Friday, 20 February 2015

Year of the sheep/goat/ram

On a coffin in the Egypt Centre (W1982) we have a really great scene of the seperation of heaven and earth, with Geb and his consort Nut seprated by Shu (or in or case Heka). Little bit more about it here. There are several reasons why I find this interesting, one because this motif shows a male god as the earth and a sky god as female (in conrast to the usual mother earth idea prominent in many cultures). In the case of our coffin it has the god of magic, Heka, in place of the usual Egyptian god Shu. Usually Shu seperates the pair and ours is one of the few where it's different. This is a scene of creation.

But I am getting off the point, I was going to talk about rams and sheep and such on this secene as it is approproriate for the start of the Chinese New Year (being the year of the ram, or goat or sheep). Should point out that Egyptologists see these clearly as rams. However, there is some debate as to whether the Chinese year is a ram, a goat or sheep.

On the Swansea coffin, two kilted ram-headed deities help She/Heka. There are other coffins which show ram-headed deities assisting. If anyone is interested look at Budapest 87.4.E (Liptay 2011, 69, plate 17) and  the British Museum Greenfield Papyrus (EA10554, Budge 1912, pl. 56) as well as E1.1822 in the Fitzwilliam Museum.  Part ram, part bird figures are shown lifting up Nut on other 21st Dynasty coffins (e.g. the coffin of Pameshem, Cairo 6008 in Goff, 1979, fig.141). On other coffins the rams are given names such as ‘This God Great in Heaven’ and ‘This God Great in the Duat’ (Budge 1893, 49). The rams are labelled in the Greenfield Papyrus e.g. ‘Ba which embraces all things?’ (BA-sxnt-dmD). 

Rams were associated with a number of gods in Egypt and perhaps in the Theban area were particularly with the night-time aspects of Amun (Niwiński 1987-88, 104). Additionally, the Ram of Mendes is the ba spirit of Osiris and the solar ram is associated with crossing the netherworld at night (Eaton 2006, 87). Rams generally represent fertility. So all this is a good reason for them to appear on a scene of creation.

The ram is also a metaphor for the part of the soul the Egyptians called the ba. This probably derives from the Egyptian for the ba should being the same word as ram, i.e. bA. Ba-birds are often shown as birds with human faces. We have several wooden depiction of them in the Egypt Centre and the the left I show you one. There is a bit more about them here.

On our coffin, the idea that these are indeed intended as soul-birds is reinforced by the addition of the ba-bird (the birds with human heads) also in the scene, and two of these ba-birds (those beneath the arms of the kilted ram-headed figures and shown with arms in front of them in a gesture of worship) appear to have rams horns. E1.1822 in the Fitzwilliam also depicts ba-birds without horns, there called ‘the living soul of Osiris’ (Budge 1893, 49) - I think - I haven't checked this on the actual coffin. Liptay (2011, 66) believes the combination of ram and ba-bird invoke Chapter 85 of the Book of the Dead where ram and bird appear alternately on vignettes.

So those rams seem to have lots of meanings.

The Egyptians did seem to like mixing metaphors.


Budge, E.A.W. 1912. The Greenfield Papyrus in the British Museum. The funerary papyrus of princess Nesitanebtashru, daughter of Painetchem II and Nes-Khensu, and priestess of Amen-Ra at Thebes, about B.C. 970. London: British Museum Trustees.

Eaton, K.J. 2006. the Festivals of Osiris and Sokar in the Month of Khoiak. Studien zur Altägyptischen Kulture, 35, 75-101.

Goff, Beatrice L. 1979. Symbols of Ancient Egypt in the Late Period. The Twenty-first Dynasty. The Hague, Paris and New York: Mouton Publishers.

Liptay, E. 2011. Coffins and Coffin Fragments of the Third Intermediate Period. Budapest: Museum of Fine Arts

Niwiński, A. 1987-88. The solar-Osirian unity as a principle of the theology of the ‘State of Amun’ in Thebes Dynasty 21. Jaarbericht van het vooraziat-egyptische Genootschap, 30, 89-106.

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