Magical Birth Bricks

Looking into how Ancient Egyptians gave birth, I wasn’t expecting to run into magical birth bricks. But here we are.

The standard practice of childbirth in ancient Egypt has long been known from papyrus texts. A woman would deliver her baby while squatting on two large bricks, each colorfully decorated with scenes to invoke the magic of gods for the health and happiness of mother and child.

But archaeologists had never laid their hands on a single one of these magical ”birth bricks” until last year. In excavations at Abydos, ruins of an ancient city in southern Egypt, archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania have uncovered such a brick, 14 by 7 inches, among artifacts from a 3,700-year-old house.

Ancient ‘Birth Bricks’ Found in Egypt.  John Noble Wilford.  The New York Times.  August 6, 2002, Section F, Page 4.
Bricks from Local museum, Pushkino. 11 April 2018, Niklitov.

Alas, I have not found a picture of the magical birthing brick (yes, just one was found) that is under a Creative Commons or similar license, but you can find the images in the articles I link to. The picture above is for regular bricks but gives an idea of the size, shape, and materials.

The idea is that a birthing woman would have two, one under each foot. She’d somehow balance and squat and give birth that way. Ummm, sure. Some other interpretations are that the bricks would be for laying the newborn on in a religious ritual.

Then there is this. A “modern” (1880’s) woman birthing with her hands and knees supported on top of a cloth covering two piles each consisting of three large bricks. Her toes barely touch the ground. I suppose it’s possible that some births are acrobatic feats, but… But. (My concern is not so much the position (which appears to have merits) but the precariousness of the bricks and being on tippy toes.)

From: “Labor among primitive peoples. George Julius Engelmann. Figure 5, page 77. Use of bricks for childbirth in modern Persia. Obstetric position of the Persians—From Ploss (after Pollak and Haentsche). (From the text: “…The Persians are sometimes confined squatting on the ground, cross-legged, sometimes kneeling or sitting cross-legged; but it seems that the most popular position, and the one which appears to me to be far the most natural, and which bears a strong resemblance to our semi-recumbent position, whether in bed, or in the obstetric chair, or on the husband’s lap, is the squatting position, as represented in the illustration of a woman with her legs apart, supporting herself upon her arms on a pile of three bricks, which she has placed on either side of her. In this position with have a remarkable illustration of the points which are developed in every perfect obstetrical position, namely, absolute relaxation of the muscles of the lower extremities and the pelvis, and separation of the limbs, in order to allow space for the passage of the child. The strain, if there be any, being upon the muscles of the arms and the chest.”)

Births in all but the last couple of centuries in the West (and more recently around the world) are often done in a squatting position, usually supported. Some are standing. Others are on hands and knees. We also see semi-reclined and side laying. A post with an amazing assortment of pictures and descriptions comes from The Well Rounded Mama.

A birthing stool or chair is a very common tool. Its support is to the butt or upper legs. Additional support (including from the floor/ground) can be to the knees or hands. More importantly, other women were there to help. Often by sitting (or sometimes standing) behind the birthing woman.

Eucharius Rößlin Rosgarten Childbirth. 4th Chapter illustration, a woman giving birth on a birth chair. From: Eucharius Rößlin, Der Swangern frawen vnd hebamme(n) roszgarte(n). Hagenau: Gran, um 1515. (First edition: 1513, this is from one of two versions of the 2nd edition). “The earliest printed text-book for midwives. It survived 40 editions, being used as late as 1730“ (Garrison-Morton).

The Hebrew term for “birth stool” in Exod 1:16, obnayim, means literally “two stones.” It may refer to the primitive form of the birth stool, which was simply two bricks (or stones) placed under each of the buttocks of the woman in labor. Such birth stools are depicted in the later forms of the hieroglyphic symbol for “birth” and are referred to in ancient Egyptian folk sayings, such as “He left me like a woman on the bricks.” Ancient Egyptian pictorial art shows that the two bricks were replaced by a chair with an opening in the middle (like a toilet seat) through which, with the help of gravity, the mother could push out her baby into the deft hands of the midwives.

Puah: Bible, in The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.  Mayer I. Gruber, updated by Tamar Kamionkowski.  Last updated June 23, 2021.  

So here we have birthing bricks (the magic is optional). No balancing acts. Just solid and practical support. In older Egyptian depictions, the birthing woman is kneeling with her arms free. While we don’t see the birth stool, it must be there, because the baby is able to emerge under its mother’s body. This is a more detailed version of the hieroglyph.

Above a woman is giving birth. Komombo temple, Aswan, Egypt. 30 September 2004, Egypt-5B-057. Dennis Jarvis.

We also see more squatting positions.

Ptolemaic plaque found at Dendera, showing a woman giving birth with the assistance of two cow-headed goddesses, both representing Hathor. 31 December 2015. A. Parrot.

Birth chairs and backless birthing stools help people feel balanced and supported in an upright position as they give birth. With three or four legs, they usually feature a semicircular cutout on the seat. The position of the body in the birthing chair not only makes use of gravity as the baby drops from the womb and emerges through the vagina, but also maximizes the ability of muscles (abdominal, back, stomach, legs, arms, and vaginal sphincter) to efficiently work in concert. Babylonian birthing chairs date back to 2000 BCE. An Egyptian wall relief dating to 1450 BCE in the birth room of the Luxor temple shows Queen Mutemwia giving birth to her son, Amenhotep III. A birthing chair is also depicted on a Greek votive from 200 BCE. Some millennia-old birthing stools from Britain were designed to be carried while disassembled, suggesting that they belonged to midwives rather than individual households.

Birthing Furniture: An Illustrated History. An excerpt from “Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births.” Michelle Millar Fisher & Amber Winick.   September 14, 2021. The MIT Press.
From: “Labor among primitive peoples. George Julius Engelmann. Figure 30—The Scientific Posture advocated in the 16th century. From Jonnis Michaelis Savonarola, 1547. (From the text: “Jonnis Michaelis highly lauds a very low three-legged stool which serves as a seat for the assistant in whose lap the patient reclines; he speaks of it as being of great antiquity, and much esteemed by the ancient Greeks. The assistant stands behind, on a rounded knob, supporting the patient, who is seated in front, upon the forked portion of the stool.”)


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