Breastfeeding Beliefs: From Invincibility to Universal Creation
Breastfeeding is an infant feeding practice in which a child is fed breast milk directly from breast to mouth. Breastfeeding could be performed by the mother herself or by a wet nurse. Evidence of breastfeeding is found in various past societies and it can be assumed that breastfeeding has been practiced ever since there were babies. Nevertheless, despite breastfeeding being arguably the most natural way of feeding a baby, there was never a time when it was done by everyone, as there is evidence showing that other infant feeding practices were used as well.
Painting of a woman breastfeeding at home. (rijksmuseum / CC BY SA 1.0 )
Breastmilk – Is This Remarkable Fluid a Source of Invincibly?
Although it is unlikely that ancient societies fully understood the nutritious value of breastmilk (scientists today are still learning more about this remarkable bodily fluid), they were aware of its importance. This may be seen in the revered role accorded to breastmilk in mythology. The ancient Greeks, for instance, believed that it was the breastmilk of Hera, the Queen of the Gods, which made the hero Heracles invincible. Additionally, it was the breastmilk of this goddess who made the Milky Way.
Breast milk was also glorified in the myths of ancient Mesopotamia. Astarte, an important Babylonian goddess, was considered to be the ‘Mother of Fertile Breasts, the Queen of Heaven, the Creator of Human Beings, and the Mother of the Gods’.
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Sculpture of Nepal breastfeeding. ( Nabaraj Regmi / Adobe Stock)
The reverence accorded to breastmilk was also given to those who breastfed. This may be seen, first of all, in the artistic depictions of breastfeeding. From the ancient Egyptian civilization images have been found of the goddess Isis breastfeeding her son Horus.
Isis in papyrus swamp suckling Horus. ( Public Domain )
Breastfeeding also plays an important role in the foundation myth of Rome. Instead of the breasts of a woman, however, the twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf until they were discovered by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife, Acca Larentia.
Suckling from Animals
Romulus and Remus weren’t the only ones said to have suckled from animals. In the past, if a mother was unable to produce enough milk to feed her baby and another human woman was unavailable to take her place, a female animal could be used to keep the child alive. Like in the mythological story, direct suckling from the animal was preferred over milking an animal and then providing the milk to the baby – it was acknowledged as a cleaner method. The animals chosen for this purpose were donkeys, cows, goats, sheep, or dogs. Some historians believe that cows and goats may have been domesticated especially for this purpose.
Sculpture of a she-wolf feeding Romulus and Remus. ( neurobite / Adobe Stock)
People used to believe that a baby feeding off animal (and in some cases human) milk would have an impact on the child’s personality. Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, for example, thought that a lioness’ milk would promote courage. Donkeys were seen as more moral than ‘lusty’ goats, though goats became preferred animal wet nurses for foundlings in the 18th century.
How Was the Role of a Wet Nurse Viewed?
In general, ancient societies placed much importance on breastfeeding. It may be assumed that mothers would naturally breastfeed their own babies, however, this was not always possible, as some mothers died while giving birth and others were simply unable to lactate. As a result of this, there was a market for women who would feed another’s child, and these were known as wet nurses.
The significance of these women in ancient societies is evident in the respect paid to them. In ancient Egypt, despite belonging to the servant class, wet nurses were highly esteemed, especially those who breastfed the pharaoh. As another example, in ancient Mesopotamia, the role of wet nurses in society was so noteworthy that laws formalizing the relationship between a wet nurse and her employer were issued by the Babylonian king Hammurabi .
XVIII century, family life in Prussian upper-class homes: baby with wet nurse . (acrogame / Adobe Stock)
Not everyone, however, had a positive view of wet nurses. During the Roman period rich families were able to afford wet nurses to breastfeed their babies. This practice was harshly criticized by such writers as Cicero and Tacitus, who were of the opinion that mothers who employed wet nurses were neglecting their duty to Rome, were decadent, and endangered the stability of society.
Wet-nursing continued for centuries, but criticism was also present. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, for example, European reformist movements began to push for women to breastfeed their own babies. And the governments of some nations even began to play a part in this very personal topic. The French government declared women that didn’t breastfeed would not receive welfare in 1793. And in 1794, the Germans made it a legal requirement for all healthy women to breastfeed their own infants. Societal and political factors meant that by the early 1800s many women were proudly declaring their breastfeeding practice.
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‘Young woman breastfeeding her child‘ (1777) by Louis-Roland Trinquesse. ( Public Domain )
What Were the Other Ancient Forms of Infant Feeding?
Apart from breastfeeding by a mother or a wet nurse, other forms of infant feeding were used by ancient societies. Terracotta pots with long spouts have been unearthed in some infant graves. These were thought to have been used to feed the infants.
Such vessels were the pre-cursor of the feeding bottle, which was introduced during the 19th century. As to the contents of these pots, it was not always milk, as one might expect. It has been reported that the ancient Greeks used to feed their babies with a mixture of wine and honey in such pots.
Top Image: ‘The Birth of the Milky Way’ (1636-1637) by Peter Paul Rubens. ( Public Domain )
By Wu Mingren
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