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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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1.2 Increasing the chances of conception

In Wine: the blood-making drink [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   in Week 3, you saw that couples wanting to conceive a child should avoid drunkenness. Ancient medical texts are full of such advice, much of it directed at women, who were usually seen as responsible. In order to become fertile, a woman had to follow complex regimens: drying if her womb or vagina were too ‘slippery’; moistening if they were too dry.

Image of a collection of people and objects relating to pregnancy, represented in a figurative way as flat shapes and colours.
Figure 3 Icons relating to pregnancy

A woman also had to endure various treatments, such as sitting through long fumigations (treatments in which vapour was directed to the woman’s vagina, discussed in the section Doctors and excrement in Week 4), or drinking unpalatable potions for several days. One of these potions, described in the Hippocratic text Diseases of Women (1.13), consists of powdered deer horn (antlers) to be drunk in wine for four days. The choice of this ingredient was far from gratuitous: the deer had a reputation for its sexual prowess, and the capacity for its antlers to regenerate was well noted. Today, male deer are still associated with sexuality: think of the ‘stag do’, which in British culture is the party traditionally organised for a groom shortly before he marries.

Another example of an ancient recipe thought to assist conception is preserved in Pliny the Elder’s encyclopaedia:

It is thought that conception is aided by cucumber seed if a woman keeps it fastened to her body without its having touched the ground; while labour is easier if, without her knowledge, the seed, wrapped in ram’s wool, be tied to her loins; but it must be hastily carried out of the house immediately after delivery.

(Pliny, Natural History, 20.3.6-7)

The ‘fertilising’ power of the cucumber was linked less to its phallic shape than to its being full of seed, which could help the human seed stick in the woman’s womb, rather than slip out of her body and ‘fall to the ground’. The seeds in this remedy were not consumed, but rather carried as an amulet by the woman. And the power of cucumber seeds did not stop at conception: it also helped in labour, as described above, where they were wrapped in ram’s wool (an animal again known for its sexual ardour) and tied to the woman’s loins without her knowledge.

The ancients also thought that sexual intercourse provoked or accelerated labour (an idea that still exists today), but instead of recommending this openly, they used remedies that had sexual overtones. The cucumber amulet had to be destroyed once it had served its purpose, while other ancient birthing amulets were made of more durable materials: you will come back to them later in A quick birth?.

Medical texts contained some advice for men; in particular, that men could influence the sex of the unborn child. A passage from the Hippocratic treatise On Superfetation contains the following recommendations:

When a man wants to produce [literally: to grow] a male child, he should have sexual intercourse towards the end of the woman’s period or when they have just ended, and he should thrust as hard as possible until he ejaculates; when he wants to produce a girl, he should have intercourse when the woman’s periods are the strongest, or at least when they are still flowing, and tie his right testicle as much as he can bear. If he wants to produce a male, he should tie the left testicle.

(On Superfetation, 31)

There is much going on in this passage. First, you discover that the most fertile stage of a woman’s cycle was during her period. This is rather surprising, as it is now considered that that time of the female cycle is the least fertile. When the man wants to produce a baby boy, he has to have vigorous sexual intercourse, as strength and vigour are male traits. The man can also tie his left testicle; in that way his semen will come from his right testicle. Now, the ancients considered the right to be positive and the left negative (or at least less positive), so the semen produced by the right testicle was more likely to produce a male. Note that, when the author recommends tying the right testicle to produce a girl, he mentions discomfort (‘as much as he can bear’): producing a girl is altogether a more unpleasant experience than producing a boy.