by Ayesha Azeem, April 12, 2023
In recent years, there has been a large shift in medical research towards a focus on birth and early childhood, especially on environmental factors that can affect fetal health. This area of interest in obstetrics, however, is not something new and was actually demonstrated in Ancient Greek medicine, albeit with some misunderstandings. While Ancient Greek medicine got some things right – the main objectives of the Hippocratic oath, medical terminology, and human dissections﹣ a lot of it needed improvement. Specifically, Ancient Greek doctors and scientists hyperfocused on the differences between male and female anatomy rather than recognizing their overwhelming similarities, and this translated into their care of patients. The majority of medical care for women focused on menstruation and childbirth, mainly because female fertility played a large role in societal expectations of women living in Ancient Greece.
Ancient Greek Culture and Women’s Reproductive Health
The emphasis on the childbirthing process in women’s medicine stems from the roles and expectations of women in Ancient Greek society. The practice of marriage in Ancient Greece existed primarily with the aim of birthing a legitimate heir, and the suspicion of infertility was a common cause of divorce (Dasen). Women were expected to produce sons that would grow up to become good citizens, contribute to the family’s bloodline, inherit their father’s property, and oversee the care of their parents in old age (Wise). This importance was emphasized through the worship of gods like Artemis, Elieithyia, Aphrodite, Zeus, and Demeter for their healing powers or association with childbirth (King). Artemis was worshipped in particular to seek assistance in labor and a safe birthing process, as she was known as the protector of young women, specifically as they transitioned from girl to woman and began motherhood (King).
In addition to reliance on religion, midwives were available to assist women through the arduous process of giving birth. Childbirth was mainly handled by other women as midwives in ancient society, and men were rarely present during this moment, except as physicians (Dasen). Midwives were referred to as maimai or latrine and received training to help safely deliver children from other midwives or doctors (King). It was believed that Artemis herself was a midwife, and assisted her mother in giving birth to her twin Apollo (King). Despite this, childbirth was extremely dangerous due to a lack of understanding of female anatomy.
Medical Practices in Ancient Greece
The Ancient Greek practice of medicine focused their research mainly on gynecology, and this was reflected in their writings and medical treatment of mothers through the birthing process. Hippocratic writings on women’s medicine primarily concentrated on menstruation as a factor for disease. In Diseases of Women I, women are categorized based on whether they have given birth before. Women who have never been pregnant were believed to become more seriously ill from difficulties with menstruation compared to women who had children because they were denser and more robust (Hippocrates 9). Women were considered to be more porous and have softer flesh because they did not exert themselves physically as often as men, who were fitter (Hippocrates 13). Generally, diseases in women stemmed from menstruation, regardless of whether her symptoms were related to her sexual health or not. For example, if a woman was having trouble breathing, this was said to be due to her uterus suffocating her (Howe). Hippocratic writers believed that the uterus could move around inside a woman’s body and cause disease, a condition known as “wandering womb” that resulted in women experiencing “hysteria,” or suffocation caused by the womb (Zeltzer). The most common treatment prescribed to women during this time was to ‘dampen’ their uterus to keep it in place, either through sexual intercourse or pregnancy (Howe).
Once pregnant, Ancient Greek physicians recommended several practices to ensure the birth of a healthy newborn. Pregnant women were told to participate in passive exercise on a stool or take a short walk to prevent the fusion of bones due to lack of use (Sonarus 20). Physicians like Sonarus also advised pregnant patients to eat neutral foods that were not greasy, fat, or pungent vegetables; avoiding pungent foods would ensure that the ‘seed’ is not ‘softened’ (Sonarus 20). They were also encouraged to avoid intercourse for the duration of their pregnancy, as doing so would agitate the uterus and cause the seed to discharge (Sonarus 20). Women who did not follow these rules would have a fetus that is weak and malnourished, according to Sonarus (Sonarus 21). Pregnant women also wore amulets, with the belief that wearing objects with special powers would protect them and their child from harm. These amulets were made from different materials, like aetites, the “eagle-stone” or the “pregnant stone,” because they resembled embryos (Wise). The eagle-stone was wrapped in the skin of sacrificed animals and worn throughout the pregnancy, not to be removed until delivery because doing so would cause the prolapse of the uterus (Wise).
Other rituals were performed during birth to hasten delivery or protect the mother and child from potential dangers associated with the birthing process. Such rituals included placing a Jericho rose in a bowl of water during labor, as the rose would unfold when exposed to moisture and ensure that the labor pains are brief (Wise). Despite these practices, complications in pregnancy were incredibly common.
If complications in pregnancy arose, the woman was solely to blame for having a problem with her body. If a woman could not get pregnant, it was because her cervix or uterus was misshapen due to an imbalance of the humors in her body (Howe). Once a woman was pregnant, miscarriage was common, likely due to a lack of accurate knowledge surrounding women’s bodies. Women were blamed for having miscarriages as well, and Hippocratic writers cited an unhealthy or slippery uterus as the most common cause (Howe). Other causes included if a woman was beaten, fainted, was frightened, lost control over herself, or ate something she was not used to (Howe). The lack of hygienic precautionary measures, cesarean sections, and treatments like antibiotics or blood transfusions meant that any complications in childbirth that arose would likely lead to the death of the mother, infant, or both (Wise). Artificial abortion was rejected by ancient physicians with the reasoning that the natural creation of an embryo should be preserved and protected; Sonarus, however, supported abortion if there was a medical need for it (Sonarus 6). Despite this, Sonarus supported contraceptives over abortion, and recommended measures like pomegranate peels, the flesh of dried figs, and honey water to abort the fetus or avoid pregnancy altogether (Sonarus 24).
The process of childbirth was one of the most significant moments experienced in the lives of Greek women, as this marked the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Through pregnancy and birth, women were able to contribute to the continuation and success of Ancient Greek society. The incredible value placed upon pregnancy and birth can be seen through the Hippocratic works published with guidelines for women to follow throughout their childbearing, the presence of amulets and rituals to ease the process and ensure the protection of the mother and infant, and the worship of gods and goddesses specifically for conception and pregnancy. Because it was deeply valued, childbirth came to be seen as the sole objective of a woman’s life, and medical care focused solely on this part of female anatomy and health. While pregnancy and childbirth is an integral part of women’s health, women were solely viewed through this lens in Ancient Greek society, evidenced by Ancient Greek physicians’ ‘expert’ advice during this time in a woman’s life.
Dasen, Véronique. “Childbirth and Infancy in Greek and Roman Antiquity.” Core, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/79426554.pdf. Accessed 26 Nov 2022.
Hippocrates. Diseases of Women I. Accessed 26 Nov 2022.
Howe, Keelin. “Pregnancy & Childbirth in Ancient Greece.” Women in Antiquity, 31 March 2017, https://womeninantiquity.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/pregnancy-and-childbirth/#:~:text=Eileithyia%2C%20commonly%20associated%20with%20Athena,goddess%20of%20midwifery%20and%20childbirth.
King, Katherine. “Who to Trust When Giving Birth in Ancient Greece, Gods or Midwives?” Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, 5 May 2021, https://aaia.sydney.edu.au/who-to-trust-when-giving-birth-in-ancient-greece-gods-or-midwives/.
Sonarus. Sonarus’ Gynecology. Translated by Owsei Temkin, Johns Hopkins, 1991.
Wise, Susan. Childbirth Votives and Rituals in Ancient Greece. 2007. University of Cincinnati, PhD dissertation.Zeltzer, Naomi. The “Cure” is the Affliction: Pregnancy and Childbirth as Healing and Harming in Ancient Greek Gynecology. 24 May 2021. Vassar College, Senior Capstone Project.