ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian institutions: The mammisi

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The mammisi

The term

Mammisi at Dendera [7] Mammisi at Dendera, Author Csorfoly Daniel, wikimedia, Public Domain

    Jean François Champollion invented the coptic term of mammisi to refer to the so-called birth-house, the pr-ms [1] or pr-mna.t ,[22] a certain type of sanctuary which was built from the Late Period onwards adjacent to temples at Edfu, Dendera, Philae,[2] the Dakhla Oasis.[3] Kom Ombo,[4] Armant, and Athribis.[5] At times archaeologists disagree whether a sanctuary, such as Harpre's at Karnak, should be called a mammisi or not.[6]

Description and origin

plan of Dendera mammisi     The mammisi were part of the temple complex which was surrounded by an enclosure wall, and stood often at a right angle to the axis of the main temple along the processional avenue. They contained a sanctuary consisting of a number of a number of rooms–often three–which was surrounded by a colonnade. Low and generally decorated walls were built between the columns shielding the ambulatory from view. The walls are thought to have had their origin in mats hung up as screens.

Layout of the Isis mammisi at Dendera. The sanctuary had three rooms and a transverse hall. It was surrounded by an ambulatory

    It has been suggested that the birth houses evolved from the way stations along the avenue where the procession of the god was interrupted for the celebration of the mysteries connected with the child god's birth. Like the prehistoric sanctuaries where pregnant women went to give birth, to begin with they would have been little more than huts constructed of timber and mats.[5]

The mammisis

    The first king to be a major builder of mammisis was Nectanebo I. After him birth-houses became very popular under the Ptolemies, and even some Roman emperors like Augustus built new ones or improved existing ones.
    At Dendera there was a birth-house celebrating the birth of Harsiese and one that of Ihy, son of Hathor and Horus of Edfu, the best preserved of all the birth-houses. At Philae the erection of the mammisi of Harpocrates, son of Isis and Osiris, was begun under the Ptolemies and improved upon by the Romans. The birth of Panebtawy, son of Tasenetnofret and Haroeris, was celebrated at Kom Ombo and Harpre's at Hermonthis (Armant). At Esna the mammisi was dedicated to Heqa, offspring of Neith and Khnum.[17] In the Dakhla Oasis there was a Roman period birth-house. Cleopatra VII thought that her son Caesarion, fathered by Julius Caesar, deserved divine recognition and erected a sanctuary in his name at Hermonthis. Another birth-house may have stood at Akhmim, at least a stela inscription mentioning Isis of the chamber of birth has been uncovered there.[8] The existence of a Mut mammisi at Thebes is better documented by a number of documents dating to the 21st dynasty.[21]

The cult

goddess suckling Mammisi at Dendera, relief of Trajan: Hathor suckling her son Ihy.[18]

    The mammisi were dedicated to the local goddess and her child. The goddess was often Isis as at Aswan:
Isis, mistress of the birth-house
                                                                 Aswan inscription [9]
At Dendera Hathor was venerated and at Karnak Mut. The union of the god and goddess and the birth of their child was celebrated in the birth-house. In the mammisi at Dendera erected by Nectanebo I mystery plays with thirteen acts are said to have been performed [2] with the participation of dancers, singers and musicians celebrating the births of the god Ihy and of the pharaoh which were announced at dawn. Similar pageants may have been performed in other mammisi. Unlike the main temple sanctuary, the mammisi was accessible to the populace.[10] and it appears that alcoholic beverages played a significant part in the festivities which took place there. In smaller temples where there was no mammisi as at Esna the mysteries were enacted in kiosks [11] and other locations.
    The veneration of divine triads of a father, a mother and a child deity was widespread. Divine birth myths of pharaohs are also known since the New Kingdom, and the king in his youth was often identified with the child god. The mammisi cults were part of bringing about rebirth and strengthening of the kingship. In second millennia temples at Karnak, Philae, Edfu, El Kab, Armant, Kom Ombo, Dendera and Athribis the marriage of the gods, the birth and suckling of the divine child are depicted in much the same way as they were in the later mammisi.[5] The increasing number of birth houses during the last centuries of the ancient Egyptian culture reflected the growing importance of the child deities, chief among them Harpocrates,[12] who often shown together with his mother Isis. The child represented a new beginning and growth thanks to the loving care of his mother.[13] The mother and child cult of Isis and Horus spread throughout the Roman Empire and was mirrored in Christianity, where the suckling Isis became Maria lactans.[14]

Thoth and Re-Harakhte purifying Pharaoh Mammisi at Philae: Thoth and Re-Harakhte purifying Pharaoh.[19]

    Texts at Opet stress the role Amen-Re played in the act of creation
(Amen-Re) whom one invokes in the Big Green,
whom one invokes in the mammisi
whose name one venerates
who speeds the births,
and gives the north wind to bones and flesh
inside the womb.
(Amen-Re), he whom one wishes to see
who listens when he is called in the mammisi
and when his name is invoked in the Big Green.
                                                                                           Opet 123 B and Opet 166 F [15]
Ipet the Great, Lady of Protection,[20] would lend her support to the woman in labour by enlisting Amen:
Ipet the Great, she invokes this god (i.e. Amen)
The heart joyous to bring into the world
The great wave which makes live all that exists
which gives breath to make glad him who calls his name
who protects in the mammisi,
the pregnant woman lives when one utters his name
                                                                                           Opet 132 C [16]

[1] MdC transliteration pr-ms, Wb 1, 515.11
[2] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.169
[3] Bard & Shubert 1999, p.263
[4] Bard & Shubert 1999, p.504
[5] Dieter Arnold, Nigel Strudwick, Helen Strudwick, The encyclopaedia of ancient Egyptian architecture, I.B.Tauris, 2003, p.33
[6] Bard & Shubert 1999, p.475
[7] © Csorfoly Daniel, Wikimedia. License: Public Domain
[8] H. de Meulenaere, "Isis et Mout du mammisi" in Paul Naster, Jan Quaegebeur, Simone Scheers (eds.), Studia Paulo Naster Oblata: Orientalia antiqua, Peeters Publishers, 1982, p.26
[9] After a transliteration and French translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site:Leuven Online Index of Ptolemaic and Roman Hieroglyphic Texts, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven => Assouan => porte latérale du vestibule => décoration extérieur => linteau => 2e scène sud: fAi.t jx.t => Isis => titre => Ptol IV => formule dorsale => randzeile Isis => Harpocrates => Nephthys => paroles Nephthys
[10] David Frankfurter, Pilgrimage and holy space in late antique Egypt, Brill, 1998, p.251
[11] Philippe Derchain, Ursula Verhoeven, E. Graefe (eds.), Religion und Philosophie im alten Ägypten, Peeters Publishers, 1991, p.117
[12] Greek from Egyptian Hr-pA-xrd, Horus, the Child
[13] Lurker, Manfred 1998, p.113
[14] Erik Hornung, The secret lore of Egypt: its impact on the West, Cornell University Press, 2001, p.75
[15] François René Herbin, Le livre de parcourir l'éternité, Volume 58 of Orientalia Lovaniensia analecta, Peeters Publishers, 1994, p.173
[16] Herbin 1994, p.174
[17] Françoise Dunand, Christiane Zivie-Coche, David Lorton, Gods and men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE Cornell University Press, 2005, p.227
[18] © LassiHu on Wikimedia, License: GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later
[19] © Rémih on Wikimedia, License: GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later
[20] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pLondon BM 9900 (pNebseni) => Tb 137 B
[21] Meulenaere 1982, p.29
[22] MdC transliteration pr-mna.t, lit. House of the nurse, Wb 2, 78.6

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