A Late Saitic Statue from the Temple of Neith at Sais

By: Hermann Ranke

Originally Published in 1942

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IN December 1941 the University Museum acquired1 a headless kneeling statue of black basalt2 of the period of the so-called Egyptian “Renaissance,” which hitherto had been almost entirely unrepresented in our Egyptian Collection.

Stone statue with head missing, kneeling and holding a small shrine that contains an image of the god Osiris, inscriptions cover the shrine and base of the statue
Plate IV — Saitic statue of an official, Psamtik-si-Neith, who was not only the leader of all building works at Sais (the resident city of the usurper-king Amasis) but also was a favorite courtier of this king of the latter part of the 26th dynasty. The statue originally stood in the sanctuary of the temple of the goddess Neith at Sais.
ca. 550 B.C.
Museum Object Number: 42-9-1
Image Number: 31139

The three great periods which we call the Old, the Middle and the New Kingdoms (dynasties 1-21, from before 3000 to 945 B.C.) had led Egyptian civilization and art from one climax to another and finally to a gradual decay. They were followed by nearly four centuries of foreign domination, when the Egyptians obeyed Libyan, Nubian and Assyrian rulers (dynasties 22-25, 945-663 B.C.). With Psammetichus I, the founder of the 26th dynasty, once more a strong family of native rulers ascended the throne and held it for more than a century. Their names were Psammetichus I, Necho, Psammetichus II and Apries. This last member of the family, the Hophra of the Old Testament, was pushed aside by one of his officials who bore the name by which a thousand years earlier the expulsor of the Hyksos was called: Amasis. He ruled for forty-four years. His son and successor, Psammetichus III, was king for one year only, and then Cambyses conquered the Nile Valley and Egypt became a province of the Persian Empire, to remain so for almost two centuries (525-332).

Psammetichus established his capital at his home-town Sais, in the Western Delta, and his successors followed his example. We therefore call them the Saite or Saitic kings and speak of the 26th as the Saitic dynasty. Sais had an old sanctuary, the temple of the goddess Neith, and in prehistoric times seems to have been the center of a Lower Egyptian kingdom. The Saitic kings tried to revive the glorious times of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. They imitated the old costumes, the old titles, the old language and orthography and, especially, the old art. Their artists vied with one another in mastering the hardest stones. They gave to their statues the most highly polished surfaces, but with all their technical skill and mastery over the material they were unable to revive the unconscious vitality of the Old or the conscious force of the Middle Kingdom. They tried to do the impossible, to revive what had passed away, and to us their refined elegance betrays them as sensitive and sophisticated descendants. The graceful forms of their best works are very pleasing indeed, but they show only the afterglow of a sun which already had set below the horizon.

Of this renaissance art of the Saitic restoration, of which quite a number of temple statues have been preserved and are now found in Egyptian museums all over the globe, our new statue is an outstanding example. It represents a man kneeling on a high rectangular base which is rounded off in front. He is clad in a simple garment, probably of linen, which leaves the arms and the upper part of his chest and back uncovered. It is loosely folded in front and falls down to a hand’s breadth above the ankles. On either side a triangular piece is shown sweeping the ground.

The modelling of the individual parts of the body is very well done. The breast is that of a stoutish man, the only intimation of his advanced age. The feet and the rather large hands show the finger and toe nails carefully executed. The tips of the thumbs are a little affectedly curved. The feet are bare. The soles disappear behind a narrow rectangular back-pillar which reaches up to the shoulders.

Between his outstretched hands the man holds a shrine. This shrine contains, standing on a low pedestal, a figure of Osiris, the patron god of the deceased. He has the well-known form, with crook and flail, collar and crown, and a uraeus serpent stretches down to the god’s forehead. The shrine, now open, could once be closed by folding doors, the hinge-holes of which are visible.

Base and back-pillar of the statue and the whole shrine, including its top, are covered with inscriptions. They give us quite an unusual amount of information about the time and place at which the statue was erected. We learn from them that the man whom it represents served under King Amasis (the friend of the Greeks), whose erased name is barely recognizable on the top of the shrine. Its date thus must fall between the years 569 and 525 B.C. We learn also that the statue once stood in the great state sanctuary of Neith in the royal residence city of Sais. And even its place within this temple is revealed, a very rare feature indeed. It stood “on the Eastern side opposite the Mother of the God.” The “mother of the god” is the goddess Neith herself, who in Sais was worshipped as the mother of the sun god Re and as the creator of the universe. “Opposite her” evidently means opposite her statue or opposite the shrine which contained her cult emblem. At any rate, our statue had a highly honored place in the innermost parts of the sanctuary.

Back of a stone statue of a kneeling figure, head missing, inscription down the back of the figure and around the base of the statue
Plate IV — Rear view of the statue of Psamtik-si-Neith showing the inscription on the back-pillar which contains requests to the priests of the temple of Neith to place food offerings for the deceased on the altar of the “Lord of Eternity” and to remember the name of the deceased when officiating in the “secret places.”
Museum Object Number: 42-9-1
Image Number: 31141

The man himself is of interest. His name Psamtik-si-Neith (“Psammetichus is a son of Neith”) makes it probable that he was born under Psammetichus II, about 30 years before the beginning of Amasis’ reign. He was not a priest as most of the men represented by Saitic temple statues were. If he calls himself a “leader of all building work in Sais,” “whom his Majesty selected out of his peers to make all his monuments in Sais,” it is not necessarily the case that he was a trained architect himself, but he certainly was designated by the king to supervise the monumental works which at his time were being executed in the residence. He does not seem to have belonged to an aristocratic family, and it is even doubtful whether he was a native of Sais. His father bears a title which otherwise is borne by priests in Upper Egypt, and so he may have been of Upper Egyptian origin himself. But he constantly stresses his devotion to Neith of Sais, in whose temple his statue stood. If we give any credence to his words at all, he must have been a personal friend and favorite of the king. Since he calls himself one “who brings up the reports of the inhabitants of his town to the palace,” “who leads everyone to his office in the temple,” “who satisfied the heart of the sovereign,” and since he says “his Majesty appointed me from office to office,” we get the impression that he was one of the courtiers who had strong personal influence in the residence and even in the temple of Neith.

I mentioned before that King Amasis had been a usurper. It is quite possible that our Psamtik-si-Neith was one of his close friends and supporters whom the king had rewarded for his services. Perhaps it was he who gained for Amasis the city of Sais which during the civil war had taken sides with Hophra. In a couple of passages of our inscription there seems to be an intimation of the political situation of the time. The claim that he “repelled the evil daily” from the inhabitants of his town in itself might not have to be taken too seriously. But when he says that he “quieted the disorder in the districts of Sais,” or even that he “fought for his city,” we seem to hear reverberations of the din of those unruly times. Other passages breathe a religious sentiment. The “daily follower of Neith,” as Psamlik-si-Neith repeatedly calls himself, prays to the great goddess that she help him “to complete his time in a good life” and exclaims: “How does the Mother of the God make happy him who relies upon her! Life, death and burial are under her supervision. She gives a good life and a burial to him who serves her, for she knows his heart.”

Some parts of the inscription, following the traditional pattern, contain requests to the priests of Neith to pronounce the name of our courtier when they are officiating in the “secret places” and to give him the food and drink necessary for the eternal continuation of his life. He knows that he has deserved it, for throughout his life he took care of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, he buried the poor and “rescued the miserable from the mighty,” he “did not reject the miserable one at judgment, for he loathed to be partial” and “his Majesty recognized his heart as that of a servant of the god.” He feels so strong in his position that he even adds a threat against those who “forget (to mention) his name,” wishing that their names may not “reach the house of the King!”

Thus this apparently dead and mute piece of stone, if only we look carefully at the signs engraved upon its surface, becomes a living thing and begins to speak. It brings home to us a bit of the pulsating life of a time, two and a half millennia ago, when Ancient Egypt approached the end of her political independence. We see the favorite of the king mediating cleverly between the usurper and the inhabitants of his residence, using his influence among the priesthood; a staunch supporter at the same time of the underprivileged classes. We see his statue, which he had carved and carefully inscribed during his lifetime, set up in the great state sanctuary of Neith, opposite the goddess herself, intended not to end in an American Museum, however worthy a place, but to keep him alive for all eternity in the presence of his revered goddess. And we see and hear the priests, for many years to come, when revealing the cult-image of the goddess, muttering a blessing on the name of this highly honored worthy, fearfully conscious of the curse which was engraved on his statue and which might fall upon them if ever they neglected their pious duty.


From Mr. R. Stora, New York City. The Statue formerly belonged to Lt. Commander J. Whitaker, Maitland, England. Its earlier history is as yet unknown.
The measurements are: height, 0.597 m.; length of base, 0.380 m.; width of base, 0.212 m. The statue has received the inventory number 42-9-1.

Cite This Article

Ranke, Hermann. "A Late Saitic Statue from the Temple of Neith at Sais." Museum Bulletin IX, no. 4 (June, 1942): 13-17. Accessed September 29, 2023. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/2425/

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