Highlighted Works of Art – Summer

New Year celebrations in summer: relics of an Egyptian festival

17 June 2014 - 7 September 2014

in memoriam László Castiglione (1927–1984)


The small dish in the Classical Antiquities Collection, made of greenish black stone and decorated with the relief busts of two gods, Isis and the falcon-headed Horus, was bought for the Museum in Cairo by the great Hungarian Egyptologist and classical archaeologist László Castiglione. The other stone dish on display, on loan from a private collection, shows Harpocrates, the child Horus, and also comes from Egypt. Both belong to a little known object group from Graeco-Roman Egypt, with more than a hundred pieces linked by size, material and treatment, and the circle of gods and decorative motifs they display. Their majority was made in the Roman Period, although some (such as the Harpocrates dish here) probably date to Hellenistic times.

The dating is vague because hardly anything is known about the dishes’ archaeological context. For the same reason, we can only rely on the objects themselves to define their original purpose. A starting point is offered by their shape and colour: all are circular, and made of dark stone (steatite, serpentine, schist). In Egyptian art both features had a deeper significance: the dark colour evoked the silt of the inundating Nile, and was a symbol of fertility and rebirth, and the circular shape implied a connection with the sun, a central element in Egyptian religion. The solar character of the objects is reinforced by their decorative motifs (lotus, rosette).

The small dishes often represent the two principal deities of Graeco-Roman Egypt, Sarapis and Isis, and are generally considered as votive gifts offered to them. But the much richer iconography of the entire corpus allows for a more subtle interpretation. Different aspects of the royal Horus play an equally important role in their decoration. Horus connects the objects with the cult of the pharaoh, whereas the symbolic references to the inundation recall the New Year festival. The corpus may thus be linked to this yearly renewal, which, according to the millennia-old religion of ancient Egypt, was ensured by the pharaoh himself.

New Year’s Day, celebrated in mid-July, was one of the principal events in the Egyptian calendar. It was marked by the heliacal rising of the star Sothis (Sirius), which coincided with the beginning of the flood. Sothis was considered as a herald of the inundation and revered as a goddess. With the associative logic so typical of Egyptian theological thinking, her figure was connected with Isis, who mourned Osiris, and whose tears were held to nurture the flood. Since Sirius is the principal star of the Canis Major constellation, from Graeco-Roman times Isis-Sothis was often represented side-saddle on a dog (on some stone dishes as well). In Egyptian theology permitting different, equally valid and complementary approaches, the Nile was also identified with Osiris, who impregnated the soil, the body of Isis, and was reborn through the germinating seeds. The rebirth of Osiris was also symbolised by the grapes harvested after the flood – a frequent decorative motif of the dishes.

The return of the flood was connected with another myth popular in Graeco-Roman times: the Myth of the Sun’s Eye. This related that Hathor, the daughter of the sun god once left Egypt for the south as an angry lioness, whence she could only be lured back by Thoth. With her came the inundation, its water reddened from the Nile silt, as if it were wine. Hathor was appeased through dance, music and wine – the latter also consumed by the jubilant crowd –, and the festival was crowned by the hieros gamos of the returning goddess and the local deity.

This is the context in which the small dish from the Classical Antiquities Collection (Fig. 1–2) is to be interpreted. Grapes and a wreath decorate its back, the front shows a divine couple. Isis appears on the right, with corkscrew locks, her head crowned with the sun disk between cow’s horns. The crown recalls Hathor: Isis, whose figure by Graeco-Roman times had assimilated many other goddesses, is thus represented here as Hathor. Isis-Hathor embraces her husband, the falcon-headed Horus, who is wearing a mantle, a wig, and the double crown. The lower register is decorated with a lotus flower; the rim is encircled by the crown of justification.

Stone dishes represent Horus in two main aspects: Horus the celestial, royal god; and Harpocrates, the child deity. This particular piece shows the celestial Horus, who played the same role among the gods as the pharaoh on earth, annihilating Egypt’s enemies and maintaining cosmic order (on some dishes he appears on horseback, his right hand raised in triumph). Horus’ marriage with the goddess served regeneration and the renewal of creation. The lotus ties into the same concept. The bud of the flowering lotus emerges from the water and opens into a blue chalice, exposing its golden stamens. The plant was thus linked with the daily renewal of the sun god, and also played a role in Egyptian cosmogony: the lotus flower rising from the primeval ocean was said to have hidden the solar child, the deity who created the world. The Egyptians, who equated the flooding Nile with the primeval water, regarded the solar child as a fruit of the divine marriage, and frequently represented him beside the divine couple (be that Isis and Sarapis, or Horus and Isis-Hathor).

The other dish on display (Fig. 3–4) shows the solar child himself, here (as often) identified with Egypt’s par excellence child deity, Harpocrates. The child Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris (or, in later views, of Isis and Sarapis). A legitimate heir to his father, his cult was closely connected to that of the ascending pharaoh. These two ideas provide a key for the interpretation of the object. The nude Harpocrates raises his right hand to his mouth, he wears a sidelock of youth and the double crown. The precise iconographical scheme of the representation, however, only becomes visible when the dish is lifted to the light: it is chiselled so thin that the multi-petal flower incised on the back shines forth and identifies the deity as the solar child emerging from the lotus (Fig. 5). The two motifs on the sides emphasize the pharaoh’s role: the altar suggests a burnt offering, perhaps the ritual annihilation of the enemy, while the rich symbolism of the bird descending on the flower evokes the defeat of chaos and the repetition of creation.

The exact function of relief decorated stone dishes is as yet unknown. Since the few pieces with documented archaeological context were discovered in temples, we might assume their use was linked to official temple rituals of the New Year festival. The other exhibits, however, were made for the celebrants’ personal use. The tradition of New Year’s flasks goes back to the first half of the 1st millennium BC: thin-necked, lentoid faience bottles were decorated with representations and inscriptions connected with the New Year, and filled with Nile-water. The black-slipped terracotta flasks of a similar shape from the Graeco-Roman Period (Fig. 6) were adorned with floral motifs or fertility and apotropaic figures in relief. Their decoration is related to both the New Year’s flasks and the stone dishes above. Their use may also be interpreted in a similar context, but for one important novelty: by their time, Nile-water may have been replaced with the wine of Osiris (and Dionysus, as the Greeks identified him), a drink also much favoured by the returning Hathor. Although on different levels, the stone dishes and terracotta flasks relate to the same religious concept: renewal, celebrated by Egyptians of both the Graeco-Roman Period and the preceding millennia as a festival of the New Year.

Kata Endreffy


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