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Museum piece #6 – BM EA18175

BM EA18175 Hippopotamus ivory apotropaic wand (British Museum Collections Database).

Magical wands made out of ivory tusks (usually hippopotamus tusks) like BM EA18175 appeared during the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate period. They are believed to be ‘apotropaic’ wands, meaning wands that ward off evil. By using the ivory from the powerful hippopotamus, the person using it could wield that power. The hippopotamus was believed to be a form of the goddess, Tawaret, a formidable deity associated with the hippopotamus goddess, Ipet. Tawaret was associated childbirth and fertility, specifically with the protection of women and children, and is often shown with the ‘sa’ hieroglyph (below), meaning ‘protection’.

Tawaret with the ‘sa’ hieroglyph, meaning ‘protection’ (Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taweret.svg).

Tawaret is depicted on the right-hand side of the British Museum ivory wand, standing with the ‘sa’ hieroglyph and wielding a knife. There are many knives, torches, and lamps included in the iconography of the wand, some brandished by the various figures depicted, undoubtedly intended to ward off evil entities. The ‘bandy-legged’ figure on the left-hand side of the wand, gripping snakes, is believed to be Aha, ‘the fighter’, who was later associated with the ‘dwarf’ god, Bes. Bes was also associated with protection during childbirth. The winged griffon in the centre of the wand is believed to be associated with Seth, the god of chaos. The wedjat-eye, or the Eye of Horus, can be seen on the right end of the wand, and was often used as a means to ward of evil.

This particular wand is inscribed with a magical formula, which pledges to protect Seneb, the lady of the house. It is not clear how these wands were used, however many are worn at one end, giving rise to the belief that they were used to draw a magical protective circle on the ground. It is possible that women in childbirth had to remain inside this circle for the protection to be successful.

The wand is broken in the centre, as are many of the other apotropaic wands that have been found. These breaks, and the subsequent repairs, occurred in antiquity, and so are believed to have been part of the magical ritual. The repairs signify that these objects were treasured, rather than being discarded once broken. Some also have holes in each end, indicating that they were perhaps carried around with a cord, or string. They are most often found in tombs, indicating that they could have been used as a protective means when the deceased was reborn in the afterlife. 

Further reading:

Steindorff, G. 1946. ‘The magical knives of ancient Egypt’. Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 9, 41-51; 106-107.

Pinch, G. 2006. Magic in ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London, 39-43.

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One comment on “Museum piece #6 – BM EA18175

  1. This is very interesting, thank you.

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