Gods and goddesses played an integral role in Ancient Egyptian culture, life and death. Religion was complex, bringing together a polytheistic pantheon of gods across centuries of life in Egypt. Despite variations, this diversity was unified by key religious concepts. All natural life, from animals to the sun and sky, were expressions of the divine as manifestations or embodiments of the gods. Additionally ma’at (or maat), the order of the universe, must be kept in balance. Through worship, humans sustained the gods, thereby maintaining ma’at.
Mortuary practices and the funerary cult were a central part of the interaction between humans and the divine. The Book of Amduat is a funerary text and was intended to be a guidebook for the deceased, to assist them on their journey to the afterlife. The text is written in hieroglyphs, a system of writing that was reserved mainly for use in religious and funerary contexts. Originally produced on the walls of royal burial chambers, the text is divided into twelve parts representing the twelve hours of the sun god Re’s progress through the netherworld.
There were a number of major gods that were worshipped in dedicated, state-owned temples. Smaller deities were then supported for their specific attributes by towns, in local temples or shrines. A larger range of gods were then worshipped by individuals. Personal piety usually related to a particular need for the influence or support of a god’s specific magical powers.
Each god had its own personality, forms, roles and areas of influence; some, such as Thoth, had multiples of these. The Ancient Egyptians depicted their gods both anthropomorphically (having the characteristics and appearance of human beings) and zoomorphically (having the characteristics and appearance of animals). The attributes of gods also developed over time as new theologies and cultures were embraced.
Material culture from Ancient Egypt is abundant with symbolic representations and manifestations of the gods, in forms that carried the powers and qualities of the deity depicted. These enabled the deities to have multiple roles in religious and everyday life. For example, amulets were worn or placed on the body, in order to allow the secure transfer of these powers. They were sometimes placed in the bandaging of mummified bodies. Figures were also used with a votive function and left as an offering in a temple or shrine, as a form of communication with the gods. The materials and colours used for these representations also had symbolic meaning and their own magic.
This stunning pectoral demonstrates the importance of jewellery in Ancient Egypt as decoration but also as objects with significant magical purpose. Exhibiting the technological advancement of metalwork in the Middle Kingdom, every element of its design, from the iconography to the colours and materials used, is loaded with symbolism and evokes power.
It suggests the opposing forces of chaos and violence, as represented by the god Seth (also known as Set, depicted in the set-animal form, similar to a jackal), and of harmony and maat, as represented by Horus (son of Osiris, depicted as a sphinx with falcon head). While these forces are opposed, there is a balance or dynamic equilibrium. This balance is reflected in the composition of the piece, where the overall impression is one of symmetry. In the centre is the goddess Hathor or Bat (another cow-headed goddess who is eventually merged into Hathor) whose horns extend upwards to the sun disk, which in turn is flanked by uraei (cobras). Eyes of Ra (also known as Eye of Horus) either side of the cobras link to Horus and Seth mythology and together support the theme of the restoration of symmetry, balance and wholeness.
The colours and materials used further imbue this pectoral with magical significance. Gold was considered a divine metal. Analysis confirms that this gold-silver alloy, likely electrum, has major peaks of gold with peaks of silver. Inset into the metal were precious stones in the ancient cloisonné technique. Lapis lazuli was second only to gold and silver; the vibrant blue represented the heavens. It was expensive and mined and imported from what is now Afghanistan. The metal was inlaid with other stones including carnelian and feldspar.
Research has connected this piece to a funerary context, most likely relating to the tombs at Dahshur. Pectorals similar to this were found in burials of royal women at Dahshur, and the princess Sithathor, ‘daughter-of-Hathor’ (possibly a daughter of Sensuret (Senwosret) II), was buried there. It is thought that the pectoral belonged to her, given the representation of Bat/Hathor. Additionally, an entry in the diary of Major Myers, the former owner of the pectoral, suggests this pectoral was purchased in Cairo not long after the tombs at Dahshur were excavated.