The Magic of Childbirth in Middle Kingdom Egypt

Dr. Josef William Wegner, currently Associate Professor of Egyptian Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Associate Curator in the Egyptian section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, has been excavating in Egypt since his undergraduate days. Since 1991 he has done archaeological field work at South Abydos, specifically at the funerary complex of Middle Kingdom pharaoh, Senwosret III. He has also worked at Saqqara since 1995 and will return to Egypt in February 2004, to continue his work in both locations, but most particularly at Abydos.

Dr. Wegner’s topic, The Magic of Childbirth in Middle Kingdom Egypt, was spurred by the discovery of a one-of-a-kind, only-one-ever-found, birth brick, during his work at Abydos in 2001. The brick was discovered in the house remains of the mayor of the settlement associated with the Senwosret III mortuary cult maintenance.

Throughout the world childbirth is a time of incomparable joy and celebration as well of fear, pain and anguish. It is one of the most significant events in anyone’s life. In Ancient Egypt it was a much sought-after experience as well as one with significant religious implications, as birth itself related to the pivotal underpinnings of the universe in the Egyptian world view.

There is a considerable body of evidence regarding the event of childbirth and situations associated with it. There are many scenes of new mothers holding the newly born infant, often as it is nursing. Additionally, Egyptian literature reflects the ancient Egyptian’s ideas about the significance of birth and magical texts relate their beliefs associated with childbirth. All representations show a marked degree of decorum, however. The scene is usually quite formal, and the actual birthing process is virtually never seen. The closest representation to real birth appears in the hieroglyph for “birth” which shows a woman sitting on her lower legs, and beneath them an infants head and two hands are shown. Normally the mother is shown holding the infant but the birthing is not portrayed.
A variety of implements associated with childbirth have survived from the Middle Kingdom, such as a magical wand [sometimes called a knife] or aprotropaic wand. Such wands were normally carved from hippopotamus ivory and decorated with protective deities and demons all of whom play a role in the magical practices associated with childbirth. Another example is a small faience cup with a tiny spout at one end used for feeding tiny infants. It too is adorned with magical, protective creatures.

In addition to the magic surrounding the birthing process, there were a wide variety of magical inducements to pregnancy, and at least one pregnancy test - the so called “tinkle test” - which has actually proved to be indicative. The woman in question sprinkled her urine onto two containers, one containing barley and one wheat. If they sprouted, the woman was pregnant. It was even postulated that if the barley sprouted the child would be a boy and if the wheat sprouted it would be a girl, but modern science has not succeeded in corroborating this aspect of the belief. A similar sprouted grain test was also used in medieval Europe. 

Many gods and goddesses in ancient Egypt were associated with fertility and childbirth including Bes, Taweret and other, lesser-known deities. Perhaps the greatest of the deities who played a central role in aspects of both, was Hathor. She is extremely important in Egyptian ideas of reproduction. She is, of course, a bovine goddess, who is represented with cow’s ears and a pronouncedly triangular face – very similar in shape to the female uterus. Women, in particular, were very devoted to Hathor and invoked her aid and protection in all manner of spells, divinations and votive offerings.

When thinking of birth, there were two, primary driving forces for the ancient Egyptians: the mother’s role in the birth and the possibility that she might die in the process, and the extremely high mortality rate of infants. At Abydos, Dr. Wegner noted that many many stillborn infant burials have been found beneath the floors of houses.

The Egyptians devised techniques with magical connotations, to attempt to assure that a newly delivered infant would survive - or at least predict its survival. A paste was made of the placenta and milk and fed to the infant. If the infant rejected the mixture, it was predicted to die. If it accepted it, the expectation was that the child would survive. Another technique was to listen to the cry of the newborn. If the infant gave forth clear shrieks that sounded like “me, me, me” it was expected to live. If, however, the child’s cries were unclear, garbled and made a sound like “a-moo, a-moo” it probably would die.

We know something of delivery practices from a few surviving depictions, but usually we only see the result of the delivery in pictures or sculpture. We know that birthing normally occurred under an arbor, assumedly out of doors. Women delivered in a squatting position, which even today is considered the most natural position for delivery. In some cases, a birthing stool or chair was used, but a pair of birthing bricks under the feet of the delivering mother was the most frequent mode. Use of birth bricks was, in fact, very common in ancient societies in general. They are still used in modern times. In Guatemala wooden blocks serve as birthing bricks, and in India, expectant mothers sometimes bring their own bricks with them when they come to the hospital to deliver.
The Egyptians thought of birth bricks as not just inanimate objects used to facilitate childbirth, but rather as a manifestation of the goddess Meskanet. Meskanet frequently shows up in scenes of the weighing of the heart, in which she is portrayed as a brick with a head perched on top, symbolizing the idea of the rebirth of the deceased in the nether world. Sometimes Meskanet is portrayed as an anthropomorphic deity with a brick on her head.

The magical birth brick Dr. Wegner and his team discovered at South Abydos in 2001 is approximately 18 inches long, by 8 inches wide, by 6-7 inches thick. The upper surface is eroded away so the decorated surface is actually the bottom of the brick, which is clear from the decoration on the sides. The brick is painted on the main face with a scene in which the new mother holds the newborn infant forth, and a female attendant kneels in front of her as if to receive the baby as it comes from the birth canal. Behind the mother stands a second female attendant who rests one hand on the mother’s shoulder in an attitude of comfort. At each end is a standard made of a tree branch, topped with a Hathor head. The mother has blue hair, which Dr. Wegner considers a symbolic statement. Mortal women are always portrayed with black hair; divine creatures have blue hair. He feels that the depiction of the mother with blue hair indicates that the individual had a distinct association with the divine. Spells used during childbirth called Hathor to be present at the birth; thus at the moment of birth a brief meeting or apotheosis between the mother and Hathor is depicted, and signified by the color of the mother’s hair. She is, in fact, for a brief moment, one with the goddess.

All around the sides of the brick are what remains of magical, anthropomorphic creatures and deities who are involved in the most fundamental aspects of the Egyptian’s concept of the universe – the sun cycle. Texts discuss the birth of the baby sun on the eastern horizon and the need for the infant to be protected and defended so that it may rise and mature as it passes through the sky. At dusk the sun dies and must be regenerated in the underworld to be reborn again the next morning. During its death and regeneration, it is likewise protected and defended to ensure it will be reborn each day. The images associated with childbirth are the same magical creatures who protect the infant sun, who will likewise protect the newborn thus invoking the same idea of protection of the infant until it can mature. The only creature depicted on the brick with a head still surviving, is a quadruped which in early representation is identified as a cervil cat, a creature closely associated with the idea of the sun god and defeat of threatening forces. A goddess is portrayed on one end of the brick, drawn frontally with feet splayed and holding serpents in each hand. Her head is missing so it isn’t possible to see her headdress, but Dr. Wegner postulated that she is probably Beset – the female equivalent of Bes. Many variations are known for this goddess who displays many of the aspects of the goddess Astarte. She had a protective role in childbirth.

The manner in which a child was delivered, squatting with each foot on birth brick and with a depression scooped out in the soil between the bricks to receive the child and the effluvium associated with the birthing process, emulated the birth of the young sun god, each morning. The bricks and the depression between them invoked the akhet or horizon where the infant sun appears. 

The brick was found in the remains of a very large, rather palatial building, known to have been the residence of the mayor of the town whose purpose was to maintain the mortuary cult of Senwosret III. The town/temple/tomb complex is south of the Seti Temple with the settlement area near the river, and the tomb and mortuary temple at the foot of the gebel. We know the name of Senwosret III’s temple complex and town site: “Enduring are the Places of Kakaremaatkheru in Abydos”, usually abbreviated to Wa Sut. The town had a sequence of mayors, six of whom have been identified by name so far, starting in about 1850 BC and continuing for at least two centuries into the late 13th Dynasty. 

The decorated birth brick was connected with notions of childbirth, most certainly, but how this particular brick was used raises some questions. If it was one of a pair used to support the delivering mother during the birth it would probably have been severely damaged by fluids during the birth. Thus, one wonder’s why it was so carefully decorated. Papyrus Westcar contains the tale of the birth of three princes who were destined to become kings of Egypt, to Princess Rujadet. Three goddesses, Isis, Nepthes and Meskadet, came in disguise as musicians to assist the princess during the birth. When they entered the house they asked to see the princess, then locked the door to the room in which she was laboring and proceeded to deliver the first infant and “placed him on a cushion of brick”. Dr. Wegner speculated that the brick found at Abydos may very well be such a “cushioning” brick on which to lay the newborn. He theorized that the now missing upper surface might have been inscribed with the name of the mother and perhaps that of a child or children who have previously used the brick at birth.

Another question that comes to mind is, “Who might have owned the birth brick?”. As the structure in which it was found is a large, elite, mayoral residence, it is probably an elite object in and of itself. The part of the residence where it was found was originally a granary, which was later renovated into an occupation area complete with a pillared portico, and new gardens. Throughout the area a number of sealings were found. In the area where the birth brick lay, were found seal impressions depicting a very high status woman. One such seal reads: Iryt-pat s3t nswt Rn-snb; “The noble woman, king’s daughter, Renseneb”. In the 13th Dynasty we have a few kings who reigned for a little longer period than most of that era and from one of those reigns we have references to Renseneb. There may have been a marriage between a royal princess and the mayor at Wa Sut and the renovation may well have been done to provide appropriate accommodations for this very high status bride. The birth brick, which relates to the later phase of the use of the residence, is contemporary with the period in which Renseneb lived. Found near the birth brick was a piece of a magical wand and a fragment of a limestone statuette depicting a lady of the late 13th Dynasty – perhaps even Renseneb herself! Thus, Dr. Wegner feels that he is probably looking at an occupational area associated with the Princess Renseneb.

In February 2004, Dr. Wegner will return to Abydos to continue excavation of the mayor’s residence, and begin work on the tomb of Senwosret III, which was poorly excavated in the early 1900s, and has been badly plundered. It is, however, the largest royal tomb ever discovered and, Dr. Wegner believes the precursor for the tombs of the New Kingdom.

—Nancy Corbin

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