Hypocephalus in the Louvre

By Philippe Jacques de Horrack

[Extracted from PSBA, 6, 1884, 126-9.]


The following letter has been received:

    Dear Sir,

Having noticed in the last number of the Proceedings, that you have copied, for publication, the whole of the hypocephali in the British Museum, and that you would like to receive copies of specimens which members might possess, I beg to enclose an exact tracing of a fine hypocephalus made of linen and plaster, presented to the Museum of the Louvre, and of which I gave an account in the Revue Archeologique, 1862, VI, p. 129. I add an extract of this article, as it may perhaps interest the readers of the Proceedings, although the subject has been ably treated by the eminent Egyptian scholar, Dr. Samuel Birch, President of the Society.

It is generally known, that one of the great dogmas of the religion of the ancient Egyptians was the belief in the continuation of life after death, and that the new existence was to begin in the old body, which the soul was to rejoin. This belief caused them to embalm the body, in order to preserve it intact until the day of resurrection, and to protect it by virtue of talismans. Amongst these amulets was the disk called hypocephalus, which was placed under the head of the mummy, to maintain the vital warmth of the body. The scenes portrayed on these disks relate, in all their details, to the resurrection and the renewed birth after death, and this idea is more particularly symbolized by the course of the sun, the living image of divine generation.

The hypocephalus in question is divided into four compartments, two of which are opposed to the two others, as if to indicate the two celestial hemispheres; the upper one above the terrestrial world, and the lower one below it. A little inscription seems to denote the name of the amulet; it heads the part which represents the lower or [p.127] dark hemisphere, from whence the sun was supposed to have come forth to mark the beginning of time, and reads as follows: "[Disk to be placed] beneath the head of the Osirian Tatu, the justified." Other specimens give the variation, "Producer of heat beneath the head of the Osirian."'

The first compartment shows the soul of the deceased, in the form of a hawk with a human head, adoring a cow which wears a disk and two feathers. Behind the soul is the hieroglyphical sign for shadow. The cow represents the goddess Hathor, who fulfils the important role of the Celestial Mother, and personifies the lower hemisphere of heaven in which the sun sets in the evening to issue from it the next morning, as after a new birth. She was supposed, in that character, to receive the deceased on his arrival at the gates of the Occident. Here, it is the soul of the deceased who asks to be born again in the bosom of the Celestial Mother. The 162nd chapter of the Book of the Dead shows the figure of this cow, and the text relating to it (which will be given further down) recommends, amongst other things, that her image should be on the hypocephalus. Behind the cow stands a goddess, having for her head a disk with the mystical eye in it, and holding a lotus flower, another symbol of renewed birth. According to the late M. de Rouge, the mystical eye, called Uza, conveys the idea of the renewal of a period, like the full-moon, the solstice, the equinoxes, &c., and it designates here the accomplishment of the period of resurrection, always assimilated with the daily and annual revival of the sun. The seated deity, half man and half hawk, is a type of Amon, the generating principle; he holds the whip in his hand, and an ithyphallic serpent with a hawk's head and human legs offers him the mystical eye. All these different symbols represent on one side the female, and on the other the male element, to express the idea of the eternal generative power.

The second compartment shows the Sun in his boat, in the form of Num-Ra, ram-headed, a type the Sun generally takes when he traverses the lower hemisphere of heaven. The god is accompanied by six divine personages called Kethi, who conduct and protect him in his course. At their head is Horus, with a hawk's head and the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, piercing with his spear the serpent Apophis, who tries to stop the march of the solar planet. This scene represents, allegorically, the power of the rising Sun dispersing the shadows by the brilliancy of his rays. A child, carrying [p.128] his hand to his mouth, is seated on a pedestal placed at the prow of the boat; it is Horus the younger, symbol of infancy, and here also of the newborn or rising Sun. The prow is ornamented by a large lotus blossom to enforce the same idea. A second boat carries a cynocephalus seated in a shrine ; he is another symbol of the Uza, or perfect equilibrium, but also an emblem of Thoth, whom he replaces very often, when this god is identified with the moon. Before the cynocephalus is a kind of altar, with a libation vase and a lotus flower, the symbolism of which has already been explained. Other specimens represent the celestial and eternal generation of the Sun, by the goddess Nu-t, or heaven, leaning, with outstretched arms, over a scarabaeus, the masculine principle of generation. This emblem refers, more particularly, to the material reconstruction of the being.

In the upper compartment of the reversed hemisphere is a double-faced deity, with two feathers on his head, and holding in his left hand a standard surmounted by a jackal. It is Anion, the supreme god of Thebes, identified with Ra, the Sun, under the name of Amon-Ra. As such, he receives all the qualifications attributed to the two deities, and represents (according to the late M. Deveria) the unseen and mysterious principle of Amon and the visible and brilliant power of Ra combined. The boat on the right contains the ark of Osiris defunct. A horizontal scarabaeus is above it, having on one side the name of Isis, and on the other that of Nephthys, the two sisters of Osiris, who by their prayers effected the resurrection of their brother. They are supposed also to accomplish that of the deceased, as shown by some specimens on which the two goddesses are represented addressing prayers to his soul. On the left, a mummified hawk expanding his wings over a boat symbolizes, more especially, the resurrection of the soul. Above the hawk is the hieroglyphical sign for ba, the soul, and the forepart of a ram, both followed by plural terminations, and often used to express the same idea.

The centre of the second compartment is occupied by a quadruple ram-headed deity, Num-Ra, representing (according to Champollion) the Spirit of the four Elements, the Soul of the material world, and (according to Deveria) the Spirit of the four winds or four cardinal points. Eight cynocephali, four on each side of the god, raise their hands in prayer. Two cartouches inscribed with serpents, and two cerastes, complete the scene.


The circular inscription informs us, that the hypocephalus belonged to a lady named Tatu; it reads as follows: "Oh Anion of the Anions, who art in heaven above, direct thy face towards the body of thy son Ra; maintain it in good condition; preserve it in the funeral region; turn thy face towards the body of thy daughter, the august Osirian, who is in the funeral region, Tatu, the justified, daughter of the lady of the house, Nes-Tafnut, the justified. Let warmth be beneath her head in the funeral region."

This formula is found on several specimens; it is taken from the 162nd chapter of the Book of the Dead, which relates to the hypocephalus, and bears the title: "To produce warmth under the head of the deceased." Line 8, the text reads as follows: "Words to pronounce on the image of a cow, made of good gold, put on the neck of the deceased, and which is also to be drawn on a new charts placed under his head. Abundant warmth will then exist throughout his body, as if he were on earth. Such is the very great care the cow takes of her son Ra when he sets." The text continues in the nth line: "Words to pronounce when you put this goddess on the neck of the deceased: Oh, Anion of the Anions, who art in heaven above, direct thy face towards the body of thy son! maintain it in good condition in the funeral region."

The above extracts from the Book of the Dead show that the undertakers of the funeral of the deceased Tatu conformed entirely to the rules given for the preparation of her hypocephalus.

Very truly yours,                            
P. J. DE HORRACK.                
Paris, 12th February, 1884.