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This webpage reproduces an article in the
American Journal of Philology
Vol. 43, No. 1 (1922), pp62‑70.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p62 Sex Determination and Control in Antiquity1

Some discoveries made early in the present century2 have awakened a genuinely scientific interest in the question of sex determination and control. For the last two decades biologists have been attacking the problem with greater energy and with increased prospects of success. By varying the conditions of nutrition, moisture, and other factors, they have been able to control to a limited extent the sex of some of the lower animals. During this period of investigation there have appeared in Science some two dozen notes, articles, and book-reviews dealing with the subject.

The war, too, has brought the question into the foreground. A newspaper despatch from London in November, 1920, calls attention to the higher percentage of male babies since the war and goes on to say: "The doctors of England are discussing the peculiar manner in which nature is replacing the immense wastage of men during the war." There is, of course, a well-established popular notion about the increase in the number of boys during critical periods. It has been pointed out that a distinct increase in proportion of male babies has taken place among primitive peoples in times of stress and famine, or when tribes are in danger of extermination, as in the case of the head-hunting Dyaks of Borneo.

The research work of modern biologists gives more than a passing interest to the views of the ancients on sex determination. Aside from this, greater contemporary interest in folklore would justify an investigation of the notions of the Greeks and Romans.3

p63 In antiquity the custom of ancestor worship, the perpetuation of which required a son, since the daughter went off into another gens,a was, perhaps, the strongest reason that led parents to long for male children. There was the additional consideration that the boy was a much more likely means of support for old age. The arrival of a boy was so much more welcome than that of a girl, and the natural desire of expectant parents to answer in advance the question of the sex of the coming child was so strong, that a search was made for indications of sex, and even for means to control it.

There was a common view that the male offspring comes from the right side of the male and the female from the left side,4 and that the embryo developed in the right side of the uterus was male while that in the left side was female.5 (G. A. 763 B35‑764 A1). Only when there was an alteration in the course of nature did exceptions to this rule occur6 (Plut. Mor. 905E). If during intercourse the right or left testis was tied up, the result was, according to some philosophers, male or female offspring respectively7 (G. A. 765 A21‑25). Empedocles asserted that heat gave rise to males and cold to females8 (G. A. p64764 A1‑6). "Hence it is, as histories acquaint us, that the first men had their original from the earth in the eastern and southern parts, and the first females in the northern parts thereof. Parmenides is of opinion perfectly contrarient. He affirms that men first sprouted out of the northern earth, for their bodies are more dense; women out of the southern, for theirs are more rare and fine (Plut. Mor. 905D).9

Democritus of Abdera opposed Empedocles' view, and said that sex depended on the parent whose semen it was that predominated (G. A. 764 A6‑24). He maintained that the parts which are common to both sexes are engendered indifferently by one or the other, but the peculiar parts by the sex10 that is more prevalent (Plut. Mor. 905F). Hippon said that the compact and strong sperm produced one sex and the more fluid and weaker the other,11 and that if the spermatic faculty be more effectual the male is generated; if the nutritive element predominates, the female is generated12 (Plut. Mor. 905F). Hippocrates speaks in somewhat similar vein. He holds that there is both male and female semen, and that when females are born the stronger element is overpowered by the abundance of weaker, and vice versa, that the birth of males is due to the overpowering of the weaker element (Opera Hippocratis, Kuehn, 1.377‑78).13 The condition of the menses may also prove a factor, according to Hippocrates (op. cit. 1.476).

Aristotle thus summarizes a long discussion of his own views: "If, then, the male element prevails, it draws the female element into itself; but if it is prevailed over, it changes into the opposite or is destroyed14 (G. A. 766 B15‑17).

p65 He makes other interesting comments: "For more females are produced by the young and by those verging on old age than by those in the prime of life; in the former the vital heat is not yet perfect, in the latter it is failing. And those of a moister and more feminine state of body are more wont to beget females, and a liquid semen causes this more than a thicker; now all these characteristics come from a deficiency in natural heat.

"Again, more males are born if copulation takes place when north than when south winds are blowing. For in the latter case the animals produce more secretion, and too much secretion is hard to concoct; hence the semen of the males is more liquid, and so is the discharge of the catamenia" (G. A. 766 B29‑767 A2).

Plants have certain properties by which they cause the conception of one sex or the other. The male plant of the parthenion ensures the conception of male children, the female plant of females, but only if immediately after conception its juice is drunk in raisin-wine and the leaves are eaten cooked in olive oil and salt, or raw in vinegar (Pl. 25.39). The lower part of the stem of the satyrion promotes the conception of male issue, the upper or smaller part of female (Pl. 26.97). Female offspring will result from taking thelygonon in drink, male by taking arsenogonon (Pl. 26.162).15 If before the evening meal, a man and a woman take three oboli of the seed of crataegonon in three cyathi of water forty days before the convention of their issue, the child will be of the male sex (Pl. 27.62).16 If males eat the larger portions of the roots of cynosorchis17 or orchis, they will be parents of boys; if females eat the smaller parts, girls will result18 (Pl. 27.65). The female phyllon plant ensures the conception of issue of the same sex, while the male plant, differing only in its seed, brings about male issue (Pl. 27.125). When a drink made from the crushed p66leaves of the female plant of the linozostis is taken and an application of them is made to the genitals after purgation, the conception of females is ensured, while males result from similar treatment of the male plant (Diosc. 4.191).

The flesh of certain parts of animals has magical properties in ensuring the conception of male children. If, about the time of conception, a woman eats roasted veal with aristolochia,b she will bring forth a male child (Pl. 28.254). When immediately after conception a woman eats cocks' testes, she becomes pregnant with a male child (Pl. 30.123). The eating of a hare's womb in one's food is supposed to effect the conception of males, a result also accomplished by eating the testicles of rabbits (Pl. 28.248).19 Smearing the body with goose grease and with resin from the terebinth tree for two days results in male offspring if intercourse takes place on the next day (Galen 14.476).

A woman could beget a male child if, prior to coition, she bound her right foot with a white fillet of a child, but a black ribbon on her left foot would cause the conception of a female (Galen 14.476). If parsley is placed upon the head of a pregnant woman without her knowledge, the sex of her unborn child will be that of the first person she addresses (Galen 14.476).20

Some amusing instructions are given in Hippocrates, De Steril.,21 ch. 7: Take some milk, mix flour with it, form a paste, and bake it on a slow fire. If it is consumed by the fire, a male will result: if it cracks and splits, a female. Again, one may take milk and pour some of it on leaves. If it condenses, it means a male; if it runs, a female.

Cold waters cause the birth of females (G. A. 767 A35). On the tenth day after conception headache, mistiness before the eyes, distaste for food and a rising stomach are indications of the conception of a male child. A woman with a male child has a better color22 and the movement in the womb is felt on p67the fortieth day.23 There are opposite signs in the case of the female child and the first movement is felt on the ninetieth day (Pl. 7.41). Moschion (De Mulierum Passionibus, 26) says that the child is male if it moves in the womb soon after conception and vigorously, otherwise it is female. If the breasts of a pregnant woman are turned up, she will bear a male child; if they are turned down, female offspring will result (Hippocrates De Steril. ch. 7). The swelling of the right breast means a boy, of the left, a girl,24 according to Moschion (loc. cit.).

Julia Augusta, when pregnant in her early youth by Tiberius Caesar, was particularly desirous that her offspring should be a son and accordingly employed a method of divination which was much in use among young women. She carried an egg in her bosom, taking care, whenever she was obliged to put it down, to give it to her nurse to keep warm in her bosom in order that the temperature might be maintained. It is stated that this method was reliable (Pl. 10.154).25

Although male children were preferred by human beings, farmers and shepherds naturally felt greater jubilation at the arrival of female animals. For beasts, too, there was considerable lore of sex determination. If sheep submit to the males when north winds are blowing, they are apt to bear males, says Aristotle (H. A. 573 B37); if when south winds are blowing, females.26 Shepherds were not slow to take advantage of this fact and as they wanted breeders they admitted rams to the sheep during the prevalence of south winds (Ael. 7.27). Aristotle's p68words are true of the bull (Geopon. 17.6) and, in fact, of animals in general (Geopon. 18.3).c

If the right testicle of a ram is tied up, he will generate females only; if the left, males (Pl. 8.188).27 The same thing occurs in the case of the bull (Geopon. 17.6) and indeed with almost all cattle (Colum. 6.28). If the cow has conceived a male, the bull descends from the cow more to the right, if a female, to the left (Varr. R. R. 2.5.13).28 The mare is the only animal which after being covered runs facing the north or the south, according to whether she has conceived a male of female (Pl. 10.180).

We find Pausanias (7.22.11) thus describing the magical virtues of the river Charadrus: "The flocks and herds that drink of this river in spring usually bring forth males, and therefore the herdsmen remove them to another part of the country, all except the cows, which they leave at the river, because bulls are more suited than cows for sacrifices and for field labor; but in the case of other live stock the female is preferred."28a

According to Aristotle (H. A. 559 A30), long pointed eggs are female; those that are rounded at the narrow end are male.29 The converse is, however, asserted by other writers.30

The ancients made an effort to control the sex even of some of the vegetables. "Of the turnip all do not agree that there are several kinds, but some say that the only difference is between the 'male' and the 'female,' and that both forms come from the same seed. In order to produce 'female' plants, it is said that the seed should be sown thinly, for that, if it is sown thick, the result is all 'male' plants; and that the same result follows if the seed is sown in poor soil"31 (Theophrastus, Hist. Plant. 7.4.3).

In closing this paper it seems worth while to stop long enough to quote a few instances of sex-determination among other p69peoples. According to the Jews, "if a woman is anxious to get sons, she must ask a shepherd to get the after-birth of a cow, dry it, and pound it, and drink the powder in wine."32 There are still other means of controlling the sex of a child: "Make a decoction of bear's or wolf's meat as much as a bean. If the animal is male the child will be male, and if it is female the woman will give birth to a daughter."33 In Assyro-Babylonian tradition when a halo surrounded the moon, it was believed that women would bring forth male children;34 "also, if the star Lugala or Sarru, 'the king,' stood in its place, women would likewise bring forth male offspring."35 Among the Hindus it is believed that sons are born from cohabitation on the even nights, daughters as a result of cohabitation on uneven nights. A boy will be born if the seminal fluid predominates; a female embryo will be formed if the blood of menstruation is in excess.36 There existed likewise a collection of Egyptian receipts for determining the sex of the infant to be born.37

In the Southern Sporades, "the following plan tells the sex of a child which is to be born. A bone taken from the head of a fish called scar is placed on the mother without her knowing: the child will be of the same sex as the next person she calls."38 In Cairo it is popularly believed that "if the husband loves the wife more than she loves him, all the children will be girls; if the converse is the case, all the children will be boys."39 In the Isle of Man fairies made "a mock christening when any woman was near her time, and according to what child, male or female, they brought, such should the woman bring into the world."40

In Kentucky "poultry raisers are interested in the first person who comes into their houses on New Year's Day. The sex of the caller signifies whether the house will raise pullets or roosters that year, and the size of the chickens will compare with the size of the visitors."41

p70 In Saibai, one of the islands in Torres Straits, "when a woman is pregnant, all the other women assemble. The husband's sister makes an image of a male child and places it before the pregnant woman; afterwards the image is nursed until the birth of the child in order to ensure that the abby shall be a boy. To secure male offspring a woman will also press to her abdomen a fruit resembling the male organ of generation, which she then passes to another woman who has borne nothing but boys."42

Many other instances of attempts to control or determine sex might be noted,43 but enough have been cited to show the universality of such practices. This resorting to magic by Greeks and Romans shows a solicitude for unborn children in striking contrast to the actions of those parents who exposed their offspring. One is probably safe in believing that each person who was willing to expose their child was many time outnumbered, not merely by parents who were deeply attached to children, but by people who resorted to magical means to ensure conception.44

Many of the beliefs recorded in this paper are the product of the best Greek thought. Such notions are no longer held by the educated, although beliefs just as crude are still in existence even in the most civilized countries. It has not been many years since the members of a state medical society were urged to familiarize themselves with obstetrical superstitions in order to be able to assist the patient by refuting them.

Eugene S. McCartney.

Northwestern University.


The Author's Notes:

1 The following abbreviations are used in this article: G. A. = Aristotle, De generatione Animalium; Pl. = Plinius, Naturalis Historia; Censorinus = Censorinus, De Die Natali. Galen will be cited by Kuehn's edition. The translations of the De Generatione Animalium are Platt's.

2 See Conklin, Heredity and Environment3, pp157‑168, and also C. E. McClung, The Accessory Chromosome, Sex Determinant? Biol. Bull. 3, 1902.

3 The loci classici of the ancients are Aristotle, De Generatione Animalium 763 B29‑767 A15; Plutarch Moralia 905D‑F; Censorinus, De Die Natali 6.6.4‑8; Galen, 19.324 (Kuehn). Galen copies Plutarch. See also Galen, 4.165‑175.

4 Cf. G. A. 765 A4‑18; Plut. Mor. 905E; Censorinus 6.6.6; Galen 4.174‑175; 19.453. See also Galen 4.633. [See also the Johns Hopkins dissertation of A. P. Wagener, Popular Associations of Right and Left in Roman Literature, Baltimore, 1912, and especially the chapter on the Association of the Right with the Male, of the Left with the Female — C.W.E.M.]

5 Hippocrates ap. Kuehn's Galen 17A.443; 17A.1002; 17B.212; 17B.840; Plut. Mor. 905E; Galen 4.175; 4.633. In the last reference Galen explains why males are conceived on the right and females on the left.

6 Galen 4.174‑175 explains the reasons for the exception to the rule that males are found in the right side of mothers and females in the left.

7 So Galen 14.476, but Hippocrates (Hippocratis Opera 1.476 Kuehn) says that the right testicle should be bound to beget a female and the left to beget a male. It will be noted later on that this is the rule for animals. This is the logical view, given the notion that the right testicle begets males and the left females.

8 So also Plut. Mor. 905D. Empedocles says elsewhere that boys are begotten in the warmer part of the womb, and that, therefore, men are darker, more stalwart and shaggier than women. — See Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, frag. 67, p202. Galen, 19.453, says that the warmer semen begets males, the colder, females. See also Censorinus 6.6.7.

9 Goodwin's translation.

10 Cf. the view of Leucippus (Plut. Mor. 905F).

11 Cf. Censorinus, 6.6.4.

12 Cf. Censorinus, 6.6.4; Galen 4.629.

13 Compare the view of Parmenides ap. Censorin. 6.6.5.

14 "I. e. in the mixture the germ-cells of both parents, one or other gets the better in a sort of conflict. If the male prevails in this, then it causes the whole mixture to turn out a male, 'drawing into itself' the female, or in other words so influencing the material contributed by the female that the resulting embryo is male. In the other case, the male element is itself so influenced by the female, and therefore either 'changes into its opposite,' the total mixture becoming all female, or else 'is destroyed,' i.e., the principle carried by the male element disappears from the embryo." — Platt, ad loc.

15 Cf. Theophrastus, Hist. Plant. 9.18.5; Diosc. 3.140.

16 Cf. Diosc. 3.139, where directions are somewhat different.

17 Cf. Diosc. 3.141.

18 We are not told what would happen if both sexes complied with directions at the same time.

19 Cf. Pl. 20.263.

20 In this same passage Galen gives still other curious lore.

21 The attribution of this work to Hippocrates is questioned.

22 See Hippocrates ap. Kuehn's Galen 17B.834; Moschion, De Mulierum Passionibus, 26. Hippocrates (De Steril ch. 7) says that women beget females if they have rough spots (perhaps freckles, rather than rough spots) on the face; those who keep a good complexion beget males.

23 Cf. Hippocratis Opera (Kuehn), 1.453.

24 If either of the breasts of a pregnant woman loses its fullness, she will part with one of her children. If it is the right breast which becomes slender, the male child will be lost; if the left, the female. — Hippocrates ap. Kuehn's Galen 17B.828. This belief is founded on the rather prevalent physiological notion that the uterus consisted of two cavities, a right and a left one.

25 Nana, the mother of Attis, conceived by putting a ripe almond in her bosom (Paus. 7.17.11), or a pomegranate (Arnob. adv. Nat. 5.6).

26 See also Ael. 7.27; Pl. 8.189; Arist. ap. Colum. 7.3.12; Arist. ap. Pallad. 8.4.4; Antig. H. M. 111.

27 See also Pl. 30.149; Colum. 6.28; Geopon. 18.3.

28 See also Pl. 8.176; Colum. 6.24.3; Geopon. 17.6.

28a Frazer's translation.

29 Cf. Colum. 8.5.11.

30 See Pl. 10.145; Hor. Sat. 2.4.12‑14; Antig. Mirab. 103 .

31 Hort's translation.

32 Hastings, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 2. p656.

33 Loc. cit.

34 Op. cit. 2, p643.

35 Loc. cit.

36 Op. cit. 2.650.

37 Op. cit. 2.647.

38 Folk-Lore 10, 182.

39 Folk-Lore 11, 381.

40 W. R. Halliday, Greek Divination, p40, quotes this at second-hand from Waldron, History of the Isle of Man.

41 Daniel L. and Lucy B. Thomas, Kentucky Superstitions, p212.

42 Frazer, The Magic Art, 1.72.

43 See E. S. Hartland, Primitive Paternity 1.30‑155 passim.

44 Compare La Rue Van Hook, the Exposure of Infants at Athens, TAPA 51.134‑145.


Thayer's Notes:

a The circular nature of this argument is much more evident to us now than in the early 20c.

b Aristolochia is poisonous; please eat your veal the normal way. A good page on the plant, its effects, and the doctrine of signatures which very likely had a lot to do with its obstetrical properties may be found here.

c In view of the rather close connection the ancients made between the winds and the more remote heavenly influence of the planets and the like, it's a bit surprising that Prof. McCartney forgot to adduce the astrological methods. My own very quick survey yielded only Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, III.6 (a quick check of Manilius and of Firmicus Maternus turning up empty, but I haven't read Vettius Valens, and there are other extant ancient Graeco-Roman astrological texts as well). Though Ptolemy fudges and hedges, implicit in any text on the astrological causality of events is the ability to reverse the process and influence them by pre-selecting the hour of their inception: since this art of horary astrology was well known to the ancients and to Ptolemy himself, astrological methods would need to be added to this article.

Similarly, once one is launched on this line of inquiry, witchcraft should be considered as well; for the moment I can only come up with the Loeb edition's translation of Strabo (XV.1.60) where Indian physicians are made to use "sorcery" to cause the births of males or females — but the Greek text has διὰ φαρμακευτικῆς, "by means of drugs".


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