Motherhood in Ancient Greece
Though Jocasta’s role
in society as Queen of Thebes and as mother seems desirable in Sophocles’
Rex, the actual role of most women during ancient Greece was of lesser
value. Women were rarely seen as public figures during this time,
as their primary role was that of child bearers. Childbearing was
the most vital yet most dangerous aspect of a woman’s life. A female’s
entire life was centered on her family, her children, and her husband.
She had to cater to the needs of her husband and children, never taking
her own health into account.
Women in ancient Greece had virtually no legal rights. In fact, the status of women in society was seemingly lower in the classical period than at any other time in Greece. Women were confined to their homes and families, and acted more as servants to their husbands and fathers. In the home, the quarters for the women and men were separate. Women’s quarters, called gynaeconitis, were kept closed, located on the top level of the house. Men rarely entered the gynaeconitis, as these rooms were meant for mothers and nurses to raise their girls. Girls were often taught to make clothes by working wool and weaving, and learned childcare by helping with younger siblings. Few girls learned to read and write. Women seldom left their quarters, as it was proper for them to stay in. It was thought to be indecent for a woman to leave her house, unless for a special occasion, such as funerals, weddings, and public holidays (Zinserling, 23 ), though women were extremely active in the practice and performance of religious rituals. Women were permitted to partake in certain religious activities, in particular ones that were related to motherhood. Participating in these events was most socially acceptable.
Menarche was one of the biggest events in a girl’s life, as this signified her becoming ready to be married. Menarche typically occurred at the age of 14, and most likely had nothing to do with physical maturation, but instead was based on the seven-year cycles upon which the Greeks based their calendar. Upon reaching menarche, girls dedicated their childhood belongings to Artemis, the goddess associated with childbearing and birth, before their marriage (Demand, 10). Girls who had reached menarche were ready to leave their oikos and marry into another. The oikos was comprised of “the house itself, its land, and the people, animals, and objects that it housed” (Demand, 2). It was run by the male landowner, the head of the household. Upon marriage, the woman became a member of her husband’s oikos and no longer belonged to her oikos of birth. The terms of a woman’s status in an oikos determined her status in society, whether it was citizen and wife or slave.
The marriage ceremony was called ekdosis, and was conducted between two males. The bride was not required to attend, nor did she even need to have been informed about the ceremony. During the ceremony, the groom vowed that he “received [his bride] for the purpose of the plowing of legitimate children” (Demand, 13). Marriage was not considered to be a union of love, but instead more of a business transaction. The groom was usually in his early 30s, whereas the young bride was half his age. The main focus in marriage was the dowry. A dowry included “cash, movables, sometimes houses, but not land” that the woman’s family contributed to the new oikos in return for the woman being taken in by the new family and protecting her. If a woman’s family could not afford a proper dowry, she might not be able to marry (Demand, 12).
Childbirth was one of the most dangerous aspects of a woman’s life. The average household consisted of 4.23 children, though the average woman went through six or more pregnancies in a lifetime (Demand, 21). Basic tools and medicines that are taken for granted today were absent during the classical period. For example, “antibiotics, blood transfusions, forceps, and cesarean sections” were all non-existent at that time (Demand, 71). The lack of these technologies as well as the lack of relative medical knowledge often resulted in severe physical and medical consequences for both the mother and the child:
variety of conditions, such as hemorrhage, pelvic deformity,
disproportion between the sizes of the child’s head and the pelvis,
severe abnormal presentations such as transverse lies, eclampsia, and
uterine inertia early in labour, are likely to have posed problems which
were beyond the capacities of those attending the birth to alleviate….
Furthermore, attempts to remove a dead child, especially by the old-
fashioned hooks and crochets in general use before the eighteenth
century, probably severely threatened the mother’s life (Schofield, 235).
Ancient Greeks believed there
to be a significant difference in terms of conception, pregnancy, and birth
between a male baby and a female one. One medical author stated that
it takes 42 days for a female fetus to form, and only 30 days for a male
fetus. This difference in development was explained by the fact that
female fetuses were said to be “weaker, warmer, and more fluid” than male
fetuses (Demand, 5). The actual birth
of a female was thought to be more difficult for the mother than the birth
of a male.
Pain killers were available; however they were most likely solely used for complications in childbirth. These included opium poppy, which is a sedative, henbane and the root of white mandrake, which are narcotic and sedative (Demand, 20).
Upon the birth of the child, the father was able to decide whether to keep the child and raise it in the oikos or to expose it. Exposing the child meant abandoning him or her, and leaving its fate in the gods’ hands. Girls were exposed more often than boys were, as having a daughter in ancient Greece was less desirable.
The names given to girls at birth were only used within the family in the house. When the need arose for girls to be discussed in public, they were identified by their fathers’ names. The name given to a girl at birth expressed her femininity. It was either a feminized version of a male name, or a word meaning a quality that girls were thought to possess. After a girl was married, however, she disregarded the previous name and took on the feminized name of her husband. For example, many girls simply added the letters “ina” to the end of her husband’s name. The names of girls always signified their subordinance and femininity.
Because about half of all newborns died before the age of maturity, a mother’s foremost concern was caring for the child and trying to keep it alive. Women also had a number of other jobs to occupy themselves with in the oikos aside from childrearing. The woman was not unlike a servant in her tasks, for she was responsible for cleaning, maintaining gardens, cooking, and weaving cloth. A woman also was expected to tend to the ill members of the household and servants. These tasks, among others, made tending to the child, a full-time job all on its own, increasingly difficult.
Motherhood is one of the most arduous occupations of all time. When a woman is treated as a possession and worked like a servant, though, the joy that most parents derive from raising their young is greatly diminished. A woman in ancient Greece reserved her first priority for her husband; her children were second, and her own well-being or happiness came last, if this was even an issue.