Infant exposure

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The Selection of Children in Sparta, Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, small version of 1785, Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

In ancient times, a method of infanticide or at least child abandonment was to leave infants in a wild place, either to die due to hypothermia, hunger, thirst, or animal attack,[1][2] or perhaps to be collected and brought up by those unable to produce their own children.


This form of child abandonment is a recurring theme in mythology, especially among hero births.

Some examples include:

Following exposure, the infants commonly died or were taken by slavers.


According to Plutarch, in his "The Life of Lycurgus:

Offspring was not reared at the will of the father, but was taken and carried by him to a place called Lesche, where the elders of the tribes officially examined the infant, and if it was well-built and sturdy, they ordered the father to rear it, and assigned it one of the nine thousand lots of land; but if it was ill-born and deformed, they sent it to the so‑called Apothetae, a chasm-like place at the foot of Mount Taÿgetus, in the conviction that the life of that which nature had not well equipped at the very beginning for health and strength, was of no advantage either to itself or the state.[3]

However, this story has little other literary support. Modern excavations at the spot have found only adult human bones – it may have been used as a place for execution of criminals.[citation needed]

Early Middle Ages[edit]

During the Early Middle Ages in Europe, the History of European Morals (1869) by Irish historian William Lecky mentions that infant exposure was not punishable by law and was practiced on a large scale and was considered a pardonable offense. In the 8th century, foundling hospitals were opened in Milan, Florence and Rome, among others, to help reduce the deaths of newborns who were subjected to exposure. Church authorities were in charge of this social issue until the 16th century.[4]


Otto Rank explores this topic in his book, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. The exposure, especially in water, "signifies no more and no less than the symbolic expression of birth. The children come out of the water. The basket, box, or receptacle simply means the container, the womb; so that the exposure directly signifies the process of birth".

Further, according to Rank, these myths epitomize the natural psychological tension between parent and child. In all these stories there exists "a tendency to represent the parents as the first and most powerful opponents of the hero .... The vital peril, thus concealed in the representation of birth through exposure, actually exists in the process of birth itself. The overcoming of all these obstacles also expresses the idea that the future hero has actually overcome the greatest difficulties by virtue of his birth, for he has victoriously thwarted all attempts to prevent it."[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Justin Martyr, First Apology.
  2. ^ Boswell, John Eastburn (1984). "Exposition and oblation: the abandonment of children and the ancient and medieval family". American Historical Review. 89 (1): 10–33. doi:10.2307/1855916. JSTOR 1855916. PMID 11611460.
  3. ^ Plutarch (1914). "The Life of Lycurgus". Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Vol. I. Translated by Perrin, Bernadotte. § 16: Loeb Classical Library.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  4. ^ Golden, Richard M. (1996). Social History of Western Civilization. Vol. 2. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-312-09645-8.
  5. ^ Rank, Otto. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Vintage Books: New York, 1932.