The Felines of Tutankhamun: Leopards, a Symbol of Royalty and Divinity—Part II
Beginning with one of the earliest feline deities, Mafdet, the ancient Egyptian pantheon grew steadily as the years passed to include a wide range of creatures, both big and small – furry and feathered. Among them, leopards were greatly regarded for their fearsome nature and physical attributes—and were hence associated with the gods. Pharaohs reared the fantastic beast in private zoos; and priests wore leopard skin during ceremonies. Resin-coated examples of the feline were discovered in the Tomb of Tutankhamun; and these objects symbolized the king’s triumph over death.
In 1898 French Egyptologist, Victor Loret, discovered this resin-stained wooden leopard in two separate pieces in the tomb of King Amenhotep II (KV35), in the Valley of the Kings. The peg for securing a statue is still in place on its back which suggests that this leopard too would have once carried an image of the ruler. Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy.
Pharaonic Ritual and Rejuvenation
The only complete examples of a king standing atop a leopard that were ever recovered were found in KV62. A famous painted example of a pharaoh in this pose can be found in the tomb of Seti II of the Nineteenth Dynasty. Shattered fragments of the animals were found in the tombs of Amenhotep II (KV35), Thutmose IV (KV43) and Horemheb (KV57). But why did the ancient Egyptians coat these objects with resin instead of portraying the leopards as they appeared in Nature?
Dr Nicholas Reeves provides an answer in his Paper ‘ The Tombs of Tutankhamun and his Predecessor ’: “Tutankhamun’s is the only tomb to have yielded, in such abundance, gilded wooden figures of the king and the various Egyptian deities; to judge from the fragments found in other royal tombs in the Valley, such statues were normally painted with a black resin. Functionally, magically, there was no difference between the two coatings, each being equally symbolic of rebirth; but gold was clearly the more opulent finish.”
Detail of the stela of Nebnakhtu and family. His son, Amenhotep, a priest of Harsaphes, is clothed in a leopard skin and accompanied by his mother Sheritre; while he pours a libation over his father and paternal grandmother, Iuty. New Kingdom. From Sedment el-Gebel. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Therefore, the ancient Egyptians covered the beasts with resin to symbolize the night sky. The monarch, identified with the sun by the golden tan of his skin, towers over the dark animal to depict his conquest over death. Possibly, for reasons of aesthetics – or to show the faint reflection of light the radiant kingly body emitted as he journeyed through the Underworld to join the sun god Ra in the Eastern horizon – parts of the ears and the snout of the leopard were gilded. In an allusion to this celestial journey, the ancient texts inscribed on the walls of the pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties attribute these words to the deceased king: “My leopard skin is on my arm, my scepter is in my hand.”
This folding stool from the Tomb of Tutankhamun is made of ebony and inlaid with ivory. The seat was created in this manner so as to imitate leopard skin. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
All the King’s Leopards
The skin of the leopard, including its head, tail, and paws were greatly prized. Being rare, cloth imitations of leopard skins have been found, made of linen decorated with gold rosettes, with gilded wooden heads and golden claws. Leopard skin mantles were worn by many categories of priests, and two examples: one, a real skin; and, the other, cloth imitation, were found buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb . A leopard head (Obj No. 258) found in the Painted Box (Obj No. 21) adorned a garment that imitated the animal’s skin with the use of hollow five-pointed silver stars, representing the night sky. KV62 also contained other leopard heads and various fragments of hides. The leopard-skins could have been buried with Tutankhamun because each Egyptian king was the high priest of all the gods, while the official high priest was merely his deputy.
These scenes from the Theban tomb of Amenhotep called Huy, Tutankhamun’s viceroy, show Nubian princes bringing tribute for the Pharaoh. The man standing just in front of the cows in the lower register is holding a leopard skin in his hands.
Also, the seat of a stool with an inflexible seat (Obj No. 11) firmly joined to the legs, imitates leopard-skin. The spots on the stool’s leopard-skin seat are made of ivory, set in an ebony background. Leopards were extinct in New Kingdom Egypt, but evidence present in several tomb paintings reveal that their skins were regularly included among tribute sent annually from Nubia to the reigning pharaoh. For instance, in his Theban tomb (TT40), Tutankhamun’s viceroy, Amenhotep called Huy, is depicted in a scene where he is accompanied by Nubian princes who bring with them a folding stool with the leopard-skin seat and also skins of the animal. Pharaoh Hatshepsut is recorded as having imported leopards from Punt for her royal zoo.
In the final analysis, even though we have representations and descriptions of panthers in paintings and texts, it is amply evident that the Egyptians portrayed Tutankhamun – and indeed many other deceased rulers – standing atop a leopard covered in resin for purely ritualistic and symbolic reasons.
[The author thanks Natalia Mielniczek , Merja Attia , and Bernard M. Adams for granting permission to use their photographs in this series.]
Top Image: Gilded leopard head found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62); design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Dmitry Denisenkov); 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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