Love, sex and birth in Ancient Egypt Papyrus

Oct 29, 2011

Love, sex and birth in Ancient Egypt Papyrus

Two curious fertility figurines from tombs at Beni Hassan are made of knotted string.
They were probably the physical component of spells involving the tying of magical knots. One seventeenth century BC pottery fertility figurine has an iron ring fitted tightly around its thighs.
Iron was a rare material at this date and the ring is almost certainly a magical binding device. The purpose of this charm may have been to prevent miscarriage by keeping the womb closed until the baby was due.
Alternatively, this figurine could be the relic of a malicious act of magic.
The iron ring might be there to prevent someone from giving birth easily. Without knowing what words were spoken to activate the figurine, its purpose must remain ambiguous.
As the time for the birth approached, the expectant mother was isolated from the rest of the household, or at least from its adult males.
One spell for 'hastening birth' summons Hathor to bring the sweet north wind to the pavilion in which the birth is taking place. Painted ostraca show women suckling children in an airy pavilion whose columns are wreathed with columbine or bryony


This is a specially constructed 'House of Birth'. Temples of the first millennium
BC have stone versions of these temporary structures. These Mammesi or Birth Houses were shrines to celebrate the birth of a god.
Many urban Egyptians will not have had the space to construct a garden pavilion, so part of the house had to be set aside for women and children. Some of the houses in the workmen's village at el-Amarna had an upper room decorated with protective figures of Bes and Taweret.
In the artisans' village at Deir el-Medina, many houses had a room with a bed-shaped altar and wall paintings showing naked women, Bes and Taweret. The outer areas of temple Birth Houses are decorated with the same apotropaic figures used in household magic.

In Papyrus Westcar, the sun god Ra sends five deities to assist a woman called Rudjedet to give birth to triplets who are destined to be rulers of Egypt. Isis, Nephthys, the frog goddess Heqet, and the birth goddess Meskhenet disguise themselves as dancers.
The ram god Khnum accompanies them as their porter. The deities' first act is to close or seal the room in which the birth is to take place. This probably echoes the standard practice of creating a protective zone around the mother. It also insulated the rest of the household from the demons and ghosts who might be attracted by the danger and pollution of childbirth.
The expectant mother was probably naked except for her protective amulets. Her hair might be bound up in the way depicted on some fertility figurines and birth arbour ostraca
Like the figurines, the ostraca were probably intended to promote a successful birth by showing the image of the desired 'happy event'. Many of the figurines have a cone of scented fat surmounting the hair. The application of such a cone seems to be mentioned in a birth spell of around the sixteenth century BC.
The woman sat on a birthing stool, or squatted braced against two or four 'birth bricks'. She was attended by female relatives and perhaps by a midwife. Little is known about the status of midwives.

They may have been local 'wise women'; women given the title of'nurse'; or members of a musical troupe of Hathor or one of the other goddesses associated with love, sex and birth.
In Papyrus Wesfcar, Rudjedet's husband seems to recognize the four goddesses as potential midwives because they are carrying the menit necklaces and sistra that are the insignia of dancers or priestesses of Hathor.
Spells sometimes refer to four protective goddesses who are linked with the four birth bricks. In Papyrus Westcar, Meskhenet probably transforms herself into the birth bricks or birth chair, while Isis places herself before the mother and Nephthys behind her. Heqet 'hastens the birth', perhaps by the recitation of spells.

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