Isis lactans

Isis lactans, Museum am Dom WürzburgThe iconographic ways in which the female breast is portrayed on the many images from Ancient Egypt has to do with fertility, motherhood and abundance.

Portraying the breast in a striking way was part of more or less common decorations in temples and graves. They have a symbolic meaning with various deities. For example the god of the Nile, Hapy is portrayed as a man with a beard that is typical for gods and heavy, hanging breasts. Usually this god, just like other gods of creation is crowned with a papyrus plant. He is carrying sacrifices such as flowers and water, or other things that show abundance and fertility. Just like Hapy, Tawaret, the goddess of protection for pregnancy and birth, is portrayed as a pregnant hippo with hanging breasts, while standing on her two hind legs.

A totally different meaning can be applied to the images of Isis Lactans. Here the goddess Isis, who is the sister and the wife of the god Osiris, is portrayed as a mother who's breast feeding. She can be recognized through the headdress with the thrown she is wearing and the young child, Horus sitting on her lap. From the 18th dynasty onwards she is wearing cow horns with a solar disc placed in between these horns. She's supporting her left breast with her right hand, which is the traditional side to feed a child with. 'Horus the Child' can be recognized through the youth lock that he's wearing on the side of his head and his finger in his mouth. The myth tells us how Isis gave birth to her son after she fled her brother Seth and moved to the swamps of the Delta. After his birth Horus had to face many dangers, but Isis persisted in taking care of him and protected the young god until he was old enough to replace his father as the king of Egypt. Although Isis was the mother of Horus, she was also seen as the mother of the pharaoh. The child on her lap in that case also resembles the pharaoh. Early Piramide Texts already tell us about the pharaoh drinking from the breasts of Isis. Pharaoh's from the New Empire often called themselves 'son of Isis' and in this way emphasized the godly aspect of their kingship. The Egyptians have made many Isis Lactans images on reliefs, but also as statues and a great amount of amulets.

Thutmoses III and Isis KV 34In the grave of Thutmose III a symbolic image of a breast can be found as well. In the supporting text the hieroglyph for breast, menedj, is also written down. The King is breast feeded by a Tree goddess who is portrayed as a sycamore tree. We can see the stem of the tree, that resembles the torso of Isis, an arm supporting a hanging breast. The breast is colored red, while the branches and leaves are green. The supporting text tells us: Mencheperre (which is a different name for Thutmose) is being fed by his mother Isis. The name of the mother of the pharaoh was Isis as well. The image is a reference to both his human, as well as his divine mother Isis.

Situlas, RMO Leiden, Photo: Petra LetherTowards the end of the first millennium BC the 'situla' appeared in a lot of images. This is an Egyptian vase that was being used in certain religious contexts. In the shape of this vase a breast can be recognized. There is evidence that the Egyptian word for situla can be used as a word for breast. A situla was used to keep water or milk for sacrificing ceremonies, usually for the goddess Isis. Through the water she could be linked to the Nile rites of Osiris and the milk emphasized her parental role as the mother of Horus. In the museum of Alexandria there is a little statue of Isis, which shows her holding a situla in her left hand, of which the shape is identical to the menedj hieroglyph: a hanging breast. The link with the fertility aspect with regard to the goddess is obvious here.

© 2012 Joke Baardemans

Bron: Reading Egyptian Art, R. H. Wilkinson; The complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, R.H. Wilkinson; The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyp, art. Isis, J. Griffiths