Fayyum and Sobek (2)

Marco Zecchi
From Fayyum Studies 2
Edited by Sergio Pernigotti and Marco Zecchi, 2006

Part 1

Osiris in the Fayyum had to leave his power to his successor, who in the region took the aspect of Sobek-Horus. In the hymns in honour of Sobek of Shedet in the papyrus Ramesseum VI of the XII-XIII dynasty (P-1), Osiris certainly is a dead god, the main presence in the crucial moment of the passage of royal power from him to his son. Here, Sobek-Horus is described while he looks for the scattered body of his father Osiris and performs for him the rituals necessary to his resurrection. In this way, Sobek-Horus can finally become king of Upper and Lower Egypt:

‘you travel in the land of the lake, you traverse the Great Green (w Ad wr), you seek your father Osiris. You found him and you revived him. You said: ‘this one wipes (sk) the mouth (r) of your father in his name of Soker’… You have adjusted the mouth of your father Osiris, you have opened for him his mouth, you are his beloved son. You have rescued your father… in his name of Ptah… You being arise [as] king of Upper and Lower Egypt and the hearts of the gods fear you…’.

This text, which is one of the most interesting products of the religious thought of the Fayyum, contains a ‘regional’ version of the myth of Osiris, according to which the god, in his syncretistic association with Soker and Ptah, is the means through which Sobek-Horus can legitimate his assumption to the throne of his father. Once that the kingship is well established, the presence of Osiris is no longer strictly necessary, and it is perhaps for this reason that the god is not included in the temple of Medinet Madi erected by Amenemhat III and Amenemhat IV.

The theology of the sanctuary served other purposes, being an exaltation of the prosperity and power of the ruling king. Renenutet and Sobek act in harmony, albeit on two different levels. On one hand, Renenutet, in her capacity of goddess of harvest, and Sobek, as lord of the whole Fayyum, are beneficent gods, who distribute goods and provisions for the king’s table. On the other hand, as Wadjet and Horus respectively, they are deities connected with the royal ideologies who grant the king the right to rule over Egypt.

In the scenes of the temple, therefore, there is room for Osiris, neither as a sovereign nor as a ruler of the underworld.That the Fayyum was the burial ground of Osiris, as sovereign, is confirmed by a hymn to the god of the Ramesside Period, where we read:

‘… your body (Ha=k) sleeps (nm a) in the land of the lake, O sovereign (ity)–life, strength, health… the vegetation of the inundation and the fresh plants of the field of the god (s x tnt r) come from you…’.

Osiris in the Fayyum is a sovereign, to whom life, strength and health, symbolising the legitimate kingship of a king, are granted. At the same time, the Fayyum is regarded both as the tomb of the god-king and the place where his triumph and regeneration took place. In fact, following the Osirian doctrines, in this region it was envisaged that the exudations of the decaying flesh of Osiris, which were endowed with a revivifying power, were the sources of the inundation which caused the vegetation to grow and perpetuate the cycle of nature’s fertility.

The cult of Osiris in the Fayyum continued during the New Kingdom. The god’s name occurs in some monuments belonging to three influential persons of the region. The two mayors of the land of the lake, Sobekhotep son of Kapu, who lived under the reign of AmenhotepII, and Sobekhotep son of Min, who lived at the time of Thutmose IV, dedicated two statues with an offering formula to Osiris Hry-ib tA-S (S-13, S-14). Likewise Kha-em-tar, who held some important offices in the army during the XIX dynasty, dedicated in Hawara a statue with offering formulae for Sobek-Horus of Shedet, Isis ‘the great, the god’s mother’ and Osiris ity Hry-ib tA-S (S-15).

Of the various deities associated with him, Osiris’ relation with his son Sobek/Horus was by far the most important. Despite this, Isis played a significant role both as mother of Sobek/Horus and as consort of Osiris. In the New Kingdom, she was such an important deity that she had her own cult place. The papyrus Wilbour of the XX dynasty bears witness to the existence of a pr-Ast wrt mwt ntr, a chapel or small temple most likely located in Shedet or in its territory. It is worth noting that the statue of Kha-em-tar is the most ancient source from the Fayyum mentioning Osiris alongside Sobek-Horus and Isis, who evidently formed a regional version of the Osirian triad.

During the New Kingdom there was another Osirian form strictly associated with the Fayyum which enjoyed considerable fortune outside of the region: Osiris mr A-Hnt. It is usual-ly believed that the modern name el-Lahun derives from this ancient toponym.

The presence of a specific Osiris of el-Lahun is particularly interesting if we consider that there, in the Middle Kingdom and in the New Kingdom, Osiris ity Hry-ib tA-S is not referred to.Osiris in Ra-henet appears in some litanies in honour of the god (P-3, P-6, T-3), sometimes alongside Osiris ity Hry-ib tA-S (P-4). The former was undoubtedly an ‘invention’ of the New Kingdom and it seems that he was regarded as a substitute of Soker mr A-Hnt, which is men-tioned in a litany of the same period. In this respect, it must be stressed that Soker, unlike Osiris, played an important role in the cults of the pyramid complex of Senusret II and that, according to later sources, Osiris and Soker were the chief figures venerated in this site.

Osiris was the object of a form of worship also in Gurob. In this settlement a number of objects associated with the god and queen Tiy, the wife of Amenhotep III, have been brought to light. On the basis of these discoveries, some scholars have asserted that the queen lived in the ‘harem’ of Gurob towards the end of her life. Even though this cannot be proved unequivocally,it is likely that Tiy stayed there for a time or at the very least visited the place occasionally.

Among the items associated with the queen, there is a black granite offering table (O-5) and a wooden stele (St-11) inscribed for Amenhotep III. It has been suggested that Gurob may have been a cult-centre for the worship of the dead Amenhotep III and that Tiy, a queen who owed her high position to the marriage with the king rather than to birth, may well have felt politically advantageous to keep her husband’s memory alive. On the wooden stele we read that:

‘the king’s chief wife, his beloved, the lady of the Two Lands Tiy made it as her monument for her brother, her beloved, for the ka of the Osiris the king Nebmaatra, the son of Ra Amenhotep (III), true of voice’.

The granite offering table contains a similar text:

‘the king’s chief wife Tiy made it as her monument for her brother, her beloved, the beautiful god Nebmaatra’.

But what it is still more interesting in this context is the fact that the offering table has two offering formulae, one to Osiris ‘ruler of eternity’ (Hq Adt), the other to Osiris‘ruler of the west’ (Hq A imntt) for the ka of the Osiris Amenhotep III, and that, in the stele, the offering formula is addressed to Osiris wenenefer ‘the great god, lord of the sacred land’ (Asir wnn-nfr ntr aAnb tA-dsr). The god’s epithets, Hq Adt, Hq A imntt, nb tA-dsr and wnn-nfr, which shows the god’s victory over the decay of death, have strong funerary connotations, relaying the god’s death and his following resurrection in the underworld.

If we exclude the possibility of the queen dedicating these two documents at the beginning of Akhenaten’s reign, after Amenhotep’s III death and before the Atonist ‘heresy’, these inscriptions, with their references to Osiris, would suggest that Tiy, during her son’s reign, had not abandoned the traditional funerary beliefs.

In 1904, Loat excavated at Gurob a small brick temple consisting of two halls with columns, a terrace and three chambers lying beyond it. On the terrace and in one of the chambers a number of private votive stelae dating to the Ramesside period were found. The majority of the documents are connected with a form of veneration for Thutmose III, who was regarded as the founder of the settlement, but among these items, there were also stelae dedicated to other deities, such as Heryshef and Seth.

On one stele (St-15) (Fig. 1), the owner and his wife are depicted offering flowers to Osiris, standing with sceptres in his hands and an atef-crown onhis head. Unfortunately, the epithet of the god is illegible. Together with these stelae, Loat found a lintel (M-3) belonged to the ‘singer of Amon-Ra’ Ry. This depicts the woman offering flowers to Amon-Ra, while on eithers side, Ry adores two Osiris, sitting on a throne, holding sceptres. One of the two is labelled ‘the great god, ruler of eternity’ (ntr aA Hq Adt).


Ghislaine Widmer has recently dealt in detail with P. Berlin 6750, a demotic papyrus which contains a religious text divided into two parts. The first seven columns are dedicated to Osiris x nty imntt and to his resurrection. Even though the title is lost, this part is clearly connected with the ceremonies for Osiris’ burial. Columns 3 and 4 are about the rebirth of the god and the recomposition of his divine body, whose different parts are evoked in the text. According to the papyrus, these ceremonies took place on the 18, 19 and 20 of the month of Hathyr. Columns 5-7 constitute a sort of litany, with names and epithets.The second part of the papyrus is dedicated to the events following the death and resurrection of Osiris, that is the birth of Horus son of Isis inside the mammisis and his taking possession of the throne of his dead father.

Widmer has pointed out that the days 18, 19 and 20 of Hathyr mentioned in P.Berlin 6750 are probably connected with an Egyptian tradition, rarely attested, albeit reported by Plutarch, which places the death of Osiris and the following rituals for his burial in the month of Hathyr.

On her article on the festivals of Sobek in the Fayyum in the Graeco-Roman Period, Widmer has shown how papyrological sources indicate that, in the same month, at Soknopaiou Nesos some religious festivals for the birth of the local Soknopaios were carried out. She has also argued that these festivals for Soknopaios and all the religious events of P. Berlin 6750 might be connected with the presence of the cult of two crocodile gods in some localities of the Fayyum, which, besides Soknopaiou Nesos, also include Bakchias, Theadelphia, Medinet Madi and Karanis. One of the two crocodile deities is supposed to be Osiris(-Sobek), a dead god, the other one his son Horus(-Sobek), who is to take over the royal power of his father.

As Widmer says,

‘si le dédoublement des crocodiles est une nution que l’on rencontre frequemment dans la documentation égyptienne de toutes les périodes et regions, il est possible qu’à l’époque gréco-romaine ce fait ait été réinterprété dans le contexte du culte des animaux sacrés, et tout particulièrement, de celui du crocodile, dans le Fayoum’.

Widmer also adds that the archaeological documentation seems to point in the same direction. In some centres of the Fayyum, there were cult-places characterised bya naos with vaulted niche or loculus, such as at Theadelphia, Dyonisias and Bakchias, or by two loculi, such as at Medinet Madi, which were fit to host the mummy of a crocodile.

At Theadelphia, Breccia brought also to light two litters in wood, which were evidently used to transport the mummy of the animal during religious processions. At Tebtynis the walls of the hall of the temple of Soknebtynis (reign of Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos) have a scene which depicts the procession for the transport of a mummified crocodile, a scene very similar to the one in a painting found in the niche of a building in the first court of the temple of Pnepherosat Theadelphia.

Similar processions, in all probability,took place in many towns of the Fayyum and are connected with the title ‘bearer of the gods Sobek’ (t Ajn A ntrw sbk). Such title has been studied in depth by Jan Quagebeur, who suggested that it was part of a religious association whose members had the task to carry in procession the sacred animals to their burial-place.

If Widmer’s conjecture is right, Osiris, in the Fayyum of the Graeco-Roman Period, would have lost his original aspect to take on the image of a crocodile. This hypothesis is very intriguing and interesting. At this regard, as a matter of fact, if on the one hand it is possible to talk more or less nonchalantly about the numerous names of Sobek’s forms, or the architectonic and archaeological aspects of his temples, on the other hand we know very little, or nothing, of the rituals performed and in general what was going on inside these sacred buildings.

As a matter of fact, the temples with vaulted loculi for the crocodile’s mummies have not been the subject of much discussion and it would certainly be worthwhile to study them in depth in order to understand their features and relations with the more ‘standardised’ temples in honour of Sobek erected in the same localities. However, even though we do not have any piece of evidence, there is the possibility that the temples with the loculi for the crocodile’s mummy were dedicated to a Sobek-Osiris cult. The cult performed for a Sobek, who shows himself through a mummy, was for a god who has experienced death and eventually resurrection.

It is highly likely that in the Fayyum, as well as elsewhere in Egypt, the priests chose a living animal, in this case a crocodile, which was regarded as a divine epiphany, a manifestation of the god on earth. This animal was perhaps raised within the precinct of the temple and, at death, he was mummified. Whether the span of life of this animal was fixed in advance, that is if he was killed, for example, after one year, as in the case of the sacred falcon at Edfu, or whether the priest waited for the ‘natural’ death of the animal before choosing a new one we do not know.

In any case, it is seems plausible that the mummy of the animal was transported in procession to the temple with the vaulted loculus, which, in my opinion, was a sort of temporary tomb and a place for the rituals of the rebirth of the god. When a ‘new’ mummy was ready, the old one was carried in procession to his definitive burial-place. The problem with this reconstruction is that it is all very speculative, as no concrete evidence exist. In the Fayyum, no necropolis for the sacred gods, that is for the representations of the god on earth, has ever been found.

The Fayyum, however, could have been the set for a reinterpretation, at local level, of the myth of Osiris, his death and resurrection. In the Fayyum, the Sobek cult was so pervasive to create an association/identification between the two major gods Sobek and Osiris. Here, the connection between the cults of Sobek and Osiris could have not stopped at theological matters, but went so far as to a real identification or connection of the two ways of worshipping these gods. Moreover, that the cycle from life to death of the local sacred animal could symbolise the passage of power from the deceased crocodile (Osiris) to a ‘new’ crocodile (Horus) might have been facilitated by the fact that in the Fayyum Sobek was identified with Horus at least since the XII dynasty and that, from the same period, and as a consequence of such an identification, the assumption of the royal power of Sobek-Horus from his father Osiris became a central theme of local beliefs.

For centuries, the identities of Osiris and Sobek were clearly distinct the one from the other and their relation was that of father and son. But, at least from the Late Period, an alternative started to take shape. There was indeed the possibility of a bivalent vision of the relationship between these two deities, in which filiation and identification went hand in hand. At a certain point, Osiris took the decision that he could throw his usual body aside and step into anew one.

Outside the lid of the coffin of Ankhruty (C-31), dated to the XXX dynasty or to the early Ptolemaic Period and discovered by Petrie at Hawara, there is a striking image of Osiris as a crocodile in the water, with a human head with two horns, a solar disk and two high feathers (Fig. 3). The text accompanying the figure runs as follows:

‘words to be spoken by Osiris manifold of faces (aSA Hrw), O Osiris Ankhruty,you are hidden in the great S tyt on the west of the Great Green (w Ad wr), which you join (hnm) morning and evening, living forever’.

In Ankhruty’s coffin there is also a more ‘standardised’ iconography of Osiris. On the side of the lid Osiris, labelled as x nty Hwt-H sb, is depicted as a mummy with white crown lying on a base and with plants sprouting from his body(Fig. 4), in a way reminiscent of the seeded ‘grain-Osiris’ figures which were sometimes placed in tombs. The germination of the plants was seen as a symbolic representation of the regenerating power of the deity. After the representation of this Osiris, there is a row of images which clearly belong to a funerary context: a standing mummified god, ram-headed, with atef-crown and crook and flail, a coffin, four canopic jars, Anubis on a shrine, Osiris on a funerary bier mourned by Isis and Nephthys and two djed-pillar (one with human head), representing Osiris himself. Nevertheless, Osiris with the crocodile body and human head is decisively something new.

The text and the image rep-resent an original conception of the religious doctrines of the Fayyum on Osiris’ figure and on the destiny of the people in the afterlife. Because both Sobek and Osiris were associated with Osiris in the Fayyum water and vegetation, in the Fayyum these became an inspiration the one of the other. The epithet aSA Hrw, which refers to the god’s capacity of assuming different faces, or aspects, is in this context particularly appropriate.

In the land of the lake, Osiris’ body changed, in the attempt to imitate that of the supreme god of the region. However, Sobek himself, lending his aspect to the major funerary god, received a strong regenerative power.In the Fayyum of the Late Period, the deceased aspired to identify himself with Osiris, who here was as the crocodile god Sobek, immersed in the water of the land of the lake, so that he might be able to reach his necropolis in the west of the region, where he could be born again and live forever.

That Sobek and Osiris were viewed as aspects of one another seems also quite attested by P. Berlin 6750, in which Sobek is expressly addressed to as ‘Sobek-Osiris’. Deriving from the same rationale is perhaps an image from the ‘Book of the Fayyum’ representing three chapels, each surmounted by a tree. Under these structures there is a mummy lying on the back of a crocodile. Between this figure and the three chapels one reads: ‘unknown. This is Ra. This is the efflux’.

Ridolfo Lanzone,and more recently Pierre Koemoth, suggested that these three chapels were dedicated to Sobek, Ra and Osiris. The expression ‘unknown’ (nr x) would designate the mummy of the sacred crocodile of Shedet, and perhaps more generally of the whole Fayyum, whose body would be hidden. The noun ‘efflux’ (rdw) would denote Osiris, as it is usually used to indicate the exudations of the decaying body of the god, which were believed to have a strong revivifying and restorative power. A vertical text next to the three chapels states that ‘this has drowned for Ra and the efflux (m Hinn r r a rdw). His body his concealed in the willow (HA pdt=f m trt).

There is a chapel in willow wood in Shedet (x pr g Anty trt x tm Sdt). Sobek of Shedet rests (or ‘his satisfied’) for his things (Htp sbk Sdt Hri x t=f)’. The wil-low had an important theological meaning in the Fayyum. According to the ‘Book of theFayyum’ willows surmounted the three chapels of Sobek, Ra and Osiris or, if we regard this image as a ‘unity’, the chapel for the deceased Sobek-Ra-Osiris. These trees were thought to revive thanks to the light coming from Ra, as suggested by Koemoth, but also, I would add,thanks to the water of the inundation, coming from the flesh of Osiris.

The image of these three chapels represents a further effort towards a syncretistic union of Sobek both with Ra and Osiris. The mummy on the back of the crocodile might be that of Osiris, carried in the water by Sobek, but also the mummy of Sobek himself, whose rebirth was granted by the flood and by the light of the sun, that is by Osiris and Ra. The association with Osiris and Ra, besides symbolising the resurrection of the god of the Fayyum, aimed at uniting different funerary and religious ideas and caused Sobek to partake of these same ideas. In this respect, as suggested by Philippe Derchain, it is worthwhile to connect the image of the ‘Book of the Fayyum’ with that of the temple of Phile: here, above the crocodile with the mummy is the solar disk raising from the mountain at the horizon which contains an enthroned Osiris; at his feet is a child with a finger in his mouth, representing the raising sun. The connections of the Osiris of the Fayyum with the solar doctrines are also stressed in P.Berlin 6750, where the god is evoked as Ra ‘in his bark’ or identified with Khepri and Atum (‘you are Khepri’; ‘you are Atum’).

It must be pointed out that in the above-mentioned text,the word used for ‘chapel’, made of willow wood, is g A. This noun denotes a ‘shrine’, but also a ‘portable chapel’ for the gods, made of wood and decorated with silver and precious stones,or the ‘coffins’ for the Apis bulls. Therefore, it is highly likely that, also at Shedet, this term could refer either to a simple ‘shrine’, to the burial place or to the coffin itself, where the mummy of the sacred crocodile was buried. The expression ‘his body is concealed in the willow. There is a g A in willow wood in Shedet’ might very well denote the tomb’s coffin, which functioned as a protection for the corpse of the god.

In the ‘Book of the Fayyum’ there is another interesting passage, which uses the same phrase-ology and mentions once again both the noun trt and the verb m H i (‘to drown’, ‘to be in thewater’): ‘the things of Osiris are hidden in the protection of the willow (s S tA i x t Asir m p Ays Ant trt)(variant: ‘in the protection of the w abt of willow). The god is drowned (m Hintr), the son of Nut’.

According to Koemoth, the noun w abt, usually used to designate a laboratory for funerary furniture or an embalming place, but also, more generally, a tomb, should be identified with one of the three chapels surmounted by a tree. The term i x t when applied to Osiris means his relics or limbs, and it seems therefore that this passage refers to Osiris’ tomb. It would be really tempting to identify this tomb with the burial place for the sacred crocodile.

In the Fayyum Osiris presents original characteristics. We do not know when he joined the local pantheon. There is no evidence of his presence in the region during the Old Kingdom. However, at the end of the First Intermediate Period, he was mentioned in funerary contexts at Harageh and, in the XII dynasty, amongst the people of el-Lahun and Kahun. It was from the middle of the same dynasty, possibly from the reign of Amenemhat III, that the god start-ed showing more peculiar features.

Owing to the changing conceptions on the god Sobek, who was now regarded as Horus, Osiris played an important role as father of the crocodile deity. Osiris, victim of a murder and saved by his son Sobek, who granted him a rebirth in the after-life, could pass the royal power to his legitimate heir. Starting from the same period, Osiris was bestowed with two ‘new’ epithets, ity and ‘he who resides in the land of the lake’, which could be a theological invention of the Fayyum. The epithet ity has also to do with the royal doctrines and with the passage of royal power. These conceptions continued up to the Late Period and the Graeco-Roman Period, when Osiris was put in relation to Sobek, to confound his identity with that of the local crocodile god. In conclusion, I hope to have shown how the theology of the Fayyum bore new and original ways of thinking of both the local crocodile Sobek and Osiris, who is without doubt one of the major deities of the Egyptian pantheon.

Source: http://www.academia.edu/


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