Isis and the Metternich Stela

The Metternich Stela was crafted for Nesu-Atum, a priest, in around 350 B.C. during the rule of Nectanebo II. Along with being impeccably preserved, the Metternich Stela is the “most complete of the cippi both in texts and illustrations” (Scott 203). A substantial proportion of this particular stela is devoted to the journey of Isis and Horus after they are both freed from Seth’s captivity by the god Thoth. The aim of this particular exhibit is to present varying interpretations of this intricate artifact as well as a functionalist theory concerning its deeper meaning.

The Metternich Stela, 350 B.C.

A comprehensive overview of the Metternich Stela as it relates to Isis is given by Barbara Watterson in her book Gods of Ancient Egypt. Watterson explains how after being inmprisoned by Seth, Isis was freed by Thoth and told to seek hiding with her son, Horus, until he was of the age where he was able to accept his inheritance. Isis and Horus set off on a journey to the Delta accompanied by seven scorpions with the hope of seeking refuge in its dense marshland (Watterson 76).

The Metternich Stela, Front facade. Horus in the center, Isis and Thoth stand on either side (Scott 206)

In her analysis of this same section of the Metternich Stela, Nora E. Scott explains how “The opening passage…suggests a folk tale, with its charming touches of everyday life mingled with the supernatural” (Scott 210). Scott’s analysis is much denser than Watterson’s. Whereas Watterson merely mentions that Isis was accompanied on her expedition to the Delta with seven scorpions whose leader was named Tefen (Watterson 76), Scott not only lists the names of all the scorpions but explains the dynamic that existed between they and Isis while travelling (Scott 210). She states how Isis’ knowledge of the scorpions’ names is suggestive of a verbal enchantment of sorts (Scott 210). Knowing this gave Isis authority over the scorpions, which she utilized in commanding “them most sternly to look at nothing but the road until they had reached their first hault, a city at the edge of the marshlands” (Scott 210).

Metternich Stela, right side. Bottom section depicts Isis, Horus and the 7 scorpions (Scott 211).

As told by Watterson, the next section of this tale involves Isis and the scorpions asking for refuge at the home of Usert. When Usert refuses and abruptly shuts the door in their face, the scorpions become angered and consolidate all of their venom into Tefen’s sting. After sneaking into Usert’s house, Tefen stings her son. Isis’ reception of shelter from a young girl is presented as occurring simultaneously to this at a separate location. When Usert call’s upon the town for help in reviving her injured son, Isis takes pity on the boy despite the actions of his mother and revives him by reciting a chant that draws the poison from his body (Watterson 77).

Scott’s account of this ordeal is significantly different. She doesn’t identify the woman as Usert and tells how the door to the woman’s home was opened for Isis by a servant after she was denied entry initially (Scott 210). After Tefen stings the woman’s son, Scott describes the house as spontaneously combusting due to the gods’ fury over such an occurrence. It then began to rain, which was uncharacteristic of the season during which this scene takes place (Scott 210). Scott’s depiction of Isis’ response to the woman’s plea that someone help her son is similar to that given by Watterson. In order to save the boy Isis chanted, while kneeding the throat of the child,

“‘Poison of Tefen, come forth, flow on the ground, do not penetrate, do not enter in. Poison of Befen, come forth on the ground. I am Isis the goddess, Mistress of Magic, who makes magic, glorious of speech. Every reptile who stings listens to me…Isis, great of magic before the gods, has spoken, to whom Geb has given his magic to repulse the poison. Be powerless, be repulsed, retreat, flee back, poison!’”(Scott 211).

Isis successfully saves the boy, and to show her thanks the woman purchases gifts for Isis and the house of the maid who opened the door for Isis (Scott 211).

Watterson and Scott a have similar interpretations of the subsequent event. Watterson explains that while Isis ventures out in disguise to search for food, she leaves Horus alone sans protective girdle and returns to find him sickly.  (Watterson 77). Because Isis is afraid of Seth she is hesitant to enlist the help of the gods in reviving Horus. She calls upon the other people who live in the marsh for help and it’s theorized by one woman that Horus was stung by a scorpion (Watterson 77). Here the two authors have different accounts of how Thoth was summoned to revive Horus. Watterson asserts that Isis confirmed a scorpion had in fact stung Horus by smelling his mouth. After which her lamentations, though unsuccessful in saving Horus, summoned Selkis and Nephthys. Once the three screamed together they were able to successfully beckon Thoth, who revived Horus (Watterson 78). In Scott’s account of Horus’ brush with death, she makes no mention of Selkis and Nephthys, instead stating that after diagnosing Horus “by identifying the odor of the wound, which she proceeded to open” Isis was able to summon Thoth on her own (Scott 213).

Metternich Stela. Back. Lines 48-88 depict Isis finding and then reassuring a stung Horus (Scott 208).

One functionalist interpretation of the Metternich Stela, as explained by Keith C. Seele in his article entitled Horus on the Crocodiles, is that its aim was “to provide magical healing of the sting of scorpions or the bite of poisonous snakes and other dangerous animals” (Seele 43). He refers explicitly to the portion of the Stela where Isis finds the stung Horus and prays to Thoth to help revive him, which Thoth does, bestowing him with “power henceforth to trample such creatures beneath his feet” (Seele 48). Seele illuminates how being a beneficiary of the Metternich Stela would mean equating oneself to the gods it portrays (Seele 43).“Just as these divine beings have suffered from the stings of scorpions…and just as they have been healed by the magical powers and intervention of other gods, so also will the humble victim of similar injuries certainly recover, provided that he makes proper use of his amulet” (Seele 48).

Bibliography:

Watterson, Barbara. Gods of Ancient Egypt. London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1984. Print.

Scott, Nora E. “The Metternich Stela.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <http://www.metmuseum.org/pubs/bulletins/1/pdf/3258024.pdf.bannered.pdf>.

Seele, Keith C. “Horus on the Crocodiles.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 6.1 (1947): 43-52. The University of Chicago Press. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/542233.pdf>.