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Friday, 6 February 2015

Demon bed legs!

In view of the recent advertisement for the forthcoming demon conference in Swansea, I thought I would tell you a bit more about a couple of the items featured on our poster (put together buy Kasia Szpakowska and her demon team Felicitas Weber and Zuzanna Bennett). Here is the poster:

Part of what I am about to suggest, is of course speculative, that is, I can't prove it but I wonder if the two bed legs featured are part of a 'woman's bed' of the type mentioned at Deir el-Medina, for women to nurse their young babies. Whether that is the case or not, the legs are quite unusual in showing in paint Bes and Taweret with a snake. The left leg above shows Bes, and the right Taweret, the snakes are painted in red on the inside of the bed. They have the Egypt Centre accession number W2052a (the Bes leg) and b (Taweret). Their similarity suggests they are part of the same bed. W2052a is from the foot end, left side if you were looking from the head of the bed. While W2052b from the head, right side. This would place the snakes on the outer surfaces of the head and foot ends and Bes and Taweret on the opposite outward facing edges. 

Sir Henry Wellcome purchased these bed legs, decorated with pictures of Taweret and Bes, in 1906 from the collection of Robert de Rustafjaell. One is marked in pencil ‘Akhmim’ suggesting that it possibly came from this area.

Bed legs such as those here are frequently constructed in the shape of lion legs. Just as the lion was symbolically associated with the rebirth of the sun at dawn, a lion shaped bed might confer refreshed awakening from sleep for the occupant.

The ancient Egyptians saw the hours between sunset and sunrise as particularly dangerous, a time when they may be at risk from malevolent forces. To protect themselves from such powers positive deities were called upon. The two most common were the hippopotamus goddess Taweret and the dwarf god Bes. It is possible that beds were generally decorated with such deities, however, Taweret and Bes were also particularly connected with women in childbirth.

Thus, these legs may be part of a 'woman's bed' upon which a woman would have given birth and/or rested shortly after birth.

At New Kingdom Deir el-Medina, ‘women’s beds’ appear to have been purchased along with birth amulets [Toivari-Viitala 2001, 178]. Unfortunately, we don’t know what such beds were like, though there are clues in the ‘Wochenlaube’ scenes (see footnote) and in model clay beds [Pinch 1983, 406, pl. V]. On both, snakes are shown. On the clay models, the bed legs may take the form of Bes, and a snake is depicted on either long edge of the bed. But only one complete bed exists which depicts snakes; it is that of Sennedjem, which is Ramesside in date, and like ours has a painted decoration. Here two snakes are shown on the bed frame, one on each side. Other depictions of snakes on actual, as opposed to model, beds do occur, e.g. a New Kingdom bed leg from Thebes has cobras entwined around the legs (EA 21574; Quirke 1992, fig 70). Depictions of Bes on actual beds are, however, much more common (Graves-Brown 2010). Pinch (1983, 406, pl.V) shows that on depictions on ostraca of mothers nursing their babies, Bes appears on the bed legs. 

On the Wochenlaube scenes the snake has been identified as a protective fertility snake by Brunner-Traut (1955, 24). There are also parallel scenes where Isis and baby Horus are shown flanked by protective serpents.The pottery beds on which such serpents appear are dated to Pinch (1993, 209) as late 18th Dynasty to Third Intermediate Period. 

The legs may well have come from a tomb, however, this does not preclude their use in everyday life. Birth items were particularly apt for the tomb as, for the ancient Egyptians, rebirth in many ways, mirrored birth.

Further Reading and References

Brunner-Traut, E. 1955. Die Wochenlaube, Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung, 3, 11-30.

Graves-Brown, G. 2010. Dancing for Hathor. Women in Ancient Egypt. London and New York.

Killen, G., 1980-1984. Egyptian Furniture. 2 volumes. Warminster.

Pinch, G., 1983. Childbirth and Female Figurines at Deir el-Medina and el-Amarna, Orientalia, 52, 405-414.

Quirke, S. 1992. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London,

Toivari-Viitala, J., 2001. Women at Deir el-Medina. A Study of the Status and Roles of the Female Inhabitants at the Workmen's Community During the Ramesside Period. Leiden.

Footnote: Several ostraca are known from ancient Egypt shown nursing women seated on beds, often with convolvulus and sometimes with snakes depicted. Women may be shown having their hair done and a mirror may be evident. Similar scenes also appear in the front rooms of some houses at Deir el-Medina. These scenes, which seem to indicate some special area for birth or post-parturition recuperation, are termed by Egyptologists ‘Wochenlaube’ scenes (the term was coined by Brunner-Traut in 1955).  

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