This small (8.2 x 7.5cm) copper alloy statuette depicts the sacred Apis bull – recognisable by the remains of a sun disk between its curved horns. The bull was at the centre of an elaborate cult, and was believed to be the earthly incarnation of the god Ptah. Only one living Apis was recognised at any one time, in a system not unlike the selection of the Dalai Lama. The sacred bull was selected by priests who travelled the length of the land looking for an animal with the correct markings. Once installed, Apis was housed in a temple on the outskirts of Memphis. There he was afforded ever luxury – including a ‘harem’ of cows – and was regularly visited by pilgrims, who interpreted his movements in relation to petitions put to him. After death, the bull was mummified and given an elaborate burial in a set of catacombs – called the Serapeum – located on the Saqqara desert plateau.
This figurine is just one of hundreds of images of various gods given as votive offerings at a range of temples. Many examples, such as this, were excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society at the site of Saqqara. Saqqara was the home to the Sacred Animal Necropolis, the centre for the veneration and dedication of sacred animals in the Late Period (c. 750-330 BC). These were found in a pit within the enclosure of the Sacred Animal Necropolis temples. They had, according to excavator Bryan Emery, been “arranged in an orderly manner.”
It is typical of Egyptian religious practice that temple objects were considered sacred after they had been used, and had to be collected together and buried in consecrated ground. These caches of temple objects provide a useful insight into what sorts of objects were dedicated to the gods. Such hoardes were doubtless the point of origin of many more unprovenanced metal statues that appear commonly in museums around the world. Even when hidden from view, votive objects could continue to function as records of piety; they keep alive the hopes of the pilgrims who had dedicated them. Interestingly, this example shows signs of ancient repair – so may have been accessible in the temple for some time before it was buried.
This statuette was attached – by means of a tang – to a wooden base in the shape of a sledge. The sledge implies the divine or effigy-like nature of whatever is depicted on top – yet it specifically alludes to the movement of a statue of the Apis bull, or its mummy, along a processional route. At Saqqara, this route is known as the Serapeum Way – because it leads from the valley up to the Serapeum. Rituals conducted along the Way for the funeral of an Apis bull were lively affairs, involving wailing women, dancing dwarves, and even twins selected specially to impersonate the sister goddesses Isis and Nephthys. Showing the bull on the sledge implies – or assures – the involvement of the donor of the piece in these rituals.
The Serapeum Way was planned by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette (1821-1881) but has since been mapped more accurately by the Scottish Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project. Further fieldwork is planned to reveal more information about the structure of the Way, and add more to what is already known about the cult of the Apis bull.