A Boy or A Girl? Sex Selection, Regimen, and Fertility in Ancient Greece
Selecting the sex of an embryo brings up a host of ethical, economic, and political considerations. When the issue arises in the western media, the focus is most often on Assisted Reproductive Technologies, such as IVF, or in the context of genetic research (Sex selection: Getting the Baby You Want and Why We Should Consider Whether It’s Time To Allow Sex Selection in IVF: NHMRC both outline some of these issues). However, it’s more common for parents to turn not to science, but to changes in diet and lifestyle in an attempt to determine their baby’s sex.
A quick internet search will yield countless suggestions for methods to conceive a boy or a girl, ranging from the timing and position of intercourse to changes in diet (more potassium for a boy, more magnesium for a girl), as well as debates about their effectiveness.
As is so often the case, using food, drink, and undertaking certain activities before, during or even after intercourse in an attempt to influence the sex of a baby goes way back — so far back, for example, that the topic was widely discussed in ancient medical texts.
Arguably the most important source for ancient medicine is the Hippocratic Corpus, which primarily dates from the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. This collection of texts, from many different authors, covers a range of diseases and conditions, as well as discussions about how the body was thought to work. Diet and regimen play an important role in these texts, including in relation to fertility.
Eating For Conception
So you’re an ancient Greek couple trying for a baby and you’ve decided you want a baby boy or a baby girl. What do you do? Well, according to the Hippocratic writers you would start by preparing your body and most importantly getting your semen ready for successful intercourse. (That’s for men and women, by the way — according to the Hippocratic theory of conception both partners produced semen).
Your first order of business would be to take a look at your diet. There are many pieces of advice found across the Hippocratic texts on the subject of sex determination. The author of the text Regimen (1.27) outlines practices to be undertaken by both partners before intercourse to help determine the sex of the child. These were based around the idea that men were generally considered to be hot and dry in nature, while women were moist and cold.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that as females were thought to be more inclined to water, girl babies were said to develop from foods, drinks, and pursuits that were cold, moist, and gentle. Boys, on the other hand, were thought to develop from food and regimens that were hot and dry. So this might have meant eating lettuce, a moist food, for a girl, or adding coriander, which was associated with heat, for a boy.
Red Wine or White?
Having made yourself a salad, or sprinkled your food with coriander, depending on what outcome you hoped for, the next thing to do was to take a look at your drinking habits. The Hippocratic writers generally recommended that men shouldn’t drink before intercourse. However, in some Hippocratic treatises such as Superfetation, readers were instructed that if wine was drunk then it should be strong, unmixed, or undiluted wine (in Ancient Greece wine was usually mixed with water), and not white wine.
Similarly, another text from the corpus Diseases of Women suggested a remedy to promote pregnancy in women, which included placing black cumin, another food associated with heat, into a dark wine. The importance of dark wine in strengthening regimens is repeated in other parts of the corpus, as these wines were considered drier than white wines. White wines, on the other hand were considered moist and often used as part of regimens for those suffering a lack of moisture in their bodies.1
Fitting this in with the dietary recommendations, if you were undertaking a regimen that was hot and dry to produce a boy, then strong undiluted wine would be the way to go. If you were hoping for a girl, then the moisture of white wine would be your best bet.
Let’s Tie Things Up
Ok, so you’ve decided which sex you want your baby to be, prepared your body with all the right foods and drinks, and you’re ready to go. Well, not quite … first you would need to make sure it’s the right time of the month — oh, and you’d need to get hold of some string. Yes, that’s right — string.
In the text Superfetation (31) the following advice is given on the act of intercourse itself:[gblockquote]When a man wishes to have a male child, he should have intercourse with his wife as menstruation is ceasing or has stopped, he should push very hard until he ejaculates. When he wishes to have a female child, he should have intercourse when his wife’s menses are still present and flowing in their greatest amount, and also he should bind up his right testicle as tightly as he can stand. When he wishes for a male child, bind up the left testicle.2[/gblockquote]
There is a lot going on in this passage. Let’s look at the best timing for intercourse first. Here it is suggested that to produce a girl, intercourse should be undertaken when the flow of menstrual blood was at its height. However, in the general advice for fertility the best time to conceive a child was said to be as menstruation was coming to an end. This was because the mouth of the uterus was open to let the menstrual blood out, but the flow of blood wasn’t strong enough to wash the semen away. This discrepancy between advice for general fertility and the advice to produce a girl is interesting and is a fairly common feature in these texts. I will return to what this might suggest in a moment, but first let’s consider the rest of this passage.
What about the idea that the male “should push very hard until he ejaculates?” Well, going back to the “women are cold; men are hot” theory: the longer the distance the semen needed to travel to get into the uterus, the colder it would get. The aim here seems to have been to get the semen into the uterus as quickly as possible, and therefore to keep it as warm as possible, in order to produce a boy. For those familiar with medieval medicine, this recalls what was said about intercourse with the Devil, whose semen was said to be infertile due to its coldness. (Jennifer Evans’ blog post on Satanic Seduction provides some good examples of this.)
And, finally, that string: the advice to bind the testicles fits into the wider theories in the Hippocratic texts that linked the right hand side of the body to the male and the left to the female. For example, male children were thought to be produced in the right hand side of the uterus and female children in the left (in the Hippocratic understanding of the body, the uterus had two sections).
So, preliminary preparations through what you ate and drank, then some gymnastics during intercourse, and then fingers crossed you get the healthy baby boy or girl you were hoping for. But why would you want to determine the sex of a child?
You Want a Daughter … Really?
When I discuss the idea of sex selection in Ancient Greece, one of the first things people say to me is “Of course, most people wanted boys.” While this may be the case, as there is evidence for today in Indian society, whether boys were favored over girls in the ancient world is a matter still open for debate. The writers of the Hippocratic Corpus actually give equal space to how to produce a child of either sex.
It is difficult to know whether this balance is just the Hippocratic authors giving weight to both sides of the argument (which is a feature of the Hippocratic texts) but equally it may suggest that people did want to know how to produce a girl. There is some evidence from the ancient world that couples actively sought daughters. For example, one of the inscriptions from the healing sanctuary at Epidauros details a woman attending the sanctuary to ask the god for help in conceiving and specifically requesting a daughter.
Weirdly, the foods, drinks, and activities suggested for the production of a male child mesh almost perfectly with the advice given for people aiming at “conception” of any kind. However, the tips given for the production of a female child seem contrary to such advice. It seems, that according to the Hippocratic writers the best way of conceiving a girl was to weaken the person’s fertility, and in effect reduce the couple’s chances of conceiving at all!
It is possible that the advice and theories on sex determination are not based only on biological observations but replicate a social understanding of the perceived differences between men and women in ancient society. The idea that boys are produced from strong bodies and under the optimum conditions for conception could reinforce a social idea that boys were stronger than girls, which continued through into adulthood.
In the ancient world, as today, advice was available for the food and drink to be taken and how intercourse should be performed, depending on which sex you wanted your child to be. Interestingly, much of the advice given in the Hippocratic texts still crops up in some form today on popular parenting websites (except the testicle tying — oddly, that seems to have dropped off the radar). The idea of hot and cold determining a child’s sex comes through in the advice that keeping warm testicles will produce a boy whereas colder testicles will produce a girl (although interestingly the general advice for conception today is to keep the testicles cool). Even the idea that deep penetration will produce a boy and shallow penetration will produce a girl makes an appearance on some websites.3
These links between the ancient and modern advice go to show that although our understanding of how the body works and how conception occurs has changed dramatically since antiquity, for the general public at least, there is something enduring about the ideas on sex determination put forward in Ancient Greece.
- Laurence M.V. Totelin, “Sex and Vegetables in the Hippocratic Gynaecological Treatises,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38, no.4 (2007): 531-540. Return to text.
- Adapted from Paul Potter, trans., Hippocrates, Superfetation (Loeb Classical Library 509, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 345. Return to text.
- Some of the advice on offer on popular parenting websites including these examples can be found at: Choosing Your Baby’s Sex: The Folk Wisdom and 6 Natural Ways to Choose Your Baby’s Sex — And Their Success Rates. Return to text.
Rebecca Fallas is a Visiting Research Fellow in Classical Studies, The Open University and History & Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds. She was awarded her PhD in 2016 with a thesis titled 'Infertility, blame and responsibility in the Hippocratic Corpus'. In addition to infertility her current research explores ancient views on the menopause.