Magical Childbirth

In ancient Egyptian society, childbirth was considered a very magical and religious part of life.  Most likely due to large numbers of child burials and stillborns in cemeteries, Egyptians emphasized these magical practices in their women’s childbirth experience.  The Abydos birth bricks, which women in labor would have squatted on to give birth to a child, provide us with the most detailed archaeological evidence for these practices.  It includes images of a human mother and her two assistants, Hathor, the deity associated with fertility and childbirth, and several other known deities.

The most interesting piece of these bricks is the hair color used for the human mother and assistants.  Hair color is traditionally depicted as black, but these women are shown with sky-blue hair color.  The symbolism of this blue color shows us that these women were given a divine form.  The mother and child were also seated on a solid-based throne of divinity, as opposed to just a normal chair.  These changes in form show us the important divine transfiguration of the mother from human form to that of the goddess Hathor.  It exemplifies how childbirth is a very magical practice because a woman needs to be a more divine form to take on and survive such a large and important task as childbirth.

As with other material items, birth bricks most likely differed between households.  People with more wealth and higher social status may have had better quality and more artistically designed birth bricks.  These probably would have been seen as better birthing techniques, which would have made people think they had a better chance of having healthy offspring.  If a human mother has to turns into a goddess to give birth to a child, it must have been seen as a difficult process so magic was needed to assist these women.  These bricks help us see that childbirth was a very important part of ancient Egyptian life since it was seen as such a religious and magical experience.

3 thoughts on “Magical Childbirth

  1. I have to admit that when I first heard about a birthing brick, I had no idea how they were actually used. I have done readings on the magical and medical practices of the Egyptians and the birthing brick would be right up there. It is hard to imagine though that they would call upon their deity to help in the delivering of the baby. I say this mainly of the consequences that would result in a failed pregnancy. You commented on the stillborn, but an equally important problem would be the death of the mother. It would seem to me that keeping the mother alive would be just as important, if not more, as keeping the baby alive. So I would expect that these birthing bricks would be for both parties, the child and the mother.

    As for the drawings that are depicted on the birth bricks, the change in hair color intrigues me the most. It is reasonable for the Egyptians to have called upon a deity, but the interesting part is to depict the deity to actually inhabit the mother’s body. It makes me believe that to the Egyptians, a mother expected to give birth would have been considered god-like. Even if it was only during the birth in which the deity would take over, it still means that the mother would have been equally important as a Pharaoh, if one was looking at the presence of a deity versus the social status of the individual in question.

  2. I also was interested in reading about the childbirth process in Ancient Egypt and briefly mentioned it in my own post. Upon reading about the birthing bricks that were found, I was unsure as to how they were actually used during childbirth and was thankful that a picture was given in the article, it made their use more understandable for me. The actual technique used with the birthing bricks is better for the mother, since its easier to push if you are squatting rather than lying down, but I do not know if it would ensure healthier infants. I think it is great that we now have evidence of how the women of Egypt ritualized and carried out this process because it gives a view into another part of their lives.

    The depiction of women with blue hair instead of black, I found intriguing. Maybe they did not particularly understand conception itself, so becoming pregnant was perhaps something they believed had a magical origin and that all women were at that time or even all the time goddesses or goddess like. It would be another explanation for the blue hair, along with them embodying or becoming the goddess Hathor during childbirth. I agree that the depictions of the woman, her assistants, and the mother’s process into being or calling on Hathor shows the difficulty of childbirth that we know of and understand today. If they had a lack of knowledge in this area, it would also explain the many burials of stillborn and/or infants as well as explain why it was highly ritualized and left to the goddess Hathor. Good Post!

  3. I also wrote about childbirth and the meskhenet birthing bricks in my post. This is fascinating. It sounds like childbirth had a much better rap than it does now in our culture, being associated with divinity and magic instead of just screaming women and afterbirth. I wonder if ancient Egyptian women looked forward to childbirth because they got to transform into a goddess. I wonder if that provided an additional incentive to have children, and if there was any precursor to becoming a goddess during childbirth (such as having divine properties since conception, or since the pregnancy was known about).
    Christopher Hershey also makes an interesting point: How would the death of the mother or the child be understood within this magic and religious context? Would it be seen as a failure of the goddess Hathor, or in the magics that transform the pregnant woman? Indeed, what would be the consequences of a failed pregnancy or childbirth? Also interesting is Christopher’s point about the importance of a divine mortal being. Would childbirth make women as revered as the Pharoah? It’s interesting to think about how pregnancy and childbirth, within this magic and divine cultural belief, would affect and be affected by social status.

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