In this monthly blog series, our collections team write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. This blog post was written by our Curator, Naomi Collick, with the help of Tom Hardwick, Curator of the Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Another smaller falcon collected by Denys Eyre Bower is currently on display there as part of our current loan.
Figure of a Sokar falcon
Late period (664 – 332 BC)
Carved, plastered, and painted wood
Our Object of the Month for May, in celebration of the warmer weather and the spring birds which have finally appeared, is this Ancient Egyptian wooden figure of a Sokar falcon.
Sokar (sometimes also called Seker) was one of the key gods who were related to the afterlife. He was primarily worshipped in Memphis, the first capital of the united Upper and Lower Egypt. Since the Old Kingdom (about 2500 - 2100 BC), he was considered to be the God of the Dead, and the patron of the cemeteries of Memphis, an area which included the Pyramids of Giza. There are many theories about the origin of his name. One argument is that it comes from the term ‘skr’ which means ‘cleaning of the mouth’. This refers to the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony which was performed as part of the rituals to prepare the dead for the afterlife. The aim of the ceremony was to give the dead back the ability to move, breath, see, hear, and eat. In other words, the body was re-animated, so that the person could live fully in the afterlife just as they had done when they were alive.
Sokar was also known by the names ‘lord of the mysterious region’, referring to the underworld, or the ‘great god with his two wings open’, referring to the falcon form in which he was usually depicted. He also appeared as a mummy wrapped in white with a hawk head, particularly by the New Kingdom (1570 BC – 1070 BC). His wrapped form distinguished him from another important falcon-headed god, Horus. It also identified him as a God of the Dead, along with Osiris. He often wore a crown or a sun disc and held a flail and a crook, which were symbols of kingship.
A painted depiction of Sokar in his mummified form. Ancient Egypt Online.
In the Late Period (664 – 332 BC), during which time this wooden falcon was made, funerary statues and objects related to a new god began to appear. This was Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, a combination of Sokar and two other important gods related to death and rebirth. Ptah was the creator god of Memphis, and a god of craftsmen. Osiris was the most important god of the dead, considered to be the king of the underworld. Sokar was also a god of craftsmen, particularly those who created funerary and burial goods. Ptah-Sokar-Osiris could appear as a figure with attributes combined from the three separate gods. For example, a statue could be wearing the double-plumed crown of Osiris, whilst holding the pillar and ankh sceptre of Ptah. Like Sokar, he could also appear as a falcon. Figures of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris were particularly associated with the tombs of the elite. The new god represented the cycle of creation (Ptah), death and burial (Sokar), and rebirth and the afterlife (Osiris).
Wall painting of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris in falcon form on a sacred boat, from the Tomb of Pashedu (TT3). Egypt Museum.
This object is an example of the huge variety of ways in which the Gods, and combinations of the Gods, were depicted throughout Ancient Egyptian history. The pantheon of Gods and Goddesses was large, complicated, and continuously changing. It varied based on region and period, with pharaohs such as Akhenaten creating new Gods and discarding others for political reasons. We can determine that this wooden falcon figure is a representation of Sokar, or a reference to Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, because of its context as a burial object and the period in which it was made.
Wooden falcons such as this one were usually attached to the top of wooden coffins or canopic chests. Small versions could be part of a miniature coffin on which a figure of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris stood. The coffins and sometimes the figures themselves were hollow, and could contain a part of the Book of the Dead, or a mummified part of the body of the person buried in the tomb. The box on which the figure stood also sometimes contained a ‘corn mummy’, a miniature image of the deceased made from corn. The wooden falcon would stand on top of the miniature coffin, facing the figure of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.
A wooden Ptah-Sokar-Osiris statue with falcon figure (bottom right), Late Period (664 - 332 BC). British Museum.
Early twentieth century collectors of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, like Denys Eyre Bower (1905 – 1977) who collected all of the objects at Chiddingstone Castle, were often attracted mainly to the aesthetic qualities of objects. They valued individual objects for their representation of certain styles and types of artefacts. Many private collectors had individual falcons like this one, and their original context was not necessarily considered. Large numbers of coffins, canopic chests, and statues of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris were dismantled so that the individual sections could be sold at auction for greater profit. Denys studied Ancient Egyptian objects carefully through books and correspondence with famous Egyptologists such as William Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942), and so his collecting was very well-informed. However, he was only able to travel to Egypt himself once and bought his artefacts through auction. We can therefore only guess at the original context of this falcon figure and some of the other objects in his collection.
See this fascinating object on display in our Egyptian gallery, along with many other important and ancient artefacts.
Sokar falcon figure from the Chiddingstone Castle collection, currently on display at the Houstoun Museum of Fine Arts, Hall of Egypt.
This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email.