Harpocrates Plaque and Figurine


Harpocrates Plaque and Figurine  [ edit ]

The child-god Harpocrates was a popular subject for terracotta figurines in Greco-Roman Egypt. A juvenile form of Horus, his name derived from the Egyptian Hor-Pa-Khered (“Horus-the-child”).

Starting in the Ptolemaic period, craftsmen in Egypt adapted the Greek double-molding technique to produce terracotta figurines whose syncretic imagery included both Egyptian and Greco-Roman elements. These objects, which often depict deities or festival scenes, appear in a variety of contexts, including temples and graves, but are particularly common in houses. They are thus an important source on domestic cult and “personal piety” in Greco-Roman Egypt.

Many studies of terracotta figurines from household contexts stress the degree to which their iconography emphasizes domestic, familial concerns. For example, representations of Harpocrates are often assumed to promote the birth and protection of children. In addition to the concerns of the individual household, however, the figurines’ iconography also alludes to royal and temple cult. They often depict Harpocrates wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt: a royal emblem emphasizing his association with the reigning king, who was an earthly manifestation of Horus. Many other figurines depict festival processions or priests. Accordingly, these objects provide important evidence for the interconnections between domestic and temple cult.

The figurines presented here have no clear provenience, complicating any discussion of their functions or the nature of their audience. It is also difficult to assign them a precise stylistic date within the Greco-Roman period. As craftsmen could cast new molds from existing figurines, a figurine might be much younger than its original prototype. The lack of known contexts for many museum pieces further hampers comparative dating, although recent finds suggest Ptolemaic origins for many iconographic types once thought to be restricted to the Roman period.

Figurines like these had a wide potential audience; much of their underlying theological framework is indigenous, while their Hellenized artistic style also helped make them attractive to people from non-Egyptian cultural backgrounds. In the Hellenistic period, production of figurines of Harpocrates and other Egyptian gods at sites outside Egypt—such as Delos and Myrina—testifies to the appeal of this imagery far beyond its place of origin.

In the figurine, Harpocrates is recognizable by his double crown; the round pot he holds; and the use of various iconographic conventions suggesting childhood. Typical of traditional Egyptian depictions of children are the figure’s nudity; the lock of hair at the side of his head; and the finger raised to his mouth. The round, childlike modeling of his face derives from Greek conventions for representation of juvenile features. Also adapted from Greek art is his contrapposto stance.

The figurine wears a thick floral wreath, evoking a festival context, and atop that a (damaged, but still recognizable) double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. Both are paralleled in numerous other Harpocratic figurines from Greco-Roman Egypt.
In the crook of his right arm the god holds a round pot, which he rests atop an upright amphora. Figurines of Harpocrates frequently hold a round pot, and while its functions are debated, it appears to be derived from a Pharaonic vessel form—the nw-pot—which often held wine and water. Here, the amphora on which Harpocrates rests his pot may support an association with wine; the Egyptian vessel is paired with, and thus implicitly equated with, a Greco-Roman vessel with similar functions. Like the thick wreath, the amphora and nw-pot may evoke a festival context (such as, for example, the Festival of Drunkenness on 1 Akhet 20).

The figurine is made of a Nile silt fabric, probably untempered. Derived from a double mold, it is hollow, with a round vent hole (14.1 mm diameter) in the roughly modeled back. Knife scars on the figurine’s sides suggest the trimming of excess clay after molding. The object exhibits extensive retooling from a fine knife.

Also representing Harpocrates, the other terracotta shares some attributes (double crown, thick wreath) with YPM ANT 243108 but also displays significant differences. Here the god wears a long-sleeved chiton and a diadem, and holds a stylized cornucopia in his left hand. His hair is short and curly. Derived from Hellenistic royal headgear, the diadem complements the double crown, which indicates Egyptian kingship. On either side of the double crown are two stylized lotus buds, adapted from the lotus crown of the Memphite child-god Nefertem  and referring to the birth of the sun god from a lotus flower. The cornucopia, representing fertility and prosperity, is a Greek motif; however, the association of child-gods with agricultural bounty has Egyptian parallels as well.

This object is not a figurine per se but a plaque, whose surviving perforation hole indicates display via suspension. The clay fabric is a Nile silt, probably tempered with straw or chaff. The plaque derives from a single mold and shows some retouch from a thin blade or burin. Traces of a white surface coating, which would have served as a background for painted decoration, are visible.


Greco-Roman Egypt


5 in. by 4.5 in.


Yale Peabody Museum

Accession Number

ANT 243113

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