Ask any parent: pregnancy is a pretty scary ordeal. There’s so much that can go wrong, even with 21st-century science and medicine. So it’s easy to see how weird pregnancy beliefs formed thousands of years ago: young parents were scared out of their minds without reasonable explanations for much of what was going on.
Many backward beliefs about pregnancy in history are misogynistic in nature; some, however, are just indicative of how little we knew about the human body (tiny little preformed humans living in sperm?). It’s fun to look back on bizarre historical pregnancy beliefs and breathe a sigh of relief that those days are gone (unless you’re former Congressman Todd Akin, apparently). Read on to learn about some of the wildest pregnancy beliefs throughout history.
Conception Requires a Woman’s Orgasm
Remember when Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) said on the campaign trail in 2012 that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”? There’s a long history behind that bizarre belief, as illuminated by Jennifer Tucker in a wonderful New York Times column.
It dates back to Aristotle and ideas about “hot” men and “cold” women. In order to conceive, the logic went, women needed the “heat” of orgasm. Hildegard of Bingen, a prolific writer and head of a convent in 12th-century Germany, put it this way:
“And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.”
Until the 18th century, basically, women who were raped and became pregnant were presumed not to have been raped at all. Ugh.
You Won’t Get Pregnant If You’re Constipated (Or If You Have Diarrhea)
This one dates back to Soranus of Ephesus, a famous ancient Greek physician. In the second century, Soranus’s treatise Gynaikeia was considered to be the definitive guide on the topic of gynecology. Soranus thought that the bowels were critical in the conception process. How so? Constipation, he argued, would suffocate the fetus. Diarrhea? It would wash it away, of course. He also thought that men seeking a fertile partner should look for one who isn’t “mannish” or “flabby,” according to Randi Hutter Epstein, author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth From the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.
Being Shaken Violently Can Help Induce Labor
Sue Blundell writes in Women in Ancient Greece that sometimes labor was induced with a little help from your friends… shaking the hell out of you. Specifically, “four female assistants” were recommended for the task. They would “seize the woman by the legs and arms” and shake her “at least ten” times. Once the poor pregnant lady was all shook up, she would be placed on the bed and left alone. Actually… nope. The female assistants would “subject her to more shaking by the shoulders.”
Sweet Smells Can Attract the Womb to the Sperm
Yes, you read that right: womb to the sperm, not sperm to the womb. In ancient Greece, the uterus was considered a separate entity. Has anyone ever told you to not get hysterical? Well, way back when, that meant something entirely different. The ancient Greeks thought the “wandering womb” could travel through a woman’s body and go straight to her head, causing “hysteria.” They also thought that sweet odors, inserted into the vagina, could attract the “wandering womb” to the sperm. Foul odors, of course, had the opposite effect.
Chanting and Dancing Over Graves Can Help Prevent Difficult Pregnancies
Researchers at McGill University say Anglo-Saxon women used to chant and dance over graves – and their husbands – to help ensure a smooth pregnancy. The idea was to step over the grave of a dead man three times and chant: “This is my remedy for hateful slow birth, this is my remedy for heavy difficult birth, this is my remedy for hateful imperfect birth.” Then her husband got in on the fun. The poor guy got stepped over (like a grave or something!) while his wife chanted “Up I go, step over you with a living child, not a dead one, with a full-born one, not a doomed one.” They were prayers, essentially, with the addition of ritualistic grave- and husband-hopping.
Your Thoughts Mold the Growing Baby
Soranus of Ephesus’s second-century treatise Gynaikeia claimed that a woman could somehow “mold” her baby just by thinking different thoughts while pregnant. Getting drunk, for example, was harmful because the drunken thoughts could lead to strange kids. He also claimed, according to author Randi Hutter Epstein, that there was direct evidence for this. One woman, for example, thought about monkeys during her pregnancy and therefore had hairy kids. In a far more positive story about the power of thinking, Soranus also claimed that two ugly parents had a beautiful kid just by staring at a beautiful statue during sex. It’s like The Secret meets eugenics!
Jumping Up and Down Can Cause an Abortion
The “Lacedaemonian Leap” is not a Greek dance craze: it’s the “nickname” of an abortion technique that was actually recommended by Hippocrates. According to Plinio Pioreschi in A History of Medicine, here’s how you do it (please don’t ever do it): “The pregnant girl was advised to expel the ‘seed’ by leaping so the heels touched the buttocks.” Strangely, some ancient Greek physicians didn’t think this counted as an actual “abortion” because “there is a difference because an expulsive does not mean drugs but shaking and leaping.” Hippocrates was known to be anti-abortion and this is the only “prescription” for abortion (or whatever he wanted to call it) in his Hippocratic Corpus.
Your BFF While Pregnant Will Also Become Your Child’s BFF
This one is an old Hawaiian folk custom recorded by scholars between 1826 and 1919. It goes like this: when you’re pregnant, the friend that you long to see the most will be “especially loved by the child.” It’s called kau-na-maka, or “rest the eyes.” If that friend is impossible to see, you can just replace them with a smooth stone. All you have to do is get a relative (any relative, apparently) to place the stone in the center of a doorway and have them say “Here is (Name of Friend)!” The mother will reportedly be “immediately comforted.”
Wheat and Barley Can Detect Pregnancy (And the Gender of the Baby)
An ancient Egyptian document details a pretty elaborate method for detecting pregnancy as well as the gender of the baby. It goes like this: pee on some wheat and barley seeds over the course of several days, then wait and see what happens. “If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all.” Scholars actually tested this in 1963 and found that the urine of pregnant women did help with overall wheat and barley growth about 70 percent of the time. They think it could have something to do with elevated levels of estrogen in the urine.
Pregnancy Is Reflected in a Woman’s Eyes
This one is attributed to 16th-century physician Jacques Guillemeau, according to The Museum of Contraception and Abortion in Vienna, Austria. He wrote that “In the second month, a pregnant woman gets deep-set eyes with small pupils, drooping lids and swollen little veins in the corner of the eye.” In reality, pregnant women don’t actually look like stoners, but their eyes do change a bit. WebMD saysthat hormones can cause your eyes to get dry and blurry, but it’s usually nothing to worry about.
Tiny, Preformed Humans Live in Eggs (Or Sperm)
It’s hard to believe, but before the invention of microscopes, people actually believed something called “preformationism.” The idea was that a tiny, “preformed” person lived in either the maternal egg or the paternal sperm. There was basically “Team Egg” and “Team Sperm” preformationists – it was a pretty hot topic in the 17th century. As crazy as it all sounds, it’s much better than the theory of spontaneous generation, which claims that flies “come from” manure and maggots “come from” rotten meat. So the preformationists were sort of on to something…
Woman Should Be Quiet During Childbirth
The Zuni Indians in the 1890s reportedly encouraged women to be silent during the labor process. The other women in the family? That’s a different story! As the baby descended, all the other ladies in the room cried and groaned, expressing the pain that the woman in labor “couldn’t” express. The grandmother of the new mother, surely worn out from all that yelling, would somehow muster up the strength to chuck the placenta in a nearby river after the baby was born.