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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

W1307: snakes and green-skinned goddesses.


Wooden coffin fragment covered with a thin layer of linen and gesso (plaster) and with polychrome decoration. This is the upper surface of the foot from an anthropoid coffin. The decoration shows the winged goddess Isis between wedjat eyes. There is a snake along the top in this image (though the image is shown as would be seen by the deceased looking down at their feet, thus the snake is at the bottom if viewed by a living observer). The head and tail of the snake overlap. There are several columns of hieroglyphs. The piece is 33.5cm long and dates to the 26th Dynasty (747-332 BC).

The decoration was believed to aid the deceased's restoration to life from within the coils of the encircling serpent and protective embrace of the goddess Isis.  

This appears to be the upper surface of the foot of the coffin. Isis is usually depicted at the foot of coffins and Nephthys at the top. In addition, coffins of this date often show the snake around the toot base. It will be noticed that if this is the foot, the hieroglyphs would be upside down for a living observer, though for the deceased they would be the correct way round. This practice begins in the 19th Dynasty, for example on the coffin of Khonsu from Deir el-Medina in the Metropolitan Museum of Art ( By the 26th Dynasty the practice is common (e.g. on the coffin of Aba, Son of Ankh Hor, in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina 0829; a coffin of a priest of Montu, British Museum EA22940; or indeed on Egypt Centre’s EC284). 

After the early 7th century BC, Isis was often shown on the upper surface of the foot (Taylor 20013, 116). Here, the figure of the goddess, with green skin and holding two feathers, is almost identical to the figure of Isis on the footboard of British Museum EA22940, a 26th Dynasty coffin belonging to Besenmut, Priest of Montu at Thebes. 

The snake can be seen above the figure of Isis, its tail beneath its head. Very similar snakes appear depicted like this on other Saite Period coffins: Hahaet, Priest of Montu (CG 41042-41072; Reemes 1915, 377, fig. 87); Tasheritaset, Priestess of Montu (CG 41042-41072; Reemes 1915, 378, fig. 88). Others are illustrated in Reemes (2015, figs. 83–86). These appear similar in placement to snakes placed on the inner footboards of 21st Dynasty coffins, though in the case of the 21st Dynasty examples the snake bites its own tail (Reems 2015, 234). Reemes sees the 26th Dynasty snakes as protecting the mummy who is the unified Re-Osiris and additionally, as a symbol of the perimeter of the cosmos. Crucially, Reemes claims the snake has nothing to do with Apep or eternity, as is sometimes claimed. 

As is typical of coffins of this date, the texts are probably from the Book of the Dead.


Reemes, D.M. 2015 The Egyptian Ouroboros: An Iconological and Theological Study. PhD Thesis, University of California. 

Stricker B.H. 1953. De grote zeeslang. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 

Taylor, J.H. 2003. Theban coffins from the Twenty-second to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty: dating and synthesis of development. In Strudwick, N. and Taylor J.H. (eds.) The Theban Necropolis Past, Present and Future. London: The British Museum Press, 95–121.

Other coffins and coffin fragments in the Egypt Centre

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