Sekhmet Gives Up Her Secrets

It has been a few months since my last blog – but is it any wonder with the magnificent summer that London has enjoyed? First we had the jubilee weekend, with its flags and pomp, and then the Olympics rolled into town and gold showered down on the city – and at least for those two weeks the rain generally held off. The Paralympics were pretty amazing too and showed us all that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to when you work hard and believe in yourself.

Oscar Pistorius at the Olympic Games, London 2012.
Photo by Edward Draper-Stumm

I spent a good part of summer enjoying these events, watching Andy Murray at Wimbledon, and Oscar Pistorius speed around the track like he had wings, rather than blades, for feet. It was certainly inspirational.

Files and Books in my Study in London
Own photo

I also managed to fit in a furious round of research sessions in libraries and the British Museum, and by July I had no choice but to finally sit down and write my dissertation. I wrote it in one crazy week, where I literally ate, drank and slept Sekhmet, only leaving my desk for food, sleep or the loo. I sat surrounded by colour-coded files and tabbed books in somewhat of a trance, but the important thing is that I got it done and I was happy with the results. It would take most of August and September to edit it, make corrections and sort out the illustrations, but that intensive week of writing was worthwhile. It is strange to think that two years of study, thought and effort came down to just a few days, but that’s how it turned out.

So, it’s all over and I’ve handed it in. It’s as if a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I certainly don’t regret it, but I do feel that I haven’t had a free weekend for two years, and it is a bit odd to suddenly have time to do what I like, rather than read an article or head to the library. It will take some time to get used to.

After all that time, you might be asking what did I achieve? Did I discover anything useful or interesting? Well, I did and I didn’t. The Egyptologist Arielle Kozloff, writing in the exhibition catalogue Egypt’s Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and his World (1992: page 225) noted that “If familiarity does breed contempt, then the dozens of statues of Sekhmet…in museums…besides those remaining at [the] Mut temple, have robbed her of her mystery in Egyptological eyes.

Statues of Sekhmet in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, British Museum. Note the varied stone colour and proportions. Own photo

Nothing could be further from the truth in my own investigations. If anything the Sekhmets appeared to me to be both mysterious and intriguing. No two of the British Museum’s thirty-seven examples were exactly alike – they showed not only a variety in proportions, but also of finish and stone colour. Just looking at them told me that they must have originated from multiple quarry spots and workshops, but also illustrated the enormous technical and artistic skill of the craftsmen. These were artists who had studied nature and understood the physiognomy of a lioness, but could also turn that reality into a symbolic ideal.

Lioness on the Masai Mara.
Own photo

They were certainly adept craftsmen – even the elements of stylization, from the petal-like whiskers, to the sunburst designs of the mane showed an incredible level of technical ability. Granodiorite is among the hardest stones in the world, and the Egyptian craftsmen didn’t have steel chisels or electric drills to work with; they had to make do with flint and diorite stone tools and copper chisels to create some truly stunning work. Even Michelangelo would have been impressed with the chiaroscuro they sometimes produced on the goddesses’s face with intensely carved cheekbones.

Detail of the face of Sekhmet. British Museum EA 60. On loan to the Antikenmuseum, Basel. Own photo.

These statues seemed to me to speak of an age of opulence and success. Amenhotep III must have been at the head of an organised and efficient bureaucracy who could oversee the quarrying, production and transportation of thousands of statues for his temples. Although no list of all the surviving Sekhmets has been attempted, it is estimated that there were probably between 700 and 1,000 produced, and this does not even take into account the hundreds of other colossal statues of the king and other gods that Amenhotep III also commissioned.

Many of these were of course destined for his funerary temple at Kom el-Hettan, part of the vast Unesco World Heritage Site of Luxor, and currently under excavation. It is likely that many hundreds of the Sekhmet statues were destined for this temple, and in recent years over 100 more Sekhmets, many in fragments, have been unearthed here. Various theories have been put forward as to the purpose of the Sekhmets – were they set up after a natural disaster or plague, Sekhmet being the goddess of Pestilence? Betsy Bryan suggests they may have formed part of a cosmic sky map, made up of stone statues representing the constellations and stars.

Egyptologists Hourig Sououzian and Rainer Stadelmann believe the statues were probably there to “protect the king” in some way during ceremonies and processions associated with his Sed Festival. This may be as close as we can get to an answer – with many of the statues originating from Amenhotep’s funerary temple moved, re-used and “recycled” by later pharaohs, their original function may never be fully understood.

There is also a case to be made that the Sekhmets are one piece of evidence of a growing interest in solar cults in the New Kingdom. Amenhotep seems to have been deified within his lifetime, an event which may have taken place as part of his first Sed festival. He became known by the epithet “dazzling sun disc” – and who better to have at his side than an army of statues of the fierce solar goddess Sekhmet, the Eye of Re and daughter of the sun?

The Sekhmets, grouped together would certainly have awed and terrified, particularly when we remember that they would have been accented with paint. Imagine their eyes, framed by those sun-burst manes, brightly painted and seemingly following your every move as you walked past? Frightening indeed for Egyptians who believed the goddess could inhabit each statue.

So, I have ended my research with even more questions to answer as when I began.  I am happy that I have recorded two more Sekhmet fragments that were in the British Museum storerooms, but had not been catalogued. Hopefully little bits of information like this will eventually be helpful to Egyptologists studying Amenhotep’s sculpture production.

Uncatalogued Sekhmet Head in the British Museum Storeooms. Own Photo. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum.

I certainly have a growing interest in the reign of Amenhotep III, and when I next travel to Luxor I will look at his temples and monuments again and look for more clues. I still think there is more to uncover about these statues, and maybe in my spare time I might begin working on a photographic database of every known Sekhmet statue. Just last week I photographed two more in Derbyshire, collected by the sixth Duke of Devonshire in the nineteenth century and displayed today at Chatsworth.

A Seated Sekhmet at Chatsworth, Derbyshire. Own photo

One day it would be lovely to see more of the British Museum Sekhmet statues out on display. Grouped together, and re-arranged among the museum’s other statuary from Amenhotep’s funerary temple, they may offer up more information on their function and purpose.

A Statue of Amemhotep III, probably from Kom el-Hettan, in the British Museum. Own photo. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum.

I hope to continue my blog in some form – possibly focusing on a different Egyptian objects to be found in London’s museums and galleries. I will also have to work out how to make my dissertation available to scholars and Egyptologists.

Until then I’d like to thank all of you who took an interest in my blog, and express my gratitude to the staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, as well as Margaret Maitland at the Great North Museum, for their help over the course of this project. Many thanks also to Dr Richard Fazzini, Dr Hourig Sourouzian, Dr Mansour Boraik, and Dr Betsy Bryan in Egypt for answering numerous queries. Finally, I am grateful to Geoffrey Bond and the Company of Arts Scholars, Dealers and Collectors for awarding me the Geoffrey Bond Travel Award in 2011, which allowed me to complete this research. No one works alone, and good research is only possible with the help, insight and advice of others. Thanks to all of your who helped me complete this journey.

One comment

  1. Hello!
    I’m so happy I found you: My name is Ilinca Bartos, I also study egyptology (in Montpellier and now in Paris, at the EPHE, for the thesis), and since I’m a little girl so I’m fond of Sekhmet. Amenhotep’s thousand statues of her impressed me a lot as a child. For the thesis I had the idea to take an inventory of all of them, but finally I decided to study the lion. I hope your PHd is progessing the way you want it to. I’d be glad to exchange views with you!
    Have a nice day,
    Ilinca

    P.S. Do you know Eric Varin’s thesis about the Sekhmets? “La dispersion des Sekhmet thébaines d’Amenhotep III et leur problématique”

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