The mammisi, which is often referred to as a birth house and considered by some to be a temple in its own rite, was certainly a structure with considerable religious significance, especially for the king. This term, which is actually a coptic word for “birth-place”, was originally invented for the structure by Jean Francois Champollion. Located within the temple precinct and often oriented at right angles to the main temple axis, this type of structure was associated with the mysterious birth of the gods and the celebration of their births. Particularly in New Kingdom mammisis, the divine birth of the king might also be celebrated. While the birth of a god, such as Horus the Younger was primary in the mammisi, the king’s divine relationship with the gods is also frequently stressed.
Mammisis were very common in the Greek and Roman period, when they were present in all known, major temples, but their origin was probably Egypt’s Late Period. However, their appears, evidenced by 18th Dynasty reliefs describing the divine birth of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri and that of Amenhotep III at Luxor, to have been earlier counterparts.
The best known mammisi is associated with the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, which was dedicated to Ihy (the son of Hathor and Horus). This mammisis was built by Augustus, but not decorated until the reign of Trajan. This particular structure is especially useful, for its inscriptions and decorative theme provide explanations and information on mammisis. At Dendera there was also an earlier birth house begun by Nectanebo I during the 30th dynasty, while other such structures are known by us at Philae, celebrating the birth of Horus, Kom Ombo, for the birth of Panebtawy and Edfu, celebrating the birth of Harpre.
The best preserved of these is the frontal part of the mammisi at Edfu and the rear section of that at Dendera. From these, we see a somewhat unique architectural style, at least from the Greek and Roman Periods, where an entrance vestibule opens into a relatively shortened building. Surrounding this room, a peristyle structure with screen like walls between the columns, might also be erected.
The decorative theme within these structures was obviously related to the birth of a god and his or her godly parents. Hymns were often included but text might describe the complete act of procreation, from the courtship of the parent deities through the birth and presentation of their child. In the mammisi located in the Temple of Hathor celebrating the birth of Ihy even depicts his formation on the potter’s wheel.
However, these birth houses did not just depict the divine child and parents, but often included other associated deities, who were frequently portrayed in the act of praising the young god. Bes was frequently carved in relief on the abaci of the columns, and in several birth houses, Hathor is not only the goddess of motherhood, but is also shown in her role as goddess of music and intoxication.