Hathor's Sistrum

Hathor's Sistrum

by Jimmy Dunn

A fairly good example of a naos-Style Sistrum dating to the 26th Dynasty and made of faience

Perhaps one of the main cult objects associated with Hathor was the sistrum, a musical rattle. Its name is derived from the Greek, seiein, meaning "to shake".

The sound of the sistrum is metallic, produced by a number of metal disks or squares, strung onto a set of transverse bars, set horizontally into a frame of varying design. Its sound was thought to echo that of a stem of papyrus being shaken. However, the acoustic effects were frequently extremely limited. The sistrum was suitable for beating a rhythmical accompaniment in open-air processions. Apuleius, the Roman philosopher, described a procession in honor of Isis, in The Golden Ass, where the rhythmic pattern was three beats followed by a pause on the fourth. The sound of the instrument seems to have been regarded as protective and also symbolic of divine blessing and the concept of rebirth. In addition to the symbolic significance of its sound, the shape and decoration of the sistrum relate it to the divine.

Two forms of this ceremonial instrument may be distinguished, the oldest of which is probably the naos sistrum (ancient Egyptian ss, ssst). While Hathor's head was often depicted on the handles of sistrum, an early travertine sistrum inscribed with the name of the 6th Dynasty ruler, Teti, takes the form of a papyrus topped by a naos, which is itself surmounted by a falcon and cobra, thus forming a rebus of the name Hathor (i.e. hwt Hor). Thus, the sistrum known as the naos sistrum dates back to at least the Old Kingdom. It was usually surmounted by twin heads of Hathor upon which a small shrine or naos-shaped box was set. A vulture may crown the naos, and the handle may be covered with the incised plumage of the bird. Rods were passed through the sides of this naos to form the rattle. Carved or affixed spirals framing the sides of the naos represented the horns of the cow-eared goddess. Note that this earliest form of sistrum was often made of faience.

Sistrum from the reing of Teti, made of Egyptian alabaster and dating to the Old Kingdom

Most surviving sistrum usually date to the Greco-Roman Period, when a second type of sistrum was common. It is referred to as a hooped (or arched) sistrum, known in ancient Egypt as shm or ib. It is known from the 18th Dynasty onward, though it seems to be based on earlier prototypes for which we have the hieroglyphic designation but no depictions. This instrument consisting of a handle surmounted by a simple metal hoop. The handle could be either plain, in the shape of a papyrus stem, which was most common, or in the shape of a miniature column adorned with the head of the goddess Hathor. However, the god Bes might also be molded as part of the handle. Like the naos-style sistrum, metal rods set into this hoop supported small metal disks or squares which produced a characteristic tinkling sound when the instrument was shaken. Because of its basic form, this type of sistrum was often made in the shape of the ankh or "life" sign and carried that hieroglyph's significance. These types of sistrums were most frequently made of bronze.

A fairly good example of a hoop sistrum, with Hathor's head at the top of the handle and Bes at the bottom, but missing its metal disks. This one dates to the Greco-Roman era and is made of bronze

In a funerary context, sistrum could sometimes be included in the tomb equipment, but were frequently non-functional, and made of wood, stone or faience.

The symbolic value of the sistrum far exceeded its musical potential. It is thought that the instrument may have originated in the practice of shaking bundles of papyrus flowers (hence the onomatopoeic name sesheshet) with which Hathor was associated. In fact, the papyrus plant appears to be at the base of the mythology surrounding the sistrum. It is from a papyrus thicket that Hathor is seen to emerge, and it is also in a papyrus thicket where Isis raised her infant son, Horus. Hence, though originally mostly associated with Hathor, the sistrum eventually entered the cults of other deities and especially those of Amun and Isis.

Isis, largely in the guise of Hathor, holds a naos-style sistrum

The decoration sometimes included the royal uraeus (cobra), referring to the myth of the solar Eye. In this myth, Hathor is in her role as the rebellious daughter of Re, to be appeased by music and dance. Based on this proven effect of the instrument, the sistrum was, from the New Kingdom on, the instrument that pacified and satisfied any deity, whether female such as Hathor, or male. In the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, a noas-shaped sistrum was a prime cult object, perhaps through its connections to Hathor, who sometimes represented the female procreative element needed to sustain Amun-Re's virility. In Late Period representations, the sistrum was held by priestesses adoring the deity face to face. This intimacy was a female prerogative. Other deities, too, benefited from the presence of the sistrum.

This very undecorated sistrum from the tomb of Tutankhamun doubtless was made during the Amarna Period

As the sistrum reflected in such a visible manner the presence of the gods, it is no wonder that during the Amarna Period, it was virtually deprived of decoration, except for the papyrus handle. But it is significant that it was held by the queen or the princesses during the cult of Aten, the sun disk. The instrument belonged in the realm of cosmic deities. According to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, the sistrum's arch was the lunar cycle, the bars were the elements, the twin Hathor heads rendered life and death and the cat, often included in the decoration, was the moon.

Many of these instruments carry the names of royal persons. When the sistrum is depicted, it was often in the hands of royal family members. In the Story of Sinuhe, we learn that the princesses received him with music and song. The musical instruments were not refined wind or string instruments, but the sistrum. In the Westcar papyrus, when the goddesses dress up as itinerant musicians to gain access to the birth chamber of the mother of the children of Re, they too accompany themselves only with the sistrum.

However, it is with Hathor, her son Ihy (sometimes represented by the king) and her attendants that the instrument is associated in most representational contexts. Apart from the exceptions mentioned, the sistrum appears to have been used only by the priestesses of the cults with which it was associated and its use, at least in certain circumstances, seems to have carried erotic or fertility connotations probably based on the mythological character of Hathor. The small gilt shrine of Tutankhamun has several scenes showing the use of the sistra in this context. On the inner side of the shrine's right-hand door, for example, Queen Ankhesenamun is depicted holding a hoop-type sistrum and wearing the cow horns and solar disk of the goddess. In another scene the queen holds a naos-type sistrum and proffers the menit necklace, a heavy necklace that when grasped by its inverted keyhole shaped counterpoise, would produce a variant rattling sound, frequently associated with the use of sistra.

Ihy, wearing the sidelock of youth, holds a noas-type sistrum

In more remote times, such as the religious feats celebrated in Thebes during the New Kingdom, we also find groups of women shaking sistrums in honor of the divine procession. These celebrations were for Amun-Re, such as the Opet festival depicted on the walls of the Luxor Temple or the Valley Festival (Beautiful Feast of the Valley) rendered in countless Theban tombs. The world of the funerary cult is depicted in the Valley Festival, for the sistrum is seen presented to the tomb owner and his wife by their daughters. In fact, "bringing" and "receiving" were the key words, rather than making music or maintaining a beat, for the blessings that Hathor bestowed, of well-being and eternal life, were the focus of the ceremony. The scenes show the sistrum often carried by its look, looking similar to the ankh, the sign of life, of which it may be seen to be an equivalent.

Closely connected with the sistrum playing is Ihy, the infant born of the union between the sky goddess Hathor of Dendera and the god of light Horus of Edfu. Through his music he performed the part of intermediary between the adorer and the goddess.

A roman marble statue of Isis, dating to the 2nd century AD, holding a sistrum

The distinctive shape of the instrument is found in many contexts ranging from minor objects of mortuary significance to the columns of temples such as the Temple of Hathor at Dendera. These columns are surmounted not only by images of the cow-eared goddess, but also, above these Hathor Heads, the form of a shrine or naos. Thus, in their shafts and capitals, such columns mirror the shape of the naos sistrum. A similar application of the motif is found in the shape of many of the small shrines which were offered to the gods by the devout.

During the Greco-Roman Period, the use of the sistrum spread beyond the borders of Egypt with the cult of Isis wherever the Romans went. The use of the sistrum has survived in the Coptic church, were it is directed at the four cardinal points, to demonstrate the extent of God's creation.






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