Who to Trust When Giving Birth in Ancient Greece, Gods or Midwives?

On International Day of the Midwife, AAIA Volunteer, Katherine King, examines the options available to women in ancient Greece

If you were preparing for childbirth in the midst of disease and high childbirth mortality rates, would you rely on medical professionals or on the gods? Some people might choose either one with absolute certainty. Women on the verge of childbirth in ancient Greece would likely have done both. And why wouldn’t they? Why not hedge their bets to ensure the safe delivery of their child?

Terracotta votive figure representing standing woman holding child on her left hip, Greek influence, 300BC-50AD. A655616, © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Ancient Greece is well known for its medical advancement and philosophical enlightenment, so sometimes it’s easy to forget that things like childbirth were still very dangerous. Childbirth is no walk in the park even today with advanced medicine and technology and was certainly riskier in Ancient Greece. Medically trained and experienced midwives and doctors were available in Ancient Greece and they played an important role in the safe delivery of children. Despite this, maternal and neonatal mortality remained high as the knowledge and technology available were not always enough to avoid or resolve complications during childbirth, especially with the prominence of disease. This uncertainty and risk pushed women to shore up their chances of a safe birthing experience by turning to the gods to ensure safe childbirth.

Midwives

The existence of midwives in ancient Greece is attested to in multiple ancient sources, under the name maiai and possibly iatrine. Midwives would have received training to support women in childbirth and to safely deliver children. This training might have been from their mothers, Hippocratic doctors, other midwives, or all of the above. Midwives weren’t required to have given birth themselves, although it was considered helpful for them to have experienced the process so they could properly support the women going through it.

Despite the fact that these midwives were medical professionals, there was only so much they could do to help women in childbirth. Without modern medical knowledge and modern instruments, there were many dangers associated with childbirth, and the mother, child, or both, could die in childbirth. These risks were real and terrifying, and beyond human control. The secular and religious domains of ancient Greece were often strongly intertwined. People’s understanding of philosophy, medicine and science, largely incorporated belief in the gods. So, naturally, women also integrated the gods into their preparations for childbirth.

A Cypriot statuette of a childbirth scene from c.310-30 BC. The mother is shown exhausted, but both the mother and child are alive, suggesting the statuette was an offering of thanks. 74.51.2698, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public domain.
Gods

There were many gods for many different things in Ancient Greece. Some gods like Artemis, Eileithyia, Aphrodite, Zeus and Demeter – to name a few – were specifically worshipped for their healing qualities or for support in childbirth. Worshippers prayed to these gods for protection during the birthing process, but also – as in the case for Artemis – to avoid their wrath, which was quite unpredictable, and could be taken out on mother or child.

Artemis was worshipped to seek assistance in labour and to ensure the safe birth of the child, and the survival of the mother. According to myth, Artemis could bring death to women in childbirth, which understandably encouraged mortals to pray to avoid her wrath. Although she clearly had a temper and needed to be appeased, Artemis was still thought of as the protector of young women, specifically in their development from girl to woman, as they married, went through childbirth, and began motherhood. Artemis could herself be called a midwife, as in some versions of the myth, she helped her mother deliver her twin Apollo.

3rd century BC statuette of Artemis, possibly given as a votive offering. 10.210.100, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public domain.

Eileithyia was another goddess associated with childbirth, as her name means ‘she who comes to aid’. Eileithyia was able to both induce and delay labour and was worshipped with the aim of having easy labour. The cave, and its symbolic association with the womb, became an important aspect of Eileithyia’s worship.

Bronze figurine of a woman holding a flower, bearing an inscription “Aristomacha dedicated (me) to Eleuthia [Eileithyia]“. 1814,0704.1284, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Gods were worshipped and given offerings at all stages in the processes of pregnancy and childbirth. They were prayed to before pregnancy for fertility, during pregnancy for easy labour and safe delivery and were also given offerings after childbirth in thanks for divine favour. The clothing of women who died in childbirth was dedicated to Iphigeneia to honour her and in commemoration of the deceased. Ritual begging took place before and during pregnancy and childbirth, as people believed it would bring offspring and easy labour. Votive offerings in the form of statuettes and figurines were dedicated to gods at sanctuaries, also in an attempt to ease the struggle of the childbirth process.

5th century BC votive relief depicting a mother, nurse, infant and goddesses, likely given in thanks for protection during childbirth. 24.97. 92, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public domain.
Of course gods and midwives

So why wouldn’t the Ancient Greeks play it safe? Why wouldn’t they do whatever they could to ensure the safety of both mother and child in childbirth? Sure, midwives were respected and valuable medical professionals in these times, but they couldn’t guarantee a safe birth, so it’s no wonder that people relied on the gods as well. No doubt, if things went wrong, it made things easier to pin the blame on the gods. If a woman or infant died in childbirth, it was because the gods made it so.

Katherine King is an AAIA Volunteer. and an undergraduate student at Macquarie University, where she is studying a Bachelor of Archaeology, majoring in Greece, Rome and Late Antiquity. She is passionate about ancient art and architecture, and what they can tell us about the lives, skills and values of ancient populations.

Further reading

Athanasekou, M 2018, ‘The image and role of the midwife in the ancient Greek and Byzantine art’, International Journal of Prenatal & Life Sciences. Available from: https://www.journalprenatalife.com/index.php/prenatal/article/view/52. [accessed 18 April 2021].

Demand, NH 1994, Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece, (Johns Hopkins U.P.).

Ephesus n.d., Artemis. Available from: https://www.ephesus.us/ephesus/mythology_of_artemis.htm. [accessed 28 April 2021].

Flemming, R 2007, ‘Women, Writing and Medicine in the Classical World’, The Classic Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 1, pp. 257-279. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0009838807000225

Flemming, R 2013, ‘The Invention of Infertility in the Classical Greek World’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 87, no. 4, pp. 565-590. http://doi.org/10.1353/bhm.2013.0064

Nutton, V 2012, Ancient Medicine, 2nd edition, Routledge.

Robertson, N 1983, ‘Greek Ritual Begging in Aid of Women’s Fertility and Childbirth’, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014), pp. 143-169. https://doi.org/10.2307/284008

Ancient Sources

Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 746.

Plato, Theaetetus, 149b-d, 157c-d.

Contacts

Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
+61 2 9351 4759 +61 (0)2 9351 7693 arts.aaia@sydney.edu.au