Most Greek midwives seem to have been not to have been physicians, midwifery being a distinct and respected profession in its own right. It has been claimed that it was forbidden in Classical Athens for women to become doctors. The story of Agnodice, a woman who disguised herself as a man to get medical training, is based on this premise. An Athenian memorial tablet from the 4th Century BCE, however, describes a woman named Philostrate as “a midwife and a physician,” stating that all lamented her death.
Even with help like this, childbirth was considered dangerous, painful, and terrifying. Women were usually helped through this ordeal by both mothers and midwives. They prayed and made offerings to Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, and to Artemis, patron of women’s lifecycles, in the hopes that both mother and child would survive the process. In Sparta, of course, a woman’s name would only be inscribed on her tombstone if she died in childbirth. This was, however, an even more immediate concern to Athenian women, who began bearing at a much younger age, and were thus far more likely to experience potentially fatal complications.
Over time, the male god Asclepius became somewhat more popular among midwives and childbearing women. Men began writing about childbearing in their medical books and physicians (male and female), began to take a more active interest. None of this, however, seems to have led immediately to any sort of decline in the status of midwives. Rather, it seems to have enhanced the profession’s prestige, at least in the eyes of those who had the time, money, and ability to read and write.
Hippocrates, On the Generating Seed and the Nature of the Child 4-7, 13, 30.4 - Diotima
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York: Schocken, 1995.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Childbirth and Obstetrics in Antiquity - Wikipedia
Eileithyia - Wikipedia
Agnodice - Wikipedia
Herophilos - Wikipedia