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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.

The “birth brick” today (top) and as a reconstructed newborn.

“At that brief moment [of birth], she became a divine creature,” explains Dr. Josef Wegner C’89, associate curator of the University Museum’s Egyptian section and assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies. In that era of ancient Egypt, he adds, “it’s not the woman giving birth: it’s 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 University’s Institute of Fine Arts. The painted mud brick—roughly 14 by 7 inches—depicts 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 Meskhenet—who was sometimes depicted in the form of a brick with a human head.) The brick’s 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, it’s not surprising that people attempted to invoke divine forces to protect their newborns.)

Wegner and his team have been working in Abydos—whose full name is translated as Enduring-Are-the-Places-of-Khakaure-True-of-Voice-in-Abydos—since 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 everything—at least for Wegner, whose next project is to begin excavating the Pharoah Senwosret’s tomb, the ancient town’s raison d’etre.

The brick appears to have been the property of a noblewoman named Renseneb, who lived in the female residential section of the mayor’s house during Egypt’s 13th dynasty. Wegner and his colleagues found numerous clay seal impressions bearing the name of the “noblewoman and King’s daughter Renseneb.” Presumably, hoi polloi did not get to use birth bricks of that quality.

The brick’s 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, it’s quite possible that it could have been used in that way—placing the feet on the brick,” says Wegner. But he adds that he’s “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 they’re 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 skin’—some 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 mayor’s 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.”

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 02/28/03