Fertility and Pregnancy in Ancient Egypt
Much has changed in the country of Egypt from ancient times until now. Their culture has seen major shifts in politics, religion, and economy. Even the land has taken on a new form in many ways. Egypt is now a Muslim country, therefore much of the ancient polytheistic fertility and pregnancy practices have faded. This article is focused on giving you all a glimpse into the past, a glimpse into one of the most powerful and mysterious ancient empires of the world, and how fertility and pregnancy played a major part in the ancient Egyptian culture.
Fertility Beliefs and Practices in Ancient Egypt
As far as fertility goes, the men were not usually thought of as the problem if the woman could not get pregnant; however, if a man who was married to multiple women did not get any of his wives pregnant, they would say he is “not a man.” Intimacy was not a thing of guilt in Ancient Egypt, and procreation was key to the Egyptians not just surviving but flourishing. While women were of equal status to men in Ancient Egypt, most thought more highly of a woman who was fertile and conceived many children over a woman who was “barren” and conceived none.
The women would perform certain rituals and spiritual practices in order to measure and ensure fertility. Our knowledge of these fertility practices come from ancient papyri and frescoes from various places in Egypt and they may have differed by region and dynasty.
Strange Fertility Practices in Ancient Egypt
The onion or garlic method was the belief that if the woman placed a small onion or head of garlic into herself over night, that the next day if her breath smelled that meant she was ready to conceive. The researchers suggest that absorption of the onion's sulfuric compounds into the woman's blood via engorged submucosal blood vessels could result in "onion breath".
A practice of one person flicking the woman’s lips and shoulder with the tip of their finger, and if the woman “twitches” she will bear children. (http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/people/procreation.htm)
Menstrual blood (while considered a dirty and disgusting thing in our culture and in modern Muslim Egyptian culture) was thought in Ancient Egypt to have powerful fertile properties and one practice was to rub menstrual blood on the inner thighs in order to promote fertility of the womb (as a side note, women were excused of their work when they were menstruating).
Oil was sometimes rubbed on the woman’s breasts at night, then in the morning if the veins were “good and strong” (evident), that meant she was ready to conceive.
A couple more practices to ensure fertility included:
Small statues of men with large phalluses and nude women were also kept in the home or close to the woman who was trying to increase her fertility. These types of images were also carved into jars and other household items of the time.
Cowrie shell pendants (actual shells or made of metals) were also worn by women as amulets as the cowrie shell resembled and to them represented the female genitalia.
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The Gods Were Called Upon
Gods were a crucial part of everyday life in Ancient Egypt, which means they were also called upon for fertility purposes, as well.
Khonsu was the god of the moon and also a god of fertility; women would literally “moon-bathe” and sleep at night under the full moon’s beams in hopes of becoming fertile or pregnant by the help of Khonsu. (From the Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells)
Amulets of gods and goddesses were carried by women in order to promote fertility - Nut, Isis, Hathor, Bes, Taweret, and Bast were all goddesses thought to grant fertility to the women who called upon them. Osiris was a widely-worshiped god of fertility, as well. Most of the creator gods were also fertility gods, as they possessed powers of procreation.
Pregnancy Practices in Ancient Egypt
Believe it or not, the ancient Egyptians actually had a pregnancy test that they used to detect if a woman was pregnant or not and even to determine what sex the baby would be. They did this by having the woman pee over top two planted seeds. If one of these seeds sprouted shortly thereafter, it meant she was pregnant. If the barley seed sprouts, the woman will have a boy. If the wheat seed sprouts, this means she will have a girl. Thousands of years later, in the 1960s, researchers decided to look into the science behind this pregnancy test. They found that the hormones in the woman's urine actually provide nutrition to the seed and cause it to sprout quicker than normal...so in essence, this pregnancy test actually worked about 70% of the time! The sex test to determine if it was male or female did not work, however.
Once the woman was ready to give birth, many ritualistic practices came into play. Usually midwives would attend to the woman during childbirth, and the men would stay away. The midwives could be family, friends, or even neighbors of the childbearing woman. When the woman went into labor, she would often go to a labor room and literally sit on a labor seat. Though they weren't quite sitting, they were more in a squatting position as this was thought to be the natural way to give birth (and in modern times we have found that squatting promotes an easier birthing process as gravity aids the woman with pushing). It was also thought that putting hot water underneath of the laboring woman, that the steam would aid in easing the birthing process.
Certain rituals and religious practices were performed during the labor process, including chants to the gods such as Amun, Bes, and Taweret. A crescent-chaped piece of ivory with carvings of deities and spiritual icons was placed on the woman's belly to also promote an easier birthing process. While the birthing process seems so much different from today, in reality it is not that much different!
© 2013 Nicole Canfield
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