Amulet in the form of a baboon

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An Egyptian faience amulet representing a baboon. It is sitting on its haunches in an upright position, with its arms resting on its knees and looking to the front.

Baboons were very popular in Egypt and were kept as domestic animals. Their images can be seen in tomb decorations with figures climbing palm and fig trees to help in the harvest of the fruits very high up in the trees. They are also shown sitting under the seats of their owners, and were often adorned with ornamental collars and bracelets. From the time of the Old Kingdom the monkey had won man’s affection and had free rein of the house where he lived with dogs and the rest of the domestic animals. He amused people with his gestures and acrobatics, and clearly knew how to have a good time.

The Egyptians saw in the baboon the animal whose behaviour most nearly resembled that of humans. They were not just creatures to be played with and satirized. They also represented the god Thoth, the god of wisdom and language. The scribes worshipped Thoth in the form of a baboon, erecting a large statue of the primate in the schools where they learnt from early childhood to be scribes, priests or to fill other posts in Egyptian society.

In the Old Kingdom the baboon was closely associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom, science and measurement. In their observation of the natural world around them, the Egyptians had noted the great intelligence of these animals and of the way in which they were to be seen sitting and facing the direction in which the sun rose in the mornings. As the sacred animal of Thoth, the baboon is often depicted supervising scribes during their work. And as Thoth was the god of the moon, his baboons were frequently depicted with a symbol of the crescent moon on their heads.

Baboons had various funerary roles. They were custodians of the first door to the underworld. In Chapter 155 of The Book of the Dead four baboons are described sitting on the apex of a lake of fire in the other world. Hapi, one of the four sons of Horus, had the head of a baboon and protected the lungs of the deceased.

The baboon was considered to be a solar animal by the ancient Egyptians given the manner in which they sat screeching while watching the sunrise and warming themselves in the sun’s rays. They were frequently depicted with their arms raised, a clear gesture of worship of this celestial body. They are also depicted holding the wedjat, a solar symbol, which is represented above the solar boat of the sun god Ra.

In the last centuries of Egyptian culture, when the cult of animals was extending, sacred baboons became oracles. There is no record of how they managed to answer the questions put to them by the priests. Perhaps the prowess at that time lay in interpreting their jumping about and chattering.

Faience was a favored material for Egyptian amulets, which were magically protective charms worn or carried on the body. Amulets were sewn or wound into mummy wrappings to protect the deceased from otherworldly perils. The small size of amulets meant that they were particularly well suited for production in clay molds, which have been found during excavations.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- KOZLOFF, A. Animals in Ancient Art. The Leo Mildenberg Collection. pp. 67-68, nº 55.
- STEINDORFF, G. Catalogue of the Egyptian sculpture in the Walters Art Gallery. Baltimore.

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