Friday, March 14, 2014

Myths & Legends of Childbirth in Ancient Egypt

VS sez: Pulled this post from the Archives, since Magic of the Nile is now available and this post was about events in that book. Somewhat updated and added a quick excerpt!

"Repay your mother for all her care. Give her as much bread as she needs, and carry her as she carried you, for you were a heavy burden to her. “ So says the Papyrus of a scribe named Ani, from 1250 BCE.

I’ve just published  my latest paranormal romance set in Ancient Egypt in 1535 BCE and there’s a childbirth scene. Children were very important to the Egyptians and of course there were many beliefs and legends surrounding the act of giving birth.  Fragmented, surviving papyri give remedies for pregnancy tests, infertility cures, contraception and obtaining answers to the always popular question “how do I know the sex of my unborn child?” Physicians of the day were almost never involved in labor and delivery – it was all left to the women of the household or the village, and the ever present gods and goddesses.

Egyptian myths have a great many variations, which works well for me as a novelist, because I can pick and choose to fit my story. I have the goddesses Hathor and Tawaret attending the birth of the baby in Magic of the Nile, but there is historical support for my selection, including a famous carving at the Temple of Hathor in Dendera which shows these two goddesses assisting a woman as she gives birth. Hathor was the beautiful Great One often shown with the head of a cow, or as a woman with cow’s horns, and she was regarded as the goddess of domestic bliss. Tawaret was the Hippo Goddess, although she had the feet of a lioness and the back of a crocodile. She was also regarded as a goddess of fertility and childbirth in part because female hippos were so protective of their young.

A woman often gave birth in a specially constructed pavilion or bower, sometimes in a special spot on the roof of her home, shaded to be cooler. Many of the depictions of birth show the use of “birthing bricks”, which were specially made for the pregnant woman to squat or stand on during the final stage of delivery. The women assisting her (or the goddesses if she was very lucky) stood on either side, providing support and something to push against. The birth bricks were considered so important they even had their own goddess, Meskhenet.  This important figure was sometimes depicted as a woman and at other times as a brick with a woman's head, adorned with a cow's uterus. She also breathed the child’s ka (one part of the individual’s soul) into them at birth.

One popular folk tale from thousands of years ago had the poor mother deliver triplets and after each son was born, Meskhenet appeared to say he would become king of Egypt! And the next baby born would become king of Egypt. And then the third boy will be king of Egypt too! The poor, confused parents...but in fact, each of these boys did become Pharaoh for a time, succeeding each other on the throne, according to the legends. Rather an amusing mental picture – sort of like some modern TV commercials where the nurses keep bringing the poor Dad another baby…

Childbirth could go wrong in so many ways in that era, and newborn babies were regarded as being fragile as the young sun (which was reborn every day). It’s no wonder that a rich tradition of special prayers, remedies and attentive goddesses developed to comfort the mothers in labor.

Here's the scene partway through the novel, where the mother-to-be and her female relatives have a luncheon:

Her older sister Paratiti, who’d been chosen by Sobek years ago to be Tyema’s guardian until she took over the temple, arrived from her home in the village one day late in the eighth month, by prearrangement bringing her daughters and the wives of her sons, as well as a gaggle of girl children. The group ate lunch with Tyema in the temple’s private gardens, laughing and chattering in the shade of towering palms and fragrant acacias. The older ones talked about when their babies had been born, exchanging funny stories and teasing each other. Tyema sat in the midst of her extended family, marveling at what a strange feeling it was to be with them all, but the impending birth of her child gave them common ground. She felt relaxed, unworried, since they were in her home and she was the hostess. In control. The baby moved and kicked just enough to remind her the two of them were in this together, and after all the entire gathering was in Tyema’s honor, organized by Paratiti. Some of the women had brought embroidered swaddling clothes for the baby and there was one big parcel they refused to let her open. It had taken two of them to carry the basket from the donkey cart at the front gate to the garden where the lunch was being held.
Finally, as the temple servants brought plates of honeyed cakes and figs at the end of the meal, Paratiti gestured at the oversized basket. “Bring the gift now.”
Her daughters hauled the sturdy container to Tyema, setting it on the ground next to her. Smiling, she said, “I can’t imagine what this might be.” Lifting off the lid, she set it aside and removed the top layer of straw packing. Below the straw she found a fine pair of birthing bricks, smooth, freshly painted in white, with stunning portraits of the goddesses Hathor and Tawaret drawn on the sides in turquoise, gold and red. Protective spells were inked in black hieratic. Tyema sat with a brick in either hand, examining the art.
“Do you like them? I made the bricks myself,” Paratiti said anxiously. “I said blessings to Hathor as I mixed the mud and straw in the brick-making forms.”
“And we had the best artisan in the village do the paintings,” Tyema’s favorite niece, Renebti, added. “He wouldn’t take payment since it was for you.”
“I—I don’t know what to say,” Tyema stammered. “I’m touched.”
“I hope your god won’t mind, but birthing a child is a female mystery and he isn’t known for involvement with such things. His crocodiles come from eggs after all. We were afraid you wouldn’t have proper bricks here when the time comes.” Paratiti gestured at the temple behind the garden.

Magic of the Nile Available Now at Amazon   Barnes & Noble  All Romance eBooks Other eBook retailers coming soon!

Just for fun - Here’s a Kay Perry video for her single “Dark Horse,” which gives another take on “magic of the Nile”!


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