Votive stele with ears

Geraldine Pinch and Elizabeth A. Waraksa of UCLA wrote: “When Egyptians visited a shrine or temple they prayed and made sacrifices to the resident deities. An optional practice was the dedication of votive objects. While the term “votive,” which derives from the Latin votum, meaning “promise,” is frequently employed with reference to Egyptian religious practice, such personal gifts to the gods seem to have been made in anticipation of blessings or in order to appease a deity, rather than in fulfillment of a vow after a prayer had been answered. No Egyptian religious text states that it was necessary for private individuals to give such objects to deities, yet there is sporadic archaeological evidence for the practice of depositing votive offerings in sacred places. [Source: Geraldine Pinch, and Elizabeth A. Waraksa, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“The ancient Egyptian practice of dedicating small objects to deities as a means of establishing a lasting, personal relationship between deity and donor is well known. The dedication of votive objects in sacred areas such as temples, shrines, and cemeteries was an optional practice for which there is sporadic archaeological evidence. Large deposits of Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom votive offerings have been recovered from numerous sites throughout Egypt. There is no clear Middle Kingdom evidence that people were allowed to dedicate votive offerings in state- run temples, but the practice seems to have remained part of popular religion and is most visible in funerary contexts. During the New Kingdom, it became permissible for individuals to set up stelae or leave small votive objects in the outer areas of state temples or in special shrines. Most of the small votive offerings were made to Hathor, or related goddesses. In the Late and Ptolemaic Periods many stelae, ritual objects, and figures of deities were dedicated in sacred areas, often in relation to animal cults. <>

“The majority of votive objects seem to have been made in temple workshops for cult purposes. Most of the offerings fall into three main categories: representations of deities, objects used in the temple cult, or objects associated with human fertility. Both women and men dedicated votive objects to reinforce prayers or to perpetuate their involvement in a divine cult. It is rarely possible to be certain exactly why a particular object was offered or where it was originally displayed. Old votive objects remained sacred and were buried or dumped within temple precincts.” <>

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Votive Offerings in Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom Egypt

Geraldine Pinch and Elizabeth A. Waraksa of UCLA wrote: “The custom of placing small objects in shrines seems to have been one of the oldest Egyptian religious practices, dating back to an era when local temples were probably accessible to all. Deposits of Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom votive offerings have been found in temple areas at Elephantine, Abydos, Hierakonpolis, and Tell Ibrahim Awad in the northeastern Delta, as well as at a sacred hillside site at northwest Saqqara, and an administrative-cultic center at Tell el- Farkha. Throughout the third millennium B.C. the most common types of offering were human or animal figurines, miniature vessels, plaques, and amulets. [Source: Geraldine Pinch, and Elizabeth A. Waraksa, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

votive ear

“Some object types, such as child figurines or model baboons, occur at most sites. Others, such as the “hedgehog plaques” at Elephantine, or the scorpion figurines at Hierakonpolis, are prominent only at a particular site, suggesting diverse local traditions. Barry Kemp has noted that the early votive offerings often bear no relation to the iconography of the main deity of the temple area in which they were found. He proposes that the offerings reflect traditional (local) beliefs, which were independent of the state religion. <>

“Elephantine, or the scorpion figurines at Hierakonpolis, are prominent only at a particular site, suggesting diverse local traditions. Barry Kemp has noted that the early votive offerings often bear no relation to the iconography of the main deity of the temple area in which they were found. He proposes that the offerings reflect traditional (local) beliefs, which were independent of the state religion... The religious life of private individuals at this time may have centered on domestic shrines and funerary cults. Some votive offerings, such as female figurines, seem to have been left in the outer areas of non-royal tombs, and the tomb of Isi, the nomarch of Edfu, and the ka- chapel of Heqaib, the governor of Elephantine, became long-lived cult centers in their own right. Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period fertility figurines (nude female figurines), amulets, and plaques have also been excavated in the vicinity of a simple Hathor-shrine set up at the mining site of Gebel Zeit on the Red Sea coast. This shows that the dedication of votive offerings to deities was still a popular practice in shrines that were outside the Nile Valley, if not the state system. <>

“From the Second Intermediate Period onwards, it became acceptable for ordinary people to represent themselves worshiping divine images on votive stelae set up in sacred areas. Long pilgrimages were not a requirement of Egyptian religion, but there is plentiful New Kingdom evidence for people visiting local temples and cemeteries. Some deities, including Amun-Ra, Hathor, Thoth, and Ptah, acquired prayer-related epithets such as “the one who hears petitions. Accordingly, model ears—and stelae, plaques, and other objects showing ears—were dedicated to these deities. The purpose of these votive ears was probably to encourage the deity to listen to and grant the donor’s prayer.” <>

Votive Offerings in New Kingdom Egypt and Afterwards

Geraldine Pinch and Elizabeth A. Waraksa of UCLA wrote: “Royal cemeteries were also sites of votive activity during the New Kingdom. For example, the Great Sphinx at Giza became the focus of a popular cult, and votive stelae and small objects such as model hawks, lions, and ears were dedicated in mud-brick shrines there. In addition, votive ostraca were deposited in and around royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings by workmen engaged in the area. Access to state-run temples was still limited to a priestly elite but some temples provided facilities for ordinary worshipers. “Intermediary statues” of priests and officials bear inscriptions promising to pass on prayers to the deity within the temple in return for libations or food offerings. [Source: Geraldine Pinch, and Elizabeth A. Waraksa, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

votive of a fist

“Huge quantities of small votive objects, mainly made from faience, have been found in or near New Kingdom Hathor-shrines at sites such Deir el-Bahri, Faras in Nubia, and Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai. It seems that Hathor, and related goddesses, were thought to be particularly approachable deities, at least when they were pacified with gifts. The presence of typical votive objects, such as Hathor masks, Bes amulets, and fertility figurines, in some 18th Dynasty temple foundation deposits, shows that such offerings were regarded as an official part of the temple’s function. The use of royal names on many small faience objects suggests that they were produced in state-run workshops and stresses the reigning king’s role in making such offerings available. <>

“At some sites small votive offerings were dedicated throughout the New Kingdom, while at others the practice does not seem to have been resumed after a hiatus in the Amarna Period. In the later New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, other types of votive practices arose, such as writing prayers on temple walls or columns, or carving “votive footprints” into temple pavements and roof blocks, presumably to keep the donor perpetually standing in the presence of the deity. <>

“The custom of making votive offerings flourished again in the Late and Ptolemaic Periods, when costly bronze statuettes and ritual objects were dedicated in sacred places by named individuals. Our best evidence for this practice comes from the caches of bronze statuary and other ritual equipment excavated from temple sites. Many such bronzes have been found in the sacred animal necropolis at Saqqara, some still wrapped in linen. In situ votive bronzes have also been excavated from the temple of Osiris-iw at Ain Manawir in Kharga Oasis. The statuettes are normally of deities or sacred animals. The figure itself, or its base, may incorporate a written petition to a deity, and animal statues may contain all or part of a mummified sacred animal. Terracotta figurines of nude women and ithyphallic men, as well as figurines of Bes, Isis, and Harpocrates (Horus the Child), have been found in shrines of the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 B.C.) at Saqqara and Athribis. The Roman Period saw an increase in the importance of domestic cults, when terracotta figures of deities, which might once have been dedicated in temples, were instead kept mainly in household shrines.” <>

Types of Votive Object in Ancient Egypt

Geraldine Pinch and Elizabeth A. Waraksa of UCLA wrote: “With the exception of some of the jewelry and amulets found in small local shrines, votive offerings seem to have been made specifically for cult, rather than personal, use. Before the Late Period (712–332 B.C.), it does not appear that people felt compelled to offer gifts that were intrinsically valuable. The symbolic value of an offering such as a pottery cow must have been considered more important than the cost of its materials. Offerings such as strings of faience beads were probably made by people of all ranks simply for the sake of tradition. However, objects such as stone votive stelae, or the painted votive textiles found at Deir el-Bahri, would have been costly to commission. [Source: Geraldine Pinch, and Elizabeth A. Waraksa, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“The majority of surviving votive offerings fall into at least one of three main categories: Representations of deities or divine powers/qualities. A miniature divine image is the most characteristic of Egyptian votive objects. The divine images that feature on votive stelae, ostraca, textiles, and plaques can most often be interpreted as manifestations of deities in sacred animals or as manifestations of deities depicted as cult statues—that is, depictions of the statue of the deity rather than the deity itself. The donor of the object may be shown praying or sacrificing to this manifestation. The animal forms of deities, so frequently represented on votive objects, may have been considered more accessible than human or semi-human forms, and thus more appropriate for use on private objects. Figurines of animals such as baboons, who were later associated with particular deities, are among the earliest known types of votive object. The votive bronzes portray a wide range of divine beings, not just the deity in whose precinct they were dedicated. Fierce, protective manifestations of deities (sphinxes, lions, and desert cats, for example) are favored among votive objects. <>

votive hippos

“The divine powers of “hearing prayers” and “watching over people” are celebrated in offerings that show multiple ears and eyes.Cult objects. Many of the vessels found in sacred areas seem to have been brought by temple visitors for use in their sacrifices to the gods. The fact that the vessels were left behind was probably to ensure the visitors’ continued participation in the daily ritual of the temple. Full-size objects, such as Late and Ptolemaic Period bronze situlae (ceremonial water carriers), some with votive inscriptions, could have been used temporarily by temple personnel before being added to votive deposits. Many other offerings are miniature representations, models, or cheaper versions of objects used in temple rituals or traditionally offered to cult statues. Examples include the model sistra (ritual rattles), and plaques showing sistra, found in various Hathor shrines, and miniature bronze offering trays from Saqqara. The spiritual benefits may have been thought to be the same whether the offering was a functional object or a model. <>

“Objects associated with human fertility. From the Early Dynastic Period through the Roman Period, Egyptian votive material included offerings such as images of children, nude female figurines, with or without children, and models of the male or female genitals. Many of these objects do not conform to the standard conventions of Egyptian art and appear to belong to the sphere of folk religion. The desire to conceive and raise children seems to have been the main motive for depositing such objects in sacred places. Their sexual explicitness was probably thought to enhance their effectiveness. The dwarf and hippopotamus deities who traditionally protected pregnant women and young children also feature among the votive offerings of many periods. Hathor’s associations with love, sex, and birth may help to explain why she was the recipient of so many votive offerings.” <>

Dedication of Votive Offerings in Ancient Egypt

Geraldine Pinch and Elizabeth A. Waraksa of UCLA wrote: “Both women and men dedicated votive objects. Many temple visits probably took place during particular religious festivals, when temples made special provision for votive practices. Private letters mention people visiting temples at times of personal crisis. Some votive objects were probably used to reinforce specific prayers for help; others may have been dedicated on important personal occasions such as marriage, but there is rarely direct evidence for this. At most periods, votive inscriptions are formulaic rather than personal. They tend to use vague phrases such as “Do good for X”, or to request the standard benefits of life, prosperity, and health. [Source: Geraldine Pinch, and Elizabeth A. Waraksa, UCLA, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

votive bed

“Rituals were probably carried out by the makers and dedicators of votive objects. An abbreviated version of the “Opening of the Mouth” ritual is likely to have been performed to animate even miniature images of deities. Other offerings may have had spells said over them to identify them with the things or beings they represented. It may have been a requirement for objects to be purified or blessed by priests before they could be offered to a deity. <>

“Most votive material has been recovered from pits or dumps, so comparatively little is known about where and how votive objects were originally displayed. In state temples, votive stelae were usually set up in open forecourts or just outside the enclosure walls, but in community shrines they might be placed in the sanctuary itself. It is likely that most small offerings were, at some point, formally presented to a divine image by priests. Collections of offerings have been found in bowls or baskets, and some votive figurines and statuettes were wrapped up in linen. Many small votive objects are pierced for suspension and may originally have been hung on cords. <>

“It appears to have been considered sacrilegious to recycle or destroy votive objects. Sometimes old offerings were carefully deposited in the foundations of rebuilt shrines, perhaps as a means of sanctifying the new construction. Votive objects were also buried in pits within temple precincts, along with archaic temple furnishings. The respect generally shown for old gifts to the gods shows that they were a significant part of Egyptian religious practice: they apparently embodied the hope that deities would take beneficent action on the donors’ behalf.” <>

Domestic Religious Practices in Ancient Egypt

Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: “Domestic religious practices—that is, religious conduct within a household setting—provided an outlet especially for expressing and addressing the concerns of everyday life. They can be traced throughout Egyptian dynastic history, in textual sources such as spells of healing and protection, offering and dedicatory texts, and private letters, and in cult emplacements and objects from settlement sites. [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“Protective divinities such as Bes, Taweret, and Hathor were favored, along with ancestors who could be deceased kin, local elite, or royalty. State-level deities were also supplicated. Central practices were offering and libation, and conducting rites of protection and healing, while there was also strong recourse to protective imagery. These practices formed part of a continuum of beliefs, actions, and imagery shared with temple and mortuary cult; due to the fragmentary and scattered nature of the sources, the degree to which they overlapped with these spheres cannot be determined for all periods. <>

votive bowl

“Domestic religious practices are documented mainly in texts and material culture; depictions of domestic cult “in action” are rare. The sources tend to be indirect and unevenly distributed across time, becoming more prominent from the New Kingdom onwards. As a result, their form and the intensity of personal involvement before the New Kingdom are important research themes. <>

“Domestic decoration occasionally engaged with religious themes. From at least the Eighteenth Dynasty, scenes and texts documenting devotion to divinities, including living and deceased royal figures, could be carved and painted on doorframes and lintels, and in and around wall recesses. Examples have been recorded from sites including Buhen, el-Amarna, Hermopolis , and Aniba. Scenes of the living king, especially those displayed on public parts of the house and in dwellings in Egyptian occupied territory abroad, should probably be read foremost as displays of loyalty rather than religious devotion. The workmen’s villages at el-Amarna and Deir el- Medina exhibit a somewhat different tradition, featuring wall paintings of female figures and divinities such as Bes and Taweret, thus foregrounding fertility-related themes. Painted representations may have been far more common than now represented archaeologically; part of a possible offering scene was recorded from a house wall at Lahun, for example. The main purpose of many such scenes was probably to provide a protective backdrop to household activities, although we should allow for the possibility that some scenes were themselves focal points of cult, such as the worship scenes in some wall-recesses. <>

“Towards the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty at el-Amarna, images of the contemporary royal family featured prominently upon domestic cult items. They attest to a trend that can be traced from around the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty: the increasing promotion of the divine aspect of the living king. While there may have been a domestic strand to this earlier than the reign of Akhenaten, it certainly peaked at el- Amarna. This may suggest a deliberate attempt on behalf of Akhenaten to shape domestic worship—the main source of royal cult images at el-Amarna was workshops connected to the central administration — and for a short time official and personal agendas probably mixed in the cult of living royalty. But the cult of the living king was transposed onto an already diverse, and apparently adequate, domestic religious landscape, and in the end it did not take. Domestic religious practices may have absorbed aspects of official religion, but at no period do they seem to have been

Textual Evidence of Domestic Religious Practices in Ancient Egypt

Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: “While direct written accounts of the kind we might term “insider documentaries” fall largely beyond Egyptian written tradition, everyday texts can contain references to personal religious responses, often incidental to the main theme. In such texts a domestic environment is sometimes implied or appears suitable. Some New Kingdom letters, for example, contain claims of religious performance undertaken by the writer, such as invocation of and libation to divinities, prompting the question of how far they reflect real-life actions. [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

votive bowl with Hathor figure and flowers

““Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days” offered forewarning of whether the day ahead was to be auspicious or otherwise, and sometimes included advice on activities best undertaken or avoided. They could advise, for example, on when to undertake rituals such as “pacifying” (i.e., offering to) deceased ancestors. Most survive from the Ramesside Period, but they were in use from at least the Middle Kingdom. It has been suggested that their role was similar to that of modern western horoscopes: they had little real impact on how people went about their daily lives, but affected how comfortable they felt. Their longevity of use attests, nonetheless, that they filled a significant need. The Nineteenth Dynasty Dream Book owned by the scribe Kenherkhepeshef and his descendents at Deir el-Medina documents the related practice of dream interpretation in the private domain. It was probably derived from a Middle Kingdom original. Events seen in dreams, including interactions with divinities, were held to have good or bad consequences for the future, and advice could be provided on the use of spells to counteract inauspicious visions. Although, for the most part, direct consultation of such texts may have been limited to the literate elite, we should allow for the possibility of the oral transmission of their contents. <>

“Magical and medical spells inform on the concerns that drove personal religion and on the structure of the attendant rituals. Many surviving spells date directly to the Middle Kingdom, while the language of later spells often indicates an origin in this period, and sometimes possibly the Old Kingdom, pointing to considerable longevity of tradition. Although communities included specialist practitioners of magic who may have attempted to restrict knowledge of its more complicated forms, an awareness of simple charms was probably widespread, most likely, again, in oral form. Most spells were intended to protect—against harmful animals, disease and illness, dangerous people (including the deceased), and against the evil eye. The protection of children is a prominent concern, as is the treatment of women’s ailments, especially those affecting child-bearing. Such concerns are also expressed in the “oracular amuletic decrees” introduced in the Third Intermediate Period—protective decrees said to be pronouncements of deities (oracles) that were worn around the neck in an amuletic case

“Magical and medical spells were often written on ostraca or papyri, but could also be inscribed on ritual items such as stelae. One group of stelae in use since the later New Kingdom and especially popular during the Late, Ptolemaic, and Roman Periods known as Horus cippi, bear images of the god Horus as a child, trampling and gripping snakes, scorpions, crocodiles, and similarly threatening animals. The cippi were often inscribed with spells designed to protect against, or heal the wounds inflicted by, these creatures. Water could be poured over the cippi, and thereby imbued with magical potency, before being drunk by the patient. Probably used in varied settings, some cippi are likely to have been set up in the home. <>

“Other sources include offering formulae and dedicatory texts inscribed on items such as stelae found among houses, or on domestic door- and niche-frames, while inscriptions on votive stelae, in private tombs, and among student exercises— such as hymns—can reveal something of the broader context of domestic religion. We can also look further afield to transactional documents, especially from the New Kingdom workers’ village of Deir el-Medina. These outline orders for private cult equipment, often funerary but including items such as amulets, statues, and portable shrines that may have been destined for the home. They help to position religion in its socio-economic context and to construct a fuller picture of the life histories of cult objects.” <>

Archaeological Evidence of Domestic Religious Practices in Ancient Egypt

Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: “Archaeology is most informative for studying the actual performance of domestic cult, rather than its underlying belief system. Identifying the material evidence of religion is often difficult, in part because of its tendency to overlap, in appearance and sometimes function, with decorative items or objects that could have served as children’s toys. Moreover, much research potential has been lost to inadequate recording methods employed at settlement sites during the early days of Egyptian archaeology. [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“As regards the diachronic distribution of source materials, the New Kingdom is best represented archaeologically. The village of Deir el-Medina and the ruins of the city of Akhetaten at el-Amarna provide particularly rich and reasonably well-provenanced material corpora across large tracts of settlement remains. While exposures of pre-New Kingdom settlement are not insubstantial, material evidence for religion has been less forthcoming here, especially from Old Kingdom contexts. Such is the case at the well-known sites of Elephantine and the workers’ settlement at Giza, for example. This may itself be a clue as to the shape of the pre-New Kingdom religious landscape, although sites of such antiquity also tend to be more denuded. One important exception is the Middle Kingdom village at Lahun, which yielded a rich assemblage of domestic cult items and serves as a key site for the study of pre-New Kingdom domestic religion. Egyptian settlements in Nubia have also provided quite extensive material assemblages, especially from the Middle to New Kingdoms. For the immediate post-New Kingdom, archaeological source material is patchy, again because exposures of settlement remains are relatively limited. The source material is rich once more in the later phases of Egyptian history, especially the Roman Period. Here we need to allow for interplay between indigenous and foreign (primarily Hellenistic) beliefs and practices. <>

offering table

“Similar issues can arise when dealing with sites in the Delta, with its long history of Mediterranean contact and immigration, especially of settlers from the Near East. The cults of Near Eastern deities, for example, tended to take root here. The Delta also possessed particular indigenous cultural traditions, such as a greater intermixing of settlement and cemetery space than in the Nile Valley, and distinct local mythologies. It is difficult to know how these aspects were manifested in a domestic environment, as Delta settlements have not been explored as extensively as their Nile Valley counterparts, although a group of buried offering deposits and remnants of ritual meals reported from houses at Tell el- Dabaa potentially represent an amalgam of Egyptian and Near Eastern cult practices. <>

“Excavations of domestic structures have revealed a variety of facilities for performing cult in the house. Some householders chose to build a fixed emplacement, generally in the form of a raised altar or a wall niche. Most emplacements served as focal points of rituals, although others may have been repositories of protective images. Traces of white plaster on some altars may suggest a concern with purity. The earliest such installation yet identified is a probable shrine formed of a wall niche above a low bench in a Middle Kingdom context at the Egyptian fortress at Askut in Nubia. Domestic altars are particularly well represented at Deir el-Medina and el-Amarna, usually in the form of stepped pedestals, with those at Deir el-Medina sometimes preserving painted or modeled representations of Bes and female figures. The Deir el-Medina altars fall within a long tradition of building shrines within houses, but remain unusual for the extent of their surviving decoration and their frequency at the site. Wall niches found in Roman Period houses at sites such as Karanis, some with elaborate modeled decoration, may represent the latest domestic shrines. A cult function is also possible for some tall wall-recesses with related texts and scenes of worship, examples of which are best preserved again at el- Amarna and Deir el-Medina. Others bear red and yellow panels of paint and are similar to the false doors of funerary contexts designed to accommodate the movements of the ka. It is possible that they served similarly as transition zones and points of contact, perhaps with deceased ancestors, in the home. A group of stone slab-like emplacements, generally termed “lustration slabs” and best attested at el-Amarna, have been suggested as offering places, especially for liquids. <>

“The vast majority of excavated houses have no (identifiable) inbuilt cult installations. In all likelihood these households relied on portable cult equipment. Free-standing offering tables, trays, stands, and basins are all attested in houses, especially from the Middle and New Kingdoms. Most survive in robust materials such as stone and pottery. At Lahun, Petrie excavated stone stands that still held cakes of dough, presumably offerings. Cult equipment in perishable materials has in general not been preserved, but shrines in wood have occasionally been recovered, while mats and baskets, sometimes used to hold offerings at shrines, could have served a similar function in the home. <>

Items Used in Ancient Egyptian Domestic Rituals

Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: “A variety of smaller items that may have been used in household cult have been recovered from domestic and burial sites. Portable cult images, especially stelae and statuettes, were certainly used in the home, although just how central they were to domestic religion is unclear . They are best attested at Deir el-Medina, in a group of stelae and anthropoid-bust statuettes that seem to relate to ancestor cults. We should probably allow that cult images were not always large or of high quality, so items such as figurative ostraca and pottery figurines may have served this purpose. Figurines are a particularly common component of domestic assemblages, seemingly of all periods. They could take the form of human beings (especially naked females); domestic divinities such as Bes and Taweret; animals; and, particularly in the Roman Period, deities worshiped in indigenous temples (such as Isis and Harpocrates). Apart from possible use as cult images, they were probably used often as talismans to enhance particular abilities or attributes, perhaps as elements of healing rituals, and certainly as protective charms. A spell for protection during sleep, for example, calls for cobra figurines to be placed in the same room as the sleeper. In Roman times, pottery figurines of gods may have been carried during festivals and processions before being returned to domestic shrines. [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“Two important groups of objects dating to the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom are flat wands, usually made of hippopotamus ivory, and segmented rectangular or cylindrical rods, made of ebony or glazed steatite. Both items bear images of gods, animals, and mythical creatures. It is not clear how these objects were used, but the few inscribed “magic” wands indicate that this army of magical figures conferred protection especially upon women and children. Most have been recovered from tombs, but traces of use and repair suggest that they were also used during life. At Lahun, a group of related artifacts comprising a pair of ivory clappers and a statuette and mask, each with Bes-like features, were found in two adjacent houses and may have been used in birth magic, perhaps belonging to a specialized practitioner . Similar protective imagery occasionally appears on household items such as headrests and cosmetic vessels during the New Kingdom. Again, these could be taken to or made for the grave. The occurrence of these items in burial assemblages suggests that the concerns of the living and the dead were similar. <>

“Small amulets, usually worn on the body, were also an important accompaniment to domestic religious practice. For the pre-New Kingdom they are best recorded from burials, but we can assume that their use sometimes extended to life; some pieces show signs of wear. Motifs included animals, body parts, hieroglyphic symbols, and domestic divinities such as Taweret . Some of the motifs found on scarabs produced from the First Intermediate Period onwards were probably amuletic. Although such objects often now lack a secure provenance, we should leave open the possibility of their use within the home. The use of amuletic jewelry seems to have proliferated around the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, coinciding with an increase in the production of molded faience jewelry. Deities also feature more often on jewelry from the New Kingdom onwards. Excavations at el-Amarna, for example, have revealed faience jewelry to be a prominent component of the artifact assemblage, with motifs including Bes and Taweret; standing figures of gods in anthropomorphic form, usually too small to identify further; animals such as crocodiles and scorpions; anthropoid busts that probably relate to ancestor worship; and hieroglyphic symbols. By far the most common jewelry type at el-Amarna consists of finger rings in blue faience with bezels in the shape of a wedjat-eye. These were probably all-purpose protective amulets. Finds of molds among houses here suggest that such amulets were being produced in a household context.” <>

Domestic Rituals in Ancient Egypt

Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: “Combining texts and archaeological material, we can construct a picture of the ritual practices undertaken in domestic settings. These drew upon the same set of ritual actions used in temple and mortuary contexts: presenting offerings of food, incense, liquids, and small objects; conducting rites of purification by means of fumigation and libation; erecting protective images; manipulating metaphysical forces through verbal and physical means; and perhaps sharing ritual meals. In operating largely according to a problem-solving framework, a domestic ritual practice must often have taken place in response to immediate needs, so lending it a sense of irregularity in its performance that contrasted with the overall regular patterning of temple cult, in particular. Omen texts such as the above-mentioned Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days, however, are evidence that there were concurrently measures to try to counteract the randomness with which misfortune could strike, and we need not assume that religious responses in the home were entirely random. So too, the erection of domestic cult images may have brought an obligation to provide the images with daily offerings, as in temple cult. Elucidating patterns of performance, and the related issue of the place of religion in everyday routines, are aspects that remain to be teased out of the available sources. [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“Domestic religious practices were concerned largely with the uncertainty and threat that formed the backdrop to everyday life, although for some the domestic environment was probably also a context for personal experiences of deities. Sources of threat were varied: dangerous animals, the disgruntled dead, evil spirits, and human adversaries. The potential outcomes were equally wide-ranging: misfortune, injury to person or property, illness, and death. Protection against such outcomes could be sought both at the level of the individual and of the house or household. Handbooks document the performance of magic rites to protect the house at the end or beginning of the year. Such acts included knotting threads and linen (written) amulets, drawing protective images on the floor, and applying ointments to the window frames. A spell against the threats of the five final days of the year preserved in a Middle Kingdom manuscript required the house owner to make a tour of his home carrying a “club of des- wood,” presumably to magically seal the house and club demons to death. Purifying acts such as the burning of incense may have served a similar purpose, while excavations in a Late Period (712–332 B.C.) house at Tell el-Muqdam yielded the extraordinary find of several figurines sealed into the walls — perhaps foundation deposits related to the protection of the house and its occupants. <>

“The protection of women and children was a particular priority, which must be understood as a more general concern for fertility, extending to all aspects of conception, childbirth, and child-rearing. Fertility concerns found particularly vivid expression in material culture. Figurines of naked women are ubiquitous at New Kingdom settlement sites, where they seem to have been used as charms to stimulate fertility and might also have had use in healing rites. Female sexuality is expressed potently in an incomplete limestone statuette of a young female wearing only jewelry, from Lahun. Originally standing at least 400 mm high, it was perhaps a household talisman. A monkey or baboon statuette of similar scale with prominent phallus, excavated among Third Intermediate Period housing at el-Ashmunein, might have been associated with fertility practices that highlighted male sexual performance, drawing also upon the local cult of the baboon deity Thoth. In addition to such concerns, domestic religion could be directed towards more general household well-being: having enough (or, if possible, an excess of) material provisions and health. <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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