The Magic of Birth and Bricks
Sometime in the 18th century B.C., in the southern Egyptian town of Abydos, a young mother in her final agony of labor cries out to the cow-headed goddess whose image hangs on a pole beside her: Come to me, O Hathor, at my moment of trial! And as her new baby squeezes out of her body and into the light, the mother herself becomes one with the goddess. Or so it was believed.
At that brief moment [of birth], she became a divine creature, explains Dr. Josef Wegner C89, associate curator of the University Museums Egyptian section and assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies. In that era of ancient Egypt, he adds, its not the woman giving birth: its Hathor.
Prompting this discussion of motherhood and labor and goddesses was the discovery of a magical birth brick at Abydos by Wegner and a team of archaeologists from Penn, Yale, and New York Universitys Institute of Fine Arts. The painted mud brickroughly 14 by 7 inchesdepicts a mother holding her newborn baby, flanked by female attendants and by two images of Hathor, who was closely associated with birth and motherhood. (The brick was also associated with another goddess Meskhenetwho was sometimes depicted in the form of a brick with a human head.) The bricks sides are decorated with various magical symbols, including one of a large, hyena-like animal representing the sun god, who was equated with a new-born baby. Wegner and his colleagues also found pieces of magical wands nearby, made of hippopotamus ivory and carved with incantations. (Given the high infant-mortality rates 3,700 years ago, its not surprising that people attempted to invoke divine forces to protect their newborns.)
Wegner and his team have been working in Abydoswhose full name is translated as Enduring-Are-the-Places-of-Khakaure-True-of-Voice-in-Abydossince 1994. In 1999 they positively identified the large residence of the mayor of the town, which was organized around the mortuary temple of Pharoah Senwosret III [Gazetteer, November/ December 1999]. But so far, this brick has trumped everythingat least for Wegner, whose next project is to begin excavating the Pharoah Senwosrets tomb, the ancient towns raison detre.
The brick appears to have been the property of a noblewoman named Renseneb, who lived in the female residential section of the mayors house during Egypts 13th dynasty. Wegner and his colleagues found numerous clay seal impressions bearing the name of the noblewoman and Kings daughter Renseneb. Presumably, hoi polloi did not get to use birth bricks of that quality.
The bricks actual function is still open to debate. It may have been one of two used by the mother to squat upon while she gave birth, which would explain the damage done to the top of the brick. Given that the other faces of it are quite nicely preserved, its quite possible that it could have been used in that wayplacing the feet on the brick, says Wegner. But he adds that hes not entirely convinced that they would have used a beautifully painted brick for a woman to squat on while delivering a baby. Hence his next explanation: that the brick was used as a sort of magical bassinet, on which the newborn baby was placed.
There is an ancient story from a century or two before the time of this brick that describes a princess giving birth to three kings, and after theyre delivered, the text describes them being placed upon a pillow of brick, says Wegner. So the other alternative is that this is specifically a magical brick upon which the newborn baby would be placed, and then these magical rituals, the protective spells, would be enacted by a magician or someone else to surround the baby with protective skinsome sort of magical envelope to stave off infection or disease.
A Penn graduate student in Asian and Middle Eastern studies, Kevin McGeough, actually found the mud-encrusted brick back in July 2001, when the team was excavating the mayors residence. As Wegner started clearing the mud from the center of the brick, he was able to discern the representation of a white-clad figure on a chair.
At first I was really apprehensive that it would be the representation of the god Osiris, who was not only the god of the dead but the patron god of Abydos, and thus very, very frequently shown on funerary objects, recalls Wegner. So at first I thought maybe this was some other kind of magical brick, probably a funerary brick.
But as he continued to clear the mud away from the seated figure, he saw that it was a woman with a baby in her arms. That was the point at which I became immensely excited, he says. I realized that this was something that had never been found before.