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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

1.5 The theory of maternal impression

In Section 1.1 Wind eggs and the uterine mole, you read about the belief that women’s minds, as well as their bodies, could ‘conceive strange and evil schemes and feelings’. This also applied to conception and birth. The philosopher Empedocles described the power of the woman’s imagination to influence their offspring: ‘For often women have fallen in love with statues of men and with images and have produced offspring which resemble them’ (Aetius, 5.12.2, quoting Empedocles fr. A81).

This is one example of how the ancient Greeks and Romans believed in the theory of ‘maternal impression’ – that an object seen, or even just imagined, by a woman as she conceived somehow imprinted itself on the unborn child. The best-known example of this is in the early Greek novel, Heliodorus’ Aethiopica, where the heroine, Chariclea, turns out to have been born in Ethiopia; there, she had been rejected by her black mother, who was afraid she would be accused of adultery because of Chariclea’s white skin. But, the story assures us, this only happened because her mother had been looking at a painting in the bedroom showing Andromeda white and naked.

Painting of Perseus saving Andromeda.
Figure 6 Giuseppe Cesari, Perseus saving Andromeda, 1596

How was this thought to happen? Return to Week 2 and refresh your memory of ancient theories of seeing [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Here, the eye receives the image, then imprints it on the unborn child. This can be used as a form of eugenics, trying to improve the appearance of your children; in his Gynecology, the early second century CE medical writer Soranus (1.39.1) says the tyrant of Cyprus, who was ‘misshapen’, deliberately made his wife look at beautiful statues and ensured their children didn’t look like him.

Activity 2

  1. Sometimes an ancient idea still survives in popular culture today. Have you encountered anything like the theory of maternal impression?
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  1. Search online for the story of Mary Toft, who apparently gave birth to rabbits.

    Illustration of Mary Toft duping several distinguished surgeons, physicians and male-midwives into believing that she is giving birth to a litter of rabbits.
    Figure 7 Mary Toft duping medical professionals into believing she is giving birth to a litter of rabbits; Cunicularii or The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation, illustration by William Hogarth, 1726

    Why was this story believed and how was it proven to be fake?

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
OUFL_1095

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371