Tuesday, March 30, 2010


UEA SC 920 approx 8 cm. Faience. Double-headed Sistrum fragment of Hathor 26th dynasty (663-526 BCE)

An artefact acquired in 1984  on display at UEA Sainsbury Centre. I was at UEA reading art-history 81-84, studying History, German, Greek and Roman sculpture, Surrealism and George Grosz if I remember correctly. I did some research on this artefact and need to discard the old notes, so posting them here seems practical.

What's a sistrum ? Well it's a case of that old shake, rattle and roll in ecstatic, so-called pagan worship; its modern day equivalent, the tambourine is regularly used in Christian evangelical worship. A sistrum was an ancient type of rattle consisting of a U-shaped piece of metal on a handle with two metal-cross bars (missing in picture) that tinkled when the instrument was shaken.

Used in worship with singing and dancing, the tinkling of discs, like that of a tambourine, arouses expectation and alertness. Only Royal priestesses were allowed to play the sistrum in ancient Egypt. Sacred rattles were used to accompany an accelerating rhythmic re-enactment of the moment when Creation erupted from the chaos of nothingness. A temple at Denderah which housed a zodiac relief was used for the worship of Hathor.

'The sound and rhythm of songs and dances performed during a funeral banquet evoked the art of creation, and the ritual drunkenness of the goddess Hathor, who watched over the dead and presided over love, was intended to help the deceased, however invisible to share the agape or love-feast, to become a new being of his own making'.

The goddess Hathor was often represented as a bull or cow. Her other names include the Lady of the Sycamore, goddess of turquoise. As a protector of women, she was associated with child-birth. In Egyptian mythology Ra angered by man's wrong-doing, sends Sekmet the lioness to devour mankind. However Sekmet is too zealous in his devouring of mankind, so Ra tricks her by mixing red-ochre with beer which Sekmet drinking believing to be blood. When she is drunk Ra says to her-

'Now you shall be Hathor goddess of love, your power over mankind shall be stronger than the passion of hate, and all shall know of love, all shall be your victim'.

Besides being a rather beautiful turquoise colour and intricately decorated, with its calm, almost hypnotic gaze, this sistrum fragment is a good example of symmetrical, archaic portraiture in the ancient world.
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