John Garstang’s Excavations at Jericho

The site of Jericho, located near the Jordan River on the West Bank, is famous for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its importance in biblical literature. The site contains the remains of no less than twenty successive settlements, and is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world (as well as the oldest known city with a protective wall). The Hebrew name for Jericho, Yeriẖo, is likely derived from the Canaanite word reaẖ, meaning “fragrant”. This imagery evokes the natural landscape surrounding the site; Jericho is a Tell site surrounded by copious natural springs which have historically provided a compelling reason for human societies to settle around the site – in fact, the earliest structures pre-date sedentary agriculture and other early cultures around Jericho were pre-ceramic (belonging to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Phase). At the foot of the Tell itself, a perennial spring provides fresh water and irrigation for the nearby soil, providing ideal conditions for early agriculture. Furthermore, the site itself is located on an important route leading into coastal Palestine and the Fertile Crescent, important centres of early settlement, trade and human migration.

The Garstang Excavation

The first excavations at the site of Jericho took place in 1868 under the auspices of Sir Charles Warren of the British Royal Engineers, who dug into the Tell but found little to interest him and moved on. John Garstang arrived in 1930 and excavated until 1936, reaching the Neolithic phase of site occupation and covering successive incarnations of the city. The aim of the excavation was to investigate the biblical history of the site, attempting to incorporate the stratigraphy of the site into the narrative of conquest portrayed in the Bible. The excavation uncovered four distinct layers of occupation, which Garstang interpreted as four separate cities built on top of each other. It also uncovered a structure, identified as a temple by John Garstang, which showed evidence of regular reconstruction with foundations stretching through multiple occupation phases, as well as a structure identified as a palace standing at the highest point within the city walls.

T-02 Image 1 Garstang at Jericho

Archive photograph from John Garstang’s excavations at Jericho.

The excavations uncovered not only Neolithic assemblages but also deeper deposits belonging to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Phase. The work of the Garstang excavation cleared two levels of occupation of the Pre-Pottery Phase, uncovering highly developed settlement architecture (for the time period) consisting of hand-made mud brick walls and fine, burnished plaster on the ceilings and floors. Notably, this architectural style changes completely in the succeeding ceramic phase.

Burial Assemblages at Jericho

The majority of finds from John Garstang’s excavations were ceramic, although many proved difficult to date due to a lack of significant parallels. While the forms of the vessels were similar to material from other Near Eastern sites, consisting primarily of small juglets and open bowls, the decoration was almost entirely unique. This decorated style incorporates motifs of chevrons and triangles in a red pigment, and the decorated vessels exist alongside undecorated vessels made primarily of coarse ceramic with grit and straw inclusions. The majority of these ceramic vessels came from a necropolis west of the Tell, which provided information regarding burial customs at the site.

BlogPhoto1

A selection of undecorated ceramic bowls, dipper juglets, a cylindrical vase and a pedestal vase from Tomb D13, dated c.2200-1570 BCE.

Tombs were generally small chambers or shallow, round graves containing material including ceramics, flint implements and the remains of offerings such as sheep bones. They varied greatly in size, and older remains and grave goods were often pushed aside to make room for newer series’ of burials with tombs containing anything from four to over a hundred occupants. This form of burial assemblage is typical of Near Eastern sites, but notably the concentration of pottery at Jericho far outstripped the inclusion of other material (although, of course, any potential perishables included in the burials may not have survived). Notably, objects found in these burials illustrated early links with other cultures in the Mediterranean and Egypt.

BlogPhoto2

Miniature juglets, used to store perfume (J.57.7, J.57.91-92 and J.57.95).

Human Heads!

One of Garstang’s key discoveries at Jericho was a plaster head, with shells for eyes, part of a complete figure. This discovery was made from contexts approximately between the pre-pottery and pottery phases, but more evidence has been discovered relating to human heads at Jericho by later excavations under the direction of Dame Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated a collection of “portrait heads” in 1953. These heads were moulded in plaster around human skulls with inset shells replacing the eyes, identified as objects of interest for early cultic and religious practice at the site. Notably, the skulls themselves are personal and no two are alike, suggesting that they may be representative of actual individuals living at Jericho in the Neolithic period!

Conclusions – A Century of Work

The site of Jericho is a fundamentally important milestone in understanding early human development, settlement and agricultural practices. The excavation history of the site is long and storied, and the work of John Garstang is just one of many excavations that has provided information about Jericho’s rich history. The collection of material from John Garstang’s excavations illustrates the vibrant cultures developing at the site in the Neolithic, and his discovery of the aceramic culture has led to Jericho being considered a quintessential example of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Phase.

Chris Bebbington.

Advertisements

Object in Focus: A Female Figurine from Ancient Egypt

Countless figurines have been found in Egypt, from steatopygous figurines in the Predynastic to blue faience nude figurines, from paddle dolls to innumerable shabtis, statuettes designed to spring to life in the afterlife to work for their master in the Fields of Reeds. This particular figurine – E.6895 – predates the New Kingdom (c. 16th Century BCE) and is something of a curious find. The object comes from Garstang’s excavation at Abydos (1906-1909). The statuette features an elaborate headdress or wig, and is decorated with rounded impressions across the entirety of the figurine. These “punctures” are paralleled on other figurines from the Pharaonic Period.

Material and Production

Figurines tend to be made from local ceramic and may have been produced en masse – indicated by the commonality of features across numerous figurines. The distinctive decoration and head shape may indicate production by individuals working to emulate a specific form. However, the ease of access to the material (clay) opens the possibility that these figurines were not produced only by so-called ‘skilled’ craftspeople. Similar material from the Predynastic – e.g. steatopygous figurines – are found across multiple sites from different time periods and show no evidence of any centralised production or specific ‘workshop’ or ‘craft area’ where they were produced. Similarly, the ubiquity of these statuettes across multiple sites suggests that, even if they were being produced en masse to a specific design, they were still being produced by numerous individuals.

Note that this statuette does not have holes through the head, which can be seen on other figurines and similar material and which were used to string “hair” onto the head of the figure. So-called ‘paddle dolls’, usually found in funerary contexts, have hair as a prominent feature – usually gathered into a coil, which was subsequently looped over the “head” of the doll. Note that the statuette does not feature the emphasised breasts and pubis associated with other forms of Egyptian figurines – they are clearly identified, but not overly emphasised or enlarged. Like Badarian anthropomorphic figurines, Naqada steatopygous figurines, Pharaonic ‘paddle dolls’ and numerous other female figurines from across the Near East and Europe, statuettes such as this have been labelled as ‘fertility fetishes’, ‘concubine figurines’ or variant shabtis used to act as a concubine or servant in the afterlife. This interpretation, however, is dated and deeply problematic.

E.6895(2)

Close-up detail of pubis and “puncture” decoration (E.6895).

Fertility Figurines?

Most interpretations of figurines as “fertility” icons rely on emphasised breasts and pubis as part of their interpretation, but this figurine lacks the exaggerated female aspects that are common among other “fertility” idols. In fact, the most emphasised element of the figurine is its headdress/wig and “puncture” decoration. The “puncture” decoration is not necessarily associated with sexuality, and instead may reflect Egyptian tattoos, evidence for which has been uncovered in mummies from IFAO’s excavations at Deir el-Medina. Is it necessary to associate these tattoos with, as has been done in the past, prostitution and sex work? Could an alternative explanation, one more reflecting the material at Deir el-Medina, instead identify tattoos as signifiers of ritual “magic” or female priesthood and religious rites?

E.6895(3)

Close-up detail of the headdress/”wig” and “puncture” decoration (E.6895).

Shabtis, which were mass-produced by the thousands, were subject to far more extensive decoration, with even the most simplistic including hieroglyphic inscriptions and some indication of clothing and facial features. If E.6895 were a “concubine” figurine for the afterlife, this would necessitate some spell of activation to bring it to life in its function as a shabti, which is not the case on this object or its parallels. Later examples of figurines with perforations and headdresses of a similar style are still simplistic in their form and show few parallels with shabtis. Parallels in the museum and elsewhere are regularly found broken, with the heads, torsos and arms damaged. Is it possible that this deliberate damage was inflicted as part of a religious or magical ritual?

E.1749(2)

Egyptian shabti dated to the New Kingdom (E.1749).

Magical Tools?

Recent findings paint a different picture of the object and figurines like it. Papyri discovered in the Mut Precinct of the Karnak Temple Complex show that these figurines may have been used in the practice of magic (or heka) in ancient Egypt. The direct quote from the papyrus, which can be found in Leiden, describes a spell for curing stomach ache: ‘Words spoken over a female figure of clay. As for any of the suffering in the belly, the affliction shall go down from him into the female figure of Isis until he is healthy’. At this point, the statue would be destroyed. This explains examples of similar statuettes being found broken at points where natural breakage is very unlikely, such as at the thick neck, or the waist. Furthermore, note that this figurine is incapable of standing as its legs taper to points.. It is possible, then, that the statue was most likely held in one hand – as one would expect from a magical tool.

This also explains the nature of the decoration – a statuette meant to be used as an aide to a ritual spell and then destroyed would not necessarily be afforded the level of detailed decoration one would expect to find on other forms of Egyptian statuary and figurines. The elaborate headdress/wig could also be attributed to the statuette being a representation of Isis. Notably, one of the titles of Isis, weret-heka, meaning “great of magic”. Isis was regularly associated with healing, and in Egyptian mythology was able to heal the child Horus in the marshes of Chemmis after he was injured by snakebite.

Final Thoughts

These figurines are fascinating, not just due to their function, but due to the various interpretations of their meanings since their discoveries. It has only been the discovery of papyri, the survival of which is nothing short of a miracle, that cast light on their functions, beyond simplistic interpretations such as “fertility fetish”, or ”concubine figure”. They illustrate the difficulty in understanding objects and materials without written context to refer to, one of the greatest challenges in interpreting archaeological evidence.

Thomas Redpath.

Edited by Chris Bebbington & Megan Clarke.

Decorated Ware – A Landscape in Ceramic

D-Ware (or Decorated Ware) is a classification of Predynastic pottery originating from Flinders Petrie’s seriation of Predynastic material from Diospolis Parva. The characteristics of D-Ware are that it is made from Marl clay and decorated with red pigment, likely made from ochre. The vessels are decorated with numerous designs and motifs, ranging from abstract geometric patterns to depictions of humans, animals and the natural landscape of the Nile Valley. The majority of D-Ware vessels date to the Naqada IIC-IID and Naqada IIIA-IIIB periods, with most found across sites in Upper Egypt (though there is limited distribution through Middle Egypt, Lower Egypt and Nubia).

E.3030

Boats, plants, animals and human are all motifs regularly appearing on D-Ware vessels like this one (E.3030).

Geometric Designs

Certain forms of decoration on D-Ware vessels appear to be abstract – wavy lines, patterns or simple shapes. It is unclear whether these shapes may have communicated an idea or might represent something more concrete, as the vast temporal space between the manufacture of the vessels and their interpretation now prevents our understanding of the meanings behind these abstract shapes.

 

E.3045.png

The decoration on this vessel from Koshtamna consists only of a series of curved lines painted on all sides of the vessel (E.3045).

In some cases, it is possible that these shapes are an imitation of more expensive vessels – it is common, for example, to find Predynastic vessels with swirls, spirals and other decorations intended to imitate the patterning of stone vessels – a material that was less common, harder to procure and much more difficult to work with. Another possibility is that these vessels might still be representing aspects of the natural world – for example, it is not uncommon to find wavy-line decoration on D-Ware vessels reminiscent of the later hieroglyphic sign for the consonant value ‘n’, which represent water. Could this form of decoration be an attempt to depict water, or the River Nile – of central importance to Egyptian society throughout both history and prehistory?

E.4762 (2).png

The swirling patterns on this vessel are an imitation of the patterning on stone vessels from the same time period (E.4762).

Depictions of Natural and Human Geography

A common motif is the inclusion of natural and human features in the landscape. For example, often one sees rows of black triangles taken to represent the desert hills surrounding the Nile Valley. In most cases, these are featured alongside depictions of animals, such as oryx, addax or ibex, and may indicate a spatial relationship between the grazing lands of these animals and the desert hills located nearby. Alternatively, the relationship between the depictions of geographical features and other parts of decoration on the vessel might be an early precursor to the strictly delineated registers of decoration found on later Egyptian material, such as stelae and tomb and temple wall inscriptions.

E.3035

This striking D-Ware pot includes zig-zag banding just below the rim, followed by “registers” of grazing animals, desert hills and river plants (E.3035).

A less common feature of decoration is the potential inclusion of human architectural elements. These ‘architectural elements’ are cross-hatched geometric shapes, in the form of structures tentatively identified as wattle-and-daub or matted constructions (potentially shrines or temples, although this is mostly conjecture). These structures, whatever their intended purpose, may be the origin of the so-called ‘façade’ style decoration found in Predynastic and Early Dynastic motifs and iconography.

More common than actual buildings is the inclusion of boats. The central importance of the Nile River in Egypt cannot be understated, and riverine trade would naturally have been a facet of Egyptian life as far back as the Predynastic period. The ubiquitous representations of boats on D-Ware vessels illustrate how important they were to the Egyptians; moreover, their regular inclusion alongside human figures may be representations of trade and exchange happening along the riverside, a scene that is familiar from later depictions in the Pharaonic Period.

E.3038 (2)

Boats are one of the most common features of decoration on D-Ware vessels, regularly appearing next to depictions of humans and animals (E.3038).

Depictions of Flora and Fauna

Flora and fauna are commonly depicted on D-Ware vessels; plants and other natural vegetation are regularly included, although identifying specific species of plant is difficult due to the abbreviated nature of the art style. The fauna depicted are usually oryx, ibex and other grazing animals, although ostriches are also very common. It has been suggested that the representation of these animals on D-Ware – particularly if that representation is alongside human figures, which are sometimes represented touching or otherwise in contact with the animals – might be an artistic trope, illustrating the triumph of human order over animalistic chaos. However, this is difficult to prove with any certainty, and while the motifs are abstract enough that it is unlikely that they are historical – referring to a specific hunt or a specific interaction between humans and animals – they may just act as a record of the daily activities of their Predynastic creators.

E.6111

Close-up detail of a D-Ware vessel. This is the only known example of D-Ware including the unusual motif of birds in flight (E.6111).

Depictions of Humans

Humans depicted on D-Ware tend to be shown in an abbreviated form that emphasises the general shape of the figure rather than individual details or characteristics, much like anthropomorphic Predynastic figurines. Likewise, there are numerous examples of female human figures depicted with their arms raised over their heads and their legs together, the same pose as is depicted in steatopygous figurines and in rock art in the Western desert. The exact meaning of this pose has been hotly debated. Older theories tended to focus on a divine reasoning, either participation in a mother goddess cult or some form of prayer, but this is generally less accepted now. Modern scholarship relates the pose to being a symbolic assumption of authority through taking on visual characteristics associated with bulls.

The inclusion of human figures in this style on D-Ware vessels might indicate people of importance – they are regularly included in scenes that also include boats, which suggests that those humans depicted in this way may have had a level of social responsibility relating to boats, and by extension, trade. This would match with depictions of similar figures on rock art, which show them surrounded and potentially in control of grazing animals.

E3027

This vessel shows human figures interacting on a boat, with the figure on the left shown with legs together similar to steatopygous figurines. Unfortunately, much of the decoration has been damaged (E.3027).

A Window into Ancient Minds?

The choice of decoration used on this pottery allows archaeologists a glimpse into the meaningful motifs and semiotic communications that were utilised and understood by Predynastic Egyptians, and can assist with the identification of important cultural signifiers relevant to the daily life of these prehistoric people. The absence of textual evidence from the Predynastic necessitates a reliance on the visual themes and designs utilised in Egyptian material culture in order to envision and relate to their world, as they understood it.

e3030-a2

This collage image stitched together from multiple photographs shows off the entirety of the decoration of this D-Ware vessel (E.3030).

Chris Bebbington.

Homosexuality in the Ancient World

The modern conception of sexuality relies on a strict categorisation of sexual appetites and personal desires – heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, etc. In the ancient world, however, these words did not exist and the concepts they represent were not necessarily analogous to our modern understanding of sexuality.

Attitudes towards homosexuality in recent history have coloured the perspective through which we view the nature of sexuality in the ancient world. Early historians, archaeologists and antiquarians viewed notions of alternate sexual identity through the lens of their own social mores, and their discussion of these sexual identities was often stilted and couched in euphemism (when it wasn’t downright ignored).

Modern scholarship has done a great deal to explore the history of sexual identities in ancient cultures and, though progress is slow, there is now a wider consensus on the existence of alternate sexual practices in the ancient world. Despite this, the application of modern labels to sexual identities in antiquity still provides an inadequate exploration of the lived sexual identities of ancient peoples.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece has a reputation in modern culture as a society in which homosexuality was accepted – even encouraged. Realistically, however, this is an oversimplification of a complex matter centring on gender, identity and social structure. Ancient Greece has served as an idealised utopia for alternative sexual identities, with Oscar Wilde famously referencing, in his trial in 1895, affection between two men as the “very basis” of the philosophy of Plato. Similarly, the attraction of the Greek isle of Lesbos – home of Sappho, the “tenth muse” and famous poet and writer – to lesbian women has taken on an almost mythological light. But to what extent was homosexuality truly accepted in ancient Greece?

Ancient Greek society was not an equal one. Citizenship was an obstacle to freedom, and those who were not counted as citizens – for example, in classical Athens, women, children and slaves – did not have the same rights or social esteem extended to the citizenry. Even between male citizens same-sex courting was couched in the terminology of pederasty, with an older male – the erastes – taking the role of a teacher, and a younger male, usually in his teens – the eromenos – taking the role of a student. Ignoring the necessary power imbalance that this imposed upon the relationship, the eromenos was often idealised as an embodiment of the virility, impressionability, naivety and beauty of youth. Pederasty had its own complex social-sexual etiquette and does not reflect the modern understanding of homosexual relationships as being functionally similar to heterosexual relationships.

The relationship of Plato with same-sex desire is a complex one. In his Symposium, the speaker Aristophanes discusses same-sex relationships in a way that closely resembles a more modern understanding – with the two participants treated as equals whose relationship completes the other. In his Laws, however, Plato dismisses same-sex relationships as being unnatural and unsuited to his vision of utopian society. This contradictory view of homosexual relations is characteristic of our understanding of alternate sexual identities in ancient Greece – same-sex relationships did occur, and in some ways may have been accepted and even celebrated, but they were not the ideal partnership and the way that courtship occurred is fundamentally unrecognisable to our modern understanding of same-sex relationships.

Ancient Rome

Though Rome has a rich history of homoerotic art and literature, their conception of same-sex relationships between men hinges around a traditional viewpoint of masculinity and femininity. Male same-sex relationships were generally accepted amongst the citizenry of Rome, but only as long as the citizen was in the dominant (or penetrative) role. The men who took on the “feminine” or submissive role were generally slaves, prostitutes or entertainers, men with lower social status known as infamia – technically free men, but not afforded the rights and protections of the citizenry. For a free man to allow himself to be penetrated threatened his sexual integrity and invited challenges to his virility and masculinity.

Female same-sex relationships are generally less well-attested in Roman literature during the Republic and Principate, although whether this reflects an issue of decorum – a refusal to mention these relationships as they were viewed as improper in some way – is debateable. Certainly, the attitude of prominent Roman poet Ovid hints at this, with his claim that female same-sex relations were “a desire known to no one…no female is seized by desire for a female”. In his Metamophoses, Ovid tells the tale of a pregnant woman named Telethusa, whose husband claims that he will kill their unborn child if she is female. She attempts to conceal the sex of her daughter when she is born, giving her the ambiguous name Iphis, and she is married to a golden-haired maiden named Ianthe. Though initially the relationship between the two is described romantically – “Love came to both of them together / in simple innocence, and filled their hearts / with equal longing”. The tale ends with Iphis being so horrified that the goddess Isis intervenes and transforms her daughter into a man – “Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!” This tale betrays not only Roman attitudes towards the clear division of gender roles and a lack of ambiguity in gender identity, but also highlights the valuation of female same-sex relationships as lesser or improper compared to heterosexual relationships.

Ancient Egypt

Attitudes towards same-sex relationships in ancient Egypt are hotly debated due to a lack of surviving literary evidence. In Talmudic literature, the ancient Egyptians are painted as a sexually promiscuous and “debauched” people, with Maimonides referring to lesbianism as “the acts of Egypt”. In truth, however, there is little evidence that such sexual freedoms existed in the ancient past.

In the New Kingdom tale of the Contendings of Horus and Seth, Seth assaults Horus in an attempt to dominate him and prove that Horus is unfit for kingship before the Ennead of Egyptian gods. Horus, however, catches Seth’s semen in his hands and tricks Seth into consuming his own semen. When this is revealed before the Ennead, Seth flees in embarrassment and is seen as unfit for kingship, giving some hint at possible Egyptian attitudes towards male same-sex relationships.

Perhaps the most famous case study regarding Egyptian homosexuality is the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two Overseers of Manicurists in the Palace of King Nyuserre. The two men were buried together in a joint tomb at Saqqara, and have been considered by some scholars to be the first recorded same-sex couple in history. A great deal of this argument is based on the interpretation of tomb decoration showing the two men standing nose-to-nose and embracing, the most intimate pose allowed by the decorum of Egyptian art. There are a number of flaws in this theory – most obviously, the families of the two men are depicted in the decoration of their tomb, showing that both men had wives and children. Is it possible that the two men were engaged in a same-sex relationship? Was this permitted, allowed, even encouraged, by their families? Were they engaged in a polyamorous same-sex and heterosexual relationship? The dearth of solid evidence provides space for a great deal of supposition, but unfortunately such supposition tells us little of use about the practicalities of ancient Egyptian engagement and understanding of same-sex relationships and alternative sexual desires.

Projecting onto the Past?

The nature of academia is to not only strive for new discoveries, but also re-examine past interpretations of evidence to divorce oneself from the attitudes and lenses that coloured scholarly analysis in the past. It is crucially important to identity the biases and prejudices that existed in the past in order to come to a greater understanding of the truths of the past. Still, it is equally important to note that our own understanding is tinged by the attitudes of modernity, and our own conclusions will necessarily require re-examination by scholars in the future.

In truth, the projection of utopian ideals of sexual acceptance – particularly in the case of same-sex relationships – onto ancient cultures does not truly capture the complexity and social nuance that surrounded the complex issues of sexuality and desire in the past, and continues to cause controversy in the modern day. The application of modern labels onto sexual attitudes in the past – labels still hotly contested by scholars today – creates the issue of forcing a modern understanding of sexuality onto people who did not necessarily conceptualise sexual identity in the same way we do.

Furthermore, it is challenging to answer questions such as “What were ancient Roman attitudes to homosexuality?” or “How did the ancient Egyptians conceptualise same-sex relationships?” as these questions inherently assume a continuity of culture through vast chronological spaces. When discussing ancient cultures, it is important to appreciate the length of time and space through which they existed, and summarising socio-cultural attitudes so generally can obscure the fluid nature of human society. Attitudes towards homosexuality in, for example, the UK, have changed a great deal in just the last few decades – how much might attitudes have changed in the span of, for example, thousands of years of Egyptian culture?

Nonetheless, it is crucially important to continue re-examining the work of previous scholars and to try to understand these attitudes in the ancient world, not just to combat misinformation but also to come to a closer understanding of this fundamental aspect of human identity. The truth likely exists amongst layers of complexity between dated and conservative interpretations of ancient sexuality, and amongst modern utopian reinterpretations – as in modernity, attitudes towards sexuality in the ancient world were likely various and multifaceted in a way that archaeological and textual evidence struggles to communicate.

Christopher Bebbington.

Aspects of a Goddess: The Cult Image of Hathor in the Garstang Museum (E.66)

E.66.jpg

This New Kingdom cult image found by Garstang at the site of Esna depicts the goddess Hathor, the mother (and sometimes daughter) of the sun god Re. Hathor was a prominent Egyptian goddess, and held many titles and epithets relating to her function in mythology and day-to-day religious practice. Some of these titles include “Mistress of the West” (an allusion to her role in funerary beliefs), “Lady of the Sycamore” (associating her with trees, vegetation and the environment) and “Lady of Turquoise” (associating her with turquoise from Serabit el-Khadim). Hathor was also associated with dance, romance and song, and was one of the few goddesses depicted carrying the was sceptre.

Hathor and Fertility

A key feature of Hathor as a goddess is her association with fertility. Symbols of Hathor such as the menat necklace and the sistra (a musical instrument used in cult worship) were thought to help promote fertility. Her bovine form was a symbol of fertility, prosperity and abundance. As a fertility goddess Hathor was closely associated with many other Egyptian deities such as Isis, Min, and Bes.

Hathor’s temple at Dendera had two birthing houses connected to it with statues of the god Bes outside of them. In Papyrus Westcar, midwives hold items sacred to Hathor to aid the woman giving birth. The menat necklace and the sistra are often items used in spells to protect the milk of the mother and likening the mother to Hathor’s bovine form. At Hathor’s temple often fertility symbols were left as dedications to ensure fertility (both male and female) and to provide protection from the moment of conception in life (to avoid miscarriages, protect the child, and protect the mother) until the moment of rebirth in the afterlife. Her connection as a fertility goddess extends to her role in divine mythology, where Hathor birthed the sun god each morning.

Hathor and Rebirth

Hathor is often mentioned in New Kingdom funerary compositions such as the Book of the Dead, where the deceased regularly identifies with aspects of Hathor; in Spell 186, Hathor is mentioned as “She of the West”, “Lady of the Sacred Land” and “Eye of Re which is on his forehead”. Hathor is said to have “built the Great Bark of Osiris in order to cross the water of truth”.

Hathor has the title ‘Mistress of the West’ (protector and guide of the deceased) and in the New Kingdom, was thought to reside in the mountains protecting the Valley of the Kings. The cult image of Hathor in the Garstang Museum is made of limestone and gilded with gold and painted, rather than completely made of gold as most cult images were. This is likely why this image has survived being melted down and reused.

E.66(2)

Traces of paint and gold foil are still visible on the cult statue today.

As well as a protector of the deceased, Hathor is also a provider for the dead. As ‘Mistress of the Sycamore’ she provides them with shade, food and water on their journey. The cult image from Esna depicts deceased tomb owners drinking water from Hathor’s bovine form on the bottom right. The text on the image indicates Hathor is asking for nourishment to be provided for the deceased tomb owners.

Hathor and the Pharaoh

Hathor (through her association with the goddess Isis) is often depicted in her bovine form providing nourishment and milk to a young child Horus in the marshes of the delta region. This association likely derives from The Contendings of Horus and Seth, wherein Hathor restores Horus’ sight using milk after he is blinded by Seth. Due to this, Hathor is depicted as the symbolic mother of the pharaoh and his protector; she is often depicted in bovine form nursing pharaohs with her milk. In the tomb of Seti I, Hathor is depicted placing the menat necklace around his neck to protect him from evil on his journey in the afterlife, indicating Hathor’s continued protection of the pharaoh and ensuring his chance at rebirth.

E.66(3)

In this depiction of Hathor, she is surrounded by individuals drinking the life-giving water that flows from her.

Hathor and Ma’at

Ma’at was the goddess of maintaining order and the concept of ma’at itself, the “correct way” that things should be in pharaonic Egypt (often translated as “balance” or “order”, as opposed to isfet – “chaos”). In The Book of the Heavenly Cow, humanity plot and rebel against the rule of Re and attempt to destroy him causing chaos in Egypt and disrupting ma’at. Re asks his daughter Hathor to carry him into the sky where he now remains; she is then sent by the sun god (as the ‘Eye of Re’) to Earth to punish humanity for their crimes against him and for causing chaos and disruption to order. By punishing humans for the crime Hathor restores order, and therefore ma’at, back on Earth.

In Hathor’s temple at Dendera, Hathor is depicted receiving the ma’at ritual from the Pharaoh. She is often shown on the boat of the sun god standing next to Ma’at, ensuring that the sun god survives the journey through the night to be reborn in the morning.

Final Remarks

Hathor is an example of the many interlocking facets and aspects of ancient Egyptian deities; she has many roles and is associated with many different things both in mythology and in day-to-day life. Her cult statue is an incredibly rare find, and this unique and valuable object illustrates the style and content that would be included on cult statues of Egyptian gods. In modern portrayals, Hathor is often associated primarily with fertility and motherhood, but in ancient Egyptian religious beliefs she was fundamentally tied into aspects of divine kingship, afterlife belief and the philosophical conception of divine order in Egypt.

Hannah Drummond & Chris Bebbington.

Royal Titulary: What’s in a Name?

“The King is Ka. His utterance is abundance. The one whom he brought up is one who will be somebody. He is Khnum for all limbs, the begetter of the begotten. He is Bastet, who protects the Two Lands. The one who praises him will be protected by his arm. He is Sekhmet against those who disobey his orders, and the one with whom he disagrees will be laden with sorrow.”

 – The Loyalist Instruction of Sehetepibre

The word ‘pharaoh’ is derived from the Egyptian per-a’a, meaning “great house”, a reference to the royal court of Egypt. In the modern conception of ancient Egypt, the pharaoh is synonymous with our understanding of the governing forces behind the Egyptian state during this period. The monuments of the pharaohs are littered across the landscape, from the northernmost Nile Delta to conquered lands in the Sudan. Throughout history, cultures have been obsessed with Egypt and its god-kings – thanks to ancient peoples such as the Romans and modern events such as the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt during the French Revolutionary Wars, ancient Egyptian monuments can be found in France, Italy and throughout Europe. This lasting fascination with the world of the ancient Egyptians, and particularly with the pharaohs who ruled that world, has persisted into modernity. The history of the pharaohs is colourful, and the lasting monuments and objects left behind for archaeologists to discover allows us to reveal hidden truths regarding these ancient kings.

The Five Part Titles of the King

Egyptian pharaohs were known by more than one name – by the Middle Kingdom, each pharaoh had a full titulary consisting of five different names.

The Horus name is the oldest form of the pharaoh’s name and is evident from the Predynastic Period onwards. This name was usually written in a serekh, a special hieroglyphic symbol that has been argued to represent the façade of the royal palace. The falcon god Horus would be depicted perching upon the serekh, representing the close ties of the pharaoh to the divine world, and the protection that this afforded them.

narmer serekh

This potsherd bears an incised serekh containing the name of Narmer, a major figure in the process of the unification of Egypt into a single kingdom (E.5242).

The serekh has been argued to originate  during the Naqada III period of the Predynastic at the latest. The oldest known tombs including the ‘palace façade’ decoration were found at Saqqara and Naqada, dating to the reign of King Hor-Aha, although the serekh’s appearance before these tombs were built indicates structures of a similar nature must have existed earlier. The earliest examples of serekhs do not include the Horus falcon perched above the serekh structure, and others show some variance (such as the inclusion of two falcons instead of one); the serekh decoration was only formalised at the beginning of the Pharaonic Period.

The Nebty (or Two Ladies) name was associated with two goddesses thought to personify Upper and Lower Egypt – the vulture goddess, Nekhbet, patron of Upper Egypt, and the cobra goddess Wadjet, patron of Lower Egypt. This name represented not only the duality of the king, and his rulership over Egypt in its entirety, but also illustrates once again the divine protection afforded to the royal name. This design may originate from the royal tombs of early kings Hor-Aha and Djer from Abydos, where ivory tags show the Two Ladies (although they are mounted upon the red crown of Egypt, rather than the typical basket hieroglyph).

The Golden Horus name is preceded by the image of the god Horus, perched above the hieroglyphic sign for gold. This is thought to either provide a link between the pharaoh and the prosperity of Egypt but may potentially illustrate the triumph and success of Horus and relate it to the success of the king. Alternatively, it has been suggested that it might represent the triumphs of Horus, with the hieroglyphic symbol for ‘gold’ being taken to show the superiority of Horus over his foes.

The following two names are traditionally written inside a cartouche, the first instance of which is found on a clay sealing showing the name of Nebka from Beit Khallaf. The ancient Egyptians believed that names held magical power, and so the cartouche was a form of protection that encircled the final two names of the pharaoh.

E.5251 (Line Drawing)

Line drawing of a clay sealing from Beit Khallaf with the first known use of a cartouche (top left) encircling the name of 3rd Dynasty King Nebka (E.5251).

The Throne Name (prenomen) is accompanied by the title nesu-bity, which translates roughly to “Dual King”. The sedge and bee hieroglyphs used to write this title have traditionally been associated with the two lands of Upper and Lower Egypt and translated as “king of Upper and Lower Egypt”. Recent research, however, indicates that they may instead refer to two specific roles of the king – the king acting as both a nesu-king and a bity-king, fulfilling different functions in each role.

E.7802(3)

This inscribed piece of limestone shows the nesu-bity hieroglyphs alongside the bottom of a cartouche (E.7802).

The Personal Name (nomen) was the name of the pharaoh given at birth. The name is preceded with the epithet sa Ra, meaning “son of Ra”. This name was first introduced in the 4th Dynasty, and ties the king closely with Ra, the Egyptian sun god. This is the name most commonly used to refer to pharaohs in popular culture and is where their anglicized names tend to derive from (for example, Ramesses).

Royal Names at the Garstang: Queen Neith-hotep and the Naqada Royal Tomb

One of the most curious objects at the Garstang Museum is a clay seal impression from the Naqada Royal Tomb. This object is unique in that it contains the name of a woman named Neith-hotep within in the form of a serekh. Traditionally, the serekh would not be used for the name of anyone who was not themselves a king (i.e. ruler in their own right, not a consort), which raises interesting questions about Neith-hotep and her role and responsibilities.

complete2.jpg

The name of Neith-hotep is shown in the form of serekhs in this mud sealing from the Naqada Royal Tomb (E. 1335).

 

One possibility is that the formal use of the serekh had not been codified entirely by this early point in Egyptian history, and there was some variability and experimentation that allowed the name of Neith-hotep to be presented in the same way as the name of a pharaoh. However, this does not discount the possibility that Neith-hotep was herself a queen or ruler in her own right.

This poses an important question to the modern archaeologist – do we assume that Neith-hotep was not a ruler in her own right because of historically entrenched views on masculine kingship in Egypt, where female kings are curious exceptions in a predominantly male lineage? Or are we being overly optimistic, applying a more modern, egalitarian ideology into the ancient past when we suppose that she may have held similar power to her son, King Hor-Aha, or her husband, King Narmer? These important questions will be explored in greater depth in the museum’s upcoming exhibit in May 2019, Before Egypt.

Christopher Bebbington.

Reflections of the Natural World – Predynastic Palettes

Egyptian ‘cosmetic’ palettes are found during the Predynastic period, they are made of flat pieces of stone – often described as ‘slate’, but in actuality siltstone – on which pigmented material could be ground up and made into cosmetics. The palette is a curious piece of material culture in Egyptian history; they are found throughout both Egypt and Nubia, and take on various distinct forms and evolutions throughout the Predynastic Period. Despite their ubiquity in the burial context, palettes quickly vanish from the archaeological record during the Pharaonic Period, disappearing not only from the material culture of Pharaonic Egyptian burials from the 1st Dynasty onwards but also from later material culture found in Nubian C-group burials.

Animal Forms

Palettes come in a variety of forms. In the Badarian to early Naqada I Period, they were primarily simplistic rectangular pieces of siltstone, clearly a form more suited to functionality than aesthetic value. In the later Naqada I, II & III periods, however, palette forms change to become predominantly shaped into forms reminiscent of animals. Of these zoomorphic palettes, the most common representations include fish, birds and turtles, though there are also more unusual examples such as hippopotami and gazelles.

E.5308 (a) (2)

Predynastic oblong palette from the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery (E.5308a).

 

The Nubian A-Group also had their own distinctive cosmetic palettes, though there is evidence of importation of Egyptian palettes as well. These palettes were usually made from quartz, rather than siltstone, with most Egyptian siltstone palettes being found in the northern regions, closer to the First Cataract. Nubian palettes have similar feature to their Egyptian neighbours, though often of simpler geometric shapes rather than zoomorphic forms; there is evidence of use from observable malachite residue on many palettes, and they were usually deposited in burial contexts.

The Importance of Iconography

Animal iconography is used across all mediums of Predynastic art, including ceramic vessels, taking the recognisable forms of turtles, birds, fish, hippopotami and other animals found represented in cosmetic palettes. Perhaps the most obvious form of animal representation in Predynastic vessels are theriomorphic stone and ceramic vessels, such as those found in Cemetery T at Naqada and in the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. Similar zoomorphic material is found on a range of objects of beautification and personal adornment, including ivory bangles and combs with carved tops in the form of bull horns or birds, as well as on prehistoric graffiti across the breadth of Egypt.

E5318

Predynastic fish-shaped palette (E. 5318).

 

The use of animal iconography across Predynastic material culture illustrates the importance of these animals to the Egyptian people at this time. These recurring motifs indicate that the fauna of the Nile Valley was of great importance to Predynastic Egyptians, and while any symbolic or religious associations can only be conjectured about, the actual animals themselves played a key part in the visual landscape that prehistoric Egyptians inhabited. As well as illustrating the Preydnastic fascination with the native fauna, palettes also indicate the importance of cosmetics and beautification in Predynastic society, as well as providing evidence for trade between regions in Upper Egypt and A-Group sites in the Sudan.

Christopher Bebbington.

Horses in Ancient Egypt

There have been developments in the research into E.6953, regarding its context and Ancient Egyptian attitudes to horses.

blogblogblog

E.6953

The object is likely to have been made of Nile silt, due to the characteristic red colouring of the clay, suggesting that the object was made in Egypt, not in the Ancient Near East, where other such models come from. The two horses share a body and four legs but have their own heads, a style that may have been utilised to make the model robust and easier to make. They have reins and blinkers, which may indicate that the break at the rear of the object was a chariot. The fact that this figurine depicts a chariot is unusual, as this is the only example that has been found in the course of this research and other examples depict only one horse.

The object cannot be dated before the New Kingdom, as this is when horses were introduced to Ancient Egypt, as the first archaeological evidence of horses is at the Hyksos site of Tell El-Dab’a, where a significantly large number of horse molars have been found. This indicates that the species may have been introduced during the settlement of the Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period.  Horses are depicted in writing for the first time in the Stela of Kamose, before becoming a routine feature in Ancient Egyptian art and becoming a standard hieroglyphic sign.  The hieroglyphic sign for the collective is ‘sesmet’, which is derived from the Arabic ‘susim’ and indicates the influence that Ancient Near Eastern culture had on the Ancient Egyptians.

Horses and Power

In Ancient Egypt, horses were never used for labour, but were a symbol of royal power and heroic actions in scenes of chaos. In the Kadesh Inscription of Rameses II, his two horses are named ‘Victory in Thebes’ and ‘Mut is content’. The fact that these animals were given theophoric names by the king indicates the prestige that they held with royalty. It also shows how even though horses were not a part of religion, they could be used to indicate how the gods were always beside the king. The fact that Rameses II also tells his officers that his horses would be eating with him, because they behaved more nobly than they did, indicates the level of care that was given to these creatures. Although this is hyperbole, it does indicate the high regard that horses were given in Ancient Egypt.

Similarly, the Sphinx Stela of Amenhotep II also describes an episode where he is shooting at a target from his chariot and describes how he trained his horses into fine beasts. This indicates that these were a highly revered animal and were an important part of royal iconography, especially as horses were expensive to obtain and maintain. It also indicates how they were an important part of Ancient Egyptian warfare, being used to pull chariot in battle, from which the rider would then fight.

The fact that the king was so appreciative of these animals in Ancient Egypt can be seen in the Stela of King Piye from the Nubian Twenty-fifth Dynasty. After finally ending his assault on King Namart, ‘His Majesty proceeded to the stable of the horses and the quarters of the foals. When he saw they had been [left] to hunger, he said “I swear, as [Ra] loves me, as my nose is refreshed by life; that my horses were made to hunger pains me more than any other crime you committed in your recklessness!”’ This passionate speech shows the real concern of the king at the poor state in which he has found the horses and that he finds it the most despicable crime of Namart, indicating the passion the Ancient Egyptians for horses.

Hunting and Racing?

Near the palace site of Malkata at Kom el-Abd, a track of 4km width and 120km in length has been discovered. It has been suggested that this is a racecourse for chariot racing, however it is difficult to date this structure and with a lack of comparisons from within Egypt, it would be hard to ascribe this function to the site confidently. The tomb of Userhet (TT56) shows the owner hunting using chariots pulled by horses. The reins are wrapped around his lower waist in order to free his hands for hunting. This is important, as it shows that horses were often pulling chariots in Egyptian art, which would indicate why E.6953 is of two horses.

Finally, horses were not just valiant, brave and noble creatures to be used in hunting and warfare, but they also had rather a romantic image. This can be seen in poems written on P. Chester Beatty I, Verso, where the poet writes:

‘Oh, might I welcome you

As the king’s own steed is welcome,

A champion chosen from thousands,

Thoroughbred, best in the stables.’

Lauren Hill.

 

Translations taken from:

Foster, J.L. (1992) Love Songs of the New Kingdom. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Further Reading:

Houlihan, P. (2002) “Animals in Egyptian Art and Hieroglyphs” in Collins (ed.) A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East. Leiden, pp. 97-144.

Teeter, E. (2010) Baked Clay Figurines and Votive Beds from Medinet Habu. Chicago.

Burials and Grave Goods in the Predynastic – You Can Take It With You!

Typically, the modern audience associates burial and funerary ritual in ancient Egypt with the iconic imagery of the Pharaonic period – meticulously mummified bodies locked away deep in tombs filled with ancient treasures. However, the practice of preserving the body after death and providing assemblages of burial objects dates much earlier, going as far back as at least c. 6000 years ago. These early burials – such as the iconic Gebelein Predynastic “mummies” – did not go through a deliberate process of preservation, but instead were naturally desiccated by the desert environment that they were buried in.

The lack of written language and knowledge of Predynastic funerary ritual poses a problem for the modern Egyptologist – how to interpret the assemblages of goods that were deposited alongside the body. Without any literature to allow the Egyptians themselves to “tell” us why they included these objects in burials, we must carefully extrapolate and interpret the meanings and significance behind these objects. It is undeniable, however, that their inclusion in burials illustrates that these objects proved important in some fashion for the deceased.

Pottery

The most common grave good found in Predynastic burials is the simple pot. These come in various forms but decorated (or D-Ware) vessels are of particular interest. These vessels were painted with iconography and imagery reflective of the geography of the Nile Valley, the natural flora and fauna of the region, and human activities. Often, they include depictions of boats indicating the importance of riverine trade in the Predynastic.

E.3033

The decoration used on Predynastic D-Ware vessels gives modern scholars an insight into the motifs and iconography that were important or relevant to ancient Egyptian culture at this time (E.3033).

 

Generally, Predynastic burials contain numerous ceramics, often placed over the body or alongside it. Occasionally these vessels contain other grave goods, such as ceramic figurines. Whether the inclusion of these vessels indicates that they belonged to the deceased or their family is unclear; they may have been included in burials for a specific ritual purpose, or as goods that could be taken to the next life.

E.4195 (1)

Petrie’s C-Ware is named for the iconic white ‘crossed-line’ decoration which can be seen on this bowl. This is another common form of pottery decoration in the Predynastic (E.4195).

Palettes

Another very common grave good associated with the Predynastic is the cosmetic palette. These objects are most commonly made of siltstone (often described as ‘slate’) and come in a variety of forms. The Badarian and Naqada I period palettes are often simple oblong shapes on which pigmented material such as malachite could be ground up into cosmetic powder. In the later Naqada periods, however, palettes commonly took on a host of forms that reflected the fauna of the Nile Valley – common examples include turtles, fish and birds.

E5318

Fish-shaped palettes are a very common feature of graves in the Predynastic, further illustrating the importance of the river Nile and the fauna around and within it during this formative period of Egyptian culture (E.5318).

The use of animal shapes in these palettes has clear parallels across the breadth of Predynastic Egyptian art. Animal iconography is commonly found on Predynastic decorated vessels, taking the recognisable forms of turtles, birds, fish, hippopotami and other animal forms, indicating the importance of the natural world and the flora and fauna of the Nile Valley to Predynastic Egyptian social groups. Notably, residue from cosmetics and evidence of wear has been found on numerous palettes, indicating that they were not just burial goods but also were used in life – whether specifically by the deceased, or by someone with a familial/social relation to them.

Figurines

One of the more unusual forms of burial good found in Predynastic graves is the anthropomorphic figurine. Usually made of ceramic, understanding the meaning of these figurines has posed a significant challenge to Egyptologists. The lack of defined facial features and individual, personal aspects in the form of the figurines suggests that they were not personal representation of the deceased; instead it has been theorised that they represented a deity (often characterised as a ‘fertility’ or ‘mother goddess’) or had a ritual meaning. It has been suggested that, alternatively, these figurines might have been ritually deposited (or even, in some cases, ritually broken) as part of the burial rites or as a display of mourning.

Egypte_louvre_314

Predynastic ceramic figurines usually include emphasis on the genitalia and a lack of decoration on the face. However, ivory statuettes such as this piece from the Louvre (E 11887) often have great deal of detail devoted to their facial features (photograph by Guillaume Blanchard, distributed under a CC A-SA 1.0 license).

Some of the most striking examples are the “steatopygous” female figurines (a word that refers to their large buttocks), which often have their arms raised over their heads. This gesture can be seen in representations of humans across Predynastic art, from figurines to decoration on vessels, to graffiti and art on cave walls. One interpretation of this gesture is that it refers to some kind of ritual behaviour or form of worship, and the presence of these figurines might indicate that the deceased had a personal connection with religious customs or divine spirituality.

E.3027

The depictions of humans on D-ware vessels can be strikingly similar to human-shaped figurines and Predynastic rock art (E.3027).

Personal Adornment and Miscellanea

 Objects found in Predynastic burials often reflect practices of personal adornment or status, such as the inclusion of imported beads of lapis lazuli from far as Afghanistan, obsidian from as far as Ethiopia and meteoric iron. These more luxurious and “high-status” objects may have been impersonated in other burials through the use of alternative materials – for example, bone and shell bracelets are a relatively common find and these may have been impersonations of objects of personal adornment made from a more affordable, readily-available material.

E.7262(1)

This shell bracelet from Hierakonpolis illustrates how objects of personal adornment were made not only from luxurious precious metals and stones, but also more easily-accessible material (E.7262).

Other miscellaneous objects in burials may have reflected information about the individual, their status in society, or their social roles and relationships – for example, objects made of flint such as knives, scrapers and arrowheads may illustrate something particular about the deceased (although this is impossible to know for sure). These objects may have been included for a specific funerary purpose, but they may instead be objects that had a special significance for the deceased or for the larger community engaging with the funerary ritual.

Funerary Customs in the Predynastic

Burials are fundamental to our understanding of the Egyptian Predynastic, with cemeteries often the only archaeological sites that have survived. The study of these burials does not just tell us more about the funerary beliefs and burial culture of Predynastic Egyptians, but also illustrates the development of stratification and hierarchies in social groups, the themes and iconography that was important at this time, and the vast trade networks that existed even at this early point in human history. While the large tombs and detailed burial customs of Pharaonic Egypt are perhaps more famous and well-known, their rich lineage can be traced back to the simple pit burials of the Predynastic.

Chris Bebbington.

All You Need Is Love: Modern Themes in Ancient Egyptian Love Poems

It is easy to get distracted by the largest and most obvious material from ancient Egypt – vast tombs, colossal statues and beautiful jewellery. This can lead to a disconnect in our understanding of what ancient Egyptian life was really like – how ‘normal’ people felt, behaved, and acted. One of the ways that scholars try to connect with ancient Egypt at a personal, individual level is through the translation and understanding of literature written by ancient Egyptians themselves; and on Valentine’s Day, what better way is there to do that than to read some ancient Egyptian love poetry?

What Is Love?

Surviving evidence of Egyptian love poems and songs comes from the Ramesside workman’s village of Deir el-Medina (a community of craftsmen who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings). Because of the dry desert conditions, fragile material such as papyrus survives to a greater extent here than it does elsewhere. Exceptional literary finds have been discovered at Deir el-Medina, including the famous cache of the scribe Kenherkhopeshef; dream books, medico-magical papyri and literary tales. Some of the rarest of these finds are poetry and songs meditating on love, romance and desire.

Szennedzsem_sírja_TT1

The site of Deir el-Medina; its unusual location has led to a very good rate of preservation(photograph by Kingtut, distributed under a CC A-SA 3.0 license).

 

Vision of Love

One of the most curious and enjoyable aspects of Egyptian love poetry is how similar the sentiments and expressions are to modern love songs; the language of love transcends time and place. Often, the songs list the beautiful qualities of their subjects, going into (sometimes slightly excruciating!) detail about just how wonderful their lover is. Often, the poetry will discuss emotions and situations that the modern reader might be quite familiar with; for example, the idea of the ‘girl next door’ – or in this case, the ‘girl across the Nile’!

“I love a girl, but she lives over there,

On the far side of the river,

A whole Nile in flood rages between,

With a crocodile hunched on the sand.”

– Cairo Ostracon 25218

Often, metaphors and similes are used which are familiar to us as modern readers – ideas such as feeling ‘drunk’ on love, becoming ‘ill’ with desire, and in this particular case, having one’s breath stolen away by the one they love.

“Whenever I leave you, I go out of breath,

(Death must be lonely like I am);

I dream lying dreams of your love lost,

And my heart stands still inside me.”

– Papyrus Harris 500

Other metaphors that are often used in Egyptian love poetry relate to animals, geography and the natural world. The geography of the Nile Valley, and its flora and fauna, was an important source of inspiration in Egyptian art from theriomorphic vessels in the Predynastic period, to Middle Kingdom tomb paintings, to decoration on the floors of the New Kingdom city of Amarna. This fascination with the natural world is also evident in Egyptian love poetry.

_2014-06-17-01034

Motifs found on the decoration of Predynastic ceramic vessels such as this one illustrate the Egyptians’ fascination with the geography, flora and fauna of the Nile Valley even from the very earliest periods of history (E. 3030).

“Oh, hurry to look at your love!

Be like horses charging in battle,

Like a gardener up with the sun,

Burning to watch his prize bud open.”

– Papyrus Harris 500

Some of the themes that are reflected in Egyptian love poetry might seem more distant from the modern perspective; in particular, there are a number of poems which refer to religious themes and divine aspects. However, a reflection of religious ideas in love poetry was a common motif throughout ancient and modern history, and given the inextricable connection between religion and literature in ancient Egypt, it is not unexpected to find religious ideas reflected in love poems.

“I found my love by the secret canal,

Feet dangling down in the water,

He had made a hushed cell in the thicket, for worship,

To dedicate this day,

To holy elevation of the flesh.”

– Papyrus Chester Beatty I

Untitled

The prevalence of religion in daily life in ancient Egypt makes religious themes and motifs an obvious inclusion in love poetry. This sculpture depicts the cow-goddess Hathor, who was associated with love and fertility (E. 66).

 

Of course, that is not to say that all Egyptian love poetry was focused on beautiful metaphors, charming compliments and delicate longing. In fact, some of the poetry might be seen as a little raunchy by modern standards – here is one of the tamer examples!

“When we kiss, and her warm lips half open,

I fly cloud-high without beer!

What paradise gained, what fulfilment, what a heavenly turn of affairs!

Oh, raise one to Menkat, Our Lady of Liquor,

But keep your mouth tight on the girl!”

– Cairo Ostracon 25218

The Power of Love

One of the most endearing aspects of Egyptian love poetry is undoubtedly how relatable the thoughts and feelings expressed within it are to the modern audience. Poems that describe the delicate flutter of the heart when a paramour is near; the delight of a chance meeting with someone you have a crush on; and the joy of spending a day with someone you truly love. It can be said that love forever changes, but the language of love translates remarkably well across great distances and vast gulfs in time. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Christopher Bebbington.

Translations taken from:

Foster, J.L. (1992) Love Songs of the New Kingdom. Austin: University of Texas Press.