Meroitic Egyptianizing Objects: Inlays, Ba Statue, Offering Table
Meroitic Egyptianizing Objects: Inlays, Ba Statue, Offering Table
Nearly a thousand miles south of the Mediterranean, surrounded by dunes, the ancient necropolis of Meroe rises out of the desert. On April 25, 1822 a French explorer and naturalist named Frederic Cailliaud became the first modern historian to actively seek and find the ancient civilization of Meroe. The Meroitic kingdom utilized Egyptian religious iconography as a known iconographic program and language through which Meroitic religious beliefs could be expressed and such interpretation called upon elements integrated from the Greco-Roman and East African worlds. Unlike their northern neighbors, the language of Meroe has yet to be completely deciphered, and as such our investigation of the Meroitic kingdom and culture must utilize material remains and art historical contexts in order to grapple with Meroitic self-presentation in comparison to external (namely Egyptian, Greek, and Roman) versions of Meroitic society and history.
Excavations conducted by William Kelly Simpson in 1963 at the Lower Nubian site of Arminna West produced a number of Meroitic objects a selection of which is presented here including a beautiful set of four inlays (the fourth piece was an inlay with a depiction of the goddess Isis/Hathor). The ivory pieces were most likely, originally decoration for a small box. The set of inlays provides an interesting window into Meroitic religion by demonstrating aspects of Egyptian tradition which were adopted and adapted to represent fundamental Meroitic religious tenets. The two horizontal pieces are depictions of sphinxes with rearing solar crowned cobras in front of their paws. The orientation of the sphinxes would indicate they were originally installed facing each other perhaps serving as a representation of the two hills of the horizon from which the new born sun emerges in the morning.
The third ivory inlay is a depiction of Horus-the-Child, called Harpocrates in Graeco-Roman Egypt. Depicted nude with his finger to his mouth, a pose that demonstrates childhood in Egyptian tradition, Harpocrates wears the Nubian style cap crown and a draped and ornamented mantle. The presence of Horus-the-Child within Meroitic state ideology is purposeful and, in conjunction with the states’ preference for Isis as the mother, serves to reinforce and legitimize the right to rule of the various Meroitic kings. The adaptation and use of clearly identified mother/son theology derived from the Egyptian canon to ground Meroitic kings and queens with a divine right demonstrates the use of Egyptian iconographic language to express and explain indigenous concepts and customs.
In keeping with the extension of preexisting Egyptian funerary tradition to the Meroitic ritual landscape, the integration of the offering table into Meroitic tradition demonstrates a level of cultural connection and hybridization within the northern reaches of the Meroitic kingdom. Beginning in the Old Kingdom in Egypt, around 2300 B.C.E., offering tables were used in the shrines outside of tombs for the placement of funerary offerings of food by the mortuary priests. The tables take their shape from the Egyptian hieroglyph Hetep which is the word to offer, thereby becoming a three-dimensional representation of a concept. The Stela-style offering tables, of which YPM 222268 is an example, utilize the Hetep hieroglyphic shape to enliven the words inscribed thereon, making them into physical representations of offerings in the afterlife. Our current imperfect understanding of the Meroitic language, seen here written top to bottom, right to left, requires the contextualization of inscriptions within their physical and socio-historical spheres in order to gain as much information about the Meroitic culture as possible.
Due to the consistent nature of offertory formulae, it is a corpus of material for which our understanding is relatively solid. The text of YPM 222268 follows the typical offertory formula of the Stela offering tables consisting of: invocation; biography; offertory request; and terminal invocation. The text opens with the invocation of Isis and Osiris followed by the names and biography of the deceased offertory recipient. In the case of YPM 222268 the owners of the tomb and table are Sahiye and Tayesi, one of whom is the estate manager for the Queen. Next their familial relationships are listed, in this case linking them as nephews to several viceroys. Finally, the stela requests abundant water and bread be supplied to the deceased and closes with another invocation to Isis and Osiris.
Expanding upon the offering table ritual for the care and maintenance of the soul of the deceased was the integration of the concept of the Ba. The Ba, or soul of a person, as a bird, frequently with a human head, was fully integrated into ancient Egyptian tradition. The Ba was the portion of a man’s soul that flew from the body upon death and participated in the afterlife and the underworld journey of the solar deity.
While the Egyptian style human-headed version of the Ba bird was employed in the decoration program of the tomb chapels of the pyramids of the Meroitic kings and queens, the northern areas of the Meroitic kingdom expanded the depictions to include sandstone statues of bare-chested, linen wrapped human figures whose winged status is only discernible when viewed from the side. The statues, like the one shown here, were placed in front of the tomb chapels and were designed as depictions of the Ba of the tomb owner.
Max. length 2 3/8in
Arminna West B 11.8
Yale Peabody Museum
For additional information and references see:
A. Cunningham-Bryant Engraved in Stone: The Role of the Offering Table in Meroitic Funerary Religion Ph.D. Dissertation (New Haven 2013).
J. Leclant Répertoire d'épigraphie méroitique: corpus des inscriptions publicées vol.1-3 (Paris 2000).
W.K. Simpson “The Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Egypt: Preliminary Report for 1963: Toshka and Arminna (Nubia)” in JARCE 3 (1964) pp. 15-23
L. Török The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization. (HdO 31). (London 1997)
L. Török Transfigurations of Hellenism: Aspects of Late Antique Art in Egypt AD 250-700. Probleme der Ägyptologie 23 (Leiden 2005)
L. Török Between Two Worlds: The Frontier Region between Ancient Nubia and Egypt 3700 BC – 500AD. Probleme der Ägyptologie 29 (Leiden 2009)
B. Trigger The Meroitic Funerary Inscriptions from Arminna West (New Haven 1970).
J. Yellin “Egyptian Religion and its ongoing impact on the formation of the Napatan state" in Actes de la VIIIe Conference Internationale des Études Nubiennes. Lille 11-17 septembre 1994 (Lille 1994) pp. 243-258
J. Yellin “Meroitic Funerary Tradition” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romanischen Welt II, 18.5 ed. W Haase and H Temporini (Berlin 1995) pp.2869-2892.