Cult Figure of a Falcon-headed Deity

  • Egypt
  • Egypt, probably Early Dynasty 19
  • 1295 - 1213 B.C.
  • Silver, gold, lapis lazuli, rock crystal, Egyptian
  • H-41.9
Catalogue Entry

From hieroglyphic texts and temple reliefs we know that the ancient Egyptians placed divine images in the sanctuaries of their temples. Literary and religious texts describe divine and semidivine beings as having limbs overlaid with gold and hair of real lapis lazuli,1 and the Egyptians seem to have fabricated their most important cult images from these precious materials.2 It is not surprising, therefore, that only this one, relatively intact, major cult statue of an ancient Egyptian deity seems to have survived into our own time.3

This seated figure of a falcon-headed deity is of solid-cast silver that was once almost entirely overlaid with sheet gold, some of which is still preserved.4 The hair of the wig is inlaid with lapis lazuli,5 as are the markings on the falcon's face, although much of it is now missing. The deep-set eyes are hemispheres of rock crystal. The pupil of his well-preserved right eye is indicated by a deep drill hole in the back that comes almost to the surface and gives the god the fierce, mesmerizing expression of a bird of prey.6 The ability of Egyptian artists to combine an animal's head with a human body is especially evident in this figure. The transition from the animal to the human form is completely natural; the head and face of the falcon take on an almost human shape without losing the character of the bird.

In the Egyptian pantheon, a number of gods were represented with a falcon's head, the most prominent of whom was Horus. Since the present deity no longer has its crown or other divine attributes, it cannot be identified with certainty, but the figure probably does not represent any of the falcon-headed deities associated directly with the sun or the moon,7 for they would have worn a crown with a sun disk or a crescent moon attached with a mortise and tenon that rested directly on their head. The large cylinder on the Shumei figure's head is more appropriate to the attachment of a double crown,8 which is worn by Horus the Elder (Haroeris) or Horus son of Isis (Harsiesi). The backward slant of the cylinder also leaves open the possibility that the god is Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, who, at least in the early Ramesside period, is represented as a falcon-headed human, wearing a white crown flanked by ostrich plumes.9 Judging from images of seated deities on Egyptian reliefs and in paintings, the silver figure probably held an ankh, the hieroglyphic sign for life, in his right hand and a was-scepter in his left.10 Due to the lack of securely dated sculptural examples of falcon-headed deities before the Graeco-Roman period (332 B.C.-A.D. 395), scholars have dated the silver figure to anywhere from the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 B.C.) through the Late Dynastic Period (about 715-332 B.C.).11 However, stylistically the proportions of the figure, with its long-waisted, slender torso, seem closest to those of early Ramesside statues, such as the standing alabaster figures of Seti I in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and a kneeling figure of the same king in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.12

l. Such references occur in "Three Tales of Wonder," and in "The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor" (see Lichtheim 1973, pp. 220 and 212, respectively). Re is described as having "bones of silver, flesh of gold, and hair of real lapis lazuli" in "The Book of the Cow of Heaven" (see Lichtheim 1976, p. 198).
2. Surviving temple inventories list votive statues of gilded wood (see, for example, Daressy 1908, pp. 2-3). The earliest reference to a divine statue made of silver is from the early New Kingdom stela of Ahmose, where a sphinx of silver is listed among the offerings presented to the god Amun-Re of Karnak (see Sethe 1906, p. 23:8). Ramesses II dedicated statues of "electrum (d'm), real lapis lazuli, and every [kind of ] genuine precious stone" in the temple of Luxor (see Abd el-Razik 1974, p. 160; 1975, pp. 135-36).
3. Smaller images, such as the gold statue of Amun in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (no. 26.7.1412), are probably lavish votive offerings or parts of ceremonial equipment as depicted on temple walls. A cult image was placed in an enclosed shrine in the innermost sanctuary of a temple and was tended daily by priests, who would cleanse and clothe the image and present it with libations and offerings of food.
4. The sheet gold was attached by crimping the edges into grooves cut unobtrusively into the surface of the figure. The most visible of these grooves are the diagonal lines, still filled with gold, extending from the armpits to the wig on the front and back. There are other grooves along the torso beneath the arms, up the back of each leg, and along the sides of the kilt. I am grateful to Deborah Schorsch, associate conservator, Department of Objects Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who discussed the manufacture of the statue with me during her examination of it.
5. The bedding material now visible where the lapis lazuli has fallen out of the wig was identified as Egyptian blue by E.-L. Richter of the Staatliche Akademie der bildenden Kste, Stuttgart, who examined the figure in the 1970s.
6. The left eye was restored by Peter Eichhorn of the Wttembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart, when the figure was cleaned and conserved in the 1970s.
7. For example Re-Harakhti, a combination of the sun god Re with Horus of the Horizon, or Khonsu, the moon god, who is sometimes represented with a falcon's head.
8. This is a combination of the red crown of Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta in the north) with the white crown of Upper Egypt (the Nile Valley to the south), symbolizing the union of the Two Lands.
9. The god is represented in this fashion both in the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (see Hornung 1991, pp. 140, left, 159, left, where he is called Sokar-Osiris, and p. 208, right) and in the temple he dedicated to Osiris at Abydos (Photograph M 4705 by Harry Burton in the Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the g