The Felines of Tutankhamun: Leopard Changes its Spots to turn Black Panther?—Part I
The modest sepulcher of Pharaoh Tutankhamun was crammed to the brim with all manner of treasures produced in different shapes, sizes and materials. These objects can be clearly divided into two classes: those that were commissioned for use in life and the ones prepared solely with the death and burial of the king in mind. Apart from portraying the young ruler, the latter class comprised several resin-coated objects of birds and animals whose identification has been the bone of contention in Egyptological circles. Prime among them is an image of the king standing atop a resin-coated feline, which some suggest does not depict an African leopard as commonly believed, but a black panther.
This wooden head of a leopard was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. It is covered with gesso-plaster and gilded. The eyes are of translucent quartz and other facial details are made from blue opaque glass. The object bears the boy king’s throne name ‘Nebkheperure’ on its forehead. King Tut exhibition, Pacific Science Center, Seattle, Washington. (Photo: CC by SA 2.0 / Dmitry Denisenkov)
An Early Feline Goddess
The ancient Egyptians had a long and rich tradition of worshipping feline deities. Mafdet, the first such goddess, was the forerunner of her more famous counterparts, Bastet and Sekhmet. She was represented as a lady with the head of a cheetah and is attested as early as the First Dynasty from the reign of Pharaoh Den. Mafdet embodied legal justice and capital punishment. Apart from being shown primarily with the head of a cheetah; at times she sported the heads of other animals such as leopards, lynxes, civets and mongooses. She also took the form of a panther in some depictions.
Mafdet’s razor-sharp teeth and claws are compared to the king’s harpoon that protects him from his enemies in the Underworld. Utterance 298 of the Pyramid Texts declares: ‘Re arises, his uraeus upon him, against this snake which came forth from the earth and which is under my fingers. He will cut off your (i.e. the snake’s) head with this knife which is in the hand of Mafdet who dwells in the Mansion of Life.’
Because of this aspect, and mention of her in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom as the protector of the sun god Ra from poisonous snakes and other venomous creatures - which were all viewed as transgressors against Maat – the goddess was worshipped as the protector of the pharaoh, his chambers, tomb and other sacred places.
Made of faience, this squat human form with leonine features is the god Bes. Here, the deity stands holding the cap of a kohl container and wears the leopard-skin robe of the sem-priest. 27th Dynasty. Late Period. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In New Kingdom funerary works, Mafdet appears in scenes of the Afterlife where she is shown in the Hall of Judgment in her capacity of punisher or executioner. “Although she had no cult of her own, Mafdet is mentioned in several temple inscriptions - especially of the latest periods - and she was also invoked in magical rituals which utilized her mythological strengths in everyday life,” notes Richard Wilkinson. An Egyptian mythological creature known as a Serpopard was a hybrid between a leopard and giraffe and is depicted on the Narmer Palette.
A fragmentary relief excavated in a temple dating to the 26th Dynasty (664–525 BC). However, its precise date, nature, and subject matter are uncertain. The female feline with lotus flower may be related to Hathor or some other goddess, and the falcon heads below her are possibly celestial symbols. This could also be a representation of Mafdet. Brooklyn Museum, New York.
Case of the Curious Cats
In the Treasury of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, the larger shabtis (funerary figures placed in Egyptian tombs) and images of gods, goddesses and the boy-king that were wrapped in linen shawls were contained in resin-coated ‘Kiosks’ – that Howard Carter called “sinister black chests”. These boxes were secured with the necropolis seal of the jackal over nine captives. Among the idols, the gilded-wood statue of Tutankhamun wearing the white crown of southern Egypt; gripping a flail and long staff in his hands and standing upon a feline (Obj No. 289 b) is often called into question as to which animal is actually portrayed. “There is a litheness and strength in the animal’s figure, demonstrating the Egyptian artist’s remarkable ability to capture its essential characteristics,” observes distinguished British Egyptologist T.G.H. James.
While many believe it is an African leopard; others are convinced that it is a panther, owing to its black color. This object is one of two such figures which according to leading Amarna expert, Dr Nicholas Reeves, were, “each designed to a different scheme of proportions” — the common canon employed since the Old Kingdom and the revolutionary Amarna style of art. The inscriptions on the bases of these statues name Tutankhamun.
This statue of Tutankhamun standing atop a resin-coated feline has raised considerable doubt about the animal that is depicted. Debate rages over whether it is a leopard or a panther. A consensus has not been reached in nearly a century since the discovery of this object. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
However, some experts argue that there is no genetic difference between a panther and a leopard, and point out that they both belong to the same species, albeit with different coloration. Those who posit thus, state that black panthers are merely black versions of leopards. Leopards have yellow fur with rosettes scattered on their fur, while black panthers are black in color with no spots.
Moreover, it is believed that black panthers would have been high status, valued creatures in ancient Egypt due to their rarity. But to say that panthers were never depicted at all is incorrect, as Dr Geraldine Pinch informs, “Depictions of leopards or panthers are found on some of the earliest ritual objects from ancient Egypt.”
Be that as it may, in the wake of perfectly plausible explanations, it is rather hard to believe that the Egyptians depicted panthers in the class of funerary goods under discussion here. Even though clearly distinguishable from each other based on the pattern of their spots, another conundrum exists in differentiating the leopard and cheetah; because the ancient Egyptians referred to both animals by the same word - Abi or Bashema.
The author expresses his gratitude to Marcel Maessen, t3.wy Projects, for allowing the use of exclusive photographs of Tutankhamun-era artifacts.
Top Image: Resin-stained wooden leopard found in the tomb of King Amenhotep II (KV35); design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Natalia Mielniczek); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji, is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten.
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Dr Zahi Hawass, The Illustrated Guide to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, 2001
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Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, 1994