Purification and Birthgiving of Hetharu

So in my draft calendar for this month I have marked that the full moon is the Feast of the Purification and Birthgiving of Hetharu. This is of course a giant tangle of things, but. That would be … tomorrow. Woops. The full-up calendar notes include:

  • Large Edfu Calendar: Purification of Hathor on the full moon
  • Hathor Edfu Calendar: Fifteenth-day feast, full moon, great feast, birthgiving of Hathor
  • Hathor Edfu Calendar: Starting on 1 Shomu 11: Birth-giving of Iusaas, aka Hathor; Feast until the 21st
  • Dendera Hathor Calendar: Fifteenth Day/Full Moon: Great Festival, procession, union with sun-disc, three days
  • Dendera Hathor Calendar: 1 Shomu 11: Procession of Hathor, union with Father

Additionally, the feast for the first of the month at Edfu is the Festival of the Hand of God. (Kom Ombo has an Appearance of Heru and the Cairo Calendar has a Feast for Heru; Esna has a feast of many gods including Khnum of course; Medinet Habu heads the month with a Renenutet feast.) Large Edfu has a Procession of Khons on 1 Shomu 19. The Ebers Papyrus (modified to align its Wep Renpet with my Wep Renpet) has a Renutet (Renenutet) feast slightly earlier in the month, and it is worth noting that while her primary role is as a harvest goddess she was also considered a child-protector.

(Unfortunately, my calendar notes include a bunch of ‘look this up in the book’ for this month, and since I have to run off to the dentist real soon now I just don’t have the time to figure out what the heck I was talking about there.)

So. We have a birth happening at the full moon, with associated festivities. Since the primary sources for this are Edfu and Dendera, we can happily assume that the happy parents are Hetharu of Dendera and Heru of Edfu, and the resulting child is therefore Ihy. The full moon timing with the Heru association strikes me as an evocation of the power of the restored lunar eye, and thus a matter of wholeness and completion (perhaps resonating on the way two things bring forth a third, and from thence, millions). None of which is terribly informative about how to go about celebrating, though it does provide useful theological background.

The fact that there is a specific reference to the purification of Hetharu in the Edfu calendars draws my attention to the liminality of the moment. The ancients hedged childbirth with many, many spells and protections, because it was a dangerous time for mother and childhood (the Cairo calendar notes about half again as many unlucky days to give birth as lucky ones). We assume midwives and the community of women attended most births, and we have evidence of treatments to speed labor and treat pain and wands carved with protective deities, as well as the possibility of ritual unbinding of knots and loosening of hair to release the child from the womb. There are portrayals of women in pavilions with drapes of columbine or byrony flowers, which may be associated with the post-partum period and the seclusion and purification that follows it. One of my books noted that modern (or ‘until recently’) Egyptian women might take a post-partum bath in water infused with acacia seeds; the acacia has both astringent and antibacterial properties, and thus would serve to reduce haemhorraging and the risk of infection.

(Given the suggestion that menarche is referred to as a girl’s “time of purification”, I wonder if the post-birth seclusion is for the duration of lochia. It varies from fourteen or fifteen days up to forty.)

In any case, the festival suggests not only the birth of Ihy but Hetharu’s seclusion thereafter, possibly in a flower-garlanded bower, possibly after bathing in acacia water. (Note: the acacia has powerful ritual properties in addition to being medically useful in this context.)

Further, there was a custom of musical and dance troupes, called khener, performing for women in labor (which certainly provides context for how the Westcar Papyrus could have goddesses sneak into a birthing room by posing as dancers). Presumably poorer people did not hire professionals, but performed for their kin. Here again we see evidence of Ihy the musician, his presence outside the mother evoking the child through birth.

So: music and performance for Hetharu. If a Hetharu icon is present in the household, bathe her (with acacia infusions if possible) and give her a floral pavilion to take her purification rest within. (I would suspect that the pavilion should probably have been sorted out a few days ago, given the 11th through the 21st of the longest festival, but hey. I’m working this out as I go….)

Festival scheduling as always primarily based on Temple Festival Calendars of Ancient Egypt, Sherif El-Sabban. Notes on Egyptian childbirth rituals and practices drawn from Dancing for Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt by Carolyn Graves-Brown, Women in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Watterson, and Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt by Lynn Meskell.

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2 thoughts on “Purification and Birthgiving of Hetharu

  1. Juni says:

    How stable were the Egyptian months as compared to ours? I haven’t dealt much with ancient calendars because I don’t have any references for any of the Kemetic ones, and the Athenian calendar gives me a headache. But I have noted that the Athenian calendar dates can fall anywhere in a roughly 30 day window in our modern calendar. Is there that much variation in the Kemetic calendars (for the festivals that don’t rely on a moon, anyway?)

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      That’s … a very complicated question.

      The Cliff’s Notes version goes something like: The original religious calendar operated roughly like the Jewish calendar, in which months were strictly defined by the moon, and there are occasional leap moons to keep things more or less lined up. (As opposed to the Islamic calendar, which is a strict lunar 12-month.)

      The 365-day calendar (consisting of 12 30-day months and the five birthdays of the Children of Nut) was primarily a civil calendar when instituted, handling things like the tax year. However, running two calendars means that sometimes things stick from one onto the other, so stuff that happened on, say, 1 Akhet 15 in the lunar calendar (that would be a full moon festival, or close to it) sometimes wound up gummed onto the civil calendar, also as 1 Akhet 15, but no longer at all attached to the moon.

      Of course, then you get the civil calendar not having a leap year, so drifting through the year….

      So: when I was compiling the spreadsheet I used to build my very basic festival calendar, I did so treating everything as a civil year date except for the things that were explicitly in the source material cited as lunar. I don’t actually like this solution, but it is sufficient to my needs while I attempt to build a better mousetrap.

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