Kemet Klub

Words spoken by: Jerikay Gayle ‘Kings and the King of Beasts’

Sometimes tiny objects pack an outsized punch, and that is the case with this intricately modeled glass finial that anciently menaced from the end of a flywhisk/whip.

Whip/whisk handle of pharaonic lion subjugating a Nubian

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Accession Number: 1989.281.92

A prestige item of this type would have been wielded on ceremonial occasions by a member of the highest elite or a king, in this case perhaps from Dynasty 19. As its findspot was Pi-Ramesses (modern Qantir) it may have been created during Ramesses II’s reign, although some Egyptologists assign it to Amenhotep III based on its extraordinary craftsmanship. Perhaps tipping the scales towards a Ramesside dating is the absence of lachrymal tear-lines beneath the leonine eyes, a feature common in Dynasty 18 but often lacking in Ramesside examples (Roehrig and Hill 1992: 33).

Described as a decorative element called a protoma, this miniature masterpiece measures about one inch in height/length/width (3 cm x 4.3 cm x 2.9 cm). Although visually reading as faience, it’s actually made of Egyptian blue glass which was being worked in Egypt probably by Dynasty 4. Rims for the eye inlays of the figures are gold, and the inlays show traces of inset bone. Three of the lion’s original eight gold teeth remain on the right side, and the stub of a fourth shows on the left. The hollow neck has two drilled holes allowing attachment via dowels to the whisk/whip, a configuration confirmed by two intact flywhisks with gilded lion heads from Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Literally and figuratively, nothing is left to the imagination as to the message of this object. The lion, with a long history in Egyptian art as representing the might of pharaoh in subjugating the state’s traditional foreign enemies such as Nubia, is here expressed in a particularly graphic form customarily found in Ramesside examples. A more typical posture is shown below in a Middle Kingdom cosmetic container where the pharaonic lion gesturally imposes superiority over a submissive Nubian (O’Connor 2016: 169).

 

Domination pose

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Accession Number: 31.4.4

The Egyptian art repertoire remained constant over dynastic time regarding the portrayal of the lion as being under the control of pharaoh. The concept of chaos was often depicted as disordered jumbles of animals while its opposite of ma’at was rendered as ferocious animals tamed and led. Examples of leashed wild cats such as the one below abound in Egyptian art from all periods, with lions often being represented as well. 

N de  Garis Davies’ facsimile painting from Rekhmire’s tomb

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession number. 30.4.81

Depictions of Egyptian kings’ mastery over lions might have been more than simply figural. Animal behaviorists say it’s possible for lions to have been ‘tamed’ in captivity and trained to attack on command or pull in harness (Houlihan 1996: 208). Athanaeus, a Greek writer living in Egypt, described the lavish coronation procession of Ptolemy II Philadelphus as featuring chariots drawn by exotic animals such as elephants, zebras, ostriches, and lions (Davis 1912: 332).

Ptolemaic Period bronze of striding lions supporting throne

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Accession Number: 23.6.26

However, it’s obvious from ancient art that lions were handled with robust safeguards when being captured for royal hunting preserves or menageries. Reliefs at the British Museum from the palace of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian ruler contemporaneous with Egyptian Dynasty 25 pharaohs,  illustrate in detail that capture involved strong cages rigged with sliding trapdoors operated from elevated safety boxes. 

 

So, recognition of the fierce nature of the Egyptian lion brings us full circle to the featured artefact – lions were decimating forces of nature who could overpower and destroy enemies with ease, as could Egypt’s mighty kings.

Bibliography

Davis, W. (1912) Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources. Volume I: Greece and the East. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hayes, W. (1959) The Scepter of Egypt II: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Hyksos Period and the New Kingdom (1675-1080 B.C.). Cambridge, Mass: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Houlihan, P. (1996) The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd.

Kozloff, A. (1983) Symbols of Egypt’s Might. The Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar, Volume 5, pp. 61-66.

Kozloff, A. and Bryan, B. (1992) Egypt’s Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and his World. Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art/Indiana University Press.

O’Connor, D. (2016) An Expanding Worldview: Conquest, Colonization, and Coexistence. In: A. Oppenheim et al. (eds.) Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 169-170.

Roehrig, C. and Hill, M. (1992) Ancient Art: Gifts from the Norbert Schimmel Collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Volume 49(4) Spring, pp. 32-33.

Further Reading 

Hardwick, T. (2009) Golden Hawk, Crocodile, Atum, and Lion. In D. Magee, J. Bourriau and S. Quirke (eds.) Sitting Beside Lepsius: Studies in Honour of Jaromir Malek at the Griffith Institute. Leuven: Peeters Publishers. 

Müller, M. and Cooney, J. (1974) Ancient Art: The Norbert Schimmel Collection. Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern.

Oppenheim, A. (2010) Protome mit Nubier im Löwenmaul. In Do. Arnold (ed.) Falken, Katzen, Krokodile: Tiere im Alten Ägypten: Aus den Sammlungen des Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, und des Ägyptischen Museums Kairo. Zurich: Museum Rietberg.

Settgast, Jürgen (1978) Von Troja bis Amarna: The Norbert Schimmel Collection, New York. Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern.

 

Jerikay Gayle:  Doctorate 1982, University of Texas. Attorney specializing in international law/elections practice. Certificate (2014), Diploma (2016), and MA (2021) in Egyptology, University of Manchester. Independent researcher in Egyptology writing for, i.e., Ancient Egypt Magazine.  Interests include Middle Kingdom statuary, exotica in tribute parades, and artefact conservation history.

 

 

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