W2052 Bed Legs showing Bes and Taweret
Sir Henry Wellcome purchased these two bed legs in 1906 from the collection of Robert de Rustafjaell.[i] They are made of wood, coated with plaster and painted. Both depict snakes. Their similarity suggests that both come from the same item of furniture. One shows Bes, frontal, but the area where the head should be is damaged, and the other shows a standing hippopotamus, sideways on and without a headdress. The hippo may have traces of a crocodile on her back though it is difficult to be sure. The hippopotamus leg measures 23.7cm high and the Bes bed leg 24.2cm. One is marked in blue pencil ‘Akhmim’ suggesting that it came from this area.[ii]
Date of manufacture is unknown, though the link between Bes and the hippopotamus daemon began in the Middle Kingdom when both appear on Middle Kingdom wands and on the Abydos birth brick (pp. 00–00). The style is consistent with bed legs of the Ramesside Period.[iii] There are also traces of both Bes and a hippopotamus deity on a Thirteenth Dynasty box (1795–c.1725 B.C.).[iv] New Kingdom depictions of the pair in association with beds feature on divine birth scenes of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri and Amenhotep III at Luxor.[v] There are also examples on New Kingdom ostraca.[vi] I know of no examples of both together on actual beds, though they do appear together on chairs of the king’s daughter, Satamun c. 1375 B.C.[vii] From about 1750 B.C. onwards, Bes and hippopotami occur together on headrests.[viii] In all New Kingdom and later examples where the two are together, the hippopotamus is unnamed and without a distinguishing headdress.
The Egypt Centre’s bed legs, like many, are in the shape of lion legs. Just as the lion was symbolically associated with the rebirth of the sun, a lion-shaped bed induced refreshed awakening from sleep. To protect themselves from night-time threats, the Egyptian invoked deities such as Bes and the hippopotamus. The night-time link may suggest that Ipet would have been particularly appropriate, however, headrests, also concerned with night-time protection, are solar. Their shape, together with the head of the sleeper, represented the sun rising in the horizon.[ix]
Alternatively, these legs could be from a purely funerary bed, of which there are several known examples. On stela lion beds are shown supporting the body of the deceased. Bes amulets and headrests decorated with Bes figures are found in tombs from the New Kingdom, though it is not always clear if these were once used in life or made especially for the tomb. There is evidence for a strong funerary role for Bes in the Late Period and by the Ptolemaic Period he was known as a protector of the dead.[x] Ipet’s funerary associations are well known from the Pyramid Texts, where she protects and suckles the reborn king, just as Taweret was later to do for Horemheb.[xi] Ipet was particularly connected with the revival of Osiris in the night-sky and thus rebirth, while Taweret was associated with birth, and thus rebirth.
Possibly, these legs may be part of a ‘woman’s bed’ for giving birth and/or resting shortly after birth. Bes, Taweret and snakes, as shown on the Egypt Centre bed legs, were all associated with birth. At New Kingdom Deir el-Medina, decorated (painted?) ‘women’s beds’ appear to have been purchased along with birth amulets.[xii]
Unfortunately, we don’t know what such beds were like. Ostraca usually show nursing women seated on stools though there is at least one depiction of a bed.[xiii] There is often convolvulus in the background and sometimes snakes are depicted.[xiv] Women may be shown having their hair done and a mirror may be evident. Similar scenes appear in the front rooms of some houses at Deir el-Medina. These scenes might indicate some special area for birth or post-parturition recuperation, ‘birth arbours’ or ‘maternity bowers’.[xv] There are also model clay beds showing women, sometimes with a child.[xvi] On the clay models, the bed legs may take the form of Bes. As with the ‘birth arbour’ scenes, snakes are shown. However, only one complete full-size bed exists which depicts snakes; it is from the tomb of Iyneferti and her husband Sennedjem (TT 1). Here two snakes are shown painted on the bed frame, one on each side. The snake is presumably protective. While cobras were said to protect the sleeping, the snakes depicted with birth scenes and on these bed legs, and on the TT 1 bed do not appear to have cobra hoods.[xvii] On the birth arbour scenes the snake has been identified as a protective fertility snake by Brunner-Traut.[xviii]
So, the hippopotamus on the bed legs might be Ipet of the night-sky, Taweret of the solar sky, or perhaps even a fusion of both. The bed may be a woman’s bed or a purely funerary bed. If a funerary bed, it seems most likely that the hippopotamus is Ipet. We should also remember that there are similarities between birth and rebirth, and so daemons would be expected to be similar in both contexts.[xix]
[i]Sotheby’s sale catalogue: Catalogue of the Collection of Egyptian Antiquities formed in Egypt by R. de Rustafjaell, Esq. 19th December 1906, and the following two days, lot 152.
[ii]We cannot be sure who marked it as ‘Akhmim’ though several Wellcome objects now in other museums are marked in blue pencil.
[iii] Killen type BDg Geoffrey Killen, Ancient Egyptian Furniture Volume III, Ramesside Furniture (Oxford, 2017), pp. 53.
[iv]Flinders Petrie, Gizeh and Rifeh (London, 1907), pl. 24.
[v]Divine birth is discussed in M. Rikala, ‘Sacred marriage in the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt: Circumstantial evidence for a ritual interpretation’, in M. Nissinen and R. Uro (eds.), Sacred Marriages. The Divine-Human Sexual Metaphor from Sumer to Early Christianity (Winona Lake, 2008) 115–44.
[vi] For example Deir el-Medinah 2340 (see Raven, M. Women’s beds from Deir el-Medina, in: B. Haring/O. Kaper/R. van Walsem (ed.), The workman’s progress, Studies in the village of Deir el-Medina and documents from western Thebes in honour of Rob Demarée (Egyptologische Uitgaven 28, Leiden/Leuven, 2014), 191–204.
[vii]Quirke, Exploring Religion in Ancient Egypt (Chichester, 2015), p. 189.
[viii]Quirke, Exploring Religion, p. 190.
[ix]B. R. Hellinckx, ‘The symbolic assimilation of head and sun as expressed by headrests’, Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, (2001), pp. 29–95.
[x]D. Frankfurter, ‘Ritual expertise in Roman Egypt and the Problem of the category ‘magician’’, in P. Schäfer and H. G. Kippenberg (eds.), Envisioning Magic. A Princeton Seminar and Symposium (Leiden, 1997), p. 124. On Bes’s funerary roles see: L. Kákosy, ‘Der Gott Bes in einer koptischen Legende’, Acta Antique Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricia, 14 (1966), 193–4. Dasen, Dwarfs, p. 47 discusses the funerary role of an unnamed lion dwarf and, Bes’s funerary role.
[xi]Pyramid Texts 381, 382.
[xii]Jaana Toivari-Viitala, Women at Deir el-Medina. A Study of the Status and Roles of the Female Inhabitants at the Workmen’s Community During the Ramesside Period (Leiden, 2001), p. 178.
[xiii] For the depiction of a bed see Ostraca Medelhavsmuseet MM14 005.
[xiv]For ostraca with nursing mothers see British Museum EA8506 where a stool is depicted.
[xv]Although these are called ‘birth arbours’, the women appear highly sexualised suggesting that the function of the arbours was more than simply a rest area: Lynn Meskell, Archaeologies of Social Life (Oxford, 1999), pp. 100–2.
[xvi]G. Pinch, ‘Childbirth and Female Figurines at Deir el-Medina and el-Amarna’, Orientalia, 52 (1983), p. 406, pl. 5.
[xvii]For cobras protecting against night dangers see: Szpakowska, Behind Closed Eyes, pp. 170–1.
[xviii]E. Brunner-Traut, ‘Die Wochenlaube’, Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung, 3 (1955), p. 24. Additionally, snakes associated with Bes may be protective. Willems suggests that the snakes Bes (or rather Aha) holds are actually protective snakes: Willems, coffin of Heqata, p. 129, footnote 546. Willems further cites Berlandini’s publication of a bed on which Osiris is shown copulating with a woman: J. Berlandini, ‘L’ “acéphale” et le rituel de revirilisation’ Oudheidkundige mededeelingen van het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te Leiden 73 (1993), 29–37. The Osiris bed is guarded by a Bes figure holding two snakes. Snakes guard against the bodily efflux of Osiris. Indeed, several protective demons hold snakes (see this volume pp. 00-00 for the example of ‘She who Embraces’).
[xix]For birth bowers associated with birth and rebirth see: Dorothea Arnold, The Royal Women of Amarna. Images of Beauty from Ancient Egypt (New York, 1996), p. 100.
Thus, these legs may be part of a ‘woman’s bed’ upon which a woman would have given birth and/or rested shortly after birth.
Brunner-Traut, E. Die Wochenlaube, Mittelilingen des Instituts für Orientforschung, 3, 11-30.
Graves-Brown, C. 2018. Daemons and Spirits in Ancient Egypt, University of Wales Press.
Killen, G., 1980-1984. Egyptian Furniture. 2 volumes. Warminster.
Pinch, G., 1983. Childbirth and Female Figurines at Deir el-Medina and el-Amarna, Orientalia, 52, 405-414.
Toivari-Viitala, J., 2001. Women at Deir el-Medina. A Study of the Status and Roles of the Female Inhabitants at the Workmen’s Community During the Ramesside Period. Leiden.