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Magical Stela

Period:
Late Period
Dynasty:
Dynasty 30
Reign:
reign of Nectanebo II
Date:
360–343 B.C.
Geography:
From Egypt, Alexandria Region, Alexandria
Medium:
Meta-Greywacke
Dimensions:
Overall height 83.5 cm (32 7/8 in); w. of stela 33.5 cm (13 3/16 in); d. 7.2 cm (2 13/16 in) h. of base 14.4 cm( 5 11/16 in); 33.5 cm (13 3/16 in); d. 14.4 cm (5 11/16 in)
Credit Line:
Fletcher Fund, 1950
Accession Number:
50.85
  • Description

    The top half of this stela was skillfully carved in a hard dark stone. On the part below the central figure panel, rows of hieroglyphs record thirteen magic spells to protect against poisonous bites and wounds and to cure the illnesses caused by them. The stela was commissioned by the priest Esatum to be set up in the public part of a temple. A victim could recite or drink water that had been poured over the magic words and images on the stela. As a mythic precedent, the hieroglyphic inscription around the base describes the magic cure that was worked upon the infant Horus by Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing.
    On the stela Isis speaks and recounts that while she and Horus were still hiding in the marshes, the child became ill. In her despair, she cried for help to the "Boat of Eternity" (the sun boat in which the god travels over the sky), "and the sun disk stopped opposite her and did not move from his place." Thoth was sent from the sun boat to help Isis and cured Horus by reciting a catalogue of spells. The spells always ended with the phrase "and the protection of the afflicted as well," indicating that by using these spells, any type of affliction in human beings would be healed.
    In this detail of the stela, Horus emerges from the background in such high relief that he is posed as an actual three-dimensional statue, with his left leg striding forward and his head directly facing the viewer. He is portrayed in the conventional Egyptian form for youth; that is, he is nude and wearing his hair in a side lock. The soft, rounded forms of the bodies of Horus and the other deities are typical of the style of the period.
    To symbolize his magic powers, Horus holds snakes and scorpions as well as an antelope (by its horns) and a lion (by its tail) in his closed fists. His feet rest on two crocodiles. Above him is the head of Bes, the dwarf deity with leonine features who had traditionally protected households but by this time had become a more general protective deity. Horus is flanked by three deities who stand upon coiled snakes. On the right is Thoth, identified by his ibis head, and on the left is Isis. Both protectively hold the walls of a curved reed hut, a primeval chapel, in which the Horus child stands together with a figure of Re-harakhty, god of the rising sun, and two standards in the form of papyrus and lotus columns. The lotus standard supports the two feathers of Osiris's headdress.
    The images incised into the stone at the top of the stela portray the perilous nighttime journey of the sun as it passes through the nether world under the earth. Its rebirth each morning is shown at the uppermost point of the stela, where Thoth, four baboons, and the kneeling King Nectanebo II lift their arms in the gesture of adoration and prayer. Nectanebo II was the last indigenous king of ancient Egypt. He struggled valiantly against the Persian empire only to be defeated in the end. After the lost battle, he fled to Upper Egypt, and nothing is known about his end.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: HOW THOTH CURED THE INFANT HORUS

    This spell, which occupies most of the base of the Metternich Stela, was intended to be used by a physician treating a patient for snakebite or other poison. Its effectiveness derived from its "mythological precedent"-that is, by reference to the myth describing how Thoth, the god of knowledge, saved the young god Horus from a similar affliction. The story forms part of the larger myth of Isis and Osiris, which relates how Osiris, the divine king of Egypt, was killed by his brother Seth. Isis, the wife of Osiris, fled and hid in the marshes of Chemmis, in Egypt's Delta, where she gave birth to Horus, who eventually avenged his father by killing Seth and reclaim-ing the throne as rightful king. As the story on the stela opens, Isis is speaking:

    I am Isis, who had conceived her baby, who was pregnant with divine Horus. When I had given birth to Horus, son of Osiris, in the nest of Chemmis, I rejoiced over it very much, saying: "Now that I have seen the one who will avenge his father, I will hide him, I will con-ceal him for fear of that enemy, I will wander as a beggar for fear of the evildoer, I will spend my time searching and acting on his (Horus's) behalf."
    When I returned to seek Horus, I found the young Horus as a golden child, helpless and fatherless: he had wet the riverbanks with the water of his eye and the spittle of his lips; his body was limp, his heart weak, and the vessels of his body were not beating. I let out a cry, saying: "It is I! It is I!" But the child was too weak to respond, even though my breasts were full and (his) belly was empty, (his) mouth needing its sustenance; even though the well was brimming and the child was thirsty. I wanted to come to his aid, for (his) suffering was great; but the helpless child was refusing the milkjug, for he had been left alone too long.

    How great was my fear, because there was no one who could come at my call! For my father was in the Netherworld, my mother in the Place of Silence, my older brother (Osiris) in the sarcophagus; (my) other one (Seth) was the enemy, long furious at me, and my younger sister (Nephthys) was in his house. Who could I call to among humans who would want to come to my aid? So I called to those in the Delta, and they came to my aid immediately.

    When the Delta people came out of their houses for me, they ran to me at my call and mourned for me, saying: "How great is your suffering!" But none of them could cure him with his spell. Even though every man of them was jabbering a great deal, there was none who knew a life-giving spell. (Then) there came to me a woman well known in her village, a noblewoman who was head of her district. She came to me with her spell full of life, and she was more trustworthy than they because of her experience.

    "Don't fear, don't fear, son Horus!" (she said). "Don't despair, don't despair, mother of the god! The child is safe from the evil of his brother (Seth). The bush (in which he lies) is hidden, and the enemy cannot enter it. The magic of Atum, the father of the gods, who is in the sky, is what will guarantee your life. Seth will not enter this district. He cannot get through Chemmis. Horus is safe from the evil of his brother, and his (brother's) followers cannot overthrow him. Try to discover how this happened to him, and Horus will live for his mother. Perhaps a scorpion has been stinging him or a jealous serpent has been biting him."

    As soon as Isis put her nose in his mouth, she recognized the smell of one lying in his sarcophagus, and she discovered the illness of the divine heir. When she found that he was poisoned, she took him very quickly in her arms and jumped around with him like a fish lying in the frying pan, (saying):

    (Horus has been bitten, oh Re! Your son has been bitten!
    (Horus has been bitten-the heir of your heir, the one who is to succeed to the kingship of Shu!
    (Horus has been bitten-the young man of Chemmis, the child in the Official's Enclosure!
    (Horus) has been bitten-the young child of gold, the helpless, fatherless child!
    (Horus has been bitten-the son of (Osiris) Onnophris, the child of Her Who Laments!
    (Horus has been bitten-the innocent one, young son of the gods!
    (Horus has been bitten-the one I was to take care of, seeing that he would avenge his father!
    (Horus has been bitten-the one cared for in secret, the son feared (already) in the womb of his mother!
    (Horus has been bitten-the one I was to protect from sight, the one for whose heart I wished life!
    (The helpless child has been cheated of care, and the child's attendants are powerless!

    Then Nephthys came, crying, her wails pervading the Delta. Selket said: "What? What? Who is against son Horus? Isis, call out to the sky, so that Re's crew will come to a halt and Re's boat not proceed while son Horus is prostrate." Isis sent her voice to the sky, crying to the Boat of Eternity, and the sun-disk stopped opposite her and did not move from his place.

    Thoth came, equipped with his magic and bearing the great command of justice, (and said): "What? What, oh divine, effective Isis, who knows her spell? There can be no evil against son Horus, for his protection is that of the boat of Re. I have come today from the god's boat. The sun-disk is where it was yesterday. Darkness is present and light is banished, until Horus gets well for his mother, Isis"-and any person who is afflicted as well.

    Isis said, "Thoth, how great is your heart! Yet how late you seem to be! Have you come equipped with your magic and bearing the great command of justice, one remedy after another, without number? See, Horus is in need because of poison. It is such evil that the sufferer will surely die. Would that he was (again) with his mother and I did not see this (affliction) pursuing him! (Then) I would be relieved over it. From the first I hastened to respond 'Horus! Horus! Stay on earth!' From the day I conceived him, I have wished to bestow the life-force of his father. But the child is ill."

    "Don't fear! Don't fear, divine Isis!" (said Thoth). "Nephthys, don't wail! I have come from the sky with the breath of life, in order to make the child sound for his mother. Horus, Horus, let your heart be resolute and not weaken because of the (poison's) fire!

    Horus's protection is that of Him in the Sun-Disk, who lights the Two Lands with the light of his eyes-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of Nut's oldest son, who regulates the conduct of what is and what isn't-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of that great Traveller, who goes around the Two Lands at twilight-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of the Lion in the night, who sails at the front of the sunset mountain-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of the great hidden Ram, who goes around through his sacred eyes-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of the great Falcon, who hovers in the sky, earth, and the Netherworld-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of the great worthy Scarab, who flies in Nut-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of the secret Corpse in his shape of one who is in his sarcophagus-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of the Netherworlder of the Two Lands, who goes around in the above, with secret features-and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of the divine Phoenix, who climbs through his sacred eyes-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of his own body, with the magic of his mother Isis protecting it-
    (and the protection of the afflicted as well).
    Horus's protection is that of the identities of his father in his cult in the nomes-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of the mourning of his mother and the cries of his brother-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.
    Horus's protection is that of his own identity, which the gods serve by helping him-
    and the protection of the afflicted as well.

    "Awaken, Horus! Your protection is established. You should make the heart of your mother happy. Horus's voice will lift up hearts when he has calmed her who was worried. Let your hearts be glad, you who are in Nut (the sky), for Horus has avenged his father.

    "Retreat, you poison! See, you are cursed by the mouth of Re and barred (by) the tongue of the great god.

    The boat is stopped and cannot sail, the sun-disk is where it was yesterday, until Horus gets well for his mother Isis-and until the afflicted gets well for his mother as well.
    Come out onto the ground, so that the boat can proceed and the crew can sail Nut!
    The food-offerings have been abandoned, and the cult-places have been closed up, until Horus gets well for his mother Isis-and until the afflicted gets well for his mother as well.
    The suffering from this will hurt, and chaos will revert to its activity of yesteryear, until Horus gets well for his mother Isis-and until the afflicted gets well for his mother as well.
    Harm will abound: the seasons will not be distinguishable, light will not be distinguishable from shadow every day, until Horus gets well for his mother Isis-and until the afflicted gets well for his mother as well.
    The two sources of the Nile have been closed up, plants will dry up, and life will retreat from the living, until Horus gets well for his mother Isis-and until the afflicted gets well for his mother as well.

    Come out onto the ground, you poison, so that hearts may rejoice and light may pervade! I am Thoth, Re's eldest son, whom Atum and the com-pany of gods commanded to make Horus well for his mother Isis"-and to make well the afflicted as well. "Horus! Horus! Your life-force is your protection, and your (own) conduct is helping you. The poison is dead, its heat driven off, because it has stung the son of the Mighty One. "Go back to your houses, (you Delta people)! Horus is alive for his mother Isis"-and the afflicted as well.

    Divine Isis said: "May you commission those in Chemmis, the nurses of Pe and Dep. Assign them very (strongly) to keep the child sound for his mother"-and to keep sound the afflicted as well. "But don't let them recognize me in Chemmis (except) as a common citizen who fled her town."

    Thoth spoke to the gods and said to those in Chemmis: "Oh nurses in Pe, who are beating (their breasts) with their hands and flailing about with their arms, over that great one who came from them! You should watch over this child, looking out for his way among men. Divert the ways of those who rebel against him, until he has taken possession of the throne of the Two Lands. Re in the sky is responsible for him, his father is watchful over him. The magic of his mother is his protection, making love for him abound and put-ting fear of him among men.

    "They are waiting for me to command the night-boat and to let the day-boat proceed. Horus is for you, allotted to life. I will report on the life to his father, I will give joy to those in the night-boat, so that the crew may sail: Horus is alive for his mother Isis"-and the one who is afflicted is alive for his mother as well. "That poison is powerless. So will the expert (physician) be praised in his hour, for making report to the one who sent him: 'Let your heart rejoice, Re-Harakhti! Your son Horus is allotted to life!'"

    Translation and commentary by James Allen

  • Provenance

    Presented by Mohammed Ali to Prince Metternich (Chancellor of Austria), 1828. Purchased from the Metternich family by Jean Lombard, Geneva. Sold by Lombard to the Museum, 1950.

  • See also
    What
    Where
    When
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
    MetPublications
546037

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