Fragment of an apotropaic wand on loan from the British Museum (BM 38192). 16cm long.
In the Middle Kingdom to Second Intermediate Period (2055-1550 BC) the mysterious ‘apotropaic wands’ appear. It is possible that these continued into the New Kingdom as they are depicted in the tomb of Rekhmire.
These wands are usually made of hippopotamus tusk, split in half to produce two curved wands with one side convex and the other flat. The material possibly invoked Taweret a hippopotamus goddess of childbirth. It is possible that hippopotamus ivory was considered important because of the power, strength and mothering qualities of the female hippo.
The wands, although usually carefully polished, are roughly engraved. The engravings are of deities associated with the protection of young infants and with childbirth, for example the frog goddess Hekat, Taweret and Bes. This broken wand from the British Museum has an image of a frog deity holding a knife blade in its foot. On other knives too, deities often carry protective knives or snakes. The inscriptions also bear witness to the fact that these ‘wands’ are intended to be protective, e.g. ‘Cut off the head of the enemy when he enters the chamber of the children whom the lady…has borne’ and ‘Protection by night, protection by day’ (Steindorff 1946, 50).
Inscriptions also usually name the mother and the child. The child is invariably a boy. There could be several reasons for this. The first might be that these items were only made for boys. The second might be that as most of the tombs in which the wands were found belonged to men, most of the wands belonged to men, but this does not mean that girls did not have them in life. The preponderance of male names may also be a result of putting names on tusks before the birth of the child and indicate that male children were usually hoped for (Szpakowska 2008, 30). But, the fact that these items were repaired and spells thereon suggest several children it seems likely that these were used for girl as well as boy babies.
Egyptologists usually claim these wands were used to protect women in childbirth or young children, though most have been found in tombs. The fact that the points of some wands are worn away on one side has suggested to some that they were used to draw a magic circle around the child (Hayes 1953, 249). Some examples have perforations at each end with a cord running through perhaps to carry or move other objects (Teeter et al. 2009, 77). On tomb walls wands are shown being carried by nurses (Robins 1993, 87) but here their presence shows that they had a secondary function of protecting the deceased at the time of their rebirth.
This item is published in Goodridge, Wendy and Williams, Stuart 2006. Offerings from the British Museum, Swansea.
Hayes, W.C. 1953. The Sceptre of Egypt. A background for the study of Egyptian antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Volume I. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Robins, G. 1993. Women in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.
Szpakowska, K. 2008. Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Steindorff, G. 1946. The magical knives of ancient Egypt. Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 9, 41-51; 106-107.
Teeter, E. and Johnson, J.H. 2009. The Llife of Meresamun. A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.