Case Study

Bricks of birth: “The names of the three bricks upon which Mary gave birth”

The National Library in Vienna houses a unique document – a fragmentary sheet of paper from the 11th century CE Vienna Nationalbibliothek K 10335 Pap, containing the following short magical text: 

“The names of the three bricks upon which Mary gave birth: Akramak, Ouaramak, Akr…” 

Why is this text so interesting? It seems to attest to the use of birth bricks in 11th century Egypt, and their association in Egyptian Christianity with the birth of Jesus. The tradition of using birth bricks is attested in pharaonic Egypt in two different contexts – in the funerary domain, and in the domain of childbirth. In 2001, the American Egyptologist Josef Wegner discovered the only birth brick known to survive from Ancient Egypt in a mayoral residence in Abydos, dating to the Middle Kingdom.

The brick discovered by Wegner is made of unbaked clay, decorated with several images: on the bottom of the brick, a seated woman (perhaps Hathor) nursing a child (possibly Horus) is depicted, with one woman behind her (who could be Nephthys) and one in front of her (perhaps Isis). The scene is flanked by Hathor-headed emblems on tree trunks. The images on the four other sides of the brick show apotropaic figures of the same kind as those depicted on magical wands, also used during childbirth.

Birth brick from Abydos, from Wegner’s article.

This discovery was unique; some researchers had previously assumed the use of birth bricks during delivery even before this discovery, but only based on sources implying their use. Birth bricks are mentioned in the tomb chapel of Watetkhethor in Saqqara, in a scene of singing female dancers. As Roth and Roehrig have pointed out, there is found the phrase jj (j)fd, ‘O four’, which is determined by four rectangles, which serve as signs telling us what the word refers to. They suggest that the birth bricks might have been personified in this context. Birth bricks are also mentioned in a medical text, in text F of papyrus Berlin 3027, known as The Book for the Mother and Child where an incantation involving the goddess Meskhenet is supposed to be recited over two bricks on which a woman gives birth. Meskhenet is a goddess of birth and, interestingly, the same name is used to designate the birth bricks themselves! Giving birth in a squatting position was common for women in Ancient Egypt – with the woman resting her feet on one or several bricks, and the baby then “falling” into the space in between, presumably on top of pillows or a soft surface. This way of giving birth was attested at the beginning of the 20th century by Blackman, in her book The Fellahin of Upper Egypt.

Birth bricks also appeared in the funerary domain. They looked different, and came in sets of four, but bore the same name, meskhenet. Several bricks have been discovered in New Kingdom royal burials and burials of high officials. The ideal appearance of the birth bricks found in tombs is described in the Spell 151 and 137 of The Book of the Dead – there are supposed to be made of unbaked clay, on which a formula should be engraved, and a hole made for it in the wall of the burial chamber. Birth bricks found in tombs had a protective function, connected with the four cardinal directions. The ones that are attested are simple clay bricks with statuettes of a reed, a mummiform figure, a jackal and a djet pillar. Magical bricks were also used to protect a temple in construction and were connected to the protection from four cardinal directions. However, as has been shown by Isabelle Régen, the directions in which the bricks were deposited did not match the ideal. The goddess Meskhenet also played a role in the weighing of the heart tradition, and was supposed to accompany the deceased to his re-birth in the netherworld, just as she had accompanied him in his original birth.

It has also been suggested that the birth brick or stools are also referenced in Exodus 1, 16, set during the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt: “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live” (from the New International Version of the Bible). In this case, the phrase “two stones” is used – according to several commentaries, this designates the hursee elwilâdeh, used in modern Egypt for childbirth (see Ellicott’s commentary).

Lacking more information about birth bricks in the Coptic tradition, we can presume that they lost their link with the funerary domain. Based on our Viennese magical text, we can perhaps assume that the bricks had an extraordinary power, protecting the woman in this difficult liminal period in her life, and in the life of her baby. From the very sparse sources we have, it seems that the use of the birth bricks was a tradition that could have continued from the pharaonic Egypt up to the 20th century, with some form of use of the conception by Copts of the 11th century. 

References and bibliography

Crum, W. E. “Bricks as Birth-Stool.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 28 (1942): 69.

Ellicott, C. J. A New Testament Commentary for English Readers. London: Cassell and Co, 1897. 

Preininger Svobodová, M. Sexually liminal periods in the Lives of Ancient Egyptian Women, Master thesis, 2016.

Régen, I. “When a Book of the Dead text does not match archaeology: The case of the protective magical bricks (BD 151)”. BMSAES 15 (2010): 267–78.

Roth, A., and C. Roehrig. “Magical Bricks and the Bricks of Birth.”Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 88 (2002): 121–139.

Stegemann, V. Die koptischen Zaubertexte der Sammlung Papyrus Erzherzog Rainer in Wien. Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 1933-34 n°1. Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1934, pp. 23–24 and p. 58, no. XXXV (101).

Strouhal, E., Vachala, B., Vymazalová, H., The Medicine of the Ancient Egyptians. Surgery, Gynecology, Obstetrics, and Pediatrics, vol. 1, Cairo – New York: The American University in Cairo University Press, 2014.

Till, W. “Zu den Wiener koptischen Zaubertexten.” Orientalia 4 (1935): 195–221, p. 213, no. XXXV.

Wegner, J. “A Decorated Birth Brick from South Abydos. New Evidence on Childbirth and Birth Magic in the Middle Kingdom” in D. P. Silverman, W. K. Simpson, J. Wegner (eds.), Archaism and Innovation. Studies in the Culture of Middle Kingdom Egypt, New Haven: Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations, Yale University; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2009, p. 447–496.

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