Ibis figure - ROM2004_978_1


Ibis figure

Medium:Bronze, cast, wood, gesso, goldleaf (inlaid and engraved)
Geography: Undetermined site, Egypt, probably Tuna el Gebel (Hermopolis).
Date: c. 332-30 BC
Period: Ptolemaic Period
36 x 24.3 cm
Object number: 956.180
Credit Line: This purchase was made possible with the support of the Reuben Wells Leonard Bequest Fund
On view
Gallery Location:Galleries of Africa: Egypt

This fine image of an Ibis may once have contained the mummy or bones of a bird.  The mummified creature, head folded down onto its chest, legs drawn up against its breast, would have fitted into the gilt wooden body.  The bronze head and legs were attached separately.  The cast bronze parts were quite expensive, so we know this particular mummy was the offering of a priest or bureaucrat of high rank.

Animals and their mummies occupied a very prominent place in Egyptian religion, particularly during the last centuries of pharaonic rule, and the beginning of the Greco-Roman period.  Many theories have been suggested to explain the millions of ibis mummies that have been preserved.  Fortunately, there are several ancient sources that cast light on the issue. We know the ibis mummies do not represent pets. They were raised in ponds or fields associated with temples, and deliberately killed and mummified as part of ritual.

During the reigns of Psamtik I and Ahmose II of the 26th Dynasty, royal edicts seem to have centralized and standardized the treatment of the sacred ibises.  Income from special endowments, the "Fields-of-the-Ibis' went to support the birds, paying for their food and the salaries of the priests who looked after them.

The Greek traveler, Herodotus who visited Egypt during the Persian occupation, wrote that the penalty for killing an ibis, whether deliberately or by accident, was death.  While Herodotus may not have understood all of the information given him by priests and guides, he seems to have recorded what was commonly known about the birds, who were sacred to the god Thoth.  Papyri from the Persian period describe the transportation of special ibises from the Faun to Tuna el-Gebel under military escort.

During the Ptolemaic period, an Egyptian scribe named Hor wrote about a scandal concerning the sacred ibises at Sakkara during the reign of Ptolemy VI (circa 150 bce).  His writings, known as The Archive of Hor, detail some of his work as an interpreter of dreams, but also speak of the treatment and purpose of the thousands of ibises bred at Sakkara.  Hor's notes record how ibises were raised in great numbers and fed by donations to the priests.  He revealed that some priests were making money by selling pilgrims and others mummy bundles which did not contain a whole ibis. 

The mummified animal was in some way a ba, or part of the soul of a god. The mummification of an animal assured its entrance into eternity. The person who paid for the embalming and wrapping, for the performance of ceremonies by priests, and who paid extra or a fine coffin, was able to send a message to the gods during the ceremonial burials. A few letters to the gods, which had accompanied burials of sacred animals at Sakkara, have been found and studied.  Complaints, followed by requests for help, are the most common subject of these letters.  Unfortunately, our fine coffin has neither body nor letters inside.

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