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“Harpocrates with his finger makes a sign to me to be quiet.”
Varro, De lingua latina, V, 10.
This piece illustrates a unique artistic movement that originated in Egypt in the 1st century B.C., namely the “fusion” of two artifacts, the lamp and the terracotta statuette. It is an outstanding achievement from all points of view. In fact, the thoughtful and deliberate act of giving to a terracotta object the ability to illuminate -- or at least to self-illuminate -- was certainly not, either for the craftsman or, at the other end of the business chain, for the client, for whom it was made, an innocent act. Statuettes with a religious theme are known to have been often placed in niches specially created in the walls of houses. These humble and personal places of worship allowed their owners to daily honor the gods that they worshiped and also to communicate with the members of their family who had passed away and gone to the afterlife. In these niches, “ordinary” statuettes, as opposed to statuette-lamps, were simply accompanied by lamps that were lit for the meditation, such a highly symbolic gesture that it entirely reflects the link between the human and the divine.
Our example of these truly innovative lamps is of the highest quality. It represents the head of Harpocrates, or the child Horus, whose votive importance is emphasized by the integration of a lamp in the base of the artifact, while the two nozzles emerge either side of his neck.
Harpocrates, the god of silence and secrecy, is a joyful deity, who encourages philosophy and science. The son of Isis and of Serapis for the Romans, he is a thinker and a healer. Seated on a lotus flower, he embodies the new sun rising every day. This child is a happy god, well liked and often smiling, as attested by many bronze and terracotta specimens. In the Roman period, he is often placed at the entrance to the eastern temples, where he encourages the worshipers to indulge in meditation and to exercise respect.
The image is full of bonhomie, with the baby-faced Harpocrates represented halfway between realism and a deliberate exaggeration of the full features signifying prosperity. The young god has a chubby face, with highlighted ruddy cheeks and a prominent chin, as well as the heavy eyelids and the wide-open eyes of the boy waking up at sunrise, his tongue pressed between his full lips, as if he had begun to whistle a tune. The basket headgear and the two large round adornments falling towards his shoulders are a sure sign of the awakening of nature and the omen of a bountiful harvest. Finally, the braids of hair arranged in curls constitute a symbol of the innocence of childhood. According to the Egyptian custom, this hair was solemnly shaved at puberty. The very top of the statuette is lost. Considering the closest parallels, this was the pschent, the double crown of the pharaohs representing the unification of the Two Lands, Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt, traditionally surmounted by the uraeus, a royal cobra in attack position, symbol of the pharaohs, conferring on Harpocrates the power of a young king.
There are many Egyptian terracotta pieces, with or without lamps, in the shape of the head of Harpocrates. Very popular, they were produced between the late Ptolemaic period and the first three centuries of the Empire. In this repertory, by far the closest parallel for our example is the lamp discovered in Antinopolis, now in the Louvre (Dunand 1990, no. 958, p. 317), dated to the 2nd-3rd century A.D. Among the artifacts provided with two lamp nozzles inserted into the base of the statuette, like our example, one should mention two lamps, acquired in Cairo, housed in the Schloessinger Collection (Rosenthal and Sivan 1978, nos. 609-610, p. 148). Although the second specimen is very poorly rendered, the first is morphologically identical to ours, differing only by the artistic choices in the details of the face, of the hair and of the crown. Another close parallel is the statuette-lamp found in Ehnasya in Lower Egypt (Petrie 1905, pl. XLVIII, no. 49).