While some gods in the ancient world were important in daily life or based on a set calendar of feasts and festivals, others were called upon during specific life events. Of these, none were prayed to more often than Eileithyia.
The goddess of childbirth and patroness of midwives, Eileithyia was invoked to help women through the most monumental, and dangerous, moments of their lives. Without the benefits of modern medicine, the intervention of a goddess was sometimes the only way to make labor and delivery safer and easier.
While she was one of many goddesses who protected women and children, Eileithyia also had a darker side. The goddess of childbirth represented not only the possibility of relief, but also the pain and danger of bringing a child into the world.
Although she rarely featured in written legends, Eileithyia was one of the most often invoked and widely revered deities of the ancient world.
In Greek mythology, Eileithyia was the goddess of childbirth.
Her name came from a Greek word for “helper” or “bringer,” referencing her as the goddess who helped women bring children into the world. Although she was seen as a helpful goddess, she still represented suffering.
In art, Eileithyia was often shown holding a torch. This represented not only the idea of bringing the child into the light, but also the burning pain associated with birth.
Some traditions even claimed that there were two goddesses that went by the name Eileithyia. One made for an easy labor while the other prolonged it and caused additional pain.
In most myths, Eileithyia is the daughter of Hera and Zeus. As her mother was the patroness of married women, Eileithyia followed her and was always closely associated with her.
She was also tied to her half-sister, Artemis. Although a virgin goddess, Artemis also had a hand in helping laboring women.
According to the legend of her own birth, Artemis had been born the day before her twin brother Apollo. She helped their mother Leto deliver the baby, pledging her assistance to women in childbirth from then on.
Women in Greece could appeal to both goddesses for help and protection during labor and afterward. Evidence from numerous shrines throughout the Greek world shows that Eileithyia was widely regarded as a protector of infants and new mothers in addition to those who were actively in labor.
Despite this role as a protector, Eileithyia’s most famous role in mythology was as a goddess who made a woman’s labor more painful and lengthy.
Hera was often jealous of Zeus’s mistresses and their children. In at least two stories, she enlisted her daughter’s powers to increase the suffering of the women who bore her husband’s children.
According to some legends, Eileithyia prolonged the labors of both Leto and Alcmene, the mother of Heracles.
Two versions were given of the birth of Heracles that showed Eileithyia’s role.
When Alcmene went into labor, Zeus declared that the next child Eileithyia delivered would be a great king. Hearing this, Hera enlisted the goddess of childbirth to have another child, Eurystheus, born prematurely so the honor would not go to Zeus’s son.
According to some writers, Eileithyia also prolonged Alcmene’s labor. Not only was she punished by having her child’s birthright denied, but she also experienced more pain.
A similar story was told regarding the birth of Artemis and Apollo, although most writers painted Eileithyia in a more favorable light.
A Greek hymn claimed that Leto labored for nine days and nights without relief. Eileithyia was absent not due to her own malice, but because Hera had tricked her into not seeing the woman’s suffering.
Other goddesses in attendance realized that Leto could not give birth without Eileithyia’s assistance, so they sent Iris as a messenger to bring her to them. Eileithyia arrived quickly and Leto was soon able to give birth to Artemis and Apollo.
These stories showed the enormous power Eileithyia had over one of the most important, and dangerous, aspects of women’s lives. While she could be a helpful goddess who made delivery safer and faster, she was also associated with great pain, suffering, and risk.
Eileithyia and Artemis were both seen as patron goddesses of midwives. Despite the help of these goddesses and their human representatives, however, giving birth was still a dangerous and frightening prospect in the ancient world.
Without the benefits of modern medicine and technology, women in the past had little relief from the pain of childbirth. They also had few options available in case of complications.
Midwives were essential in the ancient world, but their training was often rudimentary. While some midwives received training on par with physicians of the time, others had only a crude knowledge of anatomy, medical procedures, and sanitation.
Although ancient midwives did their best to help the women and children in their care, death in childbirth was a constant threat to women of the past. Complications that would result in swift medical intervention today were impossible to predict or correct until quite recently.
Precise data on infant and maternal mortality in ancient Greece does not exist, of course. There as in other ancient cultures, however, labor was arduous and hazardous enough to be compared to fighting in a war.
Artemis was generally regarded as a helpful and protective goddess in these matters. As a benefactor of young women and based on her own experience as her mother’s midwife, she almost always intervened to keep mothers and newborns safe.
Eileithyia, however, had a more unpredictable personality. Although she could be helpful and protective, she also represented the inherent dangers of childbirth.
The torch she carried lit the way for children to come into the world, but it was also markedly similar to the torches carried by many deities of the Underworld.
The numerous shrines to Eileithyia that have been found by modern archaeologists are a testament to how important it was to curry her favor. With Eileithyia’s blessing, a woman could hope that both she and her child would be safe.
The universal need for Eileithyia may be one of the reasons that she never developed an independent mythology or character.
Although Eileithyia was widely worshiped, she only features in myths alongside her mother. Even in stories of birth, she is not always named.
Unlike most other Olympians, Eileithyia was given few defining personality traits or attributes. Her only relationships were to Hera and Artemis as other deities related to her function.
Historians believe that this is partially because Eileithyia predated most of the other gods and goddesses of the pantheon. While most ancient cultures had a goddess who assisted women in childbirth, recognizable images of Eileithyia in Greece predate the introduction of Zeus and many of the other gods.
While she was written in as the child of Hera and Zeus, not only because of her importance but also because of their role as the model for a marriage that would precede the birth of children, Eileithyia likely had few other connections to the Greek pantheon because she was a more ancient and archetypical goddess than the more human-like Olympians.
Her lack of independent mythology, however, also ensured that she had universal appeal. Women of all classes, backgrounds, and ages could pray to Eileithyia in their time of need because, unlike many other deities, she was not specifically framed as representing any one group or place.
In Greek mythology, Eileithyia was the goddess of childbirth and patron deity of midwives. She could bring relief in the form of a fast and safe delivery, but she also represented the inevitable pain and enormous danger of giving birth.
Most sources named her as the daughter of Hera and Zeus, although her cult likely predated their introduction into the region. This relationship was likely symbolic, as childbirth followed the state marriage that Hera had dominion over.
The few myths that mention Eileithyia tie her closely to Hera. In these she assists in the momentous births of Heracles, Apollo, and Artemis, but only after her assistance was hindered or delayed by her mother’s spite.
Although she was rarely featured in myths, Eileithyia was one of the most widely-worshipped deities in ancient Greece. The numerous shrines that have been found in her honor show that she was highly important even if she was not always publicly visible.
Eileithyia’s favor was vital for women in ancient Greece. Before modern medicine and knowledge, the intervention of the goddess of childbirth was one of the few ways women believed they could influence labor.
Her lack of defined mythology may have also helped to ensure that Eileithyia was accessible to all women of Greece. Because she was not tied by her mythology to any class, location, or background, she remained universally relevant to any woman who went through childbirth.