Sistrum



Accession Number
W553
Current Location
House of Life (first floor), Music case
Object Type
Implements and utensils, Musical intruments, Instrument, Sistrum
Periods
Late Period to Graeco-Roman Period
Material
Metals/alloys (Copper alloy)
Measurements
Height: 170mm | Width: 33mm | Depth: 20mm
Number of Elements
1
Animal
Cat
Divine Name
Bes | Hathor

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Description

A bronze sistrum featuring a bi-frontal Hathor head and a handle terminating in a three-dimensional Bes figure, dating from the late Dynastic or Graeco-Roman era. The feature at the top of the arch may be the remains of a cat-figure, an element often found on later sistra (for another example of a sistra featuring a cat, see EC1467a). The cat may signify the pacified state of the goddess who has been soothed by the instrument’s use, or demonstrate solar or lunar associations. The Greek writer Plutarch, writing in De Iside et Osiride, believed the cat to symbolise the moon in its lunar arc, symbolised by the loop of the sistrum. This item was sold at Sotheby’s on 18 July 1919, lot 162, and was purchased by Henry Wellcome. From there, it came to the Egypt Centre on 15 February 1971, and is now on display in the House of Life. Sistra were most commonly associated with Hathor, whose festivals included music, dance, and drunkenness, though the sistrum was not exclusive to this deity (See also AB20 and AB23). The sound of the sistrum was said to be like the sound of Hathor as she walked through the papyrus plants, recalling the story of her taking refuge in the marshes of the Nile Delta with her son Horus. The supernatural effectiveness of using this sistrum would have been strengthened by the presence of Bes at the base of the handle. Bes, perhaps the most easily-recognisable of ancient Egyptian deities, was connected with fertility and the protection of women in childbirth, among numerous other functions. He is often shown as a dwarf deity, with a protruding tongue and a leonine mane. This sistrum was thus not simply a musical instrument but a powerful supernatural tool.

Bibliography

Barahona, Agustín 2002. Ancient objects related to music and ancient Egypt in the National Archaeological Museum of Madrid. In Eldamaty, Mamdouh and May Trad (eds), Egyptian museum collections around the world 1, 75–86. Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities. [see the description of MAN 9659 (BN28) on pp. 80–81) Manniche, Lise 1991. Music and musicians in ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Reynders, Marleen 1998. sšš.t and sḫm: names and types of the Egyptian sistrum. In Clarysse, Willy, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (eds), Egyptian religion: the last thousand years. Studies dedicated to the memory of Jan Quaegebeur: part II, 1013–1026. Leuven: Peeters.

Wellcome Number
26410 or 164097 (label found separate from the object)
Auction
Sotheby, Wilkinson, & Hodge: 18 Jul 1919, Lot 162
Previous Owner
Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853–1936)
Acquisition
Long-term loan, The Wellcome Trust (15 Feb 1971)
Last modified: 08 Mar 2021

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