Birthing in Ancient Egyptian Times

A lot of what we know about birthing traditions and techniques during ancient Egyptian times has been left behind on papyri , a thick paper made out of the pith of a plant. In this article, you will learn about concepts, such as birthing tents and birthing boxes.

Medical Papyri

Ancient Egyptian documentation does not make mention of gynecologists, ‘midwives,’ or specific doctors that made regular or single visits to a pregnant woman. However, the existence of medical spells and remedies have been written down that were used for a variety of reasons , from predicting fertility and pregnancy to assisting with delivering a baby. Many medical papyri exist that have specific sections devoted to spells and treatments for childbirth and fixing female medical problems.

One of the oldest examples is the Kahun papyrus, which dates back to around 1800 BC. It is believed that the existing text is a copy of a much older written document. In the first two to three pages, there are 17 prescriptions and instructions associated with aspects of gynecology. Some refer to the Kahun papyrus as the “first textbook on gynecology.”

The Papyrus Ebers

Dating back from 1526 to 1505 BC, the Papyrus Ebers speak of a collection of remedies. One describes a solution for “speeding up the childbirth of Aset,” which tells the deities what disasters will happen if Aset fails to give birth when her time has come. Other examples of remedies include “a contraction of the uterus” and “to cause a woman to give to earth.” These ancient remedies were given orally or inserted into the vagina. Sometimes, they were applied to the stomach or bandaged around a pregnant belly.

What is a ‘Birth Bower’?

When a woman gave birth in ancient Egypt, she may have spent time in a ‘birth bower’ , a loose tent decorated with garlands and festive embellishments. The ‘tent’ was meant for women to give birth, but could have also had a more symbolic meaning.

Dressing for Birth

Evidence of Egyptian birthing traditions have been found on excavated pieces of pottery that depict a woman sitting on a stool or a bed while nursing her newborn. Around her hips, she is wearing a girdle and collar. Young women dressed the same way tend to the woman. While on a bed, women wear a linen dress and “wig with an ointment cone on top of it.” Female servants were in charge of holding mirrors and washing the feet of the woman. Cosmetic jars are also shown beside the mother.

What is a ‘Birth Box’?

There is a feature found in the front room of almost half of the workmens’ houses at Deir el Medina , an enclosed platform. It is thought that the platform served as a ‘birth box’. The box was made out of mud and brick in the shape of a rectangle. Partially enclosed, there was an opening on the long side with a few steps leading up to the platform. Traces of plaster with painted images of ancient deities (Bes and Tawaret) associated with childbirth have also been found.