From Egypt, Memphite Region, Lisht North, cemetery west of Senwosret (758), Pit 847, MMA excavations, 1908–09
L. 2.1 cm (13/16 in.); H. 1 cm (3/8 in.); Th. 0.4 cm (3/16 in.)
Rogers Fund, 1909
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 113
The loop for suspension at the mouth of the fish shows that it would have hung vertically as a pendant. Its overall shape with a sharp dorsal fin allows to determine that this is a Synodontis batensoda. More detailed pendants confirm this identification. This type of catfish often swims upside down very close to the surface and is hence also called the "upside-down catfish."
A fish pendant features famously in an ancient Egyptian tale that is part of what we now call the Westcar Papyrus. It describes how young, beautiful women, wearing only "nets," rowed a king across a lake. When one woman’s turquoise fish pendant falls from her braid into the water she stops rowing, disrupting the boat party. The king offers her a replacement, but she refuses. She wants her own pendant returned. The story ends happily when the pendant is found with the help of a magician who recovers it by moving half of the water of the lake onto the other half!
This story as well as depictions tell us that fish pendants were worn as hair ornaments. But these fish pendants were much more than mere ornaments, as they were thought to be imbued with amuletic properties. They depict either the upside-down catfish or the tilapia. As keen observers of animals the ancient Egyptians often connected a particular behavior to special powers and both species can be associated with regeneration. The Synodontis batensoda’s peculiar behavior – swimming upside-down close to the surface of the water – gives it some resemblance to a dead fish floating belly-up on the surface, but on the other hand it was clearly alive. Tilapias were a symbol for fertility and regeneration since they carry their eggs in their mouths until they the eggs hatch; in addition they were also connected to the goddess Hathor.
Amulets were most commonly worn on a necklace and the use of fish pendants as hair ornaments suggests that the braid of hair itself might be significant. Braids were associated with youth, the goddess Hathor, and sexuality, which in ancient Egypt implied regeneration and rebirth. The Egyptians probably viewed the magical power of the fish pendants in terms of fertility and regeneration and perhaps connected the wearers to the goddess Hathor.
Isabel Stünkel 2015
Excavated by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Acquired by the Museum in the division of finds.