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Objective Art



Metternich Stela (ca. 380-342 B.C.) - 30th Dynasty of Egypt

Metternich Stela

Metternich Stela - Upper Portion

Metternich Stela - Center Panel Bas Relief


The Metternich Stela, otherwise known as the Magical Stela, dates from the reign of Pharaoh Nectanebo II (380–343 B.C.) of the 30th Dynasty of Egypt. The kings of Dynasty 30 were the last native Egyptian rulers. The stela is made of Greywacke and measures: height - 2 ft. 8.9 in., width - 13.2 in., and depth - 5.7 in.  It is generally considered to be the finest and most elaborate example of Egyptian magical stelae. The stela was made by an Egyptian priest named Esatum and was originally erected in a necropolis of sacred bulls.  In 1828, the stela was presented by the Egyptian Khedive, Muhammad Ali, to the Chancellor of the Austrian Empire, Prince Metternich. The stela remained in the Metternich family until shortly before its purchase by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950.

Egyptologists believe that this type of stelae was used in rituals designed to protect the ancient Egyptians from dangerous animals such as crocodiles and poisonous snakes. The Metternich Stela is the largest, most complete and most finely carved stela of its kind that has survived down to the present day.

The top portion of the stela depicts the solar disk which represents the sun god Re (Ra), who was worshiped by the New Kingdom Egyptians as both the sun god and the king of all the gods. On each side of the solar disk are two groups each of four baboons. On the far left is the messenger god Thoth. On the far right is the image of the reigning pharaoh Nectanebo II, who bows in the direction of the solar disk.

Below the solar disk figures are five lines of hieroglyphs.  Below these hieroglyphs is the main bas-relief panel of the stela which portrays Horus as a child standing on the crocodile god Sobek. Sobek was the god who devoured the souls of the dead who had been condemned by the Judge of the Dead, Osiris.

Above the head of Horus is a face mask of the dwarf god Bes, who is the guardian of the household, childbirth and newly born children. On both sides of Bes are the hieroglyphic symbols for the "Eye of Horus" which symbolized strength, vigor, and self-sacrifice (also see below).

The child Horus holds in each hand both a serpent and a scorpion.  In his right hand he also holds a lion and in his left hand he grips an oryx.

The figure standing to the left of Horus is Re-Harakhty, a god in the form of a falcon-headed man, who embodies the characteristics of both Re and Horus (he is also called "Horus of the Horizon"). Re-Harakhty stands on a serpent symbolizing Apophis, the god of chaos. Both to the right and left of Horus and Re-Harakhty are depicted symbols of divine kingship. 

On the far left of the center panel is the goddess Isis, mother of Horus; she also stands upon an Apophis serpent.  Directly behind Isis is the standard of the vulture goddess of the south or upper Egypt. On the far right of the center panel is the god of Wisdom, Thoth, standing on an Apophis serpent.  Directly behind Thoth is the standard of the serpent goddess of the north or lower Egypt.

The rest of the stela is covered with hieroglyphics from top to bottom and also on both sides. These hieroglyphics relate stories of the gods and their experiences with poisonous animals. There are also many cures and spells for different types of sicknesses caused by these animals.

Most Egyptologists believe that the main function of the Metternich Stela was for the magical healing of poisons, mostly caused by animal bites. Water was poured over the Stela and collected. The water from the Stela was then drunk by the person suffering from the poisonous ailment. That person would identify with the child Horus who had also suffered such tragedies. During the entire process religious rites from the Stela were recited by local priests.

The first few spells on the stela are related to snakes and other poisonous creatures. To the Egyptians, the most powerful evil god was the serpent Apophis who represented the forces of chaos.  Apophis was the principal enemy of Re (Ra) and is the equivalent of the Christian devil. The magic spells purportedly cause Apophis to be cut into pieces and burn. The spell also forced the serpent to vomit and while the priest recited this spell the afflicted person would also vomit thus freeing his/her body of the poison.

Another spell made use of cats. Cats were believed to contain divine power which could destroy any sort of poison. The spell requests Re to assist the cat in defeating the power of Apophis.

The remainder of the Stela contains inscriptions that relate stories about being poisoned and spells which provided appropriate cures. The most famous story is that of "Isis and the Seven Scorpions." This story takes up the majority of the stela and is most referenced when it came to ailments dealing with poisons.

Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris; Osiris had once been the living ruler of Egypt. However, Osiris was killed by his brother Set who had been jealous of his power. Set chopped up Osiris's body into fourteen parts and scattered them throughout Egypt. However, Isis collected the body parts and through the use of magic, brought Osiris back to life. She then conceived the child Horus with the resurrected Osiris. Subsequently, Osiris became the ruler of the dead and king of the underworld. But the land of Egypt was then ruled by no one.

Set believed that he would soon become the pharaoh of the living Egypt; however, he didn't know was that Isis was pregnant with the child of Osiris, i.e.,  Horus.  After Isis gave birth to Horus, she thought that he would become the new pharaoh of the living because of his birthright. When Set found out he became very angry. Set had the child Horus poisoned by seven (a highly significant number!) scorpions, animals that are also frequently associated with the serpent demon, Apophis.  Isis was outraged that her child should die in such a manner. She cried out to the king of the gods, Re (Ra), and asked him for aid. Re sent Thoth who cured the child of the sickness. The ancient Egyptians believed that this cure could be applied to ordinary people who suffered from poisons. These people could become possessed by the spirit of Horus and be cured just as Horus had been.  From that point Re acted as an advocate for Horus, just as Osiris would have done if he had been still alive on Earth.

Horus later fought Set to see who would become the pharaoh of the living. During the fight Set ripped out Horus's eye and won the battle. This is where the symbol the "Eye of Horus" is derived. Set then indeed became the pharaoh of the living.

Isis could not stand by and let this happen because her son was the rightful ruler. She went into the underworld disguised and sought out Set. She told him how an evil man took something from her son that was rightfully his. Set ordered to have this corrected, not knowing to whom she was referring. Isis then revealed herself to Set and he tried to recant, but Re witnessed the event and made Horus the pharaoh of the living.

Egyptologists believe that the stories inscribed on this stela, especially the one regarding Isis and Horus, are the most comprehensive found on any ancient Egyptian monument. 

In my opinion, the Metternich Stela is one of the most impressive works of art in the entire Metropolitan Museum. The message of the stela is much more than just a recitation of ritual spells to cure snake and other animal bites.  In allegorical form, it depicts the way in which the forces of chaos and death (symbolized by the seven scorpions) could be defeated, by the principles embodied by three (another highly significant number) Egyptian gods Re-Harakhty, Isis and Thoth.


Official Museum Description

The following is a description from a Metropolitan Museum of Art training guide for teachers entitled The Art of Ancient Egypt:

On the part below the central figure panel, rows of hieroglyphs spell out thirteen magic spells to protect against poisonous bites and wounds and to cure the sicknesses caused by them. The stela was commissioned by the priest Esatum to be set up in the public part of a temple. The spells could be recited or, equally effective, the victim could drink water that had been poured over the magic words and images on the stela.

The hieroglyphic inscription around the base describes as a mythic precedent the magic cure that was worked upon the infant Horus by Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing. The story is part of the larger myth of Isis and Osiris, which relates how Osiris was killed by his brother Seth. Isis, the wife of Osiris, fled and hid in the delta marshes, where she gave birth to Horus. Grown up, Horus avenged his father by killing Seth and reclaiming the throne of Egypt. On the stela Isis speaks and recounts how, during the time she and Horus were still hiding in the marshes, she had found the child Horus sick and, in her despair, cried for help “to the Boat of Eternity” (the sun boat in which the god travels over the sky). “And the sun disk stopped opposite her and did not move from his place.” Thoth is sent from the sun boat to help Isis and cures the child Horus by reciting a whole catalogue of spells. The spells always end with the phrase “and the protection of the afflicted as well,” indicating that by using these spells, any type of affliction in human beings will be healed.

In this detail of the stela Horus emerges from the background in such high relief that he is posed as an actual three-dimensional statue, with his left leg striding forward and his head directly facing the viewer. He is portrayed in the conventional Egyptian form for “youth”; that is, he is nude and wearing his hair in a side lock. The soft, rounded forms of the bodies of Horus and the other deities are typical for the style of the period.

To symbolize his magic powers, Horus holds snakes and scorpions as well as an antelope (by its horns) and a lion (by its tail) in his closed fists. His feet rest on two crocodiles. Above him is the head of Bes, the dwarf deity with leonine features who protected households but had become by this time a more general protective deity. Horus is flanked by three deities who stand upon coiled snakes. On the right is Thoth, identified by his ibis head, and on the left is Isis. Both protectively hold the walls of a curved reed hut, a primeval chapel, in which the Horus child stands together with a figure of Re-Harakhty, god of the rising sun, and two standards in the form of papyrus-and-lotus columns. The lotus standard supports the two feathers of Osiris’s headdress.

The images incised into the stone at the top of the stela portray the perilous nighttime journey of the sun as it passes through the netherworld under the earth. Its rebirth each morning is shown at the uppermost point of the stela, where Thoth, four baboons, and the kneeling King Nectanebo II lift their arms in the gesture of adoration and prayer.

Nectanebo II was the last indigenous king of ancient Egypt. He struggled valiantly against the Persian empire only to be defeated in the end. After the lost battle, he fled to Upper Egypt, and nothing is known about his end.

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