Despite the loss of the head of this figure, its identity is easily discernible as Osiris, the god of rebirth and regeneration. Unlike the other commonly shrouded gods like Ptah and Khonsu, the arm positions indicate the figure was intended – perhaps only conceptually – to hold the crook and flail: elements of rulership that are commonly associated with Osiris. His tall atef-crown (of which only the streamers running down the neck and back remain) would also have made the head susceptible to breakage, thus even without an identifying inscription, it is clear that this gilded figurine represents Osiris.
The use of gold leaf to cover the statuette indicates not that this was a cult image – used as a focal point of rituals – but that it was a particularly rich version of a common object type: a votive image, given as a gift for the gods in petition, prayer or thanks. Untarnishable gold was viewed as the flesh of the gods, an appropriate material for objects the effected divine presence. The appearance of finely etched kneeling figures with an offering table between them at the front of the base further assert this votive function, and the form of this small composition – which seems to consciously evoke much earlier styles – is an indication of the date of this piece, in the Saite era – or Twenty-sixth Dynasty.
An interesting feature of religious culture in Egypt during the First Millennium BCE was the growth and expansion in the popular cult of the god Osiris. This figurine was found by workmen excavating for Flinders Petrie in 1906 at Giza, a site that was constantly reinterpreted after the construction of the great pyramids. The cult of Osiris – and of his wife Isis – was very significant at Giza in the Late Period. The presence of both ‘djed’ and ‘tyet’ symbols, motifs of Osiris and Isis respectively, on the base of the statuette emphasise their connection.
On the eastern side of the small pyramid of one of Khufu’s wives, Queen Henutsen, developed a chapel to the goddess Isis, which became an active site of elite devotion in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty and later. A monumental stone tablet – called the Inventory Stela – was discovered in the vicinity of this chapel, listing sacred images both within the temple and elsewhere at the site, including the great Sphinx. One entry reads, ‘Osiris. Gilded wood. Eyes inlaid’ – a description of the sort of object now in Manchester Museum.
This item is part of Manchester Museum’s ‘To Have and To Heal’ project, an attempt to use ancient Egyptian material culture – visualised through the photography of Julia Thorne – to address big questions in the post-pandemic world while Manchester Museum is closed (August 2021-late 2022) to complete its capital building project. Find out more at the website: https://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk or on social media @McrMuseum @EgyptMcr.