life occupied by the mother but there appear to have been some common features. First, the expectant mother was assisted by other women in the household, depending on who was available. The women had no special medical training or knowledge apart from what experience had taught them and what knowledge was passed on from one generation to another. What was available was a fair amount of magical assistance, with various chants and spells offering divine assistance, which are of unknown efficacy.

When the moment came, the women squatted on a kind of raised wooden step and two women supported her from behind and in front. Squatting offers the benefit of gravity not available to women lying down, as tends to be the case in the modern western world. The author is unable to say which position is less uncomfortable. Egyptian women in any case go on with the duty as best they could. A midwife knelt in front to receive the child once it had popped out and then the process is unknown – presumably tonics were applied to the mother and the child encouraged to feed but there are few historical details available to explain how this was done. The women averaged about five feet in height and so their babies would also have been rather smaller than those of today.

For more details, see Barbara Mertz’s splendid Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, second edition (New York: William Morrow, 2008). This book was first published in 1966 and, with some revisions, still stands up today as a rather charming evocation of life in the past as well as being a persuasive one. On the other hand, there are many academic studies of the same subject which would radically disagree with her interpretation of the past, albeit most commonly in less accessible language.

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