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Museum piece #8 – BM EA36188

BM EA36188 Hypocephalus from the burial of a Theban priestess (British Museum online collection).

BM EA36188 is a fine example of a ‘magic circle’ which was placed beneath the head of a mummy in the late 1st millennium BC. These circles are known as hypocephali. The word hypocephalus literally means ‘under the head’. Examples made of papyrus, papyrus mounted on cartonnage, linen stiffened with plaster, and more rarely bronze, have been found. BM EA36188 is made from linen stiffened with plaster.

Hypocephali are decorated with images of everyday magical deities, and are designed to protect the deceased and to enable them to ‘feel the flame of Re’, bringing them light and warmth from the sun. They are often inscribed with Spell 162, as is BM EA36188, from the Book of the Dead which reads:

Chapter to cause to come into being a flame beneath the head of a spirit.

Hail to you, Lord of Might, tall of plumes, owner of the Wereret-crown, whose possession is the flail. You are lord of the phallus, strong when dawning, a light never ceasing to dawn. You are possessor of (different) forms, rich in hues, one who hides in the Sacred Eye until his birth. You are one powerful of bellow in the Ennead, a mighty runner, swift of steps. You are a powerful god who comes to the aid of one who asks for it, who saves the wretched from affliction. Come at my voice, I am the Ihet-cow; your name is in my mouth and I shall utter it: Penhaqahagarher is your name, Iuriuiaqrsainqrbaty is your name, tail of the lion-ram is your name, Kharsati is your name: I adore your name. I am the Ihet-cow, hear my voice today. You have set the flame under the head of Re and he is in the divine Duat in Heliopolis. May you cause him to appear like one who is on earth: he is your soul, do not forget him. Come to the Osiris [NAME]. Cause to come into being a flame beneath his head for he is the soul of that corpse which rests in Heliopolis, Atum is his name, Barkatitjawa is his name. Come, cause him to be like one in your following, for he is such a one as you. 

Words to be spoken over a statuette of an Ihet-cow made of fine gold and placed at the throat of the deceased; also a drawing of it on a new papyrus scroll placed under his head. A great quantity of flames will envelope him completely like one who is on earth. A very great protection which was made by the Ihet-cow for her son Re when he set. His place will be enclosed by a blaze and he will be a god in the realm of the dead and will not be repulsed from any portal of the Netherworld in very truth. You shall say as you place this goddess at the throat of the deceased ‘O you most hidden of hidden gods in heaven, regard the corpse of your son; keep him safe in the God’s Domain. This is a book of great secrecy – let no one see it for that would be an abomination. But the one who knows it and keeps it hidden shall continue to exist. The name of this book is “Mistress of the hidden temple.” ‘

The ‘Osiris’ is the deceased. The Egyptians believed that one would become an Osiris upon their death.

The images inscribed upon this hypocephalus include a two-headed deity in human form who holds a sceptre with the image of the jackal-headed god Wepwawet, a falcon with outspread wings and a mummiform falcon-headed figure (the sun god) wearing the solar disc as his headdress (both in boats), the scarab beetle (another manifestation of the sun), the god Amun-Ra as a mummiform deity with four ram-heads, pairs of baboons, a cow (the Ihet-cow) facing the Four Sons of Horus and a scarab beetle, a female figure whose head is the ‘wedjat’ eye within a disc, and a seated figure with upraised arm who faces a serpent with human legs.

The Theban priestess to which this object belonged was called Neshorpakhered. Her father, Heribsenef, was God’s Father and hepet-udjat, and is named on the disk with her mother, although the mother’s name is no longer legible. Neshorpakhered is named as a sistrum-player of Amun-Ra.


Translation of Spell 162 from the Book of the Dead taken from:

Faulkner, R. O., Goelet, O., Von Dassow, E., & Wasserman, J. 1998.The Egyptian Book of the dead: the Book of going forth by day : being the Papyrus of Ani (royal scribe of the divine offerings), written and illustrated circa 1250 B.C.E., by scribes and artists unknown, including the balance of chapters of the books of the dead known as the Theban recension, compiled from ancient texts, dating back to the roots of Egyptian civilization. San Francisco, Chronicle Books: 125.

Further reading:

Varga, E. 1961. ‘Les Travaux Preliminiaires de la Monographie sur les Hypocephales’. Acta Orientalia XII, 235-47.

Quirke, S. and Spencer, J. 1992. British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: 96, fig. 75.

Pinch, G. 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: 156-157, fig.85.

Taylor, J. H. and Strudwick, N. C. 2005.  Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Treasures from The British Museum. Santa Ana and London: 90-1.


One comment on “Museum piece #8 – BM EA36188

  1. […] The Egyptian Emporium – Gemma writes about the symbolism and religious significance of a Late Period hypocephalus.  […]

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