Thursday, September 9, 2010


*No, it’s not a misprint! We spend a great deal of study-time examining various aspects of the ancient Egyptian iconography from head to foot, but how often do we consider the importance of the tail? There are several depictions and references to ‘tails’ and they deserve more than a passing glance.

The first and by far the most important tail is the bull’s tail. The gods and the kings wore a bull’s tail as part of their regalia and it may be seen attached to every portrait or statue of a divinity or a king. The tail was hung onto the king’s belt during the coronation ceremony. The symbolism is clearly designed to imbue the king with the power and potency of the bull.

When the king is seated and the back of the chair precludes showing the tail behind him, the artist shows the bull’s tail draped to the front of the chair or throne. Interestingly Akhenaten, the monotheist is often depicted with a bull’s tail attached to his waist-band, showing that he did not totally eschew all the ancient traditions. As a further coronation blessing, the king was anointed with fat obtained from the powerful tail of a crocodile to impart the divine power of Sobek, the crocodile god. The heb-sed, which means ‘the festival of the tail’, usually held after the king had been on the throne for thirty years, was designed to ensure the king still had the strength to rule his people. The heb-sed ceremony renewed the king’s strength and ensured that his ‘bull’s tail’ retained its earlier potency. Included in the king’s list of honours was mut em ef, translated as ‘bull of his mother’, a further reference to the king’s strength and virility.

The cult of the Hap (or Apis bull) can be traced back to the early pharaonic period and it survived for nearly three millennia. A black bull with special markings was considered to be the animal form of Ptah, a creator god who dwelt in the underworld and was the patron of all craftsmen. In his aspect of the bull, Ptah was revered in Saqqara, and it was here that the Hap lived and died in his sacred stall, tended by the priests of Ptah and surrounded by his harem of cows. Upon his death, the Hap was mummified, placed in a huge sarcophagus and lowered into an underground labyrinth. In its many depictions, the Apis bull is shown to be well-endowed with its normal reproductive equipment and additionally to have a great, long tail.

The tail sported by Anubis, the canine god of mummification is probably the most beautiful of the tails of ancient Egypt. The elongated ears, the snout and the huge brush of the canine creature are all exaggerated by the artists. The tail that droops over the side of the shrine found in Tutankhamun’s tomb is wonderful example of Anubis’ rear appendage. The black desert dog-fox that frequents the tombs and the pyramids is supposed to have been the inspiration for the deity, but the live specimens I have seen in Egypt do not compare to Anubis when it comes to the magnificence of their tails.

The tail of the Sphinx, carved in the ancient stone of Giza, can be clearly seen as it curls round the lion’s haunch. Some years ago the suspicion that a chamber of ancient wisdom lay beneath the Sphinx waxed strongly (has it ever waned?). The prospect of entering the world’s most famous sculpture through its rear end presented us with another famous tale of a tail. Regrettably for some, the entrance next to the tail of the Sphinx proved to be shallow and unrewarding, however in 1988 Zahi Hawass reported that he had entered an obscure horizontal tunnel into the Sphinx where he found a pit inundated with water. Perhaps this was one of the taller of the ‘tales’ of ancient Egypt.

The side members of funerary beds or couches used in mummification were invariably crafted in the form of animals and frequently the tails of these animals, whether realistic or not, curved over the bed itself in a stylised arch. In this case the tail represented a form of protection for the body of the deceased.

One tail that presents a puzzle is the one seen attached to the panther or cheetah skin worn by the high priest. The panther skin is normally shown on papyrus and depicted on walls with its spots (actually rosettes) clearly painted by the artist, but the tail is invariably shown with hoops or bands. A leading zoologist I consulted was unable to identify a feline, past or present, whose pelt would be of sufficient size and that had a coat with spots (or rosettes) and a tail with bands. I think we must assume that the artists were taking licence and going for speed rather than accuracy.

The last tail to which I would like to refer is that of Seth, the murderer of his brother Osiris. When Seth is depicted in his animal form he appears to be a combination of the features of several creatures. He has the body of a grey hound, an elongated snout, pricked up ears with flat tips, almond-shaped eyes and a long, fork-ended tail standing up from its body. The fork-ended tail has come down through the ages as a sign of evil, as has the name of the evil deity Seth that transmutes into Satan in modern language.

There may be other tails that carry a tale, so to speak. Perhaps stories lurk in the tail of Bastet the cat or in that of Sekhmet the lioness and if you discover them, be sure to let me know.

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