The Egyptian gods, it seems, were rather demanding. They required constant attention in the form of perpetual temple ritual, a major component of which was the presentation of a range of offerings that were expected to satisfy divine appetites as they might sate human ones. Yet, the gods also appear to have been relatively easily placated, with the gifting of objects being an obvious form of appeasement. Although it is only ever the king who is depicted as giving offerings to the gods on temple walls, the reality of such pious action encompassed all of society.
Many objects that have survived from Pharaonic Egypt can be interpreted as gifts to the gods. Those associated with animal cults during the first millennium BC survive in abundance, a testament both to the scale and longevity of such votive practice. These most often take the form of images of the gods themselves, appealing perhaps to a divine sense of vanity. The giving of votives was a materialised form of prayer, physically marking an appeal or an expression of thanks. The durability of metal – as opposed to more perishable tokens, though these do occasionally survive – and the careful collection and deposition of votive bronzes rendered these intentions permanent, to the eternal benefit of deity and donor.
It may be significant that earlier, New Kingdom, votive practice appears to have a focus on cult of the goddess Hathor, whose animal manifestation – that of a cow – had particular popular appeal. Bronze images of deities from the first millennium BC survive in comparable numbers to the millions of animal mummies with which they are closely connected. The portability of both of these types of objects is a reflection of their ancient context of use and a reason for their wide modern distribution as museum objects. Sadly, this has resulted in a lack of sure provenance for most votive bronzes, leading in turn to a general lack of study.
It is a particular characteristic of Egyptian monuments (including small objects) that their texts reinforce their function. Be they large stone statues or small votive bronzes, all are dedications to impress the gods. Hieroglyphic script (‘divine words’) was targeted as much at a readership among the gods as by human beings; to some extent it was immaterial whether inscriptions were seen and read or not for the dedication to ‘work’.
Bronzes, because of their small size, do not usually bear extensive texts explaining their purpose. Any inscription is mostly limited to a short caption of favourable intent (the gift of ‘life’ is most commonly mentioned), echoing the immaterial benefits that the king receives from the gods on temple walls. Titles are rare and in many cases only the name of the donor is recorded, though this should not create the undue impression of a broad social spectrum of donors; all but the crudest bronzes cannot have been cheap.
Many of those votive bronzes found in situ, such as those from the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara, retain evidence of having been wrapped in linen. The cultural importance of this wrapping has recently been discussed in Unwrapping Ancient Egypt by Christina Riggs and emphasises the conceptual link between the votive bronzes and animal mummies: both are physical forms of the divine, shrouded in linen to maintain and enhance their sacredness.
Some hollow bronze images of gods even contain small amounts of the mummified material, illustrating the blurring between categories of ‘votive’. For example, a bronze statuette of a lioness-headed goddess – Sekhmet or Wadjit – now in Plymouth Museum preserves linen remains in the cavity of its seat. While the sliding panels in statuettes of falcons for mummified fauna have been suggested as food for the gods represented by the statuette, the animal remains may have been thought to enhance the power of the figure itself.
The occasion of offering the bronze votives is nowhere explicitly recorded, but these are not likely to have been formal, prescribed rituals but rather ad hoc, at the convenience of individuals or family groups, perhaps especially at festivals. The gathering together of votives en masse for permanent deposition in caches is likely to have mirrored the practice of collecting and depositing animal mummies. This recalls again the similarity in the basic intention of both votive bronzes and animal mummies: to act as a conduit between the divine and a human supplicant, and to permanently mark – and thus make more efficacious – the pious act of donation.
This is a version of a chapter which appears in a new book to accompany the exhibition: L. McKnight & S. Atherton-Woolham (eds) Gifts for the Gods: Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies and the British. Liverpool University Press.