Under Tawaret’s Protection: Childbirth in Ancient Egypt

by Jennifer Della’Zanna

To detail any customs in Ancient Egypt is difficult because the dynastic period of this ancient civilization starts in roughly 3100 BCE and ends with the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE, and known predynastic history goes back to 5000 BCE [1]. Within this context, two separate kingdoms often existed within Egypt, sometimes ruled by foreign leaders.

Tawaret 1
Tawaret (Image ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Religion, cultural norms, and governmental regulations, all of which can affect the role of mothers and children in a society, underwent sometimes tumultuous changes that affected all or parts of the country in those millennia. Therefore, anybody who makes sweeping generalizations about childbirth, motherhood, and the role of women in ancient Egyptian society can expect to face harsh criticism. Yet, the dearth of knowledge about women’s matters in any patriarchal society is really at the heart of generalization, and we can only go with evidence we have. As far as medical papyri go, the most extensive date to about 1500–1600 BCE, although one that holds several details about childbirth may date as far back as 2000 BCE. Still, a 500-year span of medical knowledge in such a long history is a rather narrow slice of information about a people –especially considering parts of the older papyri have clearly been copied into later ones [2]. That said, the basics of childbirth haven’t changed that much in humankind’s history.

While medical papyri have given us insight into treatments for women’s conditions and diseases, there is not a whole lot of information about the usual, uncomplicated birthing process. This is because it was not considered a medical condition. The Egyptian physicians were not generally present for most birthing episodes. There is also no known word for “midwife,” as we know it today, which many people consider as the historical alternative to having a doctor present. Most likely, women who had been through the process acted as assistants during birth, and the number present, as well as their experience levels, would have risen with the status of the expectant mother.

It is widely believed that Egyptian mothers gave birth in a squatting position, as some still do around the world. In 2001, archeologists uncovered a 3700-year-old birthing brick, which confirmed what they’d seen in paintings and drawings, and is similar to those used in communities that still practice this type of birthing technique, such as in this picture from the Basti region of India [3],[4].

(Image ©Janet Chawla)

Childbirth, like much of daily life in ancient Egypt, was a largely religious experience. Perhaps most telling about the importance of this event, and fertility in general, is the number of deities whose influence was attached to it. Meskhenet, whose pictograph is literally a birthing brick with a human head on it, was one of the important childbirth deities, who also was called upon to read the destiny of the newborn and is often shown accompanying the newly dead when their souls are weighed against Ma’at, perhaps to indicate their birth into the afterlife [5]. Others included Hathor, Isis, Osiris, Tefnut, and Heqet. Bes is also often associated with childbirth, although this dwarf god (not goddess), is a deity of war. His association with childbirth came about mainly because he is considered a protector of women and children. So, he may have been invoked more often after the birth to protect both new mother and child from the many harms that could arise in the early months after delivery. However, the one called upon most frequently seems to be Tawaret, who was thought to help women with sexuality and pregnancy, but was specifically protective of laboring women. It is Tawaret, often depicted as an upright, pregnant hippopotamus, who is featured prominently on apotropaic wands and knives that were used as talismans during the birth process. As with Meskhenet, Tawaret appears again at the end of life, guarding the mountains in the west, which stood at the edge of the land of the dead.

(Image ©Glencairn Museum)

The medical papyri give us details about recipes used for treatments in cases of difficult births, ways to determine the sex of a baby and whether a woman was fertile, and even for methods for contraception, but they also reveal the magical spells used during childbirth. It is here that we see many of the gods and goddesses called upon at once to help with difficulties common to women of the time. The beliefs in the papyri about childbirth are sometimes astoundingly insightful. In modern times, we count 282 days from the time of the last menstrual cycle as the number of days of gestation. Egyptians estimated anywhere from 271–294 days. They also believed that the menstrual cycle ceased because the blood was being used to sustain the embryo [6].

Although rituals and traditions change from culture to culture, and over time, childbirth is one time in our lives where they continue to be practiced. Stories from women who are already mothers are passed down, activities that help with one aspect or another of childbirth, and even talismans continue to be important parts of bringing our children into this world. We shouldn’t be surprised that the experience was similar 3500 years ago, and we shouldn’t expect that it will change all that much in the future.



[1] History.com staff. 2009. “Ancient Egypt.” http://www.history.com. Accessed April 15, 2018.

[2] World Research Foundation. n.d. “The Oldest Medical Books in the World.” World Research Foundation. Accessed April 15, 2018. http://www.wrf.org/ancient-medicine/oldest-medical-books.php.

[3] Chawla, Janet. 2012. “Birth Bricks Old and Older.” Matrika. June 5. Accessed April 19, 2018. http://janetchawla.blogspot.com/2012/06/birth-bricks-old-and-older.html.

[4] University of Pennsylvania. 2002. “Eurekalert.” Archaeologists uncover 3700-year-old ‘magical’ birth brick in Egypt. July 25. Accessed April 19, 2018. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-07/uop-au3072502.php.

[5] Seawright, Caroline. 2001. “Meskhenet, with Renenutet, Both in Human Form.” The Keep. May 7. Accessed April 19, 2018. http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/meskhenet.html#.Wti734jwZhE.

[6] Parsons, Marie. 2011. “Childbirth and Children in Ancient Egypt.” Tour Egypt. August 4. Accessed April 19, 2018. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/mothers.htm.