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Egyptian Bronze Staff Finial in the Form of Isis-Selket - X.0300
Origin: Egypt
Circa: 664 BC to 525 BC
Dimensions: 3.625" (9.2cm) high x 1.75" (4.4cm) wide
Collection: Egyptian
Style: 26th Dynasty
Medium: Bronze


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This carefully cast bronze figure depicts a composite being in the form of a scorpion goddess. Her female torso from the level of the waist to the crown of her head is designed in accordance with ancient Egyptian conventions for the depiction of goddesses. Consequently, she appears to be unclothed, but should be understood as clad in the tightly-fitting sheath which was the staple of an ancient Egyptian aristocratic woman’s wardrobe. Depictions of this particular garment, particularly on sculpture, generally lack all indications of a neckline, hem, and ends of the sleeves, as here. Her accessories include armlets and a broad collar, rendered as linearly incised bands, and a striated, tri-partite headdress, the lappets of which fall to the level of her breasts but do not cover her ears. Atop the wig is the goddess’s principal attribute in the form of a cylindrical modius fronted by a uraeus which serves to support the cow’s horns cradling the sun disc. The cow’s horns and sun disc were once the exclusive emblem of the goddess Hathor. Due to the syncretistic nature of ancient Egyptian religion over time, the sun disc and cow’s horns were gradually incorporated into the regalia of other goddesses whose characteristics also began to merge with those of Hathor. The arms of the goddess are bent at a ninety degree angle at the elbows with her hands, palms open and face down, resting on the integral plinth in order to raise and support her body in an up-right position.

Her scorpion body, which conveys a very real sense of corpulence, is well-modeled and detailed. A series of parallel bands running perpendicular to alignment of the body separate it into sections with parallel strokes ornamenting each zone within. This same decorative scheme, but reduced in size, adorns the proportionately smaller tail, the stinger of which is raised and poised as if to strike. The eight legs of the scorpion are likewise ornamented with linear adjuncts with their “feet” oriented toward the front of the composition where they align quite nicely with the hands of the goddess.

The entire composition is set on to an ancient, integral plinth with which it was cast as a piece. This base is provided with a centered, cylindrical fitting on its underside for attachment into a staff. Such finials, originally affixed to staves of either metal or exotic hard wood such as ebony or cedar, served as standards either to be carried by priests in procession or to be affixed to a sacred barque. The smaller scale of our figure, however, suggests it is a votive object, deposited for the well-being of its owner, and intentionally modeled on such monumental temple accruements.

The ancient Egyptians pioneered the development of such composite beasts, the design tenets of which are rooted in the hieroglyphic basis of ancient Egyptian art. And yet, these images are exceedingly benign in their appearance and are neither as frightening nor terrifying as their counterparts in Western art. The reason for this fundamentally different approach to “monsters” lies in the observation that most of these ancient Egyptian creatures were intended to assist mortals in time of need. Furthermore, ancient religious praxis often transformed that which was malevolent into that which became benevolent on the principle of alexikakoi, best explained by the modern analogy of “fighting fire with fire.” The scorpion, whose venom attacks the respiratory system of humans and can cause death, was, therefore, transformed into a deity whose primary function was to insure the breathing of the deceased in the Hereafter. This transformation occurred rather early in Egyptian history, as demonstrated by the fact that a late Pre-dynastic ruler of Egypt is known as the Scorpion King, doubtless because he considered himself to be under tutelage of that goddess. Shortly, thereafter, during the course of the Old Kingdom that goddess was named and identified as Selket-hetu, which literally translates into English as, “She-who-causes-the-throat-to-breathe.” By convention in popular literature, she is referred to merely as Selket.

Although the integral base is inscribed in hieroglyphs, the inscription is abraded in places and so worn that an exact transcription and translation is difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, individual signs are clearly visible, including those forming the first group at the right-hand side of the front of the base. The signs there conform to a known dedicatory formula on such bronzes which include the name of the deity depicted and an invocation on behalf of the individual for whom it was dedicated and named. In the case of our bronze, we can read, “May the goddess Isis grant life to….” The sign for this goddess’s name is the throne, and that sign is unmistakable and clearly visible.

The inscription clearly indicates that its accompanying figure of a scorpion-goddess is to be identified as the goddess Isis. That association at first appears to defy neat Aristotelian categories into which one is accustomed to compartmentalize deities and their animal manifestations. Such an impression is based upon a Eurocentric approach to the culture of ancient Egypt and fails to address the polyvalent nature of that society’s material culture. Because ancient Egyptian art was hieroglyphic, and the hieroglyphs are depictions of things in the real world, the Egyptians were forced to employ one and the same visual image for expressing a variety of ideas and concepts because the world of abstract thought far transcends the actual number of real objects known to the Egyptians. The syncretistic nature of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs developed concurrently with the practice of employing the same visual image for different concepts. As a result, the ancient Egyptians witnessed an exponential rise in the importance of the cult of the goddess Isis, particularly during the course of the Third Intermediate Period. As the priesthoods of that cult asserted more and more leverage, they folded into the cult of Isis characteristics and attributes of other goddesses which were already inherent, but perhaps not fully developed, within the Isis cult. The maternal nature of Hathor, for example, was compatible with the nurturing personality of Isis who raised her son Horus. Hence it was appropriate for Isis to appear with Hathor’s attribute of the cow’s horns and sun disc, with which she is shown on our bronze statuette. By the same token, the roles of Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Seklet were instrumental in the protection of the corpse of Osiris. By the time of the New Kingdom, the powers of these goddesses had expanded to include the protection of the Canopic jars (witness the beautiful, gilded, wooden figures of these four goddess embracing the Canopic shrine of King Tutankhamun) and sarcophagus. Slowly but surely the close association of these four goddesses in such contexts blurred their distinctions with the result that the exponential rise of the cult of Isis enabled her priesthoods to elevate her to such a supreme position of authority that she could now be identified with any number of deities, Selket among them, and assume both their characteristics and outward manifestations.

This particular bronze is datable to Dynasty XXVI, the so-called Saite Dynasty (664-525 BC) and is particularly rare among the preserved repertoire of bronze types known from that period. Nevertheless, our bronze finds its closest parallels in examples in both the collections of Baltimore and Berlin, which are, however, not a consummately crafted.

Robert Steven Bianchi

References:

For the two parallels in public collections which are not as finely made, see both G. Steindorff, Catalogue of the Egyptian Sculpture in the Walters Art Gallery (Baltimore 1946), plate XIV, no. 703; and G. Roeder, Ägyptische Bronzefiguren (Berlin 1956), plate 62, no. c. On the subject of the spectacular rise of the cult of Isis, see R. A. Fazzini, Egypt. Dynasty XXII-XXV (Brill 1988) and the more popular account by R. E. Witt, Isis in the Graeco-Roman World (London 1971). H. G. Fischer, L’écriture et l’art de l’Egypte ancienne (Paris 1986), for the best, succinct discussion about the hieroglyphic nature of ancient Egyptian art and especially pages 139-142, for a concise presentation of composite beasts in ancient Egyptian art. P. F. Houlihan, The Animal World of the Pharaohs (London 1996), 185-187, for a discussion of the scorpion. For the image of Selket from the tomb of Tutankhamon, see K. S. Gilbert [editor], Treasures of Tutankhamun (New York 1976), plate 25.

- (X.0300)

 

 

 

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