I just read on a site about Greek mythology:

It may seem odd for Metis to have been pregnant with Athena but, never mentioned as her mother. This is because the classic Greeks believed that children were generated solely from the fathers sperm. The women was thought to be nothing more than a vessel for the fetus to grow in.

Did any notable ancient Greek writers (or philosophers) claim that a child would be born just because of the sperm, and the mothers were just recipients for it?

  • I added the quotes tag, because that's the tag we use when we want an answer which identifies a) a specific author, b) a reference to the phrase they actually said originally, and c) the text in which thy said it.
    – ChrisW
    May 8, 2015 at 7:48

3 Answers 3


This says that the claim is a "popular Greek view" followed by Aristotle:

Contrary to a popular Greek view, which regarded the father alone as providing seed, a view that would be followed by Aristotle (Lloyd 1983, 86 ff.), Alcmaeon may have argued that both parents contribute seed (DK, A13) and that the child takes the sex of the parent who contributes the most seed (DK, A14). It has recently been suggested, however, that our sole source for these views (Censorinus) is mistaken and that, while Alcmaeon thought that both the male and female contributed to the child, only the male contributed seed (Leitao 2012: 278–79), the female contributing menses.

Here is a quote of translation of Plato's Timaeus,

Wherefore also in men the organ of generation becoming rebellious and masterful, like an animal disobedient to reason, and maddened with the sting of lust, seeks to gain absolute sway; and the same is the case with the so-called womb or matrix of women; the animal within them is desirous of procreating children, and when remaining unfruitful long beyond its proper time, gets discontented and angry, and wandering in every direction through the body, closes up the passages of the breath, and, by obstructing respiration, drives them to extremity, causing all varieties of disease, until at length the desire and love of the man and the woman, bringing them together and as it were plucking the fruit from the tree, sow in the womb, as in a field, animals unseen by reason of their smallness and without form; these again are separated and matured within; they are then finally brought out into the light, and thus the generation of animals is completed.

Here is a quote from Aristotle on the Generation of Animals,

That, then, the female does not contribute semen to generation, but does contribute something, and that this is the matter of the catamenia, or that which is analogous to it in bloodless animals, is clear from what has been said, and also from a general and abstract survey of the question. For there must needs be that which generates and that from which it generates; even if these be one, still they must be distinct in form and their essence must be different; and in those animals that have these powers separate in two sexes the body and nature of the active and the passive sex must also differ. If, then, the male stands for the effective and active, and the female, considered as female, for the passive, it follows that what the female would contribute to the semen of the male would not be semen but material for the semen to work upon. This is just what we find to be the case, for the catamenia have in their nature an affinity to the primitive matter.

Here is a quote from the Eumenides (Athena speaking),

Mine is the right to add the final vote,
And I award it to Orestes' cause.
For me no mother bore within her womb,
And, save for wedlock evermore eschewed,
I vouch myself the champion of the man,
Not of the woman, yea, with all my soul,-
In heart, as birth, a father's child alone.
Thus will I not too heinously regard
A woman's death who did her husband slay,
The guardian of her home; and if the votes
Equal do fall, Orestes shall prevail.
Ye of the judges who are named thereto,
Swiftly shake forth the lots from either urn.

  • 2
    You get my upvote for providing better references than me. May 9, 2015 at 23:40
  • 4
    That last quote with Athena speaking probably doesn't belong: she literally didn't have a mother, as she sprung forth from Zeus' head in full armour in every Athena origin story I've heard of. So she is a father's child alone, but that doesn't add to the argument that all children were considered to be that (in fact, I'd consider that to be evidence against it, since if all children were "a father's child alone" then Athena wouldn't use that as an argument for why she's one of the guys here).
    – Jasmijn
    Jun 18, 2016 at 14:43

This is absolutely true. The theory is called Preformationism, and was widely (though not exclusively) believed in some form from Ancient Greek times until the 17th century. Pythagoras and Aristotle are among the philosophers associated with this theory.

Some qualifications: spermatozoa were not known to exist until the invention of the microscope. However it was widely believed that the 'essence' of the child came from the father, and the mother provided 'material for growth'. The theory does not also claim that "a child would be born just because of the sperm". The father's 'seed' still has to be 'planted' in a mother, which was assumed to be an essential part of the process.

There were also people who believed the reverse, that the child's essence came from the mother, with the father providing the 'trigger' to make it grow.

  • 3
    Can you include some direct quotes from some classic Greek works that assert this explicitly? That would be enough, I think. I suppose we'll have to pay some attention to the translator.
    – Dan Bron
    May 7, 2015 at 3:30
  • 2
    Can you add reliable references to your answer? May 7, 2015 at 5:04
  • The linked Wikipedia article talks about two forms of preformationism, spermism and ovism. It also says the modern view is called epigenesis and it seems to be replacing preformationism slowly between 17 - 19 centuries.
    – Suma
    May 7, 2015 at 6:57
  • Unless i'm way off on my English definitions, you don't need microscope to be aware of sperm, only of spermatozoa
    – user5341
    May 8, 2015 at 17:38
  • @user5341 what is sperm if not a shortened from of the word spermatozoa?
    – phoog
    Dec 17, 2016 at 14:09

The idea that a man contributed the seed and a woman was a "container" was prevalent in the ancient world, as it has been noted above. It's even part of Apollo's main argument in the final play of the Oresteia trilogy from 458BCE. However, like now, there was not one single theory to describe nature that everyone believed.

The Hippocratic Treatises include a great deal of discussion of generation based on the mixture of male and female "seeds."

For example, the section starting on page 17:

It can be inferred from the visible facts that in both a man and a woman there exist both female and male seed.

followed by a complicated discussion of how the relative strength of the two seeds determined the gender of the child.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .