After examining childbirth and motherhood in the 19th century earlier this summer, today we’re going to take a trip far earlier in time—to the ancient world, where becoming a mother was the most important, as well as most dangerous, part of a woman’s life.
|Cleopatra offers a sacrifice to Isis in this Egyptian engraving. |
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
Let’s begin in Egypt, one of the most complex early civilizations of the world. The ideal mother in Ancient Egyptian society was the goddess Isis, the “Divine Mother” whose cult produced thousands of bronze statuettes of her nursing her son Horus—many of which can still be seen in museums today. In the Egyptian mindset, human mothers also deserved much honor and respect, especially from their sons. Children were expected to care for their mothers as they aged, and there is one record of an elderly mother disinheriting her children because they did not. A didactic text from Any, dating from 1500 B.C., gives a fascinating peek into the care of an Egyptian mother for her child—one mothers throughout the centuries can relate to.
“When you were born after your months, she was yet yoked to you. Her breast in your mouth for three years, as you grew…When she sent you to school, and you were taught to write, she kept watch over you daily.”
The Bible and other ancient Jewish texts give fascinating glimpses into the early mothers of Israel. Midwives were significant women in Israelite culture, seen especially in the beginning of Exodus when the Hebrew midwives were called before Pharaoh—and because of their faith and courage, many Israelite baby boys were saved. The text there hints at childbirth practices of the time, such as the birth stool, thought to be composed of two stones in early days—kneeling also seems to have been a common birthing position, and we now know being upright in childbirth does make things easier. After the baby was born, he or she was commonly bathed and rubbed in salt, then swaddled in strips of cloth, just as Mary did when Jesus was born.
Jewish mothers were ritually unclean for some time after giving birth, with the purification sacrifice for after childbirth occurring forty days if the baby was a boy, eighty days if a girl. Interestingly, it is recognized today that it takes about six weeks for a mother to physically recover from childbirth—about the forty days Leviticus prescribes.
As in ancient Egypt, where we have already seen that breastfeeding for three years was apparently normal, Jewish mothers generally nursed their children for two to three years. Weaning was a time of fulfillment and celebration, typically with a party, like the weaning feast for Isaac in Genesis 21.
Jewish mothers were honored as well, seen in Proverbs 31’s laudatory description of a wife and mother who fears the Lord. And Jesus took special care to ensure that His mother was taken care of when He was dying on the cross. In typical Jewish culture, mothers had the primary care of their children, at least boys, for the first six years or so, after which the father would take a greater role in his sons’ training in the Law and a trade.
|Plutarch, early Greek philosopher and proponent of breastfeeding. |
By Odysses - original: own work of author; this is a cropped version of
File:Copy_of_Plutarch_at_Chaeronia,_Greece.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0
Ancient Greece and Rome
In classical Greece and Rome, wet nurses were common for nursing babies, at least for wealthy families. However, such prominent writers as Aristotle and Plutarch urged against this practice; as Plutarch wrote, “It is necessary that mothers breast feed their own children, because they will indulge them with love and kindness.”
While Greek and Roman women did have some place in society, mothers lacked rights we today might take for granted. For example, at the birth of a baby in ancient Greece, it was up to the father whether to keep the child or expose it to the elements, as Oedipus was at birth in the play Oedipus Rex. Of course, this effective infanticide was enacted against more baby girls than boys. Mothers also did not get custody of their children if the couple were to divorce—children instead were given to the father, though sometimes mothers and children stayed together voluntarily.
So, what stands out to you about mothering in ancient times? If you had to pick an ancient culture to be a mother in, which would you choose? Please comment and share!
Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazine and won the 2013 and 2018 Genesis Awards – Historical for her novels Beneath a Turquoise Sky and Fire in My Heart. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at www.kierstigiron.com. She lives in California with her husband, Anthony, their two kitties, and their new baby boy.