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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.

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