Object MMA 20.2.23 is an excellent example of a Horus cippus, or a ‘stela of Horus on the crocodiles’. It is a ‘magico-medical’ stela inscribed with Egyptian magical texts designed to protect from specific dangers such as snakes, and activated by the pouring of water over the inscription. The cippi feature an image of Harsaphes, the child Horus (who is equated with the Greek demi-god Heracles), holding snakes and standing on the backs of crocodiles. Horus cippi were mainly used to prevent and cure bites and stings, but they were also used for other ailments.
Cippi were popular from the late Third Intermediate Period to the late Ptolemaic Period. This stela dates to the the 30th Dynasty reign of Nectanebo II. The Metternich Stela, another 30th Dynasty cippus, provides the most extensive collection of the Horus cippus narrative spells.
The main spell, which is on the rear of the stela, is a ‘Spell for Protection on Water’. The texts on each side of the figure of Harsaphes are lines taken from the spells that are inscribed upon the sides, top and bottom of the stela, and indicate that water was poured on the stela in order to activate the magic and transform the water into a ‘curative libation’.
The narrative spells are unusual in terms of their emotional intensity.
They reference the question of how gods can allow pain and suffering. The most elaborate text on the Metternich Stela recounts the story of the goddess Isis, after she has given birth to Horus in the marshes of Chemmis. Isis leaves the child in the marshes to go and find food, but when she returns, Horus is weak and ill. A passing wise woman suggests that the child may have been bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion. Isis expresses her grief passionately, and her cries bring the goddesses Nephthys and Serqet to her. They advise her to appeal to the heavens, which she does.
This causes the Sun Boat to stop, and the god Thoth comes to Isis to find
out what is wrong. Isis then criticises Thoth for the suffering that she and Horus have experienced. Thoth then cures Horus by reciting magic to draw out the poison, and promises to do the same for any human sufferer. Cippi were often erected in Egyptian temples. This practice still exists today – in some temples in India, there are stelae to cure snake bites. Like the cippi, water is poured over the stelae and then used to cure the victim. However, in India, a priest first cuts the bite open and attempts to extract the venom himself.
In Egypt, some cippi were made specifically for the tomb of the deceased, to protect him from the various dangerous entities in animal and reptile form in the underworld.
All images are taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/100002284?img=0.
References and further reading:
Pinch, G. 1995. Magic in ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Digital Egypt for Universities. 2003. Horus stelae. Available from: http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/art/horusstelae.html – this includes a transliteration and translation of the Metternich stela inscription.