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Work Stele of the Serpent King

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)

Stele of the Serpent King

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)

Author(s):
Etienne Marc

This royal stele is outstanding both for its size and its craftsmanship. It is not only a historical document of prime importance, but also a precious example of artistic and linguistic conventions dating back to 3100 BC and the first pharaohs of Egypt.

A monumental name

The Stele of the Serpent King (one of the sovereign's official names) owes its name to the cobra engraved at its center, and to Emile Amelineau, who discovered it in 1896. This representation of a cobra corresponds to an Egyptian consonant pronounced "dj". We cannot be sure of the exact pronunciation of the name, however, as the Egyptian writing system did not include vowels. This is one of the oldest examples of monumental hieroglyphs from the earliest Egyptian dynasties (beginning in 3100 BC).

A complex representation

The cobra is contained within a rectangular sign representing a building (probably the royal residence) depicted according to the conventions of Egyptian drawing that remained in use until the end of the Roman Period. The outside, a decorated wall, and the inside (featuring the royal name) are visible. The rectangle is topped by a falcon, sacred to the god Horus whom the pharaoh incarnated on earth. The inscription thus reads "Horus Cobra", naming the king, a successor of Horus in the royal palace. The names of most of the first Egyptian kings have been found in this form. The Horus name was to continue as the first of the king's five official names, two of which were later surrounded by the characteristic oval of the cartouche.

A royal funerary stele from the 1st Dynasty

Although this monument was originally over two meters tall, it was not designed to be visible from afar nor to serve as a signpost. It was found, broken, near a niche in a wall where it must have been embedded, inside the vault of one of the oldest Egyptian funerary monuments at the site of Abydos, where the kings of the 1st Dynasty were buried. The inscription of the king's name in hard stone was thought to help him obtain eternal life.

Bibliography

- La Naissance de l'écriture, catalogue d'exposition, Grand Palais, Paris, 1982, p. 65, notice n°19. 

- Un siècle de fouilles françaises en Egypte, catalogue d'exposition, Paris, 1981, p. 6-7 .

- ZIEGLER, BOVOT,  L'Egypte ancienne, 2001, P. 94, 95, fig.

- FAIVRE, Hieroglyphes, mode d'emploi, 2000, P. 27.

- ANDREU, RUTSCHOWSKAYA, ZIEGLER, L'Egypte ancienne au Louvre, 1997, P. 43, 250.

- Le temps des pyramides, Leclant Editions Univers des formes, 1978, T. I, P. 280.

- FRANCO, Les grands pharaons et les oeuvres, 2001, P. 246.

- POTVIN M., PIERRAT-BONNEFOIS G., Les conventions plastiques de l’art égyptien Au temps des pharaons, Louvre, collection « visite jeune public », Dossier pour enseignants, Paris, 2002, p. 12-13.

Technical description

  • Stele of the Serpent King

    Thinite Period, 1st Dynasty, reign of the Serpent King (c. 3000 BC)

    Umm el-Qaab necropolis, Abydos

  • Limestone, bas-relief

    H. 143 cm; W. 65.5 cm; D. 25 cm

  • Purchased 1904

    E 11007

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    The Naqada era, c. 4000–3100 BC
    Room 20

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