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AB110 Cippus


This object is 11.5cm high and made from steatite, a soft stone. It is called a Horus stela or ‘cippus’ (‘cippus’ means ‘stela’) and was used for protection. It probably dates from the Late Period to Graeco-Roman Period (c.700BC-AD300) and was donated to us by Aberystwyth University in 1998. It was sent to JB Williams in 1903 by Margaret Murray, from a group of objects she had obtained from Abydos.

Cippi were found in the home of both rich and poor. However, some larger examples (30cm or more high) were also placed in temple compounds, and a few are known from tombs. Horus stelae seem to have developed from New Kingdom types depicting Horus the Saviour (Shed). Most cippi are known from the 6th century BC onwards. There are also late survivals among Byzantine Christians. Early ones are made of wood, but ours, like many others, is made of stone. 

AB110 shows Horus the Child (Egyptian Hor-pa-chered of which the Greek equivalent was Harpocrates) standing naked on a crocodile and holding snakes in his hands, thus displaying victory over dangerous animals. He wears ‘the sidelock of youth’ indicating childhood. It is assumed that the stela would ensure that the sufferer take the role of the triumphant Horus the Child. However, other cippi spells suggest that the speaker identifies themselves with a host of deities (Seele 1947, 48). 

Above Horus’ head is a very much damaged head (mask) of the god Bes. Bes and Horus were both considered protective and solar (Malaise 1990, 699-701). Horus was the youthful god; while Bes was sometimes known as the ‘old man’ (Seele 1947, 47). Bes may feature on cippi because of his general protective nature and perhaps particularly because of his protection of Harpocrates. Bes was sometimes shown nursing the child god. The association between the two at this date was so close that some terracotta figures show Bes with his finger to his mouth, that is, he is shown in the guise of Horus the Child (Török 1995, 63; for the close association between the two see Malaise 1990). 

The Egypt Centre cippus has inscriptions on the reverse and sides. On others these are protective spells against dangerous animals, particularly water animals. Over time the hieroglyphs became more shapeless and thus in later periods may have only been symbolic (Sternberg-el-Hotabi 1994). As our stela is very worn it is difficult to know whether we have actual spells or not. Low levels of literacy would suggest that the reading of the spells was not important for efficacy (Ritner 1989, 106). 

Cippi spells generally derive from several sources but often appear related to a particular myth concerning Harpocrates and his mother Isis: while they were hiding in the Delta, Horus was bitten but is cured by magic spells. The most complete list of spells occurs on the Metternich stela in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

So how were cippi used? It has been suggested that if you poured water over the cippus Bes and Harpocrates, together with the magic spells on the back, would impart healing powers to the water. Certainly, larger cippi were provided with basins in which to collect such water. Additionally, it is noticeable that many stelae, including ours, are very worn. This may have been because people rubbed and kissed the items in order to gain their magical powers. Further evidence of their use comes from a cippus spell which suggests that offering be made before it and the cippus to be put at the throat of the sufferer (Bourghouts 1978, 83-84). 

There is some suggestion that small cippi like this were used by travellers (Sternberg-el Hotabi 1987, 27-28). Certainly they are found all over the ancient world, though originate in Egypt. Additionally, their importance for travellers is shown by a statue erected by Rameses III which included cippi texts. The statue was meant for the use of passing caravans (Ritner 1989, 106).

Further Reading

Bourghouts, J.F. 1978. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden. 

Malaise, M. 1990. “Bes et les croyances solaires”, in Israelit-Groll, S. (ed.), Studies in Egyptology Presented to Miriam Lichtheim, Jerusalem, pp. 680-729. 

Nunn, J.F. 2002. Ancient Egyptian Medicine, London, pp. 107-110. 

Ritner, R. K.1989. “Horus on the Crocodiles: a Juncture of Religion and Magic in Late Dynastic Egypt”, in Allen, J.P. (ed.), Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt, New Haven, pp.103-116. 

Seele, K.C. 1947. Horus on the Crocodiles. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 6, 43-52. 

Sternberg-el-Hotabi, H. 1987. Die Götterdarstellungen der Metternichsele, Göttinger Miszellen, 97, 25-70. 

Sternberg-el-Hotabi, H. 1994. Der Untergang der Hieroglyphenschrift, Chronique d’Egypte 69, 218-248. 

Sternberg-el-Hotabi, H. 1999. Untersuchungen zur Überlieferungsgeschichte der Horusstelen: ein Beitrag zur Religiongeschichte Ägyptens im 1. Jahrtausand v. Chr. Wiesbaden. 

Török, L. 1995. Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas from Egypt. Rome.

Other items showing Harpocrates