During the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period, a particular type of figurine representing a naked female began to appear. Modelled in the round and truncated at the knee, they are typically about 15cm long, and are adorned with jewellery and body decorations or tattoos. Their bodies are voluptuously sexual, with small breasts, high waists, flat abdomens, full hips and thighs, rounded buttocks, and often prominently demarcated pubic triangles, which sometimes show the vulvar cleft. Cowrie girdles (particularly related to the human female by their resemblance to the vulva) are often worn. The cowrie persisted as a protective amulet for females from Predynastic times through all of pharaonic Egypt, and its use continues to this day.
Jewellery such as necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and straps of beads are typical. Tattoos with diamond patterns similar to those found on khener dancers are common. Khener dancers performed a ritual dance in the nude, during which they exposed their genitals with high kicks and back bends. Their dance echoed the story of Hathor, the goddess of love and sexuality who exposed her genitals to rejuvenate her father, the God Ra, when he was despondent over the contentions of Horus and Set. Khener dancers with such tattoos were found buried at the mortuary temple of the Eleventh Dynasty king Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahri. They would have danced for his ka in the afterlife.
In her monumental volume Votive Offerings to Hathor (1993), Geraldine Pinch classifies the truncated figurines as ‘female fertility figurines’ and places them in her Type 1 category. Pinch recounts eight theories regarding their function that had been presented up to 1993. The first proposal, by Wiedermann in 1913, was that they were to function as ‘brides of the dead’, to provide the deceased man with sexual gratification for eternity. It was suggested that they were cut off at the knees to prevent them from running away. Even though this was later invalidated, the label lives on, and his theory frequently resurfaces. Pinch cites subsequent theories which proposed that they were dancers, divine mother goddesses, fertility talismans to help men beget children and for safe births for women, votives to the dead, votives to Hathor, toy dolls, and talismans to provide sexual gratification to both genders.
Most recently, in 2011, Ellen Morris suggested that the figurines are specifically ‘khener dancers’. She bases her opinion on the fact that many of her reasons to designate ‘paddle dolls’ as khener dancers can also apply to the figurines. They were both used in the same time period. The so-called ‘paddle dolls’ were not toy dolls either, but they too have been stuck with that early label. It is now clear they were fertility votives associated with Hathor. These votive figures are flat, thin wooden figures of female torsos with small heads, rudimentary arms, and no legs. The bodies have small chests and bloated abdomens. They are painted with jewellery, textile patterns, and often tattoos. The pubic triangle is usually prominently displayed. Strands of mud-bead ‘hair’ were attached to their heads. Their appearance is dramatically different from the figurines. Morris’s arguments for the ‘paddle dolls’ as khener dancers are compelling. However, there are significant reasons to doubt that the truncated figurines are khener dancers, too.
Naked female figurines are almost automatically designated as fertility votives by archaeologists, but this is not necessarily true in all cases. Elizabeth Waraksa offered compelling arguments that Pinch Type 2 ‘female fertility figures’ found in the Mut Precinct in South Karnak were used in healing rituals that did not necessarily involve reproduction, or even necessarily involve women. They were routinely broken at the conclusion of the ritual. This was standard practice to complete the ritual and prevent its reversal.
The multiplicity of proposals for the function of the truncated figurines reflects our possession of so few verifiable facts about these intriguing objects. Their dating to the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom is definite. Most came from tombs, but it is critically important that many were found in dwellings in settlements. We know that most of them came from loci where the worship of Hathor was prominent, such as Lisht, Assasif, and Kahun.
Early records are sadly incomplete, but it is clear – and important to note – that they were possessed by both women and men. None have any inscription and they were not ritually broken. Significantly, no such figurines were ever found in a temple or shrine to Hathor in Egypt. This means they were not typical votives to Hathor, such as those left with a prayer of gratitude or supplication at shrines or temples. Furthermore, as Pinch has shown: ‘The funerary function and symbolism of such objects is [sic] secondary. They belong primarily in the domestic sphere’.
The above are the only solid facts we have. There are no known ancient Egyptian manuscripts about these objects. We have no clue regarding any ritual, prayer or invocation that might be used with them. Therefore, I believe, any cogent theory about their function must account for the following:
- Their primary function in life
- Their use by both genders.
- Their reason to be carried into the afterlife.
- Their overtly sexual female nature.
- Their relationship to Hathor, while not being in her temples or shrines.
- Their high quality.
- The fact that they are not being ritually broken.
No previously suggested theory addresses all these issues, but the new theory that I am proposing does fulfil those requirements.
I believe these elegant truncated figurines were healing talismans, invoking Hathor to cure female genital disorders, and that they were further adopted by men to treat analogous conditions.
For readers unfamiliar with ancient Egyptian medicine, it is important to make a few things clear. To begin with, the ancient Egyptians were very pragmatic and clear in dealing with trauma. In those cases, the cause of injury, and path to correct it, were usually explicit and straightforward. No magic was required. For other conditions, where the cause was not obvious, they believed the problem was magical in nature. This would include symptoms such as headaches, belly aches, or abnormal bleeding or discharges. Those conditions would be attributed to a magical cause. Perhaps the patients had somehow offended the gods, who were punishing them with the affliction. An alternative explanation could be a magical curse from an enemy. Either way, a magical solution was required, even when combined with some pragmatic therapy. It was necessary to appeal to the gods and get their help.
Amulets are of protective or preventive value only. They were never curative. Talismans, in contrast, are objects with magical power to treat conditions: a spell always accompanied their use. The same was true of medical prescriptions: the magical component was necessary to activate them. In the case of gynaecological problems, it was clear that Hathor should be the goddess to intervene and restore the woman to normal. The elegant little truncated figurines would be pleasing to the goddess. Success from their use would appear obvious, so they were used over a long period of time. As noted, it would then be a logical extension for males to adapt the talismans to treat similar problems.
Morris and Pinch both highlight the association of the figurines with Hathor, but designate the figurines as khener dancers, which does not make sense in relation to their use by both genders, in both life and death. The documented paddle dolls came exclusively from tombs, while many of the figurines were found in homes within settlements, and so were primarily for domestic use. Furthermore, the paddle-shaped votives and truncated figurines were found together in two tombs at Assasif. This suggests that each had a different use.
For what sorts of problems might the truncated figurines prove beneficial? One of the most common reasons for women to seek gynaecological help is abnormal vaginal bleeding. A male with haematuria (blood in the urine) could easily identify that symptom as the same type of problem that affected women. Schistosomiasis was common among the workers in fields and canals. It typically causes blood in the urine. While this problem would be rare in the upper classes that possessed these elegant figurines, elite men could experience such bleeding from a urinary tract stone, infection, or tumour. Napoleon’s savants commented that Egypt was a land where the men menstruated, because so many of the men they saw working in the fields and canals were urinating blood.
Another common problem for women is leucorrhoea (non-bloody vaginal discharge), which can have many causes. The easily recognised analogous problem for a man would be a painless urethral discharge. Blindness from trachoma (eye infection) had been endemic in Egypt from the days of the pharaohs until the arrival of antibiotics. It is caused by an infection with Chlamydia trachomatis. The same bacterium also infects the genitals, although the ancient Egyptians did not know this. In some cases, it presents in men as a painless urethral discharge.
A third shared illness is the km’jt disease, which is now identified as genital herpes. Herpes is a much more frequent and devastating problem for women, but when a man found himself with painful genital ulcers, it would be easy for him to identify them as the same problem that afflicted his partner. It would be reasonable for a man who thinks he has the same problem as a woman to adopt the same treatment as benefited women: if a ritual with the truncated figurine worked for her, it should work for him.
Most of the time, both women and men would get better after the figurines were used. This happened because most of these conditions are self-limited – they get better over time, whether they are treated or not. Therefore, it was easy to attribute improvements to the power of the talisman. The ancient Egyptians were as susceptible as we are to the fallacy of believing that if something happens after an event, it must be due to that event.
Since these gynaecological conditions are often both self-limited and recurring, the figurines would be retained for repeated use and not ritually broken. If they were needed repeatedly in life, it certainly would make sense to take them to the grave just in case they might be needed in the afterlife. The need for repeated use would further justify the expense of manufacturing these elegant faience figurines. Their overtly sexual nature relates to the genital focus of the problems, which accordingly fall into the realm of Hathor, the primary goddess of love and fertility. She probably would have been invoked in some manner in their use.
As Sherlock Holmes so astutely observed, ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’. All known facts regarding the truncated figurines are compatible with identifying them as healing talismans invoking Hathor, the primary goddess of love and sexuality, to relieve female genital disorders, and that they were adopted by men to treat analogous conditions.
W Benson Harer Jr is a retired obstetrician/gynaecologist. He is a past President of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and was an Adjunct Professor of Egyptian Art at California State University, San Bernardino. He has published and lectured extensively about ancient Egyptian medicine, as well as OB/GYN. His recent book (with Peter Sheldrick) What Killed King Tutankhamun: Autopsy #4, the Hippo Heresy is reviewed in AE 137.
• W B Harer Jr (2010) ‘Sexually transmitted diseases in ancient Egypt’, in S D’Auria, Offerings to the Discerning Eye: an Egyptological medley in honor of Jack A Josephson (Boston: Brill).
• G Pinch (1993) Votive Offerings to Hathor (Oxford: OUP).
• E F Morris (2011) ‘Paddle Dolls and Performance’, JARCE 47:71.
• E Waraksa (2009) Female Figurines from the Mut Precinct: context and ritual function (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht).