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Journey to the Beyond

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Journey to the Beyond Exhibition

Journey to the Beyond

Ancient Egyptians in the Pursuit of Eternity

The Ancient Egyptians’ attitude toward life and death has been fascinating us for millennia. Their pursuit of the eternal existence and provisioning for the journey to the BEYOND is the story of this exhibition, which presents, in a new context, objects from RAFFMA’s permanent collection and on loan from Dr. Benson Harer.

Check out RAFFMA's online database of over 300 Ancient Egyptian artifacts

View RAFFMA's Egyptian Database

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Weekly Egyptian Spotlight

In conjunction with the RAFFMA @ Home series, the Staff Egyptologist - Bryan Kraemer will take a deep dive into the history of one object weekly.


Padiusir Inscription

Offering Table of Sattjenenet

Offering Table

Middle Kingdom (Early 12th Dynasty)
From Tod or the Theban nome
42.05 cm wide
Ex-collection Harer, gift in 2001.

In a previous post, I mentioned the importance of the offering table in relationship to the statues in tombs. Here I present an offering table on display at RAFFMA. Its form and the texts inscribed on it provide a wonderfully succinct example of how these objects were intended to be used not only by living people in service to the cult of the dead but also as magical objects that would work for the dead on their own power.

This is the offering table of Sattjenenet daughter of Satneneksu. Its design is typical for an offering table of the early 12thDynasty (c. 1981 – 1917 BCE).[1] The name of the owner Sattjenenet pays honor to the goddess Tjenenet, who was the consort of the god Montu in the temple at Tod.[2] It was likely excavated somewhere in that area of Upper Egypt. The table is carved out a single piece of limestone. In the middle, it has a square-shaped basin. And the sides are framed by a raised edge along which two hieroglyphic texts are written. Much of the space within the basin is occupied by a single raised triangular shape that represents a hieroglyphic sign of a bread loaf. Below this, there are two rectangular depressions and two channels cut down to a spout. Now mounted on a stand that sets it upright, this object was originally designed to be used lying flat or slightly tilted. It was set up inside of a tomb or out in a cemetery in the vicinity of a tomb likely in a position in front of a statue or stela that showed an image of Sattjenenet. It was also probably set up on a stand to elevate it slightly off the ground to aid in its use as a table.

Offering tables like this were intended to be used in Ancient Egyptian tombs for the mortuary cult of a deceased person. The offering table was the location where mortuary priests performed their chief duty for the tomb owners. As I explained in a previous post on the statue of Hetepheres, the tomb owner would set up a foundation of land for the mortuary priests to ensure that they brought offerings of food and drink, clothing, and other goods on a regular basis to the tomb. Functionally, they would set the food on the offering table and pour libations on it for the benefit of the deceased as part of a formal offering ritual. The performance of this ritual on the table would allow the deceased person’s ka-soul to manifest in their image on their stela or in the statue and thereby receive the food and drink as a spirit. The person’s ka-soul, which needed sustenance, would therefore continue to live on in the afterlife. At the end of the ritual, the priests who performed it could presumably then take the food and other goods that they had brought back with them as payment when they left the tomb.

But the tomb owners were no fools; they realized that the priests might be happy just to take their payment but not bring anything for the offering ritual. The hieroglyphic texts on the table were magical means to ensure that the provision of offerings for the tomb owner continued to happen even if no one showed up with the goods. A category of texts in Ancient Egyptian tombs called the “Address to the Living”” actually provides instructions for the priests and other people who are visiting a tomb in case they didn’t have anything to offer. They state at the end, “In case you have not brought any real offerings, you could at the very least pronounce the magical spells inscribed here and it would be just as good. Just as well, you could pour a libation of water onto the table.” A libation of water poured here would splash onto the large hieroglyphic sign in the basin. The water would gather in the rectangular cuts, and run off into the channels, spilling out from the spout onto the floor of the tomb. These magical means of making an offering make use of the diverse meanings in the hieroglyphic signs and the texts found on the table.

Offering tables of the Middle Kingdom like this one often have magical texts and symbols with specific meanings associated with the offering rites.[3] The large hieroglyphic bread-sign in the middle is the most visually prominent symbol on the table. This triangular sign imitates a conical bread loaf baked in a ceramic mold called a bedja-mold (bḏꜣ). This was originally a form of bread commonly used for payment to workers in Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2649-2130 BCE).[4] Yet throughout Ancient Egyptian history, this bread-loaf had iconographic value. It was the integral part of the hieroglyphic sign first glyph, representing a mat with this type of bread set on it. This sign was used especially in words meaning “offering” (ḥtp) among other things.[5] This massive version of the hieroglyphic sign acts as an attention-grabber with a simple clear message: “Put your offering here!” To further accentuate the offering, the hieroglyph has a short hieroglyphic text inscribed inside of it that lists the precise amounts of offerings requested. It lists 1000s of: bread, beer, meat, and clothing. This illustrates the customary tactic found in Ancient Egyptian magic to ask for far more than you are really likely to get. These simple hieroglyphs in the middle of the table are commonly attested on other offering tables like this one. And they have a very simple indexical value for their meanings: a picture of a piece of bread = bread, a picture of a cow’s head = beef; a picture of a duck’s head = poultry etc. Likely almost any tomb visitor could read them.

Around the raised exterior frame of the offering table, there are two more complex texts, that likely only trained scribes could read. Yet, they are easily recognizable and their mere presence was sufficient to achieve their magical purpose. These two hieroglyphic texts are of the type called the ḥtp-di-nsw offering formula by Egyptologists.[6]  It is one of the most prevalent type of texts inscribed on objects in tombs. The beginning of the ḥtp-di-nsw formula in this period of time starts with a statement that the king and the gods have given the offering. It therefore is asserting both there is a royal and divine authorization for the magical spell to come true. The two versions on this offering table both start at the top over the large bread hieroglyph with the characteristic phrase that begins every ḥtp-di-nsw formula: second glyph. The hieroglyphs in this phrase are highly recognizable and they are a cue that the offering formula is present.[7] The texts then mention the gods Osiris and Anubis, who were patrons for the dead. The formula then lists all the good things that one might expect, and ends by naming the deceased. Delightfully, the two versions of the ḥtp-di-nsw formula on this table symmetrically move around the basin. This mirrors the movement of a libation if it was poured onto the table. They start at the top and then frame the splash-zone in the basin, running down the basin’s sides, and ending with the name of the deceased on either side of the spout. The texts of the formula and the bread loaf in the middle therefore also figuratively take the shape of the hieroglyphic signs in the phrase pr.t-ḫrw third glyph, which is the name for the actual act of reciting an offering formula: it literally translates as “an emergence of the voice” . With its jumble of basic symbols, the functional forms, and the real hieroglyphic texts, this offering table shows how ancient Egyptian religious objects often work on a meta-linguistic level: They mix hieroglyphic symbols, assumed religious practices, and other semiotic clues altogether. Keep in mind, these symbols and texts are designed to make the table work magically.

Three principals of Ancient Egyptian magical practice are being implied here.[8] First, there is the principal of effective magical speech. This assumes that a person who simply utters a magical spell can have an effect on someone or something in this world or in the afterlife. So a visitor who pronounces the offering formula would assuredly make the offering magically appear for the deceased in the afterlife. Second, there is the principal that writing something down causes its performance to endure. The mere presence of the inscribed magical spell found on the offering table would ensure it happening in perpetuity. The inscribed amounts of food on the table with the name of Sattjenenet on it bring about food for the deceased’s spirit in the afterlife continuously. Even if no one showed up to give offerings, it would still work for the dead person’s soul. And third, there is the principal that water and other substances can absorb magical powers if they physically contact the words of a magical spell. So a liquid libation poured on the offering table would be imbued with the magical power of the inscribed offering formula and the hieroglyphic sign for offering with the listed offerings on it. When it dripped off of the table, this magical liquid would contact the tomb floor and thus symbolically get transported down to the burial chamber where the deceased person was buried. This is assumed to work even if the burial chamber was not directly below the table. Via the liquid that was infused with the magical spells, the deceased person would be able to enjoy the abundance of offerings. So the inscribed magical texts on this table could be a failsafe system against laziness of mortuary priests.

For the Ancient Egyptians, an offering table like this was an important device to get someone to bring your soul something good to eat or drink. Building your tomb and giving it such objects was equivalent to making an investment in your retirement plan. Including these objects in the tomb would ensure that your soul got its share of offerings no matter what. If the people you hired to bring the real offerings didn’t do their job, then the magical spells would certainly ensure that you got what you paid for.

Texts inscribed upon this object:

Right Side: Offering Formula

An offering that the king has given and Anubis who is upon his mountain (has given), he who is in the bandage, lord of the sacred land: her beautiful burial in the beautiful west in the desert of the west. (For) Sat-tjenenet, whom Sat-neneksu bore.

Left Side: Offering Formula

An offering that the king has given, and Osiris lord of Busiris great god, lord of Abydos (has given), an emergence of the voice for bread, beer, meat, poultry for her so that it is good in her house and for her funerary endowment. (For) the venerated one before Anubis Sattjenenet, whom Satnyneksu bore.


1000 loaves of bread and jars of beer, 1000 cuts of meat, 1000 birds, 1000 linen garments, 1000 fine linen garments

[1] Based on epigraphy, phraseology, and stylistic features, Alexander Ilin-Tomich has given it a date in the early 12th Dynasty, reigns of Amenemhat I to Senwosret I (Alexander Ilin-Tomich, "Ikonografische Datierungskriterien für Privatopfertafeln der 12. Dynastie," Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 47(2018): 61, 63, 76 taf. 4). For studies towards a typology of Ancient Egyptian offering tables of the First Intermediate Period to Middle Kingdom, see: Regina Hölzl, Ägyptische Opfertafeln und Kultbecken: eine Form- und Funktionsanalyse für das Alte, Mittlere und Neue Reich, vol. 45, Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 2002), 30-38; Rémi Legros, "Approche méthodologique pour une datation des tables d’offrandes de la Première Période Intermédiaire," Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale 108(2008): 231-52; Ilin-Tomich, "Ikonografische Datierungskriterien für Privatopfertafeln der 12. Dynastie," 57-87; "Centralized and local production, adaptation, and imitation: twelfth dynasty offering tables," in The arts of making in ancient Egypt: voices, images, and objects of material producers 2000-1550 BC, ed. Juan Carlos Moreno García, et al.(Leiden: Sidestone, 2018), 81-100.

[2] Maria Theresia Derchain-Urtel, Synkretismus in ägyptischer Ikonographie: die Göttin Tjenenet, vol. 8, Göttinger Orientforschungen, 4. Reihe: Ägypten (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1979).

[3] On the features of offering formulary of this period which provide chronological markers, see: C. J. C. Bennett, "Growth of the ḥtp-di-nsw formula in the Middle Kingdom," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 27(1941): 77-82; Helmut Satzinger, "Beobachtungen zur Opferformel: Theorie und Praxis," Lingua Aegyptia 5(1997): 177-88; Detlef Franke, "The Middle Kingdom Offering Formulas: A Challenge," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology89(2003a): 39-87.

[4] Sheldon Lee Gosline, "Form and function of Egyptian bread molds," Journal of Ancient Civilizations 14(1999): 27-44.

[5] Charles Kuentz, "Bassins et tables d'offrandes," Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale 81, no. supplément: bulletin du centenaire (1981): 244-45; Miroslav Bárta, "Archaeology and iconography: bḏꜣ and ꜥprt bread moulds and "Speisetischszene" development in the Old Kingdom," Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 22(1995): 21-35; Leo Roeten, Loaves, beds, plants and Osiris: considerations about the emergence of the cult of Osiris, vol. 21, Archaeopress Egyptology (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2018), ; Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 228-29 Cat. No. 166.

[6] The fundamental study of this formula, its diversity of forms, and use over time remains: Winfried Barta, Aufbau und Bedeutung der altägyptischen Opferformel, Ägyptologische Forschungen (Glückstadt: J.J. Augustin, 1968), . For a very good basic explanation of the use of this formula, its structure, and translation see: Mark Collier and Bill Manley, How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself(London: British Museum Press, 2008), .

[7] Jacques Jean Clère, "Un nouvel exemple du monogramme ḥtp-di-nswt “ in Studi in memoria di Ippolito Rosellini nel primo centenario della morte (4 giugno 1843 - 4 giugno 1943), ed. Anonymous(Pisa: Lischi, 1949), 1: 33-42.

[8] Cf. Robert K. Ritner, The mechanics of ancient Egyptian magical practice, vol. 54, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization (Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1993).


Magical Clay Object to assist with birth

Magical Clay Object to assist with birth

Listed as “A clay votive model or offering tray”
Fired Nile clay
15.9 cm long
Late or Ptolemaic Period
Ex-collections Place, MIA (25.266); Ex-Harer Collection

This week’s object presented itself to me first as a puzzle: It has an unusual assemblage of images and is designed for an apparently precise function. But what these are is elusive. Our database originally listed it as an “offering table,” a description that arrived with the documentation for it. An offering table was a ritual object that the Ancient Egyptians used to give food to the deceased or a god (see the example of an offering at RAFFMA: EG.01.006.2001). Yet having looked at it in detail, especially the imagery on it, I have concluded that this object wasn’t used to make offerings to a god or the dead at all. Instead, it was a magical device used to help bring about new life. It is presented here for your contemplation as a puzzle and for your consideration of the interpretation that I have made for it.

This horse-shoe shaped object is made of low-fired Nile clay. The front is flattened into a low basin surrounded by three sides. Inside the basin there are the images of two crocodiles with eight lozenge-shaped objects between them representing perhaps fish and two oval objects at the back with two raised humps for eyes representing perhaps frogs. A hole punctured in the back of the basin runs through the long tapering part and out the top. If poured onto the basin, a liquid would run out of the hole and through the exterior as a spout. On top of the spout, there is a vague outline of a human face and on the sides of the spout there is the rest of the person’s body crouched in a squatting position.

There are very few published parallels for this object. Nevertheless, four similar examples can be found in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian ArchaeologyUC74852UC74854 (Figure 1), UC74855UC74856 (Figure 2), and one on the art market.[1] These are distinctively similar to the RAFFMA artifact in their iconography, material, and size, so that it is reasonable to conclude that they all served the same function. In fact, as a group the other examples clarify some of the imagery on the RAFFMA example. For instance, all of them have the human face on the top of the basin rim and the crouched human body on the spout. UC74854 has perhaps the most detailed rendering of the human-figure on the spout, distinctively showing its two arms and two squatting legs. In all cases, the figure is straddling the spout with bent legs, and arms held forward onto the wall of the basin. Uniquely, UC74854 has a second image of a human body with arms and legs represented on the inner wall of the basin, but connected with the same head. This second body straddles the hole that leads through the spout. All these parallels also have the same imagery of two crocodiles in the basin. Four have the lozenge-shaped fish (?) and oblong frogs (?).[2] At least three have traces of a white wash or white slip on the pottery surface, which would perhaps serve as a primer for a painted decoration that might accentuate the figures rendered in clay.[3] All of these parallels have the contained basin area, showing that if a liquid was poured onto the basin in the center it would run across the animal figures, through the spout, where it would pass through the legs of the human figure Finally there exists one outlier example of this kind of object,  UC74853, which has  some exceptional decoration: A prostrate human figure lies on the interior of the basin area holding onto a fish in one hand and a frog in the other. It is situated between two egg-shaped bulbous objects. 

Unfortunately, there is no recorded archaeological context for these objects, but there is reason to believe that they come from around Memphis, Ancient Egypt’s traditional capital. The Russian Archaeological Mission in Egypt has discovered a set of similar objects in settlement remains of Saite to Ptolemaic date (660-30 BCE) at Memphis (precisely at Kom Tuman). Based on a similarity of forms, Sergei Ivanov was able to make a connection between these excavated examples and those in the Petrie Museum in brief article on them.[4] Presumably the Petrie Museum examples were also excavated by Flinders Petrie in Egypt and likely in one of his five excavations in the area of Memphis.[5] Unfortunately, the examples excavated by the Russians are either very fragmentarily preserved or lack the animal-decoration to be at all more informative than the others discussed so far. Nevertheless, it seems clear from the excavated context that these objects belong to a category of objects related to domestic practices of Ancient Egyptian popular religion.

What then is the purpose of these unusual objects?  Previously these have all been identified as offering tables. Formally they are similar in their design to a type of offering table called “soul houses” by Egyptologists.[6] The “soul houses” are made of fired clay in the shape of Ancient Egyptian houses (e.g. British Museum, EA 32612). They typically have a house façade and courtyard with figures in it modeled in clay, like the basins of these objects. They are also similar to another type of object made for offerings: fired clay offering dishes.[7] These are flat and have raised edges and appliqué images of typical offerings modeled in clay such as cuts of beef and bread loaves (e.g. Penn Museum 29-65-727). One would use the soul houses or offering trays by pouring libations onto the clay figures. As offering tables, this libation would therefore presumably offer the represented offerings or the entire household in spirit to a deceased person. But apart from being made of clay, the comparison with the soul houses and offering dishes are not particularly appropriate. First of all, there is a very large time difference between them: soul houses and offering dishes were made in the First Intermediate Period and Early Middle Kingdom (circa 2150-1950 BCE). And these objects apparently date to sometime within the Late Period to Ptolemaic Period (circa 664-30 BCE). Then there is the difference in archaeological context: soul houses and offering dishes have been found in cemeteries and presumably served as mortuary furniture for humble tombs. Whereas, the archaeological examples of these objects are from domestic remains of a town. Finally the imagery is not compatible between the two object types. With rare exception, someone’s household is not really comparable to a pool of crocodiles. And frogs and crocodiles are not actually images of things that were typically offered on offering tables.

Functionally, there is another comparison that might be made between these objects and offering tables in the use of the spout to channel a liquid. Offering tables in ancient Egypt had spouts that channeled poured libations off of the front. They worked magically by the power of imbuing water with properties of the offerings made on the table or ritual texts and symbols inscribed into the table. But the Ancient Egyptians had several different categories of magical and ritual objects that used water in a similar way. These objects share a common Ancient belief that water would somehow absorb the magic of written hieroglyphs texts or other symbols which could then be imparted by using the water.[8] Other examples of magical objects that use water in this way include healing statues[9]  (e.g. the statue of Djedhor, Cairo, Egyptian Museum, JE 46341) and the so-called “Horus-cippi” (e.g. the Metternich Stela).[10] To use these, someone would pour water over them, and then they could collect it after it had washed over magical images and texts. They could drink this water later to cure illness and heal wounds. So the presence of a spout and imagery is indicative of an analogous magical use for these objects, but it is not necessarily indicative of their use as offering tables per se.

The crocodiles, fish, and frogs of these objects are unusual features not encountered commonly on offering tables - except on tables from one particular place and time. In fact fish were infrequently depicted on offering tables in Ancient Egypt perhaps because they were the symbol of taboo food-items called bwt.[11] But there is one category of ritual tables where crocodiles and fish are commonly depicted. These are a set of Roman Period tables that were found exclusively in and around the ancient city of Mendes and date to the 2nd to 3rd centuries CE (e.g. Brooklyn Museum 70.135).[12] Characteristically they have small incised channels running in the form of a maze, so that they look not unlike modern labyrinth marble maze games. Crocodiles, frogs, fish, and inset basins with staircases are sometimes depicted in the middle of the maze. The pools with staircases seem to be an element that these shared with other offering tables of Greco-Roman Egypt (e.g. MFA 98.1057).[13] But the crocodiles and fish are unique to this set of tables. Functionally these maze-tables served likely for making libations, and when you poured water over the table it ran into the maze-like channels leading ultimately to a spout with animal faces. The symbolism relates to the coming of the Nile flood when it enters the canal systems of the Egyptian countryside. But even for those tables, they are not associated with the cult of the deceased. Instead, these served likely as special offering places to make libations in honor or to encourage the arrival of the Nile flood or honor deities associated with it.[14] The fish, crocodiles, and staircases are reminiscent of depictions of the sacred pools that were found within Ancient Egyptian temple complexes, which were likewise locations for rituals to observe the arrival of the Nile flood.[15] Although there exists this symbolic connection, it does not demonstrate that these clay objects are necessarily offering tables for the Nile flood; only that there is a potential thematic continuity. 

There is one important difference between the imagery of the Mendes maze-tables and these clay objects: the maze-tables nowhere have images of humans situated in an unusual posture crouching over the spout. In fact, this is not an image that is encountered in any other type of offering table from Ancient Egypt. Instead, the place that it is encountered is in images of women giving birth. In this connection, UC74854 with the second image of a human body with arms and legs is very informative about the purpose of these clay objects. Since this is the only case of this second figure, it likely represents a variation added by the potter in order to emphasize the human-body’s presence. This reveals the importance of this figure for understanding the object’s functionality. And the posture of the second body within the basin straddling the hole through the spout is very informative. This is the posture of a woman giving birth and it mirrors the posture of a woman giving birth found on a Ptolemaic shrine from Dendera, which similarly has a hole through her legs (Cairo Museum, CG 40627). Notably she places her two hands on top of the two frogs inside the basin as if steading herself on two midwives as is represented in the Dendera scene of giving birth. The Ancient Egyptians customarily used birth bricks for the process of giving birth.[16] And it is known from ethnographic accounts of the use of birth bricks in pre-modern Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East that there were two stances a woman could make with them, either leaning over onto them (leaning on bricks), or squatting with the feet upon the bricks (squatting on bricks). The latter posture could also be used with the aid of a birth-seat. The representation of the human figure on the spout is leaning onto the rim of the basin – she holds her hands outward for support and has bent legs in the posture as if leaning onto birth bricks. The human figure represented on the inside rim of UC74854, in contrast, is of a woman squatting upright. In both cases the women are situated directly over the spout, which would have allowed fluids to pass through her legs. The water passing through the spout would therefore symbolize the passing of the woman’s water (ie. the amniotic fluid), signaling the start of labor. Also it is not likely a coincidence that the shape of these clay objects when looked on from above is similar to that of a uterus, and the spout forms the conduit of the vaginal canal. By pouring fluid into the basin and causing it to flow out, someone would therefore have used this object to represent the advent of labor in a real pregnant woman. Likely, this was for the purpose of magically bringing it about.

In premodern societies, infant mortality and death of the mother at giving birth were common eventualities. Magical accoutrement found in domestic contexts, magical spells for pregnancy, and representations of birth scenes in temples demonstrate the great emotional investment that the Ancient Egyptians put into trying to ensure a successful outcome of this very dangerous time. Scenes of mothers and children together found on Ancient Egyptian birth bricks and in birth scenes found in temples show a successfully result of the risky process of giving birth. Explaining these images as a sort of “visual spell”, Joe Wegner has argued that they have a magical purpose to coerce the successful result of giving birth without risk to mother or child.[17] I think that these clay objects in RAFFMA and the Petrie Museum are using a similar visual rhetoric of magic. But they are instead designed to coerce the beginning of labor. The beginning of labor was an especially sensitive time for the mother and child. And the Ancient Egyptians devised many remedies to induce labor to start.[18] These included magical spells, of which we have many copies.[19] I think that this is the particular event that is being magically induced by the use of these clay objects. 

How could the presence of the crocodiles, fish, and frogs be explained with this theory? There are a few associations between these animals as religious symbols and pregnancy. Rods used as protective devices in birthing have images of frogs and crocodiles on them. [20] Frogs especially are indicative of the frog goddess Heqet, who is a patron of birth and attends at royal births. And crocodiles are part of the imagery of another goddess of birth, Tawosret. As I stated in reference to the maze offering tables, these animals also have an association with the Nile flood. The imagery of the Nile flood often appears in relationship to fertility and birth in Ancient Egypt.[21] The flood was a time of powerful creation, which the ancients interpreted as the arrival of primeval waters of Nun, the god who created the world and birthed the sun god from inside of him. This metaphor of the sun-god being born in the waters of Nun was reused as mythological precedent throughout imagery of birth ritual in Ancient Egypt.[22]

The crocodiles may conversely imply difficulty in birth or conception. In Greco-Roman hieroglyphic texts, the crocodile may actually have been a hieroglyphic sign used to write a word meaning “difficulty” (ẖnn) experienced in the womb.[23] According to the Kahun Gynecological papyrus and Ramesseum Papyrus IV, crocodile dung placed in the vagina, presumably as a sticky seal, was used as a means of contraception.[24] In a curse against crocodiles found in the Harris Magical Papyrus, the practitioner threatens to seal up the Nile in the manner that the wombs of the goddesses Anat and Astarte were supposed to have been “sealed up” (ḫtm) so that they could not give birth.[25] The crocodiles on these objects in RAFFMA and the Petrie Museum might therefore have been a symbolic representation of a common problem encountered with birth – delayed labor when the baby fails to descend into the pelvis. A magical object that unseals the womb with its crocodiles inside, by literally washing it out, might therefore have been seen as just the thing to magically induce a timely labor.

An exploration of the imagery found on this clay object in RAFFMA has therefore led me to identify it not as an offering table but as a magical device used to induce labor. Offering tables are a commonly encountered category of object in museums with collections of Ancient Egyptian artifacts. This identification as a magical device adds a more interesting story to this molded and fired piece of clay in RAFFMA’s collection. It has perhaps figuratively given new life to this object that was anciently used to try to bring about a real new life.

[1] A close parallel was for sale on the Ifergan Gallery website in 2020: . Another one is reported to have been for sale in Paris in 1991 in: Gerry D. Scott, Temple, Tomb and Dwelling: Egyptian Antiquities from the Harer Family Trust Collection, (San Bernardino, California: California State University, San Bernardino, 1992), 151.

[2] UC74854, UC74855, UC74856 and the Ifergan Gallery object.

[3] UC74856, and the Ifergan Gallery object. Otherwise, UC74853 and one mentioned in Ivanov’s article also have this wash. See the next footnote.

[4] Sergej Ivanov, "Offerings and Crocodiles at Pottery Offering Trays from Memphis," in And the earth is joyous… / И земля в ликовании…: Essays in honour of Galina A. Belova / Сборник статей в честь Г. А. Беловой, ed. Sergej Ivanov and Helen Tolmacheva (Moscow: ЦЕИ РАН, 2015), 115-128: .

[5] They do not appear to be mentioned or depicted in any publications of Petrie’s work in Egypt.

[6] Ivanov, "Offerings and Crocodiles at Pottery Offering Trays from Memphis," 115. On “soul houses,” see: Andrzej Niwiński, "Plateaux d'offrandes et "maisons d'âmes": Genèse, évolution et fonction dans le culte des morts au temps de la XIIe dynastie," Études et Travaux 8 (1975), 73-112; François Leclère, "Les ‘maisons d'âme’ égyptiennes: une tentative de mise au point," in "Maquettes architecturales" de l'antiquité: regards croisés (Proche-Orient, Égypte, Chypre, bassin égéen et Grèce, du Néolithique à l'époque hellénistique). Actes du colloque de Strasbourg, 3-5 décembre 1998, ed. Denyse Vaillancourt and Béatrice Muller (Paris: Boccard, 2001), 99-121; Rose Smith and Alan Hayward, "A soul house with a story to tell," Ancient Egypt: the history, people and culture of the Nile valley 96, no. 16/6 (2016), 30-33.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Robert K. Ritner, "Horus on the crocodiles: a juncture of religion and magic in late dynastic Egypt," in Religion and philosophy in ancient Egypt, ed. Anonymous (New Haven: Yale Egyptological Seminar, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Graduate School, 1989), 103-116; The mechanics of ancient Egyptian magical practice, vol. 54, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization (Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1993), 106ff.

[9] László Kákosy, ed. Egyptian healing statues in three museums in Italy (Turin, Florence, Naples), vol. 9, Catalogo del Museo Egizio di Torino, serie prima - monumenti e testi (Turin: Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali - Soprintendenza al Museo delle Antichità Egizie, 1999).

[10] Heike Sternberg- El Hotabi, Untersuchungen zur Überlieferungsgeschichte der Horusstelen: ein Beitrag zur Religionsgeschichte Ägyptens im 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr, vol. 62, Ägyptologische Abhandlungen (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1999).

[11] Ingrid Gamer-Wallert, Fische und Fischkulte im alten Ägypten, vol. 21 (Wiesbaden: 1970), 66-70; cf. Salima Ikram, Choice cuts: Meat production in Ancient Egypt, vol. 69, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta (Leuven: Peeters, 1995), 36.

[12] Vivian A. Hibbs, The Mendes Maze: a libation table for the Inundation of the Nile (II-III AD), Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts (New York; London: Garland, 1985); K. Blouin, Triangular Landscapes: Environment, Society, and the State in the Nile Delta under Roman Rule (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2014), 136-38.

[13] Beatrix Gessler-Löhr, Die heiligen Seen ägyptischer Tempel: ein Beitrag zur Deutung sakraler Baukunst im alten Ägypten, vol. 21, Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1983), 471-88.

[14] Hibbs, The Mendes Maze, 175ff.

[15] Gessler-Löhr, Die heiligen Seen ägyptischer Tempel, ibid.

[16] Josef Wegner, "A decorated birth-brick from South Abydos: new evidence on childbirth and birth magic in the Middle Kingdom," in Archaism and innovation: studies in the culture of Middle Kingdom Egypt, ed. David P. Silverman, William Kelly Simpson, and Josef Wegner (New Haven, CT; Philadelpia, PA: Department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations, Yale University; University of Pennsylvana Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2009), 447-96.

[17] Ibid., 455-58.

[18] John F. Nunn, Ancient Egyptian medicine (London: British Museum Press, 1996), 194; Howieda Fouly, "Ancient Egyptian Women’s Health Care in Relation to Modern Women’s Health Care Practices: An Overview," The International journal of childbirth education: the official publication of the International Childbirth Education Association 2(2012): 272-73.

[19] Susanne Töpfer, "The physical activity of parturition in ancient Egypt: textual and epigraphical sources," Dynamis 34 (2014): 317-335.

[20] Wegner, "A decorated birth-brick from South Abydos," 473-74 citing personal communication Robert Ritner.

[21] See for instance the occurrence of flood imagery on votive beds which were pottery images of women on beds likely submitted to temples in order to encourage the conception of a child (Emily Teeter, Baked clay figurines and votive beds from Medinet Habu, vol. 133, Oriental Institute Publications (Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010), 166).

[22] Wegner, "A decorated birth-brick from South Abydos," 458-63.

[23] David Klotz, Caesar in the City of Amun: Egyptian temple construction and theology in Roman Thebes, vol. 15, Monographies Reine Élisabeth (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), 186.

[24] Barbara Watterson, Women in Ancient Egypt (Sutton, Amberley Publishing: 1997), 100.

[25] H. O. Lange, Der magische Papyrus Harris, vol. 14, Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab: Historisk-filologiske Meddelelser (Copenhagen: Andr. Fred. Høst & Søn, 1927), 29-31. See the discussion of this passage especially in Robert K. Ritner, "A uterine amulet in the Oriental Institute collection," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 43, no. 3 (1984): 215-16.



Cast Bronze
Roman Period (30 BCE – 300 CE)
Schwennesen Collection, 1940s; RAFFMA, 2007

This solid bronze object is a fairly typical example of an Ancient Egyptian musical instrument called a sistrum (plural sistra) made in the Roman Period (30 BCE to 300 CE). Not only does this object function as a musical instrument, its shape is also religiously symbolic. The lower part consists of a solid handle which ends with an image of the face of the goddess Hathor on either side sporting her characteristic lululemon-style haircut and pointed elf-like cow ears. On either side of the Hathor head there are two uraei-snakes, which served as ritually protective devices. Above the head, there is a grid of rectangles which must represent a schematic frieze of more rearing uraei-snakes, which are found typically on the top of Egyptian shrines. Sitting on the top of this frieze, there is the coy image of a cat giving the onlooker her undivided attention. She sits in the posture that any cat owner might recognize as if saying, “It’s time to feed me!” Framing this cat there is a looped metal band. The function of this band is to hold two metal rods that once were inserted in two sets of holes drilled into it. On many sistra, metal disks are also added as rattles onto these rods. In order to play the sistrum, you would hold onto the handle and shake it to make the rods resonate against the metal band. The noise had a shaken metallic sound much like that of a modern tambourine’s steel jingles (Sistrum Sound).[1]

The sistrum is a characteristically Ancient Egyptian musical instrument. It was found elsewhere in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern Worlds, but even in those locations it had an Egyptian association. The RAFFMA example is a type that was especially common in the Roman Period (e.g. BM EA 30735).[2] The contemporary author Plutarch gave us an interpretive description of the Egyptian sistrum in which he mentions a cat image and the two female faces,[3] just like the object at RAFFMA.  When Egyptian cults such as that of the goddess Isis were exported to the larger Roman world, the priests brought sistra along with them.  They are consequently objects that can be found throughout Roman art in connection with temples of Isis and Serapis and priests or priestesses in those cults (Capitoline statue of Isis).[4]

The RAFFMA example is a type of sistrum called an arched-sistrum, which is distinguishable by the band across the top into which the sounding rods are inserted: . This type is attested only from the New Kingdom onward (circa 1550 BCE until today). Another earlier form of sistrum had the shape of a “naos” - a shrine- or temple façade on its top: . It was attested as of the Old Kingdom (6th Dynasty: circa 2300 BCE onward), and it continued to be depicted through the Greco-Roman Period (circa 330 BCE to 302 CE).[5] Yet these two types are not completely distinct. Many arched-sistra of the Roman Period actually preserve shrine-like imagery within the arched band (e.g. BM EA 6365). The uraei-frieze at the bottom of the arched band of the RAFFMA example is part of a typical naos or shrine. Furthermore, both types of sistra were especially associated with imagery of the goddess Hathor. Specifically the forward looking face of the goddess with the two cow ears and sporty haircut found in both is an image of Hathor’s face. In fact, this was an image that Hathor had stolen from an earlier cow goddess named Bat, seen on iconic objects of Egyptian Art like the Narmer Palette.[6] Consequently, Egyptologists sometimes refer to this as the Bat-emblem. Many other examples of Roman-Period sistra have an elaborate assemblage of the Bat-emblem, shrine imagery, images of the dwarf figure of Bes, and other visual elements put together with the arched-band and resonating rods (e.g. Walters Art Gallery 54.493and an example found in Italy).

Sistra played a major role in the daily liturgical songs sung by priests and priestesses in the Egyptian temples. Festivals performed in the temples as well as the daily rites involved troops of priests and priestesses to sing the rituals. An entire category of Egyptian statuary depicts men and women carrying sistra, named “sistrophorous statues” in modern literature.[7] Even though both male and female priests used sistra, they are particularly associated with women.  In Egyptian art, the item became a badge of office for women who had roles in the temples, as “chantresses” (̣šmꜥ.yt) or “singers” (ḥsy.t).[8] There even existed a priestly office specifically called “sistrum-player” (iḥy.t), often held by women.[9]

Functionally the sistrum is a percussion instrument, and it has only one tone. It was therefore likely used for a few functions in the Egyptian temples: It could be rung to keep the beat in chanting ritual texts. Modern Ethiopian churches still use sistra similarly to worship while chanting the liturgies (Ethiopian Liturgy). Or else it may have been used to punctuate sung or spoken rituals with musical interludes in the way that ringing sanctus bells in modern Catholicism and other Christian denominations happens at moments surrounding the ritual of consecrating the host (Altar Bells). Finally, it could be used by itself as a strident noise to ritually scare or drive away any approaching evil force. Such a use for percussion instruments is commonly found in other world cultures (Caxixi). As an instrument, it was used in Egyptian temples as an alternative or an accompaniment to other percussion instruments such as clappers, tambourines, and necklaces called menit played by striking the beads against the counterweight.[10] These were probably used to make a similar rattling sound.

Cats and sistra are intimately associated in Ancient Egyptian religion. The sistrum is frequently found as an object used to appease or entertain cat goddesses or is played in the hands of cat goddesses. Statuettes of the goddess Bastet holding the sistrum, such as one on display at RAFFMA (EG.02.006.2003), are an especially common juxtaposition of the two. The reason for this connection between cats and sistra is not evident in any source, but my own pet theory is that the noise of a sistrum is designed to be as enticing to felines as cat toys are now. Interestingly the name for the sistrum in ancient Egyptian – sesheshet[11]-  is an onomatopoetic word referring to the sound made by the instrument, although its etymological origins may have been in a word referring to the “rustling” sound of papyrus fronds.[12] In modern Egypt, people use a special susurrus sound to attract the attention of cats to food – pss-pss-pss - . This imitates the ancient name of the sistrum in being full of sibilants, which are sounds that are intrinsically suitable for attracting the attention of cats.

Sistra were especially used as part of the rituals that temples performed to appease angry cat goddesses. It appears that the instrument was first used in the cult of Hathor, and after the New Kingdom, the sistrum had a special place in the cults of other female goddesses.[13] The goddess Hathor had a set of alter-egos who did the dirty-work of the sun god Re in destroying rebellious humanity – as we learn from a series of Egyptian myths. In one of the earliest of these myths, the Book of the Heavenly Cow, Re employs his daughter Hathor, to go out into the world and punish humanity, who had rebelled against him.[14] But having become the lioness goddess Sekhmet, who represents the fiery nature of the sun, she gets a taste for killing and goes berserk. Re has to employ the god Thoth to go and win her back from wandering the world killing too many humans. Through tricking her with alcohol, Thoth turns Sekhmet back into Hathor “the Pleasant one” (iꜣm.t), and brings her back to Egypt in a massive celebration. The goddess Bastet represented this good-natured version of Hathor specifically in house-cat form, in contrast to the raging lioness form of Sekhmet. This last part of the myth appeared in several forms in Egyptian temples of the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods in which several goddesses featured as the raging lioness who had wandered off in her blood-lust into Nubia. Collectively this cycle of myths is known as the Myth of the Distant Goddess in the Egyptological literature.[15]Certain rituals in the Egyptian temples made reference to this myth and the angry nature of the goddess when she was abroad. As one of the means to ritually counteract the destructive tendencies of the goddess and lure her back to Egypt in her pacified form, priests would play sistra in these rituals among other entertainments. The text of a song to be sung to the accompaniment of a sistrum in these rituals has been preserved in a few copies.[16]

In the Egyptian liturgical calendar, the end of the civil year was a time when the world was especially susceptible to the violent tendencies of Sekhmet. Her rages at this time manifested specifically as plagues and illnesses.[17] In a ritual called Appeasing Sekhmet (sḥtp Sḫm.t), the priests made a symbolic gift of a sistrum as well as other enticements like meat-offerings, necklaces, bobbing statuettes of baboons called wensheb[18], and even beer and wine in order to distract, calm, and entertain the leonine goddess.[19] If adequately performed, the ritual ensured that the lioness Sekhmet became the well-disposed affectionate house-cat Bastet. Images of the docile cat goddess Bastet holding a sistrum and the little image of a calm house-cat seated on this sistrum in RAFFMA therefore allegorically represent an ancient allusion to this reassuring message: Even in the grip of a raging plague, this too will pass and all will be well.

[1] See discussion of the noise made by sistra in: Eva Kurz, "Ein Klang von besänftigender Wirkung: das ägyptische Sistrum," in MUS-IC-ON! Klang der Antike; Begleitband zur Ausstellung im Martin von Wagner Museum der Universität Würzburg 10. Dezember 2019 bis 12. Juli 2020, ed. Florian Leitmeir, Dahlia Shehata, and Oliver Wiener (Würzburg: Würzburg University Press, 2019).

[2] R. D. Anderson and Grace Huxtable, eds., Catalogue of Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum III: musical instruments (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1976), 45, figs 66-67; Nicole Genaille, "Sistrum, diffusion gréco-romaine," in Lexikon der Ägyptologie, ed. Wolfgang Helck, Eberhard Otto, and Wolfhart Westendorf (Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1984), 963-64.

[3] Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 63: Gwyn Griffiths, Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride; edited with an introduction, translation and commentary (Cardiff: University of Wales, 1970), 218-19, 524-28.

[4] Genaille, "Sistrum, diffusion gréco-romaine," ; "Instruments du culte isiaque: figurés sur trois monuments funéraires de Rome," in Hommages à Jean Leclant, ed. Catherine Berger, Gisèle Clerc, and Nicolas Grimal (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1994), 3: 223-34.

[5] Christiane Ziegler, "Sistrum," in Lexikon der Ägyptologie, ed. Wolfgang Helck, Eberhard Otto, and Wolfhart Westendorf (Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1984), 959-63; Marleen Reynders, "sšš.t and sḫm: names and types of the Egyptian sistrum," in Egyptian religion: the last thousand years. Studies dedicated to the memory of Jan Quaegebeur: part II, ed. Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 1013-26.

[6] Henry George Fischer, "The cult and nome of the goddess Bat," Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 1(1962): 7-23; Mohamed Gamal Rashed, "Goddess Bat and the confusion with Hathor," in The horizon: studies in Egyptology in honour of M. A. Nur el-Din (10-12 April 2007). Volume 3, ed. Basem Samir el Sharkawy (Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2009), 407-20. Cf. Geraldine Pinch, Votive offerings to Hathor (Oxford: Griffith Institute; Ashmolean Museum, 1993), 138-39.

[7] Kirsten Konrad, "Sistrophor oder Sistrumspieler? Zur Deutung privater Tempelstatuen mit kleinem Sistrum," Bulletin de la Société d'Égyptologie de Genève 29 (2011): 43-76.

[8] Susan Onstine, "The Role of the Chantress (šmꜥyt) in Ancient Egypt" (University of Toronto, 2001), passim, esp. 8-20; Robyn A. Gillam, Performance and drama in ancient Egypt, Duckworth Egyptology (London: Duckworth, 2005), 76.

[9] Ziegler, "Sistrum," 959.

[10] René Preys, "Études tentyrites: quelques remarques sur la relation entre le sistre et la menat," Göttinger Miszellen 188 (2002): 95-102.

[11] Two terms appear to refer to the sistrum in Egyptian texts: sḫm and sšš.t. But the word sšš.t is a clearly used in the majority of cases to refer to it as a musical instrument as opposed to a ritual object (Marleen Reynders, "Names and types of the Egyptian sistrum," in Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, Cambridge, 3-9 September 1995, ed. C. J. Eyre (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 945-55; "sšš.t and sḫm "). The name “sistrum” is from a Latin word derived from a Greek word σείεσθαι meaning “to be shaken” as Plutarch in fact explains (Plutarch De Iside et Osiride, 63: Griffiths, Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride, 218-19).

[12] C. J. Bleeker, Hathor and Thoth: two key figures of the ancient Egyptian religion (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), 88-89; Philippe Germond, Sekhmet et la protection du monde, vol. 9, Aegyptiaca Helvetica (Genève: Éditions de Belles-Lettres, 1981), 263; Reynders, "sšš.t and sḫm," 1020.

[13] Ziegler, "Sistrum," 960.

[14] Nadine Guilhou, "Myth of the heavenly cow," in UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ed. Willeke Wendrich, et al. (2010), Cf. the Demotic versions of this story published in: Françoise de Cenival, Le mythe de l'oeil du soleil: translittération et traduction avec commentaire philologique, vol. 9, Demotische Studien (Sommerhausen: Gisela Zauzich, 1988); M. Smith, "P. Carlsberg 462. A fragmentary account of a rebellion against the sun god," in The Carlsberg Papyri 3: A miscellany of Demotic texts and studies, ed. P. J. Frandsen and K. Ryholt (Copenhagen: Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies; Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000), 95-112.

[15] Hermann Junker, Der Auszug der Hathor-Tefnut aus Nubien, Abhandlungen der Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (Berlin: Verlag der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Kommission bei Georg Reimer, 1911), 1-89; Danielle Inconnu-Bocquillon, Le mythe de la déesse lointaine à Philae, vol. 132, Bibliothèque d'étude (Cairo: Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 2001).

[16] Joachim Friedrich Quack, "Ein Standardhymnus zum Sistrumspiel auf einem demotischen Ostrakon (Ostrakon Corteggiani D 1)," Enchoria27(2001): 101-19.

[17] Germond, Sekhmet et la protection du monde, 242 ff.

[18] Chantal Sambin, L'offrande de la soit-disant "clepsydre": le symbole šbt / wnšb / wtt, vol. 11, Studia Aegyptiaca (Budapest: Chaire d'Égyptologie, 1988).

[19] Germond, Sekhmet et la protection du monde, 261-64.

Lid from a Coffin of Padiusir

Lid from a Coffin of Pasiusir

Visually one of the most prominent artifacts on display at RAFFMA is this lid of a painted wooden anthropoid coffin. It once belonged to a man named Padiusir, who lived likely in Egypt’s 25th or 26th Dynasties, roughly in the late 700s to 500s BCE. Only the lid of this inner coffin is on display at RAFFMA. The base and its mummy are now missing. The exterior of the lid is decorated. The face looks like it may be a modern restoration.

The anthropoid coffin is a type that first appears in royal burials at the end of Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (circa 1600 BCE). For the next 1600 years, it became the most popular burial container for royals and commoners alike. Another form that Egyptian coffins took was the shape of a box. And the box shaped did continue to be used after 1600 BCE but to a less and less degree. The anthropoid coffins of the time of Padiusir were typically used as part of a set of two coffins: there was an anthropoid inner coffin and a box-shaped outer one. The outer box coffin would had a vaulted roof making it resemble a small building or a shrine. When assembled these two coffins figuratively represented the mummy at rest inside of his embalming house, where the body of the deceased had been made into a mummy in the first place. This arrangement would ensure that Padiusir would continually benefit from the performance of rituals that typically happened inside of the embalming house, and thus he would be assured that his body was protected and his souls made a successful transition into the afterlife.

What is distinctive about anthropoid coffins is that they take the shape of the human body. And as an image of the body, the anthropoid coffin was often treated ritually much like a statue. In fact, the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic word for statue, Twt, was written with a picture of an anthropoid coffin.  Both statues and anthropoid coffins could ritually substitute for the body of the deceased, but the coffin was more obviously connected to the body because the body was actually inside of it.   This ritual connection was furthermore reinforced by the presence of Padiusir’s name on the exterior, fixing him to this object for eternity. Like with statues, the ritual called “Opening the Mouth” was also used on anthropoid coffins. Depictions of Ancient Egyptian funerals from the New Kingdom especially show mortuary priests performing this ritual on anthropoid coffins which are set up beside the tomb entrance. And anthropoid coffins from the time of Padiusir were typically made with a pedestal below the feet so that they could easily be set up for the performance of this ritual. This ritual was supposed to return some abilities of a living person to the coffin and the deceased mummy inside of it. For instance, once it was performed, the coffin of Padiusir and his mummy were able to receive offerings of food and drink. And importantly, the coffin then was able to serve as the place where his bird-shaped ba-soul could land at the end of every day in order to renew its critical, spiritual connection with the mummy. Little statues of ba-birds were commonly included on top of the exterior coffins at the time of Padiusir. A similar but later version of this kind of ba-soul statue is on display at RAFFMA (cross reference EL.01.001.2015).

One documented name for this type of anthropoid coffin in Ancient Egyptian is swH.t, which also happens to be the Ancient Egyptian word for “egg.” Likewise the theme of rebirth is intimately connected to coffins. They often have an image of the sky goddess Nut painted on the interior of the lid. A spell found first in the Pyramid Texts is often inscribed on coffins which declares “Your mother Nut stretches out over you” and it describes her embrace as protecting her child who is the deceased person inside. The wood that these coffins are made of is also intimately connected to the goddesses Nut and Hathor, who are sometimes represented as emerging from trees to suckle or give water to the deceased person. This symbolism relates to an overarching idea of rebirth via being buried. Ritually, when the body was placed in the coffin, it was returning into its cosmic mother’s womb in preparation for rebirth in the sky.

Anthropoid coffins of the time of Padiusir and later are often decorated with the images of pieces of costume that were actually worn by mummies. Although it has some unique features, Padiusir’s coffin is a fairly typical example of this. The body is colored in yellow, which may represent the color of linen bandages used to wrap mummies. More imaginatively it could be the color of the body of a blessed-dead-spirit called an akh who has been illuminated by association with the sun-god. The striped headdress with two lappets on its sides is found in masks worn by mummies, such as the example on display at RAFFMA (cross reference EG.01.001.2001). Below this there is the image of a collar made a flowers and beads strung together. At the ends of this collar there are two heads of the falcon god Horus. These were used in actual beaded necklaces, and they are typical of the ritual object called the “broad collar of a falcon”. Below this collar, there is a highly stylized version of a winged scarab beetle. Real examples of this decoration are made of faience and attached to the chest of mummies. One is on display at RAFFMA (cross reference EG.01.150 1996). This scarab on Padiusir’s coffin has an uncommon feature in that it is depicted of holding two sun disks on either side of its body.

Above the beetle’s outstretched wings, there are two jackals. They represent the two jackal gods Wepwawet of the North and Wepwawet of the South. Typically they are drawn at or near the feet on mummies in order to protect the ability of the deceased to walk and enter into the afterlife. The lower half of the front of the coffin has a set of 25 standing figures holding knives. These represent the sons of the god Horus and other gods who acted as guardians during a vigil for the body of the dead god Osiris as he lay in his embalming hall. On mummies these figures were included as faience amulets, a few of which are on display at RAFFMA (cross reference EL.01.009.2007). On top of the feet, there is an image of a vulture with her wings stretched outward. This is an unusual decorative motif, but it has some other parallels. More typically there would be an image of the winged goddess Nut on the chest of the mummy. A cartonnage pectoral for a mummy showing this winged goddess is on display at RAFFMA (cross reference EG.01.014.2007). Finally at the bottom there are images of the two eyes of Horus; they allow the deceased to see out of the coffin among other abilities. These are a very old feature of coffins going back at least to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000-1700 BCE). They are commonly drawn on other parts of anthropoid coffins at the time of Padiusir

All of the hieroglyphic spells on the coffin of Padiusir consist of a version of a standard offering formula named the Htp-di-nsw formula by Egyptologists, according to its beginning phrase. This translates as “An Offering that the King gives.” The formula also invokes the god Osiris Foremost of Westerners Lord of Abydos, who is one of the most important gods connected with the dead. Otherwise, the offering formula is a magical spell that is meant to ensure an ample supply of food and other provisions for the deceased person’s ka-soul in the afterlife existence. The main version of this formula is found on the legs of the coffin of Padiusir and it is the one place where we actually have his name recorded. Very strangely, his name is spelled with the female name Tadiuser instead of the male name Padiusir. But this must be a misspelling since he is acknowledged to be the son of his parents Horwedja and Taamun. The little texts situated around the gods are all abbreviated versions of the offering formula. But one on the upper left other mentions a woman named Isis-Hesat. And two on the bottom mentions another woman named Kakek. We have to assume that these are relatives of Padiusir perhaps included in the same tomb as he was.

Unusually, there is a small image of a woman painted on the upper left side of the coffin. This is not a typical figure found on other anthropoid coffins of any period. This small figure is distinguished from the gods because she is not holding a knife.  It is probable that she is the individual who corresponds to a particular female name that appears on a formula below her. The closest name to this figure is Isis-Hesat, situated in the band of text below her. Although we can’t be certain it is possible that this woman was his wife who may have outlived him. Perhaps she was the one who paid for his coffin and so insisted that there was a picture of her on it.

The decorative elements on this coffin show a very provincial style. The artisan may have had a free hand to add variations to canonical iconography for a typical Egyptian anthropoid coffin or more likely he was inexperienced in how to make them. The closest parallels to elements of the coffin’s decoration are found on the few coffins from Middle Egypt dating to the 25th or 26th Dynasties. We can be fairly confident that Padiusir’s coffin came from that region because the name Isis-Hesat is rare and it honors a cow-goddess Hesat who was worshipped in the town of Aphroditopolis, which was situated in northern Middle Egypt.

For more information about the ritual function of coffins in the burials as an image of the deceased or any other topic mentioned here, see the other videos in this series presenting objects on display at RAFFMA. Also click on the accompanying video to hear the offering formula of Padiusir read out loud.

Another interesting characteristic of this coffin is that it was once reputably owned by Lowell Thomas whose films made Lawrence of Arabia famous. It passed through the hands of a series of collectors in Southern California before finally reaching RAFFMA. Purely by coincidence, the few contemporary wooden coffins from Kafr Ammar were also discovered by Lawrence during the only season he worked in Egypt with Flinders Petrie.

Texts inscribed upon this object:

ḥtp di nsw n Wsir-ḫnty-imnt.t nṯr ꜥꜣ nb Iꜣb.t di⸗f pr.t ḫrw t ḥnḳ.t iḥ ꜣpd irp irṯ(.t) m ḫ(.t) nb(.t) nfr(.t) wꜥb{ḫ}.t n kꜣ n Wsir Tꜣ-di-Wsir sꜣ n Ḥr-wḏꜣ ir.n nb(.t pr) n Tꜣ-Imn

An offering that the king has given to Osiris, foremost of the west, great god, lord of Abydos. May he give a voice offering, bread, beer,  beef, poultry, wine, milk, as everything good and pure to the ka of Osiris-Tadiusir (=Padiusir) son of Horwedja, whom the lady (of the house) Taamun made.


Watch History on Hetep-heres


This statue of a little girl named Hetepheres stands in a place of prominence at the beginning of the exhibition Journey to the Beyond. It dates to the 5th Dynasty. And she was a real person who lived at some point around 2500-2400 BCE. Statues like this of the deceased could serve several purposes especially as physical substitutes for the deceased’s body or as a vessel for her soul.

One of the most important ritual uses of statues in Ancient Egyptian tombs was as a focus for the mortuary cult. Mortuary priests, relatives, and visitors who entered a tomb were expected to interact with a statue or another image of the deceased persons buried there. The tomb’s architecture and decoration were designed to visually guide visitors to approach a statue like this one. Otherwise there could be a special niche shaped like a door carved in a wall with an image of the deceased person above it.

A table was often set before the statue or door. Visitors were expected to lay some food on the table as a courteous gesture to the deceased. And when building their tombs, Ancient Egyptians also set up foundations of land as payment to employ mortuary priests to bring offerings of food, drink, and incense to their tombs to lay them on this table for years and years after their death.

To the Ancient Egyptians, statues were objects that could serve as a substitute for the body of a person. This idea underlies many magical practices and rituals in which statues were used. The Ancient Egyptians used the same word masinot only to mean “giving birth” but also to refer to the process of creating a statue. Ancient Egyptian priests performed a special ritual called “Opening the mouth” on statues so that they could gain aspects of animated existence such as the ability to receive food and drink, to see, to hear, to feel, and smell. etc. 

For the mortuary cults, statues placed in a tomb were especially important as vessels into which one of a deceased person’s souls, the ka-soul could be channeled. Mortuary priests could magically call down the person’s ka-soul by reciting an offering ritual recorded for us in the Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. This calls the ka-soul to come down to a place where it can receive the offering made on the offering table. The positioning of statues in tombs directly in front of the offering table therefore shows the exact moment of the ka’s arrival that this offering ritual is meant to magically bring about. Ideally in a tomb, visitors would provide food and drink for the ka soul on a table set before the statue or another image of the deceased, and by reciting the offering ritual or other rituals they would thereby allow the ka-soul of the deceased to take up the food. Also a visitor could achieve a similar magical gift for the deceased by reading other magical spells written around the statue or image of the deceased which promise food and other gifts and name the dead person. Texts recorded in tombs from throughout Egyptian history actually address living visitors and make a request to either bring food or at the very least read the magical spells.

In this statue, Hetepheres is being depicted as a girl who is preadolescent in age. Her status as a child is apparent because she is depicted being naked holding her finger to her mouth. These were conventional symbols commonly used to convey childhood in Ancient Egyptian art. Her left shoulder is positioned so that her arm would have been held outward horizontally to her side indicating that she was holding onto the leg of another larger figure in a gesture indicating support and her subordination to that figure. This is an important clue to the larger context for this statue.

Now statues of children like did not typically stand by themselves in Ancient Egyptian tombs as the focus of a mortuary cult. Tombs were usually built for adults who had achieved some level of social prominence in their lives. And children were depicted in them customarily as a compliment to the tomb owners as members of their family. That was the case with the statue of Hetepheres too.

In 1936 the Egyptologist John Cooney figured out that this girl was originally part of a larger statue of a group of five people representing Hetepheres’ family. The other four family members from the same statue are now part of collections in museums in Worcester, Brooklyn, New York, and Kansas City. John Cooney was further able to link this statue with a set of feet and a statue base found at a tomb in Giza in 1930 by the Egyptologist Selim Hassan at Giza in the Central Field near the sphinx. Someone probably found the statue intact in the 19th century and broke it apart to sell for more money as separate pieces, after which each individual piece coincidentally made its way into an American collection. The statue base fortunately gives the names of all the family members depicted. For example we learn that the name of Hetepheres’ brother and her father was both Rawer. And Hetepheres was apparently named after her paternal grandmother, who was also called Hetepheres.

The girl’s father Rawer is a well-known person from Egypt’s 5th Dynasty. He is perhaps most famous for having a unique biographical text that was discovered in this tomb. This describes how king Neferirkare accidentally struck Rawer with his scepter in the course of a festival procession. Because of the king’s ritual power in that moment, this accident apparently posed a danger to Rawer, so much so that the king then had to stop everything and cure him magically. Additionally, the king ordered a permanent record of the incident to be made a copy of which was the one found in his tomb.

An exceptional feature of the tomb of Rawer is that it has a large number of statue chambers, over 25, many of which are hidden behind a wall. Hidden statue chambers are features found exclusively in tombs from Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Egyptologists call them serdabs, using an Egyptian Arabic word for “cellar or basement.” Serdabs in the tomb of Rawer and elsewhere sometimes have statues inside of them like that of the group with Hetepheres, representing the tomb owner and other family members. Also they may include diminutive statues of people at work representing perhaps servants of the family. One of these is also on display at RAFFMA. The statue base of the family group of Rawer and Hetephers is an extremely important discovery for this tomb. No other statue or inscription from the tomb of Rawer indicates the relationship of his family members. And there are no other representations of his daughter Hetepheres known to exist.

Click the links below to see images of the other parts of the statue of Hetepheres’ family in American Museums, and look at the entry for the tomb on the Giza Archive’s website. This will lead you to much more information about Rawer, his famous tomb where Hetepheres was found, and the other objects discovered in it.

Two Heads from Cat Mummies

Painted linen on plaster

Nectanebid Period to Roman Period (379 BCE- 300 CE)

EG.02.002 2003 and EG.02.003 2003

Ex-Harer Collection; RAFFMA, 2003.

Cat Head Front

These two mummified cat heads at RAFFMA are small examples of the vast art of mummifying animals practiced in the later periods of Ancient Egyptian history. Starting in the Saite Period (664-525 BCE) but especially during the Nectanebid Period (379-342 BCE) to Ptolemaic Period (333-30 BCE) and somewhat less in the Early Roman Period (30 BCE to 300 CE), certain temples had priests whose main job it was to embalm dead animals, creating mummies out of cats, ibises, hawks, monkeys, shrews, crocodiles, baboons, dogs, and many other species.[i] The religious mandate for temples to do this was that these animals in the eyes of the Egyptians were tokens or manifestations of the power of certain animal-formed gods, a concept expressed as the Egyptian idea of the ba-soul. Hence they created cat mummies in honor of the cat-headed goddess Bastet. Similarly, they mummified ibises in honor of the ibis-headed god Thoth. Etc.

The priests placed these mummified animals in special cemeteries situated in the ancient necropolises. Such cemeteries for animal mummies have been found throughout Egypt.  Frequently priests put them in reused tombs or in large catacombs tunneled into the cliffs dug explicitly for burying the animals. It is estimated that several millions of animals were mummified in this way over the 700-1000 or more years that this practice was undertaken.[ii] Texts left in the animal cemeteries often indicate the origin of the animals. From these it seems that not only would people bring animals that they discovered as carcasses in the wild, but the temples also bred and kept herds of sacred animals who were then available on the premises to turn into mummies.

Cat mummies were a token of the feline-formed gods, especially the goddesses Sekhmet and Bastet. Cat cemeteries mostly include domestic cats - felis catus - which was likely first domesticated in Egypt and popularized through the rest of the world from there.[iii] But wild cats – felis chaus,  felis sylvestris libyca - and on rare occasion lions- panthera leo - have also been found in cat cemeteries.[iv] The Greek traveler Herodotus describes how the Egyptians brought dead cats especially to the town of Bubastis to be buried in the temple of Bastet there.[v] Another temple precinct near the ancient capital Memphis was similarly named the Bubasteion by Greeks because of its connection to the cult of Bastet. It had herds of cats, and archaeologists have found tombs and tunnels stuffed with thousands of mummified felines there.[vi] The Demotic story of the magician Setne Khaemwese even has a description of how the temptress Tabubu (meaning “She of Bastet”) feeds the hero’s children to the sacred cats at the Bubasteion of Memphis.[vii] Cat mummies are often ornately decorated or provided with coffins indicating that individual attention could be paid to one particular animal as an important manifestation of a god. 

In addition to the cats who were raised and buried by the temples, some individual cat mummies have even been found in tombs of private people. These mummies may have been family pets who were placed there to spend eternity with their owners. Perhaps the most well-known historical cat of Ancient Egypt was the pet of prince Tuthmosis named quite appropriately Ta-Miu (meaning “the girl cat”).[viii] Her sarcophagus was found at Memphis (Mit Rahina) and is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The painted decoration given to the face of RAFFMA’s cats suggest that they could have been either votive mummy images of Bastet or even family pets. 

Frequently archaeologists have studied animal mummies by X-raying them.  X-rays of cat mummies found in the Bubasteion have shown that most of them had cranial fractures, broken necks, and other evidence of the violence done to them as cause of their deaths.[ix] Many of them were also young kittens even if their mummies were made to look like full adult-sized cats. Other X-rays of mummies who look like cats on the outside do not actually contain the bones of cats on the interior, just a bundle of bones, embalming material, or other things made to look like a cat-shape. It seems that the large industry of making these cat mummies at temples could not keep up with a demand for mummies simply by using cats who had died of natural causes. So the priests expedited the process, or faked it outright. Problems like this appear to have been rampant throughout the management of the animal mummy cults. Unseemly practices like this in the ibis mummy cult led the Ptolemaic Priest Hor of Sebbeyntos to make a series of complaints about it to the pharaoh Ptolemy VI Philometor, which have been preserved in rough draft copies found at the animal mummy cemetery in North Saqqara.[x]

[i] Dieter Kessler, Die Heiligen Tiere und der König, Ägypten und Altes Testament (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1989); Salima Ikram, ed. Divine creatures: animal mummies in ancient Egypt, revised ed. (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2015).

[ii] Dieter Kessler and Abd el-Halim Nur el-Din, "Tuna al-Gebel: millions of ibises and other animals," in Divine creatures: animal mummies in ancient Egypt, ed. Salima Ikram (Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2005); Foy Scalf, "The role of birds within the religious landscape of ancient Egypt," in Between heaven and earth: birds in ancient Egypt, ed. Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer and Anna R. Ressman (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2012), 36-39.

[iii] Claudio Ottoni et al., "The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world," Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, no. 7 (2017).

[iv] Cécile Callou et al., "Le lion du Bubasteion à Saqqara (Égypte): une momie remarquable parmi des momies de chats," Anthropozoologica 46, no. 2 (2011); Jennifer D. Kurushima et al., "Cats of the pharaohs: genetic comparison of Egyptian cat mummies to their feline contemporaries," Journal of Archaeological Science 39, no. 10 (2012).

[v] Herodotus, The Histories Book II Chapter 67.

[vi] Alain Zivie and Roger Lichtenberg, "Les chats du Bubasteion de Saqqâra: état de la question et perspectives," in Egyptology at the dawn of the twenty-first century: proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists, Cairo, 2000, ed. Lyla Pinch Brock and Zahi Hawass(Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2003); Dorothy J. Thompson, Memphis under the Ptolemies, 2nd Edition ed.(Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012), 18-21; Roger Lichtenberg and Alain-Pierre Zivie, "The cats and the goddess Bastet," in Divine creatures: animal mummies in ancient Egypt, ed. Salima Ikram. (Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2005).

[vii] See further: Steve Vinson, "Strictly Tabubue: the legacy of an Ancient Egyptian femme fatale," KMT 22, no. 3 (2011); The craft of a good scribe: history, narrative and meaning in the First tale of Setne Khaemwas, Harvard Egyptological studies (Leiden; Brill, 2018).

[viii] Heimo Hohneck, "Alles für die Katz'? Nochmals zum "Katzensarkophag" des Prinzen Thutmosis," Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 141, no. 2 (2014).

[ix] Lichtenberg and Zivie, "The cats and the goddess Bastet," 117-18.

[x] J. D. Ray, The archive of Ḥor(London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1976), Texts 7,19, 21-24, 26, 27, 29, 30.