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Egyptian Bronze Figure of an Apis Bull - X.0721
Origin: Egypt
Circa: 600 BC to 500 BC
Dimensions: 3.75" (9.5cm) high
Collection: Egyptian
Style: Late Kingdom
Medium: Bronze


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The cult of Apis was highly discriminatory in its worship of bulls. Rather than all bulls, the cult worshipped a special, carefully chosen individual animal. Apis (Hapi in Egyptian) was a live bull kept in the temple of Ptah in Memphis. Apis was believed to be the tangible representative of a powerful god who could not be directly experienced, rather like the role of the Pope in Catholicism. The god to which Apis was attached changed through time and administrations. The first was Ptah, who was later usurped by Osiris, who was in turn displaced by Atum. The bull acted as an oracle for the Egyptians, who could crave boons, ask questions or just communicate to their deity. The movements of Apis, were thought to reflect the response of the god. In this sense, Apis was very much a domestic god in the sense that only the aristocracy and the priestly class were thought to fully be a part of the impenetrably complex and forbidding world of state-level religion: Apis, by contrast, was directly reachable by anyone. The life and death of the bulls were a matter of serious concern for Egyptians. When the incumbent died, a search not unlike that undertaken by the Tibetans for a new Dalai Lama would explode into action. The successor had to match 29 different attributes that constituted physical perfection in the Apis bull, including having no subsequent siblings, being black with a white diamond on its forehead, and possessing thick tail hair (Herodotus). The pomp and ceremony surrounding the discovery of an appropriate bull was considerable, as summarised by Apis Diodorus: “… During the forty days, none but women are admitted to see him, who being placed full in his view, pluck up their coats and expose their person. Afterwards, they are forbidden to come into the sight of [Apis]. . .” After this, Apis was moved by sacred barge to his sanctuary in Memphis, at the southern end of the Temple of Ptah. Following an elaborate enthronement ceremony, Apis was led out of the hall through the eastern (rising sun) door and presented to the people massed outside. His life would have been one of untrammelled luxury: he was fed the best foods, slept on luxurious bedding, had his own harem, was given hot baths, massaged and perfumed. Every day, he was taken out to exercise, his slightest movement interpreted as answers to questions posed by his believers. Yes/no answers were obtained by asking a question and then seeing which of the two enclosures he entered on the way back to his stalls. His mother was also kept in luxury in an adjacent sanctuary. Bulls, oddly, were the main sacrifice offered to Apis, as recounted by Herodotus: “Bulls are considered the property of Apis, and therefore tested in the following way: A priest appointed for the purpose examines the animal, and if he finds even a single black hair upon him, pronounces him unclean; he goes over him with the greatest care, first making him stand up, then lie on his back, after which he pulls out his tongue to see that, too, it is "clean” according to the recognized marks… He also inspects the tail to make sure the hair on it grows properly; then, if the animal passes all these tests successfully, the priest marks him by twisting round his horns a band of papyrus, which he seals with wax and stamps with his signet ring. The bull is finally taken away, and the penalty is death for anybody who sacrifices an animal which has not been marked in this manner.” The importance of bulls meant that such sacrifices were not undertaken lightly, however, being reserved for special occasions. Even Apis’ birthday was celebrated in a seven-day festival in which he was led through the streets with a choir of singing boys. His death (sometimes accelerated by drowning if he became infirm in advanced old age) was heralded by a 60-day mourning period, during which pious Egyptians kept their heads shaven and only ate vegetables. The corpse was taken through the western door and given a spectacular funeral. Evidence suggests that his flesh was eaten, and that his head and bones were mummified. They were then placed in a richly decorated coffin and buried with their canopic jars, and even sometimes their ushabtis. The dead Apis, having become an Osiris, was worshipped as a god of agricultural fecundity and the afterlife. When the Greeks took over Egypt, they translated the name of the dead Apis as “Osorapis,” which lead to a confusion, and eventually an amalgam with their own god Serapis, who was worshipped according to Greek tradition in the Serapeum in Alexandria. Both gods came to be worshipped together at the bull necropolis in Saqqara that we now call the Serapeum. This bronze Apis is an excellent example of its type. Dating from the Late period (600-500 BC), it stands 3.75” tall on an incorporated plinth (it has been mounted on a display block for ease of exposition). Bearing the sacred disc and uraeus, it is also decorated with geometric designs incorporated into the original mould. Stance is dynamic, with the left legs placed forward and the right legs about to be lifted. Muscle detailing and other aspects of the body are sensitively modelled, with all small details well marked and no casting flaws. The proportions of the body are exact and elegant. The condition and patina are superb. This is a truly exceptional piece of ancient metal sculpture, and a credit to any collection. - (X.0721)

 

 

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