There is much evidence of complex beliefs and practices in Ancient Egypt related to the important role fertility played in society. Religious beliefs included rules concerning purification, similar to other religions in the region. Women in Egypt were believed to be eliminating impure elements during menstruation, and were excused from work and could not enter the restricted rooms of temples while menstruating.
Fertility rituals were used by couples desiring children. Contraception was permitted as well, and medical texts survive that refer to many contraceptive formulas (although the ingredients are often now difficult to identify). Some formulas, such as drinks made of celery base and beer, are dubious, but others show a basic knowledge of somewhat effective methods, such as a spermicide made of fermented acacia gum, which produces a sperm-killing lactic acid.
Once pregnant, the uterus was placed under the protection of a specific goddess, Tenenet. Ritual medical care was given by anointing the woman’s body with beneficial oils, using a small bottle in the form of a woman posed with her hands placed on a round belly. There was a ritual formula practiced by Egyptians wanting to know the sex of their baby, which spread to Greece, Byzantium, and then to Europe, where it was practiced for centuries without anyone realizing its origins in Ancient Egypt. It involves placing grains of barley and wheat in a cloth sachet and soaking them in the pregnant woman’s urine; if barley sprouted first, the baby was said to be a boy, and if the wheat sprouted first, the baby was said to be a girl. In Ancient Egypt, the word for barley was the synonym of “father”.
When it was time for childbirth, the pregnant woman was assisted by midwives. She would be shaved, including her head. The midwives would support the woman during labour while she remained in a squatting position on a mat. On the corners of the mat were placed four bricks, believed to be the incarnation of four goddesses: Nut (goddess), the great goddess of the sky; Tefnut, the elder, the feminine polarity of the first couple; Isis the beautiful; and Nephtys, the excellent.