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Monumental head of the god Min

This superb head, slightly over life-size, represents one of the oldest and most important, yet at the same time least known deities of the Egyptian pantheon: Min, the god of fertility and fecundity. Most of his facial features have been destroyed, but the proper left eye remains, locked in its captivating gaze. The ears are slightly worn, and only a part of the so-called Osiride beard is preserved. Even in its damaged state, however, the head continues to emanate an overpowering aura of divinity, accomplished by the sculptor's extraordinary skill and sensitivity. It almost certainly belonged to a temple statue.

The god can be identified as Min by his headdress, incorporating a ribbon around the forehead and a partially preserved double-feather crown. Based on the shape of the remaining eye, the head is furthermore datable to the reign of pharaoh Amenhotep III (XVIIIth Dynasty, ca. 1388 - 1351 B.C.E.).

Min was most often portrayed as a mummiform male human figure with an erect phallus. Alternatively, he could also appear in the form of a white bull. Beside the double-feathered headdress, his other main attributes included a flail in his upheld arm and a particular species of wild lettuce which held seminal connotations to the ancient Egyptians. The flail can be regarded as a symbol of authority and/or a reference to agricultural success. It is apparent from painted reliefs that Min was dark-skinned, likely alluding to the color of the highly fertile silt deposits from the annual Nile floods. It is tempting to view the choice of stone for this particular head in a similar manner.

The cult of Min originated during Predynastic times (4th millennium B.C.E) in Upper Egypt, centered mainly around Coptos and Akhmim. At the former site, Flinders Petrie discovered three large but fragmentary statues of Min (now on display in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford), thought by scholars to date to this period. Min's importance did not decline over the centuries, and over time he became closely associated with various other gods, such as Horus, Osiris and in particular Amun.

In his manifestation of Min-Amun, he was a powerful god of creation, responsible for the continuous generation of all life through his sexual potency. Min and his associated deities often carried the epithet of 'Kamutef', or 'bull of his mother', meaning that in this form he was believed to have impregnated his mother Isis and consequently became his own father. This complex mythological concept can be interpreted from multiple angles. Most simply put, it is an illustration of the overwhelming procreative powers of Min. More abstractly, it can be regarded as an expression of ancient Egyptian views on rebirth and the cyclical nature of the universe, uniting the past, present and future within one single entity. In the most practical sense, however, the concept served an extremely important purpose for the royal line of succession. As the transition between two pharaohs could be an uncertain and perilous time, the imagery of 'Kamutef' allowed the very essence of divine kingship to be passed on from one ruler to the next through the queen mother's womb, thus legitimizing the newly installed pharaoh beyond all question.

In this regard, it is no wonder that the pharaoh played a key part in the Min's yearly festival, which lasted for several days and incorporated a procession of the god's statue to the fields, as well as a number of games. The festival probably originated as a celebration of the harvest and the yearly gift of the Nile, but over time it became closely linked to the renewal and endurance of the royal line's power and vigor, which is why it features prominently on several royal reliefs. Some well-preserved examples of such reliefs can be found in the White Chapel at Karnak, built by Senusret I (XIIth Dynasty, r. 1920 - 1875 B.C.E.), or the mortuary temple of Ramesses III (XIXth Dynasty, r. 1186 - 1155 B.C.E.) at Medinet Habu.

Due to their explicitly sexual nature, representations of Min were particularly vulnerable targets during various episodes of religiously motivated iconoclasm, starting in the Coptic period. It is likely that the head shown here shared a similar fate. However, the censorship did not end there. Research and knowledge of the god Min have been significantly obstructed by the conservative social and religious attitudes in the Western world prior to the 1960s. In the age of the first great excavators of ancient Egypt, any findings related to the god were systematically described in obscuring or omissive ways, much to the detriment of later research. Flinders Petrie, for example, refused to mention Min's phallus in his description of the statues from Coptos (see above), simply stating that the god was seen "in his usual attitude" instead. Likewise, published images of reliefs depicting Min in his full glory were often censored to blank out the phallus, and many museums took care not to exhibit any such material deemed inappropriate to the public. As a result, Min is still one of the least known and studied gods of ancient Egypt, despite his prominent position in its religion.

Alexandre 'Arthur' baron Paternotte de la Vaillée (1923 - 2014) was a Belgian diplomat who served in many countries, including Lebanon, France and the Holy See. From 1967 until 1969, he was the Belgian ambassador in Beirut. According to his memoirs, he frequently traveled to Egypt during this time, where he acquired several antiquities from a Coptic dealer named Grégoire.

During his life and many foreign postings, Paternotte de la Vaillée had the privilege to meet many of the world's most eminent figures, such as Pope John Paul II or Jacky Bouvier (the latter of whom he initiated to water skiing). After his death, the late ambassador was buried in the Vatican City State. A remembrance mass in his honor was also held in Beirut.

Literature

Bleeker C.J., 1956. Die Geburt eines Gottes: eine Studie über den ägyptischen Gott Min und sein Fest, Studies in the History of Religions (Supplements to Numen) III, Leiden: Brill.

Goedicke H., 2002. Min, MDAIK 58, 247 - 255.

Melkebeek B., 2020. A life-size granodiorite head of the ancient Egyptian fertility god Min, s.l. (academia.edu)

Norris P., 2015. The Lettuce Connection: A re-examination of the association of the Egyptian god Min with the lettuce plant from the Predynastic to the Ptolemaic Period, Manchester: University of Manchester (Ph.D thesis).

Paternotte de la Vaillée A., 2007. Plumes Noires, Plumes Blanches. Mémoires d'Ambassadeur, Colmar: Soferic-édition.

Object information

Material:
Granodiorite
Date and place:
Egypt, New Kingdom, XVIIIth Dynasty, reign of Amenhotep III, ca. 1388 - 1351 B.C.
Dimensions:
Height: 31 cm
Provenance:
Private collection G.H., Germany; Cahn Auktionen AG, Basel, 5 November 2011, lot 9; Private collection Alexandre baron Paternotte de la Vaillée (1923 - 2014), Belgium; Acquired between 1967 and 1969, probably in Egypt from 'Grégoire'.

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Object images

  • © Axel Vervoordt Company - Jan Liégeois
  • © Axel Vervoordt Company - Jan Liégeois