Childbirth and Children

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Childbirth and Children


Prenatal Care. Death in childbirth and infant mortality were common. The average number of children born to a husband and wife is unknown, but typically two to four children per family survived early childhood. Women sought protection for themselves and their unborn infants through the magical powers of amulets, herbal potions, rituals, and incantations. During the first millennium b.c.e. a pregnant woman might wear an amulet shaped like the head of the dog-faced demon Pazuzu to chase away the goddess Lamashtu, the daughter of the sky god Anu. Represented as having the head of a lion, the teeth of a donkey, naked breasts, a hairy body, stained hands, and long fingers and fingernails as well as bird talons, Lamashtu was believed to slip into the house, where she might cause a miscarriage or a crib death. She was also thought to kidnap babies from their wet nurses. If a woman became ill during pregnancy, woolen material was thoroughly soaked with a magical potion and placed in her vagina twice daily. This treatment was applied in addition to anointing and bandaging.

Childbirth. Mesopotamian medical texts describe “female problems” related to pregnancy and childbirth. There were many treatments for a woman with complications after childbirth. Midwives helped a woman during delivery, and female relatives might also be present. During childbirth, a woman was given tree bark to chew; her stomach was massaged with an ointment; and a magic rolling pin was rolled over her body. Myths and incantations were recited, including the Epic of Atra-hasis. In this tale, the god Enlil has decided to flood the earth and rid it of mankind because their noise is disturbing to the gods. Ea, the god of wisdom, helps to save Atra-hasis and his family, who ride out the flood in a boat Atra-hasis has built. After the flood Ea instructs the goddess Nintu to create three new classes of human beings whose existence will keep the earth from becoming overpopulated (and noisy) again: women unable to bear children; babies who are snatched by demons during childbirth; and priestesses who remain celibate. A magical medical incantation called A Cow of Sin was recited. It describes the moon god Sin’s consort, who is in the form of a cow and having a difficult delivery. Anu, the chief god, eases her labor by rubbing her with oil and “waters of labor pangs” (that is, amniotic fluid). The incantation concludes, “Just as Maid-of-the-Moon-God gave birth easily, so may this girl in labor give birth.”

Labor and Delivery. The dangers of childbirth are described in an elegy constructed as a series of dialogues between a husband and wife and their prayers to the mother goddess, who remains unmoved:

“Why are you adrift, like a boat, in the midst of the river,

Your rungs in pieces, your mooring rope cut?”

“… The day I bore the fruit, how happy I was,

Happy was I, happy my husband.

The day of my going into labor, my face became darkened,

The day of my giving birth, my eyes became clouded.

With open hands I prayed to the Lady of the gods (the mother goddess)

You are the mother of those who have borne a child, save my life!”

Hearing this, the Lady of the gods veiled her face (saying),

“… Why do you keep praying to me?”

[My husband, who loved me], uttered a cry,

“Why do you take from me the wife in whom I rejoice?”

“… [All] those [many] days I was with my husband,

I lived with him who was my lover.

Death came creeping into my bedroom:

It drove me from my house,

It tore me from my husband.…” (Reiner)

Many Sumerian and Akkadian rituals were recited during pregnancy and delivery, sometimes to save a child stuck in the womb and free the baby to the waiting midwife.

The woman having a difficult delivery … is in great difficulty. The baby is held fast. … she who is creating a child

is shrouded in the dust of death. Her eyes fail, she cannot see; her lips are sealed, she cannot open them. … She wears no veil, she has no shame. “Stand by me,… O merciful Marduk! Now am I surrounded with trouble. Reach out to me! Bring forth that sealed up one (the baby), creature of the gods, as a human creature; let him come forth! Let him see the light!” (Lambert)

Birth Abnormalities. The omen series Shumma izbu, “If a malformed newborn,” is a collection of birth abnormalities dating back to the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.). The series was widely copied, with exemplars found at Boghazköy (ancient Hattusa) in central Anatolia, at Ugarit in western Syria, and throughout Assyria and Babylonia. It lists deformities such as a child born with only one foot, Siamese twins, and a hermaphrodite. Some deformities listed are “theoretical,” including newborns with two, three, four, and five heads. A malformed infant was viewed as an evil omen. First, a ritual was performed, and then the baby’s body was thrown into a river. Omen collections and magical texts carefully describe infant and childhood diseases, but medical texts, which prescribe treatments, do not mention them.

Nursing. A newborn baby might starve to death if its mother was unable to produce milk. Rich people could hire wet nurses, but a child of a poor family died if its mother could not nurse it. A proverb suggests a remedy: “Intercourse brings on lactation.” Children were nursed for two or three years. Lactation was a means of birth control because women are relatively infertile while nursing. An infant slept in a basket. As the baby became older, its mother or nurse carried it in a sling. The birth of a boy was considered a blessing. Ridding the family of an unwanted child through infant exposure was probably practiced more often with daughters than with sons.

Lullabies. The ancient Mesopotamians believed human “noise” made the gods angry and caused them to do evil. Mothers sang lullabies to stop babies from crying. These lullabies, which originated from incantations, were meant to keep the gods, as well as the baby, calm:

Little one who lives in the dark chamber (that is, the womb),

You really did come out here, you have seen the [sunlig]ht.

Why are you crying? Why are you fretting?

Why did you not cry in there?

You have disturbed the household god, the bison (-monster) is astir, (saying)

“Who disturbed me? Who startled me?”

The little one disturbed you, the little one startled you.

Like wine tipplers, like a barmaid’s child,

Let sleep fall upon him! (Foster)

Raising Children. Little is known about how Mesopotamian children were reared. Judging by surviving statues of divinities and contracts between parents and children, however, emotional bonds between children and their parents were strong. Gods were referred to as either father or mother. Babylonian and Assyrian lists describe the stages of the human life cycle as a child at the breast, a weaned child, a child, an adolescent, an adult, and an elderly person.


The story of the birth of king Sargon of Akkad (circa 2334 - circa 2279 b.c.e.) has been called his autobiography or his legend. He was the illegitimate son of a priestess who was not permitted to have children. His name—which means “the king is legitimate”— suggests, in fact, that he was a usurper. He achieved his status because the goddess Ishtar fell in love with him. Bearing similarities with the biblical story of Moses in chapter 2 of Exodus, the Birth Legend of Sargon is known from fragments of Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian copies dating to the first millennium b.c.e. and found respectively at Nineveh and Dilbat.

I am Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkad,

My mother was a priestess. I did not know my father.

My uncles lived in the hills.

My city is Azupirnu, which is on the banks of the Euphrates.

My mother, the priestess, became pregnant and gave birth to me in secret.

She put me in a reed basket and pitched the top with bitumen.

She left me to the river, so I could not come up.

The river carried me, it brought me to Akki the water-drawer,

Akki, the water-drawer took me in and raised me.

Akki, the water-drawer, appointed me to be his gardener.

While I was working in the orchard, (the goddess) Ishtar fell in love with me.

I ruled as king for fifty-four years.

I was lord and ruled the black-headed people (mankind).…

Source: Benjamin R. Foster, “The Birth Legend of King Sargon of Akkad,” in The Context of Scripture, volume 1, edited by William W. Hallo, with K. Lawson Younger Jr. (New York & Leiden: Brill, 1996), p. 461.


Jeremy A. Black and Anthony Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).

Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2 volumes (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1993).

W. G. Lambert, “A Middle Assyrian Medical Text,” Iraq, 31 (1969): 28–39.

Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Daily Life through History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998).

A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, revised edition, completed by Erica Reiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

Erica Reiner, Your Thwarts in Pieces, Your Mooring Rope Cut: Poetry from Babylonia and Assyria (Ann Arbor: Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, University of Michigan, 1985).

Wolfram von Soden, The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East, translated by Donald G. Schley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994).

Niek Veldhuis, A Cow of Sin, Library of Oriental Texts, volume 2 (Groningen: Styx, 1991).

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Childbirth and Children

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