Amulet of Cat-astrophic Sekhmet

By
Savannah Born
Savannah Born (Class of 2020) is studying Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. She was excited to work on this piece and for the opportunity to learn more about ancient Egyptian religion. 

Third Intermediate Period or Late Period (ca. 1076-332 BCE), Faience, H. 9.6 cm, W. 1.8 cm, D. 4.6 cm, Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, ECM 644

This object is an amulet made of glazed blue faience that represents the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet seated on a throne. The amulet is approximately 9.6 cm tall, 1.8 cm wide, and 4.6 cm deep. Her hands rest on her thighs, while the right hand grasps an ankh and a handkerchief and the left hand lies flat, palm down. A circumferential crack runs around the waist at navel level; this has been repaired with glue, and most of her arms have been reconstructed with a modern substance. The feline face is prominent, with the nose protruding over the chest and lion ears pointing up. A cobra uraeus sits in the middle of her head. Directly behind the uraeus is a ringed cylinder with a narrow hole from left to right that resembles a suspension loop. A mane surrounds her face, and straight hair from a tripartite wig falls over her shoulders and down her back to about breast level over her plain sheath dress. The throne is supported on each side by two falcons crowned with solar disks and uraei while a large ankh is inscribed on the back of the throne. Dirt remains in some of the crannies, such as the wings of the falcons and nooks around Sekhmet’s face and hair.

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Third Intermediate Period or Late Period (ca. 1076-332 BCE), Faience, H. 9.6 cm, W. 1.8 cm, D. 4.6 cm, Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, ECM 644

Even since predynastic times, the Egyptians used amulets to magically provide its wearer with certain powers, capabilities, or protection associated with the represented deity, creature, or symbol. However, it was not until the end of the New Kingdom, around 1070 BCE, that amulets of deities became prevalent, and they continued to be made until the end of dynastic history. In particular, amulets of various lion-headed deities were a feature of the Third Intermediate Period. Based on this, this object likely dates to the Third Intermediate Period or possibly the Late Period. While many amuletic figures were small enough to be worn as pendants and even have suspension loops for such a purpose, some, such as this object, were too large to be worn. Additionally, analysis under UV light revealed that there are no signs of wear to this statuette’s “suspension loop.” Therefore, instead this amulet was likely set up as a focus for veneration or was dedicated as a votive offering to Sekhmet. Its “suspension loop,” in addition to referencing the amuletic nature of this statuette, could also be meant to symbolize the solar disk Sekhmet often wears on her head. When viewed from the side, it particularly mimics how the solar disk and uraeus would have been depicted in relief. Crafting the solar disk as a loop rather than a thin disk could have made the amulet more sturdy or easier to make as well.

Sekhmet had strong solar associations because she was one of the goddesses portrayed as the Eye of the sun god Ra, and the Eye was Ra’s daughter and protector. She could be bloodthirsty and is depicted in myth as a destroyer of mankind. In addition, she represented the negative qualities of the sun and desert that led to drought, famines and epidemics. As such, she became associated with plagues and her arrows could infect humanity with disease. However, she was not wholly destructive. While she could send death and illness, she had the ability to ward off pestilence and was also a healing deity, even being called “Sekhmet, mistress of life.” This amulet, like other amulets of Sekhmet, was primarily meant to convey her beneficent healing and protective nature rather than her negative side. Though her wrathful aspect struck fear in the hearts of the Egyptians and their enemies, her role as a powerful protector and healer endeared her to the Egyptian people and inspired them to make amulets in her image.

References:

Andrews, Carol. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. London: Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Press, 1994.

Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2017.