The Meaning Behind a Nubian Ruler’s Offering to a Falcon God

Image of the Week: A small Egyptian sculpture may not have the status of the Pyramids, but it can still reveal a complex culture.

Nubian. Pharaoh Taharqa offering wine to the god Hemen, circa 685 B.C. Bronze, gold-plated stone on base of silver-plated wood, 19.7 cm.
Nubian. Pharaoh Taharqa offering wine to the god Hemen, circa 685 B.C. Bronze, gold-plated stone on base of silver-plated wood, 19.7 cm. The Louvre, Paris

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

For many, the grandeur of ancient Egypt is evoked by its great monuments of architecture and colossal sculptures. Works of more modest dimensions, however, are far more numerous and quite arguably more revealing of the complex culture that produced them.

Such is certainly the case with the small-scale, delicately crafted work shown here. On a silver base, the figure of Taharqa—ruler of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt—kneels before the giant figure of the falcon god Hemen.

This stunning work is both aesthetically and technically unique. The most straightforward part of its manufacture is the solid-bronze figure of Taharqa, cast and then incised with linear detail. The image of Hemen, on the other hand, is carved from stone and covered with sheets of thin gold. The figures rest on a wooden base covered with a silver revetment.

Dressed only in the pleated linen kilt worn by Egyptian royalty, Taharqa offers the god two small jars of wine. He wears the double-uraeus headdress representing rule over his native Nubia as well as the whole land of Egypt to the north. An inscription on the back of his belt identifies him by name and extols his divine status: “The perfect god. Taharqa alive for eternity.”

The great bird holds a cobra in its talons, symbolizing the protection of mortals against evil. Easily confused with the better-known sun god Horus, Hemen had his principal sanctuary at Hefat, a religious center along the Nile located not far from Thebes in Upper Egypt. His representation here is the only known example in sculptural form.

The artist has captured an intimate representation of the king in direct communion with the divine. The dark bronze patina of Taharqa’s body contrasts dramatically with the bright aura of the falcon god. The even play of light over the compact form and engraved details of the pharaoh’s figure brings out the corporeality of a god made incarnate, while the bright surface of the falcon reflects the aura of pure divinity. This fundamentally contrasting visual effect perfectly evokes the privileged relationship between the royal house of Egypt and the supernatural realm from which its agency was derived.

The 25th Egyptian Dynasty represents a key period in the history of both ancient Egypt and Nubia. It marked the final resurgence of the great civilization that had flourished along the lower reaches of the Nile for nearly three millennia of recorded history. For Nubia it represented the greatest territorial extent of a region that had shared much of that history, almost functioning as a kind of alter ego of its neighbor to the north.

In the late eighth century B.C., both realms were merged into one great political entity, enabling the new power to dominate trade and culture between the Mediterranean Sea and the interior of the African continent. The process had begun under the reign of Kashta, whose name means “the Kushite.” He is considered for this reason to be the founder of the 25th Dynasty, often also referred to as the Ethiopian or Nubian Dynasty.