From the earliest times, men and women in ancient Egypt wore amulets or charms in a variety of forms, often in the shape of animals or divine beings. These amulets were thought to carry special, even magical, properties, offering the wearer protection and salvation. They were very personal objects, and their medium, colour and chosen symbol were often also indicative of social status and individual taste. Usually, they were pierced vertically for suspension from a cord, likely hung around the owner’s neck or fastened among their personal effects, as well as being placed in tombs with the deceased to offer protection in perpetuity.
Amulets in the form of deities began to appear from the Middle Kingdom onwards, but they acquired particular popularity during the New Kingdom and Late Period. These divine images not only conferred the power of the chosen deity on the wearer, but also intimately connected the induvial to the Egyptian pantheon. The present amulet depicts Horus the Child, the son of Isis and Osiris. In Egyptian culture, Horus represented the newborn sun, rising at dawn each day, and was considered the original divine pharaoh of Egypt. Here, he is depicted enthroned, flanked by lions and accompanied by the protector god Bes. In accordance with tradition, Horus is represented as a nude boy, with his finger held to his mouth, and a sidelock of hair – symbols of childhood. The uraeus (coiling cobra) on his crown symbolizes his divine authority and kingship, whilst the presence of lions on either side alludes to his ability to triumph over dangerous animals. Importantly, the amulet is made from lapis lazuli, one of the most expensive materials in antiquity, highly prized for the intensity of its blue colour. The use of this special material strongly suggests that it was made for an elite individual.
Horus the Child achieved special status during the Late Period and Greco-Roman periods, during which time he was adapted by the Greeks and referred to as Harpocrates. Interpreting the image of the god with his finger held to his mouth as a sign instructive of hush, the Greeks worshipped him as the god of silence, secrets, and confidentiality. Depictions of Horus the Child in bronze and stone are more numerous than in the precious medium of lapis. One example in the Walters Art Musuem, dating to the New Kingdom (1550-1307 BC), represents the god sitting on a pillow, sculpted from a thin piece of lapis (inv. no. 42.222). A small sculpture in black schist, also at the Walters Art Museum, depicts the god enthroned in the same pose as the present amulet, also accompanied by lions (inv. no. 22.339).
A study of Harpocrates’ place in Egyptian sculpture is presented by E.S. Hall, ‘Harpocrates and Other Child Deities in Ancient Egyptian Sculpture’, in Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, vol. 14 (1977), pp. 55-58.
On the role of amulets in ancient Egypt, A. K. Capel and G. Markoe, Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt (New York, 1996), pp. 70-74.
For an overview of the roles of Horus the Child and Harpocrates, G. Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2002), p. 146.
Collection of Agnes Barclay, UK, 1920s-1940s.