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Fernand Braudel

Amulet in the shape of a fish

datation
New Kingdom? Between 1150 and 1069 BC
provenance
Nubia
area
period
materials
themes

This amulet is made from a fine gold leaf and engraved; it represents a fish swimming towards the left with a long dorsal fin, two small ventral fins and a tail spreading out like a fan. The gills and eye are marked by small protrusions. On the body, a rock with a bluish-turquoise tone (green feldspar?) in an almond shape is set using a thin gold band. The general form of this inlaying is reminiscent of an eye, in particular, the Udjat eye, the symbol of integrity for ancient Egyptians. This is, without doubt, a representation of the Tilapia nilotica, or Boulti as it is called today in Egypt.

The theme of the fish that lived in abundance in the Nile waters has enjoyed great favour since prehistoric times: it served as the setting of many Egyptian palettes which served to crush make-up. The species, akin to the one from the African continent, are mostly edible and fish figured prominently in the diet. Subsequently, the different types of fish were invested with a special symbolic value. Depending on the location, such or such fish was revered such as the mormyre in Oxyrhynchus; and taboos existed regarding the consumption of certain species. The boulti fish was associated with the sun and his image carried protective properties for ancient Egyptians. He was later linked to the cult of Hathor at Dendera. For all these reasons, it is shown on amulets, pledges of protection and charms that could be worn as jewellery by the living or even for the dead to protect them from potential pitfalls to be encountered in the afterlife.

One of the most famous tales from the Westcar Papyrus told by Bauefre, called “Tale of the rowers”, tells a story which took place at the court of King Snefru. The tale is centred on a fish-shaped amulet of turquoise which was lost in a lake during a royal rowing trip. It testifies that such fish shaped jewellery were worn by women, and beyond the miracle performed by the chief lector Djadjaemankh who folds aside the water to retrieve the lost amulet from the bottom of the deep lake, it shows the devotion towards such an adornment. In the Christian era the fish was widely represented since the Greek words for fish, ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichtus), was interpreted as an acrostic of the name of Jesus : [(Ι, Iêsoûs) Jesus - (Χ, Khristòs) Christ, (Υ, Huiòs) Son of (Θ, Theoû) God, (Σ, Sôt?r) Saviour]. The fish also represents baptism and for these reasons the first Christians used it as a symbol and sign for recognition. It should also be noted that even today the fish-shaped amulets are used as a talisman in Nubia, to bring good luck and ward off the evil eye.

Concerning the production of gold, for centuries it was a well-known fact that gold came from Nubia. When the Egyptians of the New Kingdom took over Nubia around 1490 BC, large amounts of gold, mined in the Nubian eastern desert, far away from the Nile Valley, could be sent to Egypt. Thus we can suppose that most of the gold used in Tutankhamen’s burial may have been mined in Nubia.

see also