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Monday, 30 March 2015

Easter, Onions and Sham el-Nessim

So Easter is coming up and the Egypt Centre is preparing. The festival of Easter originally derives from earlier pagan festivals associated with spring and rebirth, which is what we are going to celebrate in the Centre. So coming up we have children’s workshops ‘The Magic of Mummies’ from 7th-10th April. If you are looking for a non-fattening Easter treat you could do worse than to purchase from our shop. Our shop has loads of things to do with rebirth and Egypt, such as jewellery decorated with flowers and also scarabs.

So what has this got to do with onions? Well the link is the modern Egyptian festival of Sham el-Nessim (literally smelling the breeze) which falls on the day after the Coptic Christian Easter and is celebrated by both Muslims and Christians. The day may possibly date back to an ancient Egyptian festival!

It is said that the festival takes its name from the Egyptian harvest season, called Shemu. Over time the ancient name Shemu morphed into the Arabized Sham el-Nessim. In the modern festival traditional food is eaten such as feseek (a salted grey mullet), lettuce, onions, lupin beans and coloured boiled eggs.
In his book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Edward William Lane wrote in 1834:
A custom termed 'Shemm en-Nessem' (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northward, to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country or on the river. This year they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to 'smell' it.

According to Plutarch, in the 1st century AD the ancient Egyptians offered salted fish, lettuce and onions to their gods on this day.

So, do we have anything onionish in the Centre? Well nothing in the shop. But we do have a couple of things on display. Firstly, clay offering tray which shows onions.....W480 shows two long water channels, two forelegs of oxen, bread and three bundles of leeks or onions. The onions favoured by the ancient Egyptians would have been more like leeks or scallions. Onions were a staple food, so no wonder the living wanted to provide the dead with them.

But more than that, onions appear to have been associated with rebirth!

Onions appear three times in resurrection scenes on our 21st Dynasty coffin!

Firstly, they appear in the above scene (more about that here). Between Isis and Nephthys is an object which looks like a bag with fringes.

Secondly a bunch occurs here, in the in front of Embracing of Horus (the far left) in the Osiris on the mound scene, and again in front of the right-hand Heka (Heka is the god on the far right), in the same scene.

On noting these strange fringed bags, my first thought was actually that that it was the Abydos or Abydene symbol (ta-wer symbol). The ‘Abydene’ or ‘Abydos symbol’ which had the shape of a bee-hive was considered from the 19th Dynasty to be the reliquary of the head of Osiris. It is usually shown on a pole and is said to represent a wig, suggesting the head of Osiris. As one would expect, this symbol often occurs and both mound scenes and on scenes of the enthroned Osiris. However, the Abydene symbol does not seem to be shown without the pole. So maybe not the Abydene symbol.

However, as was pointed out to me this is more likely to be a bunch of onions! As Graindorge (1992) has shown, depictions beginning in the New Kingdom show celebrations involving the offering of bunches of onion which look very similar to this depiction (for example in TT255, the tomb ofRoy). 

On 25th of Khoak, when celebration concerned the triumph of Osiris, relatives of the deceased offered onions associated with Sokar (onions are also used in the opening of the mouth ceremony). Onions grow both under soil and above it and thus mirror the solar-Osirian theology which is a common theme on this coffin. Sokar is himself associated with Osiris. They also drive away snakes and are thus protective.

So there you have it, maybe we should sell onions in our shop for Easter.


Graindorge, C. 1992. Les Oignons de Sokar, Revue d'Égyptologie 43, 87-105.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

An unusual souvenir?

Is this a rare souvenir? Or is it an attempt to deliberately deceive? 

This artefact is made from pottery and shows the prenomen of Rameses II. It is on display in the Egypt Centre. It was purchased at auction by Wellcome in 1934.

Such objects are often mistaken for the bases of funerary cones, however they are an early form of copy. It would be unlikely to simply have the base of a cone surviving. 

You can see that this has a cartouche of a king’s name. One of the things that makes it even more certain that they are fakes is that kings did not have funerary cones. Most, unlike ours, bear the cartouche of Ramesses III. So ours is a bit unusual.

Cyril Aldred (1957) recognised these as forgeries based on funerary cones. He quotes an 1884 letter from Charles Edwin Wilbour which says ‘I visited the woman Giudeeyeh, who showed me the (modern) stamp from which she moulds and bakes the round brick stamps of Rameses III, that are always offered to you in his temple at Medinet Haboo. She lives north of Yussuf and I encouraged her industry; it saves monuments from destruction.’

Apparently, such items also turn up today on ebay.

With thanks to Tom Hardwick for drawing our attention to ours.


Aldred, C. 1957. ‘The Funerary Cones’ of Ramesses III’. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 43, 113.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Shsh....secrets (Harpocrates and initiation rituals!)

The figure to the right has his finger to his mouth. This is Horus the Child, or in Greek, Harpocrates (from the Egyptian Hor-pa-khered literally Horus the Child). You can recognize children in ancient Egyptian depictions by their hair (the side-lock of youth) and by the finger placed against the lips. Indeed, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for a child showed a child with finger to lips. 

Our copper alloy statuette here right (W1375) has both these characteristics. BUT, the Greeks misunderstood why Harpocrates had his fingers to his lips and reinterpreted him has a god of silence (and secrets).

In the last blog post I explained that Sekhmet was sometimes used in Theosophical rituals. Well, it seems Harpocrates was also used in modern rituals, and all because of the Greeks associating him with silence and secrecy. If you google, you will find, for example, that he appears in initiation rituals in Golden Dawn societies.

Those Greeks had a lot to answer for!

A little bit more about this object: It is 13 cm high, and would have been a votive offering.

The Centre has several other items relating to Harpocrates. Click here to investigate.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Sekhmet and the Theosophical Society

This object has intrigued me for years. It's not so much what it is in Egyptological terms but its 'museological value', its post-excavation history, and the social web which ensnares it. I'm sharing, partly in the hopes that others might add some information.

But, first a little bit about it which may be of interest to 'pure Egyptologists' (if such people exist).

It is accessioned as W496. It measures 18.5cm and is made from glazed steatite. I presume it was orginally seated on a throne or chair, it has its hands by its sides and the mane suggests the figure depicts a lioness rather than cat. It has breasts so I'm assuming it is female.

It's a bit like the faience figure on the right which is in the Kunsthistorishe Museum and dates to 724-332BC (Late Period). The flat jaw is similar. Or the one on this link, from the same museum, again Late Period. There is a glazed steatite example here (I'm afraid I don't have the actual book where it is published but the web says: 'Published: J. Eisenberg, Art of the Ancient World, 2007, no. 204').

Presumably items like this were votive offerings

We don't know where this object was found, or who excavated it. But, we do know how Henry Wellcome came by it. As is shown by the 'Wellcome slip' or 'flimsy card' (a cataloguing tool used by Wellcome's cataloguers sent out to museums when Wellcome's collection was dispersed) we have in the Centre, Wellcome gave it the number L.79347. It is further stated on the slip that Wellcome bought it from the 'Theosophical Society (H.W. Watson), 1 Bloomsbury Street, WC1 Case No,. 7117.'

This object was owned by the Theosophical Society[i], founded by the Russian lady Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) in 1875. Her teaching synthesized many ancient and modern religious beliefs including those of ancient Egypt[ii]. It is not clear how the artefact was used, but it seems that the members of the Theosophical Society considered the lion as important, as a sign of the zodiac, as a symbol of one of the four elements and as a solar eye. In Blavatsky 1886 the lion is frequently cited as a zodiacal sign, or as a symbol of the elements.

The Evangelical zoolatry -- the Bull, the Eagle, the Lion, and the Angel (in reality the Cherub, or Seraph, the fiery-winged Serpent), is as much pagan as that of the Egyptians or the Chaldeans. These four animals are, in reality, the symbols of the four elements, and of the four lower principles in man. (Blavatsky, 1886,  I. 363 see also II, 114)

"Oh Toum, Toum! issued from the great (female) which is in the bosom of the waters"
(the great Deep or Space) . . . "Thou, luminous through the two Lions" (the dual Force or
power of the two solar eyes, or the electro-positive and the electro-negative forces. (See
Book of the Dead, III., and Egyptian Pantheon, chapter ii.) (Blavatsky I 673, footnote).

But is it really Sekhmet? Might it be Mut? Does it matter, did it ever matter? The Egyptians mixed and matched goddesses. Though usually lioness goddesses are labelled as Sekhmet. Maybe this is due to romanticism? Even today, Sekhmet as opposed to other lioness goddesses, seems to be considered the epitome of Egyptian aggressive female deities and possibly thus romaniticised[iii].

When the object came to Swansea it was considered important enough to be catalogued by the then honourary curator Kate Bosse-Griffiths. She didn't catalogue all the objects, but rather selected those which appeared 'important'. She also put it on display as can be seen here:

And, it has an entry in the guidebook. According to the Guide Book written by Kate Bosse Griffiths (Egypt Centre archive A1, 8) which accompanied this exhibit. This object was within a display of ‘small sculptures’ of various materials: In this display there are examples of various techniques resulting in sculptures in the round and in relief by chiseling stone, casting bronze and moulding glass and Egyptian fayence.

The object itself was not, at the date of writing the guidebook, considered important enough to be listed alone. It was however, sent for conservation to Cardiff in 1980 (we have the evidence in the Centre)

In 1996 there was an exhibition of objects organised by David Gill of Swansea University, together with Alison Lloyd of the Glyn Vivian Art Gallery called 'The Face of Egypt'. The aim of the exhibition was to highlight the forthcoming opening of our Egypt Centre. I visited the exhibition prior to being appointed as curator here, but of course I don't remember all the objects. What I do remember is an 'arty' type exhibition with beautifully displayed objects but very little explanation. The objects were shown as one might expect in a traditional art museum. There was a guidebook, a copy of which we have in the Centre. In the guidebook (page 9 number 64), under a section labeled ‘Gods’ the item is catalogued as a ‘Figure of Sekhmet with female body and lion’s head. Ceramic 7.7x7.8x18.6cm’.[iv]  It is not ceramic. However, unsurprisingly there are a few innacuracies in the guidebook, perfectly naturally since at this time there was no professional Egyptological curator of the collection[iv]. And no-one is perfect, there are mistakes in our catalogue!

The object was selected for display in the Egypt Centre in 1997. We put in a case of animal related objects (see pic on right). It's on the bottom, towards the right with other feline-related objects. At the time, the Wendy Goodridge and I thought it would be good to display objects thematically, partly according to what schools and the general public might want, though we were heavily restricted by the previous plans for the museum which had been drawn up and which presented a chronological theme for the upstairs gallery and funerary themes for downstairs. Of course it could also go in our technology case, or our stonework case, or in the votive offering case, or in the gods case.

So there we have it, an object used in ancient Egypt in a 'religious' context and reused in the near present in a religious context by the Theosophical Society. I would love to know how the object was actually used by the Theosophical Society. One might argue that even today it is shown in a sort of secular temple (museums are often compared to churches).

One day I hope to research this more.


Blavatsky, H.P. 1886. The Secret Doctrine, The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy. (you can read this online, just google it)

Bosse-Griffith, K. 1976. Hyffforddwr/Guide. (Egypt Centre archive A1)

i. As can be ascertained from the catalogue card in the Egypt Centre which predates 1997.
ii. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakhmet
iii There was in the past, many links and friendships between occultists and Egyptologists, and other elite more generally. We should not find this surprising as disciplines were not so seperate. Aleister Crowley for example was friends Budge, Gardiner and others.
iii. While the object is neither photographed nor given its accession number here, it is identified as W496 by the size and description and because a working file from the Face of Egypt Exhbition labelled ‘gods’ had a photograph of W496 therein.
iv. The collection was under the care of David Gill, a classist, who was helped by a former student of Liverpool University. Click here for a history of the Centre.

Friday, 13 March 2015

What have museums ever done for us?

Went to the Welsh Museums Federation meeting yesterday at the Cardiff Story. The conference was all about resilience in these difficult times. It was a bit depressing to hear about the problems so many colleagues have in keeping their museums afloat while councils, etc. make cuts. But, it was heartening to hear ideas about what to do.

One of the big problems could be that the great and the good in charge of museums just don’t realise what they are cutting. So, I thought, a quick post on what museums do for us, apart from of course being amazing treasure houses of artefacts made available for all.

Of course it’s really important that in museums you get to encounter the real object, not just a picture in a book. The real, authentic object can bring subjects to life, it can make you feel closer to the past, or to some admired personality. Even, for bad events. Ask people who have been to Ground Zero if they felt the same looking at the thing in a book compared to actually standing there. More banally, also sometimes when you see something for real it looks so much more different than in a book. I was really surprised how small the Mona Lisa really is when I visited the Louvre many years ago.

And museums collect things. Lots of local museums do contemporary collecting so that future generations will actually know what we hoped, feared and loved. That’s important, surely? Yes we could write it down but objects sort of condense messages. A biro pen for example tells you about technology, it can tell you about consumerism (is it made cheaply for a mass market or is it a special, added-value sort of thing). It might have a logo on it which gives ideas of marketing. You might wonder who owned it, who made it. In the future pens might be obsolete as we tend to communicate more and more digitally. So, the actual number of these things around might tell about changing technologies. You get the picture, an object is in museological terms- multi-vocal (it can give lots of messages)

What else do museums do? Well museums bring in vast amount of money in tourism, so they add value to the area in which they are situated. People go to museums, of course on rainy days, and Wales has a lot of them, but also for cheap family days out. In the UK as a whole, museums are the number one tourist attraction, and tourism is the 5th largest industry.

Museums are places which the whole family can enjoy together. Most museums these days have activities etc. for young and old. And, often they are free!

Museums help combat social exclusion, they allow cultural participation for all, thus combat excluding effects of poverty. The Baroness Andrew’s report had several examples where museums actually do this.

Museums are places that are not just for the young, not just for the old, not just for particularly abilities, but for everyone. Everyone can get something out of an encounter with an amazing object (which of course museums have in plenty). You don’t have to be clever, or old, or young to appreciate beauty or be blown away by how weird/old/funny, etc. a museum object might be.

Museums are places for fun and for learning, and I don’t mean boring learning of lists of facts (though you could do that in a museum if that’s what floats your boat). When you go into a museum you can choose what to see, how long to look at it, and also what to ignore.

Museums contribute to a sense of identity and can give people pride in what that do and where they live. They can show what’s great and interesting about an area.

I'm sure lots of people have lots more ideas and examples of how great our museums are and what they do? And, they do all this and more on a shoestring. Let's hope they are around a good deal longer.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Stereotypes of women in ancient Egypt. Gentle Bastet or aggressive Sekhmet?

This is a small amulet about 3.5cm high. It is made of faience and was loaned to us by Woking College.  It shows a feline goddess holding a staff and wearing a cobra headdress. It’s accession number is WK42 and you can see it on display in the Egypt Centre.

Although we have called this a 'Sekhmet amulet', and indeed amulets of feline-headed goddesses are often so categorised, strictly speaking it could be one of a number of feline-headed goddesses: Bastet, Mut, Wadjyt, etc. All were daughters of the sun-god Re. The feline head may be either a cat or a lioness. If a cat it is more likely to reflect the passive, nurturing aspect of the goddess, if a lioness, it is more likely to show her aggressive side.  The addition of the uraeus cobra may possibly be to reinforce the aggressive or protective side of the goddess and to show her as the Eye of Re, a daughter of the sun-god.

The Egyptians may not have minded exactly which goddess was intended. Indeed, in the New Kingdom tale of the Return of the Distant Goddess (time of Tutankhamun), the aggressive goddess Sekhmet is changed into the gentle goddess Hathor by plying her with alcohol! Additionally the Egyptians commented on the dual nature of the female comparing her to the goddesses.

Much Egyptian literature presents the stereotypical passive woman, the good wife, or the active but dangerous temptress. Literature was written largely by men for men, so we may assume that these were male views of women, although in the case of stories, it is likely that they were publicly performed for both men and women. There are always exceptions: in love poetry women are shown as actively ensnaring the male, but this does not seem to be regarded as subversive or dangerous.
In texts, the quiet, obedient wife is praised. An Old Kingdom husband praises his wife in a tomb chapel inscription: ‘she did not utter a statement that repelled my heart; she did not transgress while she was young in life’. Another wife is credited as ‘one who speaks pleasantly and sweetens love in the presence of her husband’[i]. The Middle Kingdom Instructions of Ptahhotep advise: ‘love your wife with proper ardor, Fill her belly, clothe her back . . . . ’ [ii]. But they also say ‘Remove her from power, suppress her! . . . Restraining her is how to make her remain in your house; a female who is under her own control is rainwater’.

The Middle Kingdom Tale of the Herdsman  recounts the story of a dangerous temptress: a herdsman sees a woman, possibly a goddess, in the marshes, she unclothes herself and the herdsman is terrified by what he witnesses. Unfortunately, this story survives only in fragments, but what we can piece together invokes the archetypal story of the watery siren, both erotic woman and terrifying monster. A parallel has been drawn in this tale with the story of the Mut goddess who resided in the marshy borders of Egypt and Libya.

In the Middle Kingdom Instructions of Ptahhotep, the dual nature of women is described:

One is made a fool by limbs of faience
And then she turns into carnelian.

Here the woman is described as both ‘faience’ and ‘carnelian’. The positive and beautiful blue of faience turns into the aggressive and fiery red of carnelian[iii]. The Tale of the Herdsman may suggest, in the unclothed nature of the woman, that it is women’s sexuality that was feared. However, in the Middle Kingdom there are some positive associations of women, such as the princesses in the Tale of Sinuhe, reviving the hero through the shaking of sistra.

The danger afforded by women continues in New Kingdom literature. In the Instructions of Ani, a man is warned of women traveling alone:
A deep water whose course is unknown,
Such is a woman away from her husband.
‘I am pretty,’ she tells you daily,
When she has no witnesses;
She is ready to ensnare you,
A great deadly crime when it is heard.

In the Tale of the Two Brothers, Anubis’ wife attempts to seduce her husband’s younger brother, Bata, and Bata’s young wife betrays her husband. In Truth and Falsehood, a woman rescues Truth, but then treats him badly after sleeping with him[iv]. While men may also be shown in an unfavourable light, in Egyptian tales it is usually suggested that women accomplish sinister deeds through their sexuality.

The dual and dangerous nature of the woman continues into the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods. In the Late Period, the Instructions of Ankhsheshonk remark:

When a man smells myrrh his wife is a cat before him
When a man is suffering his wife is a lioness before him[v]
In the Graeco-Roman, The First Tale of Setne Khaemwes, a character called Tabubu seductively dressed in transparent linen, ensnares the hero and then mysteriously vanishes[vi].
Women are rarely shown actively engaged in any vigorous activity in tomb art, and they appear as passive partners to the male. This is even the case in the Old Kingdom, where it could be argued that women had more status than in later periods. Men are shown striding forward, while women stand with their legs closer together. The man always sits on the right (superior) side and the woman on the left (inferior) side[vii]. By tradition, women may cling to, or adore their active husbands, but in a study of 42 New Kingdom couples, only 2 show reciprocal gestures of affection. Men are central while women show them deference( Whale 1989; Robins 1994).

Women are also shown as passive in Old Kingdom fowling scenes and in one case a woman urges the male to get a bird for her. Usually, women stand by their husbands, who are actively hunting the birds Two unusual instances of women depicted alone in fowling scenes have been noted, but the woman’s role is ambiguous in both instances as she is described as ‘viewing’ rather than ‘performing’ the activity . The lack of active female roles in art may be because Egyptian tomb imagery used women largely as sexualized images, placed in supporting roles to men.
The apparently restrictive nature of women’s clothes, as shown on tomb paintings, may have been because they were expected to be less active than men. However, it could equally be true that these clothes were not tight and restrictive, but merely appear so in ancient Egyptian art because the typical wrap dress would have been shown two dimensionally. Certainly, actual Egyptian women’s clothing found in tombs is not restrictive, but rather sack-like.

To a certain extent, the passive/aggressive duality and positive associations of passivity extend to deities like WK42. There are aggressive goddesses, such as the creative and active Eye of Re. While such goddesses are not necessarily seen in a negative light, the story of the dangerous lioness goddess, Sekhmet, sent out on a killing spree by Re shows this goddess must be controlled and changed into the passive and beautiful Hathor if humankind is not to be annihilated. The connection between deities and mortal women is described in Papyrus Insinger: ‘the work of Mut and Hathor is what acts among women. It is in women that the good demon and the bad demon are active on earth’

[i] Fisher 2000, 3–4.
[ii] Lichtheim 1973, 69.
[iii] Troy 1984, 78.
[iv] Troy 1984, 211–14.
[v] Troy 1984, 78.
[vi] Lichtheim 1980, 127–38.
[vii] Fischer 1989, 6–7; Fischer 2000, 3–4.

Fischer, H.G. (1989), 'Women in the Old Kingdom and Heracleopolitan Period', in Lesko, B. S. (ed.), Women's Earliest Records From Ancient Egypt and Western Asia. Proceedings of the Conference on Women in the Ancient Near East. Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, November 5–7, 1987. Atlanta: Scholars Press, pp. 5–24.

– (2000), Egyptian Women of the Old Kingdom and of the Herakleopolitan Period. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lichtheim, M. (1973), Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press.

– (1980), Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 3. Berkley: University of California Press.

Robins, G. (1994), 'Some principals of compositional dominance and gender hierarchy in Egyptian art', Journal of the American Research Centre in Egypt, 31, 33–40.

Troy, L. (1984), 'Good and bad women. Maxim 18/284–288 of the Instructions of Ptahhotep', Göttinger Miszellen, 80, 77–81.

Whale, S. (1989) The Family in the 18th Dynasty of Egypt: A study of the representation of the family in private tombs. Sydney: Australian Centre for Egyptology.