Meskhenet (Mesenet, Meskhent, Mesket, Meshkent) was a goddess of childbirth, a divine midwife, and protector of the birthing house. She was personified as the birthing brick on which ancient Egyptian women squatted while giving birth.
Child mortality was high in the ancient world, and the Egyptians were very family orientated people, so the birth of a child was a time of great celebration but also a nervous time for the parents. As a result they called on the assistance of a bewildering number of gods including Meskhenet. For example, Hatshepsut recorded the attendance of a number of gods at her birth on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir-el-Bahari including Khnum, Isis , Nephthys, Bes, Taweret, and Meskhenet.
In the tale of Raddjedet and her triplets (also known as Khufu and the magician), the birth was attended by Khnum, Isis, and Nephthys but it was Meskhenet who proclaimed that each child would become pharaoh. Thus, Meskhenet was not simply a midwife. She was also a goddess of fate who could determine a person’s destiny. This connects her with Shai (the god of destiny who determines the length of a person’s life) and indeed the two are often depicted together along with Renenutet (who gave the child his or her secret name).
She had the power to protect newborn babies and their mothers. Hatshepsut also claimed that Meskhenet promised to protect her “like Ra“. Meskhenet also appears in the Halls of Ma’at (with Shai and Renenutet) where she was thought to testify to the character of the deceased. This suggests that she offered her protection from birth to death and beyond, and that she could also assist in the deceased’s symbolic rebirth in the afterlife. Inscriptions in the temple of Khnum at Esna refer to “four Meskhenets” who accompanied Khnum and used magic to drive away evil spirits.
Meskhenet was not particularly associated with any region or city, and no temples specifically dedicated to her have been discovered. However, she appears on birth bricks found all over the country and seems to have been a popular and respected deity.
She was associated with the cow goddess Hathor, another goddess who was often depicted on the birth brick and was closely associated with childbirth. Furthermore, Meskhenet’s symbol was composed of two loops at the top of a vertical stroke thought to represent the uterus of a heifer. Her name means “birthing place” and she was generally depicted as a birthing brick with a human head, or as a woman wearing the headdress of a cow’s uterus.
- The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (2003) Richard H. Wilkinson
- Women in Ancient Egypt (1993) Gay Robins
- Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (2006) Miriam Lichtheim
- Egyptian Mythology (1997) Simon Goodenough
- Gods of Ancient Egypt (1996) Barbara Watterson
Copyright J Hill 2015