The Sirius Project

The Sirius Project
Logo design by Scotty Roberts

Friday, November 18, 2011

Arsinoë, her horns, Banebdjedet and Amalthea (Part 1)



I was recently contacted by a colleague who was interested in discussing the significance of ram horns placed in the upper part of the forehead on certain Classical sculptures and ceramic medallions of Arsinoë II. The most famous example of such an image is the one exhibited in the Louvre (Ma4891), seen on the image below. This is indeed a very interesting piece of art, especially due to the placement of the horns.

Arsinoë described as Isis-Selene, here preferred as Arsinoë-Amalthea!


Now, in the case of Arsinoë II, the horns are to be found in three different placements: 1) forehead position, pointing upward, following the locks of the hair, as mentioned above; 2) curled around the ear, similar to a traditional ram’s horns; and 3) placed as part of a composition crown, either on top of the head, functioning as a base for the crown, located below the red crown, or on top of the red crown platform, becoming a base for the double feather plume and the traditional Hathoric amulet. The initial two styles are represented in Classical Hellenic media, while the third appears in Egyptian style reliefs.

notice the curled horn behind Arsinoë's ear


Arsinoë wearing her crown with horizontally placed horns: Copyright The Sirius Project

In Egyptian art, ram horns are represented in two basic variations: the twined, horizontal horns, and the downward-curled horns (see image below). Ptolemaic temple texts describe the horns as “hnwtj pD” and “abwj pD”.  




In the crown of Arsinoë, the horns are illustrated in a horizontal position, more or less twined. At first sight they are similar to the horns of a Kudu antelope, or possibly a goat, rather than those of a ram/sheep. The horns in the crown of Arsinoë are, however, identified with those of an ancient breed of sheep characterised by long, horizontally twined horns. Although this breed disappeared from Egypt during the New Kingdom, the sheep, or sometimes only their horizontal horns, kept a symbolic position in Egyptian iconography.

Ancient texts do not describe the symbolism and communicated message of the ram horns as a part of the crown of Arsinoë. Edfu and Dendera texts in general describe horns as additional ornaments. However, I consider the possibility that their symbolism was so obvious for an ancient viewer that there was no need to textually clarify them.

The horizontal horns are used as attributes for several deities, mainly as a component of larger compositions. Khnum, Mandulis, Ptah, Thoth, Ihy, Osiris, Sobek, Harpocrates, Khonsu, Geb, and Amun are all illustrated wearing these horns. Only a few deities, including Amun and Khnum, used the ram horns as an individual crown element. A brief comparison of these two deities shows that Amun had them more often. Therefore, it might be assumed that the ram horn was originally an attribute of Amun or any of his local forms, for example, Banebdjedet.


A modern viewer generally imagines a ram/sheep with downward-curled horns rather than horizontal ones. Downward-curled horns, together with the double cornucopia, frequently identify Arsinoë on Greek-styled coins as mentioned above. Prior to Arsinoë, Alexander the Great was depicted wearing the downward-curled horns in coins and other media (see image below), and was probably one of the main reasons why Arsinoë choose the curled horn as an attribute. In Egyptian religion these horns were used as attributes of deities such as Amun, Osiris and Khnum: all masculine.



Horns placed in the forehead in the style presented in the Louvre portrait, does not exists, to my knowledge, as part of Egyptian style relief scenes, although its elements may be associated with the overall communicated message.


What historical or mythological factors lay behind the fact that Arsinoë was decorated with these horns? In this context, Arsinoë’s historical socio-political position has to be considered. She was deified in her own right (as well as with her brother-husband) and incorporated in the official Alexandrian eponymous cult. As such she was directly associated with the chthonic cult of Alexander. Her official cultic name (and the official designation of the sibling gods) followed Alexander’s in official dating formulas. Arsinoë was associated with Alexander by her official designations. She used the title “daughter of Amun”, which is comparable to Alexander’s “son of Zeus-Amun”.

Arsinoë’s cultic connection with Alexander is demonstrated in iconography. Following Alexander’s deification as the son of Zeus-Amun in the Temple of Siwa, he was depicted with a ram’s horn curling behind his ear, as mentioned above.  An iconographic association with Alexander, expressed in coins portraying Arsinoë, would be a plausible political motive in selecting the ram horns as a component of her personal crown. However, the horns of Amun as illustrated on the Alexander portraits (and equally on coins of Arsinoë) are curled, and not horizontally placed as in the Egyptian crown of Arsinoë, thus limited to a small group of artistic media; Classical Hellenic.

Alexander’s role as the son of Zeus-Amun appealed to both Egyptian and Greek inhabitants. For the Egyptians, Alexander was the son of Amun, the main god of the time, generally recognised as a ram (among other forms). The Greeks regarded Alexander as the son of their most important deity, Zeus, and likened him with Dionysus. Therefore, Alexander, in his royal persona and cultic appearance, bridged the two cultures. The illustrated horn of Alexander linked him with the Egyptian ram. I would, however, like to suggest an association also with the Greek goat, based on Alexander’s identification with Dionysus.

In the Greek material, and subsequently in Egyptian sculptures, Arsinoë was attributed with an item associated with the goat, the dikeras – the double cornucopia. In Greek mythology, the cornucopia was connected with the she-goat Amalthea. Amalthea is described as the nurturer of the infant Zeus at Crete. After Zeus accidentally broke off one of her horns, he replaced it after endowing it with the ability to be filled with whatever the holder desired; it was made into a symbol of fruitfulness – horn of plenty, and after placing her in the sky as the constellation Capricorn, Amalthea was remembered and venerated by the Greeks in this form throughout the ages. This attribute was illustrated individually on the reverse of coins, or held by the queen when depicted on oinochoai, terracottas, figurines and sculpture in the round.


Another myth, written down by Diodorus, describes further connections between Amalthea and Zeus. With reference to an ancient Egyptian tradition, he says that the Libyan Zeus-Amun returned to his nurturer and impregnated her, later parenting a young Dionysus. The myth records an Egyptian influence in an otherwise Greek setting; a coming together of two ancient cultures resulting in a divine being, Dionysus, to whom the female bloodline of the Ptolemies counted their descent.

This divine association is discussed further in a passage of Callixeinus, preserved in Athenaeus, describing the grand procession of Ptolemy II in Alexandria, in which a dikeras was carried by a figure of Dionysus. The double cornucopia was created particularly for Arsinoë during the reign of Ptolemy II, and is traditionally considered to symbolise either Arsinoë’s close connection with her husband-brother, or with the Two Lands of Egypt. Although the double cornucopia is documented mainly in Greek visual arts, it also attributes the Queen on Egyptian statues. The cornucopia associates Arsinoë with the goat.

As a final example, I bring to mind Satyrus’ description of the cult of Arsinoë, mentioning a prohibition concerning sacrificing goats. This statement is identical with Herodotus’ account of the Mendesian veneration of the ram god, describing it as the only cult disallowing a goat as an offering and instead sacrificing a sheep. Later chapters demonstrate Arsinoë’s religious responsibilities as a high priestess of Banebdjedet, the ram god of Mendes.

I have chosen to briefly mention Arsinoë’s association with the goat in order to suggest an aspect of intercultural symbolism. Alexander was able to bridge the Egyptian and Macedonian cultures by claiming his descent from Zeus-Amun. Pictorially, Alexander’s horn connects him with the ram and goat alike. Similar aesthetic aspects merged, but simultaneously kept their original frame of reference. Arsinoë was able to use the horns for a similar reason, combining her cultic associations with Aphrodite and Amun, and her dynastic link with Alexander. Such an intercultural symbolism is communicated in the Egyptian sculptures of Arsinoë holding the cornucopia.




Arsinoë’s socio-religious roles during her adult life in Alexandria are only sparsely documented and often of a vague nature. Similarly, this can be stated about her role in the Egyptian society. However, the Mendes stele might shed light on this matter. The figures illustrated in this scene are divided into two sections, a left and a right side, with figures who face each other. The left side represents the royal family, incorporating Ptolemy II, Arsinoë and a male figure designated “Ptolemy, son of Ptolemy”. Facing them, on the right side, is a newly incarnated ram on a podium, receiving offerings from the royal family. Behind him, also on a podium, stands a smaller figure of Harpocrates. Thereafter follows an anthropomorphic figure of Banebdjedet, representing the deceased ram god, after which stands his divine spouse Hat-Mehit. The last figure of the right side is Arsinoë. Arsinoë is thus depicted twice in the scene. She stands in an active position as a benefactor in the left side together with the ruling royal family, and as a beneficiary together with the local divine triad in the right. The central theme in this scene (also expressed in the text) is the commemoration of the deceased ram god Banebdjedet, and the celebrations of his incarnated soul into a new physical ram-body. One of many topics presented in this stela concerns Arsinoë when she was alive, and it describes her as the high priestess of Banebdjedet. Banebdjedet, who will be dealt with below, was a local form of Amun. He connected Arsinoë with this main Egyptian deity previously suggested as a fundamental source of symbolic association expressed in the ram horns of Arsinoë.

The horizontal horns are mainly recorded in crowns worn by male deities prior to the composition of the crown of Arsinoë. Hieroglyphic texts designate Horus, Amun and Osiris, along with various pharaohs, as “Lord of the Horns”. The title describes the symbolic value of the horns, associated with kingship, and they express power, authority, control, prominence, and even divinity. I would like to suggest also a connection with the Two Lands based on the dualistic nature of the horns, or the two mountains that surrounds the rising sun each morning.

Traditionally, these horns have been interpreted as symbolising the inundation and its fertility. Vassilika suggests in her study of Ptolemaic Philae, that the horizontal horns represent a trophy of war or hunt, and that they symbolised royal deification from the time of Amenhotep II. In her study on the Hptj crown, Derchain-Urtel, on the other hand, more or less excludes any symbolic reference to the ram horns. The ram itself symbolised respect and power, strongly connected with kingship. During the Ptolemaic period, and when worn by royalties other than Arsinoë, Cleopatra III and VII, the horns are frequently incorporated as a pictorial component of the anedjti crown or the triple crown, or as an additional unit in the composition when combined with the red crown and the atef. Most Ptolemaic kings were depicted with horizontal, twined ram horns. Thus, they continued an iconographic convention applied by so many previous Egyptian rulers. Generally, the ram horns were seen as an addition to the royal regalia, connecting the person wearing it with the deities decorated with them.

The symbolic value of the ram horns in the crown of Arsinoë has proven to be entwined in various cultural events and individuals. The ram horns were connected with Amun and his depiction as a ram god. The horns were associated with the solar cult, based on the assimilation between Amun, Ra and Horus. The association with the solar cult explains the presence of the horns in crown compositions worn by Harpocrates/Horus, since he represented a certain aspect of the daily journey of the disc. The combination of a divine kinship and the eternal journey of the sun disc, suggests that the horns were connected with rejuvenation, fertility and eternal life. This aspect merges with the message communicated in the Mendes stela, which describes a divine priestess-queen who entered heaven to join her divine family.

to be followed by more modern interpretations of the ancient goat god...

1 comment:

  1. A nice overview of the Baphomet story and a good discussions about the link to horned deities of ancient Egypt - thank you. There's more Baphomet related material to be found here theblogofbaphomet.com and a whole book on it's way soon!

    best wishes - Julian Vayne

    ReplyDelete