Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Two Ptolemic Lions Uncovered in the Fayoum...and MeHeN

Lion-shaped statues unearthed in Fayoum

Italian archaeological mission discovers a pair of large limestone lion statues at the Ptolemaic temple of god Sknopaios in Fayoum

Nevine El-Aref , Monday 3 Dec 2012

Screen snip from article -- "in storage." 

The Italian archaeological mission of Salento-Litchi University stumbled upon a pair of gigantic seated lion statues on Monday.

They were found erected at the entrance of Soknopaios Temple at the Ptolemaic town, Dimeh Al-Siba, in Fayoum.

Dimeh Al-Siba, which means ‘Island of the Crocodile god,’ is located eleven kilometres to the north of Qarun Lake. It was founded by Ptolemy II on top of a Neolithic residential area (Ptolemy II Philadelphus r. 283 - 246 BCE).

The Ptolemaic-era town contains a collection of residential houses, a large temple to worship Sknopaios, in ancient Egypt Sobek-en-Pai (crocodile), a bakery and a market.

During excavation work carried out by archaeologist and director of the Italian mission, Mario Capasso, a pair of lion statues appeared on the sand surface.

The lion statues are skillfully carved of limestone and were presumably used to decorate the entrance gate of the temple.

Mohamed Ibrahim, Antiquities Minister, describes the discovery as interesting, as it confirm that the temple was constructed according to an architectural plan used in main temples in large cities and capital.

“It is also the first time that the gigantic lion shaped statues can be unearthed in a small Greco-Roman settlement in Fayoum,” said Ibrahim

Both statues are in a very well-preserved condition and are now at the Fayoum storehouse for restoration.


By the time of the reign of Ptolemy II, how many lions do you think were still living around the area, heh?  Probably NONE.

There had probably been no lions living in the desert for at least a couple thousand years after the founding of Dynasty Zero.  They would have long since been hunted to extinction, and what humans didn't wipe out, the desertification of the vast area of northern Africa certainly did. 

But, there was a time when the Egyptians were quite familiar with lions.  In fact, one of the oldest board games of record had lions (and/or lionesses) playing pieces.  That game was called MeHeN -- the game of the serpent according to some.  But if it was a serpent's game, why were there lion playing pieces???

Just one of the unexplored mysteries of ancient Egypt, I guess.  The gameboard for MeHeN is, in fact, in the shape of a coiled serpent.  That could mean that it was first created in southern Egypt -- the land where serpents abounded in the more arid regions far away from the fertile delta of the Nile on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. 

I think it is safe to say the MeHeN predates Dynasty Zero.  It was already an old game when the first carved stone gameboards were excavated in the earliest Dynastic tombs, and was, according to modern-day historians, soon on its way to extinction as the game of twenty-squares or "robbers" (but also called "dancers") became more and more popular.

Here is a lion game piece that is probably from a MeHeN game found in the First Dynasty tomb of Djer "Dojer"), and it's beautiful, even in its ruined state:

Gaming Piece. Tomb of Djer, First Dynasty.
From the British Museum website about the lion gaming piece, above (I think it is actually a lioness).

Hypotheses vary as to why MeHeN went extinct.  But you know how it goes -- the same thing happens today.  New games come along, new forms of entertainment, languages change -- and the old often falls by the wayside, trampled in the dust of time, forgotten.  Fortunately, for ancient Egypt, they did many things in STONE.

MeHeN crumpled into dust as the game of Senet took over in popularity and, eventually, religious symbolism in representing the passage of a human being from life to death to life again. But the lioness (and sometimes the lion), remained a powerful symbol of sovereignty, majestic power, and perhaps most importantly of all, mysterious power received from the Heavens.  Long after MeHeN was forgotten and its last vestiges as a sacred game buried under tons of sand, the lioness continued to be an extremely powerful symbol in Egypt and indeed, throughout the Middle East.  These Ptolemaic examples of that continuing fascination, well, just more evidence piled upon evidence piled upon evidence...

Ancient Egyptian Games: Mehen

Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian gives the translation of the word ‘Mehen’ as literally meaning “coil” and is used in reference to the goddess Mehen, or ‘Coiled One’, and also the board game called Mehen.
MehenBig Ancient Egyptian Games: Mehen

I am this one who escaped from the coiled serpent (Mehen),
I have ascended in a blast of fire, having turned myself about.
The two skies go to me, the two earths come to me,
I have trodden on the green k3d-plant, which is under Geb,
I have travelled the roads of Nut.

- Pyramid Texts Utterance 332.

In later years, the hieroglyphic that looks like a series of "M's" or "V's" stuck together, which represents, surprisingly enough, water, which may have been pronounced something like "NUUUN" in ancient Egyptian, in close conjunction with the symbol of a horizontal gameboard with pieces upon it, came to represent the shorthand symbol for "board game" and the popular game Senet, which soon overtook Mehen as THE game to play, and in later Dynasties' tomb paintings was openly represented as having religious significance.  "NUN," the ancient Egyptian symbol for water or the waters of life, was also the name of the ancient Mother/Sky Goddess who was often depicted as "arced" or stretched over the Earth as a protector and life-giver.  In later years, "NUN" came to be shown as swallowing the Sacred Barque bearing the God Horus at night.  Horus represented the Sun God on his journey through the Underworld or Land of Death (in ancient Egyptian texts, this was the Land to the West)  to a new day and rebirth.  If successful in this harrowing journey, in the morning the Mother Goddess "NUN" would "give birth" to Horus once again, representing the dawning of a new day.

I have posted about MeHeN before:

May 25, 2008

Mehen: An Ancient Egyptian Boardgame
February 21, 2009
Sorry about the formatting of this article!  It got totally f'd up when Google did one of it's abitrary "enhancements" and nearly all (but not all?) of the posts at this blog got messed with.  There were too many posts screwed up to go back and try to fix them all.  So as I re-post links to them I go in and try to fix them as best I can.  But, I'm too tired tonight to fix the February 21, 2009 post, I'll do it tomorrow (if I remember, LOL!)

An important point to remember is that, in the earliest translations from Egyptian hieroglyphics to English, MeHeN was a FEMALE GOD -- a Goddess - who was charged with keeping safe the Horus on the Sacred Barque.  In later symbolism, after the original meaning had been obscured, Horus was often replaced by Pharaoh, in a sort of Naos-like enclosure that was surrounded by a serpent-like creature that often reminds me of early 20th-century American representations of electricity! 

In the earliest representations that I have seen, MeHeN was, Herself, forming the Naos like an embryo in a uterus around the Horus, without any intervening wooden structure on the Sacred Barque.  That symbolism harkens back to earliest prehistoric times, back to the time when the process of birth was itself sacred, when the color red obtained its special status as the color of Sacred Blood and Life, and the womb was akin to a Sacred Cave. 

A lot to ponder...

One of the most frustrating things -- here is what is obviously a MeHeN gameboard shown in the same photograph with the lion game piece from Djoser's tomb, and yet it is NOT identified at all!  How ridiculous is this:

From British Museum website.  Game board is NOT identified; marbles are NOT
identified; "white lion" is NOT identified.  ARRRRGGGHHHH! 

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