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.


Featured: Rejected Princesses

As a mother, I’m quite aware of the gap of stories of girls who are self-motivated and independent (not in need of saving) for children. Things are improved, but there are so many stories to tell that are historically based, of strong women who acted and not merely acted-upon… a theme so vital to our interests here at Unbound.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 12.26.04 PMThe project, Rejected Princesses, present with endearing illustrations the stories of women and girls who have not been featured in the popular awareness. Created for children, the stories are accessible, fun and positive. The interest and introduction to reading and the knowledge, themes and ideas that they convey are vital to the education of children everywhere. Books can change the world.

I recommend perusing the Rejected Princesses site and although modern, in the interest of our monthly theme, read the story of Soraya Tarzi.

Cleopatra the Alchemist: Sketch of a Philanthropist

By: Victor Cypert

Among the philosophers and scientists of antiquity, the name of Hypatia comes readily to mind when we consider the women in that category. Yet other contributors left their mark on our understanding of the world and one of them, Cleopatra the Alchemist, selflessly gave the Western world a beneficial apparatus that can still be found in laboratories today.

Exactly when Cleopatra lived, we can’t be certain. Estimates place the time of her birth somewhere between the first and fourth centuries of the Common Era. We do know that she lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and that she was regarded as a master of the alchemist’s art. Yet her history is suffused with mythology, and the popularity of her name leads to confusion with the famed last queen of the Ptolemies and other similarly named women who made their own contributions to the world (among these, most notably, is Cleopatra the Physician.)

For the ancient alchemist, the greatest of transmutations didn’t involve base metals becoming silver and gold. Rather, the alchemist sought the means of turning plants and minerals into useful medicines. Then, as today, the alleviation of suffering was big business and alchemists who won fame and glory did so not because of their mystic mutterings, but through the efficacy of their cures.

In The Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers, a meeting between the great woman sage and a group of her male peers occurs. In this meeting, prompted by the men assembled around her, she “casts light” on a number of natural mysteries. Her understanding of the material world amazes and slightly terrifies her audience, among them mythic Ostanes who taught Egyptian magic to the rest of the Hellenistic world. Here she makes an analogy between the goal of the alchemist (the transmutation of base matter into something useful) and natural growth in the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Her erudition clear, no trace of chauvinism exists in her audience who listen attentively and recognize her wisdom.

The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, a single scroll of vellum containing mystical diagrams with precious little explanation, reveals an understanding of the trade secrecy that surrounded alchemy and the other early sciences. The image of a serpent devouring its tail, a cypher wheel, and an astronomical event captivate the reader with their obscure meanings. Yet among the enigmatic doodles, one image truly stands out.


The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra

            Among the pure symbols of the “Royal Art” a single image seems to offer some connection to material reality. Two circles connected by a long neck, topped with triangular protrusions, appears to depict an early distillery called an alembic, and it’s this piece of equipment that solidifies Cleopatra as one of the great humanitarian scientists of all time.


The Alembic of Cleopatra

            To the alchemist, distillation lay at the heart of the science. Producing spirits for the tincturing of herbs required special equipment, and the alembic provided a way to obtain the solvent needed for the manufacture of beneficial elixirs and medicinal stones.

The mystic treatise known as The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, being the central instruction for all alchemical endeavors, describes the process of environmental evaporation and condensation, though it does so through a thick veil of symbolism. In offering a diagram of her alembic, Cleopatra sought to make the alchemical art easier for the practitioner without revealing the true meaning of the Tablet. It’s a coup of epic proportions, the equivalent of large pharmaceutical company today giving away a valuable patented medicine for the sake of the betterment of humanity.

While Hypatia will continue to be considered the paragon of the ancient woman of science, Cleopatra the Alchemist should be regarded as one of the first philanthropists to make her name and fortune in the tech sector. Retaining the alembic’s design for herself and her students would have given her an edge in the manufacture of reliable medicines, placing her in a position to travel, teach, and heal a wide variety of ailments. But rather, she opted to transmit her thought, sow her seeds broadly, reveal her design, and let her peers make their own discoveries.


A modern-day alembic



Day, Kat. “Women Who Ignored the Limits.” The Chronicle Flask. 26 March 2013. https://chronicleflask.com/2013/03/26/women-who-ignored-the-limits-five-famous-female-chemists/, Retrieved: 8 July 2017.

Debus, Allen G. Man and Nature in the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978. Print.

Goodricke-Clarke, Nicholas. The Western Esoteric Traditions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Linden, Stanton J. The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Monolithic: Kandakes of Kush, Queens of Stone

by K.P. Kulski

By the early portion of the 1st century, it seemed that all the world knew of Rome and its might. Further, it knew of the great Caesar Augustus that reigned at the helm of the Roman state. But in the land of Kush[1], at the edges of Western interest, this was not the case. The feeling was mutual, or more accurately, mutual disinterest and ignorance, neither Rome, roman culture or the man that ruled it meant very much to the Kushites or their great queens, the Kandake.[2]

It is uncertain when the Kush royal heredity moved from male to female, but we do understand that a series of women headed the state as independent sovereigns. These women were rulers by their own right, not by widowhood, regency nor marriage. Additionally, Kandakes did not lose or diminish their power when they married or bore Meroe_1sons. Instead, it was the husband who took up the position as consort. It is from the period of Kandake rule that we have a significant collection of art and inscriptions that depict the nature of their authority. In these the queen often towers, sometimes in the throes of smiting her enemy. In others, her hands are lifted in religious devotion. In all of them, she is the central or only theme of the work. If husbands appeared at all, they were small in stature compared to their queens, if a male appeared of any significance is was most often the Kandake’s son. Frequently, consorts went completely nameless in the record.[3]

She often towers, sometimes in the throes of smiting her enemy, in others, her hands are lifted in religious devotion.

Kush already practiced a form of matriarchal succession common among the cultures of East Africa (and beyond) where royal males inherited rule through their mothers. These mothers were female relatives of the king, often a sister. It is thought that the title of

amanirenas-5Kandake meant “queen mother,” revealing the preexisting importance of the position and offering an easily identifiable reason for the transition to singular female rule. The importance of women goes beyond the royal world, but includes a special regard for the role of wives and mothers in society. Many societies recognize motherhood as a crucial position yet it occupies a support role to male authority. In Kushite culture women were esteemed as vital monolithic entities that were active in both domestic and public worlds. Further, roles were fluid particularly when it came to power. Female roles within society embodied strength, an attribute needed for ruling a kingdom.

It appears that in Kushite culture, women were esteemed as vital monolithic entities that were active in both domestic and public worlds.

When the Romans and Kushites finally crossed paths at Premnis, a fort located near the Nile in Upper Egypt, it was the Kandake Amantitere who led her forces and brazenly brought them down the Nile and into Egyptian territory. Kushite Amanirenas-4women were known to arm themselves in everyday life, so the appearance of a queen a the helm of a military effort is not surprising. According to Roman accounts, “the Candace[4] attacked the garrison with an army of many thousand men.”[5] Dio Cassius recorded the Kush army “with Candace as their leader, ravaging everything they encountered.”[6] Kandakes were not gilded rulers, decked in lace, delicate and breakable. Formidable in spirit as well as appearance, Strabo paints a picture of Amantitere that captures the imagination: masculine and in possession of one eye, having lost it is some unknown circumstance. [7]

Perhaps from gender egalitarianism, depictions of Kandakes belie beauty standards of the inheritors of the Hellenistic world as well as Egyptian ideals. Instead we are shown Sibyl Abraham Paintingimages of strong capable bodies. UNESCO describes a relief of Shanakdakhete, the first known true queen, as a women with, “a wide and powerful body adorned with many jewels…these traits which combine the promise of fertility and the exterior signs of wealth, symbolize prosperity and power.”[8] Kandakes harnessed feminine vitality and strength, there doesn’t appear to be a need for symbols of male authority nor titles to legitimatize their rule. The adherence to a separate standard is interesting as it is clear from artwork that Kushite culture had strong Egyptian influences, this included the adoption of several Egyptian deities.

Perhaps from gender egalitarianism, depictions of Kandakes belie beauty standards of the inheritors of the Hellenistic world as well as Egyptian ideals.

What stories and images left to us about these remarkable women only serve to inspire and leave us curious. What can Kush society teach us about the role of women in modern society? What things can it teach us about beauty standards? Just to know these stories and even to discover their faults would be a pursuit of new and worthy perspectives. While we can only continue to wonder, we can learn from what we do know: that women’s social roles were places of authority and that strength carried Kandakes to power.

We can be further inspired by the discovery of the stone head of Caesar Augustus buried at the entrance of Kandake Amantitere’s palace, where she tread over it with the confident legs of a monolithic and uncompromising queen.


[1] Also called Nubia. This region is part of modern day Sudan and Ethiopia as well as the location of a series of significant historical kingdoms (such as Axum).

[2] There is some uncertainty concerning the true title of the Kush queens. Some sources argue that the title “Kandake” specifically means Queen Mother and that women who held both the title of kandake and king were true independent rulers. Understanding the actualized extent of the title may not be possible until Kush hieroglyphics are fully deciphered.

[3] Women in Anquitity: Real Women Across the Ancient World, ed. Stephanie Lynn Budin, Jean Macintosh Turta. (New York: Routledge, 2016).

[4] Kandake is romanized as “Candace” in some sources

[5] Strabo, “Geography,” Fordham University Sourcebook, 03 May 2017, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/nubia1.asp.

[6] Cassius Dio, “History of Rome,” Fordham University Sourcebook, 03 May 2017, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/nubia1.asp

[7] Strabo, “Geography,” Fordham University Sourcebook, 03 May 2017, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/nubia1.asp.

[8] “Statue of queen and prince of Meroe,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 08 May 2017, http://www.unesco.org/culture/museum-for-dialogue/item/en/84/statue-of-queen-and-prince-of-meroe.