Friday, 17 June 2016

A Magic Wand


This is a fragment of a magic wand on loan to us from the British Museum. British Museum EA38192 is16cm long, and made from a  hippopotamus tooth.

In the Middle Kingdom to Second Intermediate Period (2055–1550 BC) these mysterious ‘apotropaic wands’ appear. Around 150 are known in museums around the world. It is possible that these continued into the New Kingdom as they are depicted in New Kingdom tombs, for example that of Rekhmire (Roberson 2009, footnote 66).

These things are usually made of hippopotamus canine teeth, split in half to produce two curved wands with one side convex and the other flat. Hippopotamus tooth is incredibly hard so this would have been difficult to make. So hard in fact that a 2006 television documentary ('The Darkside of the Hippos' broadcast on Channel Five on 31.5.2006) stated that the tusk could reputedly stop bullets. The material possibly invoked Taweret a hippopotamus goddess of childbirth. It is possible that hippopotamus ivory was considered important because of the power, strength and mothering qualities of the female hippo.

Although the whole is usually carefully carved and polished, with well executed animal heads forming the ends of more complete examples; the mythical creatures depicted thereon appear much more roughly engraved. Perhaps this shows that the making of the complete, but un-engraved wands, was carried out by one group of skilled people and the engravings of the animals by another less skilled group. However, not all wands depict roughly executed animals. A fragment of a wand from the Berlin Museum (9611) was described by Adolf Erman as ‘the finest ivory working I have ever seen’.  It has a beautifully executed toad and jackal standard in raised relief (Oppenheim et al. 2015: 200­–201 with references).

The engravings upon such wands depict deities associated with the protection of young infants and with childbirth, for example the frog goddess Hekat, Taweret and Bes. This broken wand from the British Museum has an image of a frog deity holding a knife blade in its foot. On other knives too, deities often carry protective knives or snakes. The inscriptions also bear witness to the fact that these ‘wands’ are intended to be protective, e.g. ‘Cut off the head of the enemy when he enters the chamber of the children whom the lady…has borne’ and ‘Protection by night, protection by day’ (Steindorff 1946, 50).

The series of mythical animals on wands like this often all face the same way as though in a procession. However, in this one, as in a few other examples (e.g. Louvre 3614 published in Oppenheim, et al. 2015: 200), there appear to be two ‘processions’ facing one another.

On British Museum EA38192, the image on the far left on the wand appears to be a snake. Only its head is shown. In front of the snake is a mythical creature, a serpent-necked feline with spotted coat (these are sometimes called ‘serpopards’). The serpotard appears to have been a Sumerian motif introduced into Egypt in the Naqada II Period. Such creatures appear on other apotropaic wands, e.g. an example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA 22.1.154, in Hayes 1953 vol. 2, fig. 159) and Walters Art Gallery 71.510 (Capel and Markoe 1996, 64). They also appear on the faience feeding cup also on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though here without spots (MMA 44.4.4). Since such items seem to occur with other apotropaic creatures, and at least one is shown with the sa-sign for protection on its back (Walters Art Gallery 71.510), it is assumed that the serpent-necked feline is also apotropaic.

In front of the serpopard is a seated ape holding a wedjat eye. It faces a standard with a canine head atop. The canine head, on, or as part of a standard, represents wsr, the sign for power and also appears on Walters Art Gallery apotropaic wand 71.510, The Waters example, however is not so clearly depicted as a standard but rather as a canine head with legs. In both the Walters example and the British Museum example here, the sign holds a knife.

The Walters Art Gallery Example example, also shows a sun-disk with legs, which can be seen as the figure on the furthest right on the British Museum wand.

At the far right are a series of parallel lines. Often such wands have an animal head at one or both ends.

Inscriptions also usually name the mother and the child. The child is invariably a boy. There could be several reasons for this. The first might be that these items were only made for boys. The second might be that as most of the tombs in which the wands were found belonged to men, most of the wands belonged to men, but this does not mean that girls did not have them in life. The preponderance of male names may also be a result of putting names on tusks before the birth of the child and indicate that male children were usually hoped for (Szpakowska 2008, 30). But, the fact that these items were repaired and spells thereon suggest several children it seems likely that these were used for girl as well as boy babies.

Egyptologists usually claim these wands were used to protect women in childbirth or young children, though most have been found in tombs. The fact that the points of some wands are worn away on one side has suggested to some that they were used to draw a magic circle around the child (Hayes 1953, 249). Some examples have perforations at each end with a cord running through perhaps to carry or move other objects (Teeter and Johnson 2009, 77). On tomb walls wands are shown being carried by nurses (Robins 1993, 87) but here their presence shows that they had a secondary function of protecting the deceased at the time of their rebirth.

This item is published in:
Altenmüller, H. 1983. Ein Zaubermesser aus Tübingen, In Welt des Orient 14, 30-45

Goodridge, Wendy and Williams, Stuart 2006. Offerings from the British Museum, Swansea.



References and further reading

Altenmüller, H. 1965. Die Apotropaia und die Götter Mittelägyptens : eine typologische und religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung der sogenannten "Zaubermesser" des Mittleren Reichs. Munich.

Altenmüller, H. 1983. Ein Zaubermesser aus Tübingen, In Welt des Orient 14, 30-45.

Capel, A.K. and Markoe, G. (eds.) 1996. Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven. Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: Cincinnati Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum.

Hayes, W.C. 1953. The Sceptre of Egypt. A background for the study of Egyptian antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Volume I. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Oppenheim, A., Arnold, D., Arnold D. and Yamamoto, K. 2015. Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York.

Roberson, J. 2009. The Early History of ‘New Kingdom’ Netherworld iconography: A Late Middle Kingdom Apotropaic Wand Reconsidered.  In eds. Silverman, D.P., Simpson, W.K. and Wegner, J. (eds.) Archaism and Innovation: Studies in the Culture of Middle Kingdom Egypt. New Haven, and Philadelphia, 427–445.

Robins, G. 1993. Women in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.

Szpakowska, K. 2008. Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Steindorff, G. 1946. The magical knives of ancient Egypt. Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 9, 41-51; 106-107.

Teeter, E. and Johnson, J.H. 2009. The Llife of Meresamun. A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.


1 comment:

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