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Approaching the gods in ancient Egypt

Bronze figure of a seated cat

During the first millennium BC, the phenomenon of dedicating metal statues of gods as votive offerings in temples flourished, with thousands of figures being deposited in many different temples.

Egyptian temples were not places of popular worship, as the inner sanctuaries and halls were restricted to certain priests and privileged people. However, pilgrims to temples and shrines could purchase metal statues of gods, which the priests would then dedicate within the temple. Only the wealthy could afford these statues, some of which were embellished with gold and silver inlays.

These statues, made from a copper alloy (bronze), vary in size and quality but most strikingly they vary in the range of gods depicted. While Osiris, the most common form of this statue type, is nearly always shown in the form of a mummiform figure, other gods can take on a bewildering variety of forms, whether human, animal, or a hybrid of both forms.

The donors of these statues hoped to communicate with the gods through buying and dedicating these statues in temples. We know this through the inscriptions carved on the bases which survive on some of the figures. Unfortunately, many of the bases have not survived, as they were made of wood.

Statue of Horus-the-child

Hieroglyphic inscription

O Horus the Child who is in Mendes, give life, health, a long lifetime and great and perfect old age to Ptah-tef-nakht!

 

 

Though thousands of these statues are found in museums throughout the world, few have come from scientific excavations, so it is difficult to understand the details of how they were set up in temples. At a temple in the Kharga oasis, a small room was found with wooden shelves on which bronze figures of Osiris were kept.

As temples became cluttered with the masses of statues deposited within their sacred spaces, priests would regularly clear up the metal figures. These were then buried in a specially prepared pit within the temple. In this way, they remained within the sacred zone, but space was made available for more statues. These pits, or caches, are the most common places for archaeologists to find bronzes – some contained thousands of figures.

There were other uses for these bronze statues too. Some of the larger examples contained mummified remains of animals, and would have been buried in sacred animal cemeteries. Smaller figurines are sometimes found inserted amongst the wrappings of human mummies.

Model of a temple shrine containing a figure of the creator-god Amun-RaBronze figure of a jackalHorus as a modest shrew

 

 

J. Malek, The Cat in Ancient Egypt (British Museum Press, 2006 (revised edition))

N. Spencer, The Gayer-Anderson Cat, Objects in Focus (British Museum Press, 2007)

M. Hill (ed.), Gifts for the Gods. Images from Egyptian Temples (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007)


Images (from top and left to right):

Bronze figure of a seated cat. EA 64391

Statue of Horus-the-child, shown as a naked youth with his forefinger in his mouth. The inscription runs around all four sides of the base, revealing the statue was originally dedicated in the northern city of Mendes. EA 11509

Model of a temple shrine containing a figure of the creator-god Amun-Ra. Inscribed for king Djehuty-em-hat (c.760 BC), who may have dedicated this in a temple. EA 11015 

Bronze figure of a jackal, found buried in a temple cache at North Saqqara. EA 67187

Bronze figure of Thoth shown as a striding man with the head of an ibis. Other statues of this god can represent him as an ibis or a baboon. An inscription reads: 'O Thoth, give life to Iret-wahibra!' EA 64551

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