BIRTH RITES AND CUSTOMS
Birth practices in Egypt are based on ancient, time-honored customs, and although they have tended to disappear among urban dwellers, especially since the twentieth century, they are still maintained as strongly as ever in rural society.
An expectant woman receives much attention from those about her, as they seek to satisfy her every craving for certain foods, for it is believed that they might otherwise appear on the body of the newborn. Another prevalent belief is that whatever comes into the prospective mother’s view will influence the unborn child, and thus she is careful to surround herself with lovely sights, preferring to look upon those who are distinguished by their physical beauty or social prestige.
Among people of modest circumstances, it is customary that when a woman is about to give birth, she returns to her father’s home. Under optimum conditions, a physician or a midwife attends the birth. During the forty days of confinement following the birth (practiced no more), the new mother was cared for by her mother, or in her absence, by neighborhood women who took turns at the bedside.
In the country, the placenta and umbilical cord are given particular attention, for it is believed that they protect the mother and assure long life to the child (see Blackman, 1916). Their importance may be traced to pharaonic Egypt, where a special priest would have cared for the royal placenta (Ayrout, 1952).
Because pregnancy and childbirth have left the new mother extremely weak and susceptible to infection, those attending her take great precautions to help her regain strength and to protect her from all evil. On the third day after the birth, she is purged with castor oil, and then she must literally gorge herself in order to restore her health and activate the mammary glands. Further, in order to spare her any anxiety that could dry up her milk or cause her to become sterile, all visitors are carefully screened. While those who might cause her trouble are not necessarily ill-intentioned, they may, under certain conditions, be innocent intermediaries for evil, for example, if they have just returned from a burial, or have the palms of their hands and soles of their feet covered with henna, or if they have just been circumcised, or are wearing antique gold pieces, precious stones, or pearls. However, should evil befall the recovering mother, there are numerous magical recipes to counteract this, one of which will surely be administered to her at once.
Because children are so highly prized, a sterile woman is regarded with great disfavor. She has an entire arsenal of recipes at her disposal to cure her infirmity. Fecundity is especially high in rural areas, and the rites are as numerous as they are varied. Considerable power is attributed to pharaonic objects (Ayrout, 1952, pp. 121-22), and thus barren women pay many visits to nearby necropolises and the Cairo Museum.
The Coptic Ceremony of the Seventh Day is celebrated seven days after the birth of a child and is attended by women only. It is a rather complex event that requires much preparation.
The preceding evening the family installs, in the bedroom of the mother and child, a large winnowing sieve, a mortar, a knife, and a basin filled with water, nuts, and soap. There is a tray near the baby’s pillow upon which seven items have been placed to correspond to the seven days just past: wheat, broad beans, lentils, barley, corn or rice, artemisia or incense, and salt. On the wheat rests an egg that is to be cooked the next day and offered to someone advanced in years. This is to ensure the child’s longevity. Nearby are a watch, inkstand, and pen for a boy, or scissors, a thimble, needle, and thread for a girl.
The midwife comes about noon. As the guests arrive, they slip coins into the water-filled basin for the midwife, which will be added to the fees paid by the father. The ceremony begins with the “Name Ritual.” For this, a shallow silver or copper basin has been prepared that holds a large terra-cotta jug for a boy or, for a girl, a goglet richly decorated with flowers, silk scarves, and some jewels from the mother for her daughter. On the rim of the basin three candles have been placed, each one bearing a name chosen by the parents. The name attached to the candle that burns the longest is the one to be given the newborn child, for it is considered to be the most beneficent.
Holding the baby in her arms, the midwife takes the tray with its seven items and scatters these contents throughout the house. She is followed by the mother, clothed in white, with a brasier in one hand, casting incense. With the other hand, she casts salt into the air to combat the evil eye. These women are preceded by a procession of children who carry candles and chant wishes of longevity, prosperity, and fertility for the newborn. Once again in the bedroom, the midwife places the infant into the sieve; then she knocks inside the mortar seven times, and at each blow, the mother steps over the sieve. Next, the midwife takes the sieve, and gently shakes the child back and forth like grain three times. These acts are supposed to inure the child and develop his courage. The sieve is then filled with nuts, almonds, and chick peas which the midwife casts out into the room for the children in attendance. With each gesture, she clicks her tongue, “Chick, chick, chick,” as if calling chickens. Next, she places the water-filled basin upon her knees, and offers a nut for good luck to each woman who gives her a bit of money. The donor plunges her hand into the water, called angel’s water, and moistens her face while formulating wishes of longevity for the newborn. The parents of the new mother send her cakes baked for the event, and a variety of nuts.
The evening before this ceremony, a reception is given for the men of the family and friends of the father. Here they are served syrup, sweets, almonds, and the traditional mughat, a warm drink made from the aromatic roots of glossostemon bruguieri. Mughat is the relished drink offered to any visitor who calls to congratulate the new mother.
- Ayrout, H. H. Fellahs d’Egypte. Cairo, 1952.
- Blackman, A. M. “The Pharaoh’s Placenta and the Moon God Khons.” Journal of Egyptian Archeology 3, series 1 (1916).
- Blackman, W. S. Les fellahs de Haute Egypte. Paris, 1948.
- Lane, W. E. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 2nd ed. London, New York, and Melbourne, 1890.
- Leeder, S. H. Modern Sons of the Pharaohs. London, 1918.
- Wassef, Cérès W. Pratiques rituelles et alimentaires des Coptes. Cairo, 1971.
CERES WISSA WASSEF