ART AND RELIGION – Sistrum of Hathor

Bronze arched sistrum with Hathor head decoration
Length: 38.4 cm
Width: 8.1 cm

From Egypt
Late Period, after 600 BC

Music for the gods

The sistrum was basically a rattle comprising an arch (an inverted U-shaped section) with a handle attached. The arch had a number of cross pieces onto which were threaded metal discs. When the sistrum was shaken, the discs rattled. The top of the handle was often decorated with the head of Hathor, patron of music. The instrument, carried in tomb and temple scenes, indicated devotion to Hathor, and symbolized adoration in general. The similarity between the shape of the sistrum and that of the ankh meant that, like the ankh, it came to represent life.

The sistrum was used in Egyptian festivals and was often played by temple songstresses. Shaking the sistrum probably marked the division of the phrases in adulatory hymns. It was believed that the sound of rattling also drove off malign forces, preventing them from spoiling the festival.

The sistrum continued to be used in Egypt well after the rule of the pharaohs. By the time of the Greek author Plutarch, around the first or second century AD, the arch of the sistrum had come to symbolise the lunar cycle and the sistrum’s bars, the elements. The Hathor heads were interpreted as Isis and Nephthys, who represented life and death respectively. In ceremonies of the Coptic period, priests extended the sistrum to the four cardinal points to indicate the power of god.

Hathor

The Goddess associated with joy, fertility, music and dancing, with cult sites in many important ancient Egyptian cities. Hathor is also the wife of Horus and, as the sky, is the daughter of the sun-god Re. Her name means ‘Temple of Horus’. Hathor is depicted as a cow, as a woman with cow’s ears or as a woman with horns and a sun disc on her head.

Isis

‘Mother of the Gods’, spouse of Osiris and mother of Horus. Her name means ‘the seat’ and she is depicted as a woman wearing a head-dress surmounted by a throne, or a solar disc set between a pair of cow’s horns.

ankh

Symbol of life. Shaped like a T with a loop joined to the centre-top of the crossbar, the ankh is the hieroglyphic sign for life and was used as a protective amulet.

sistrum (plural: sistra)

A musical instrument used during rituals, especially those associated with the goddess Hathor. The sistrum consists of a wooden or metal inverted U-shaped frame with a handle. Metal discs are suspended on rods set across the frame, and rattle when the sistrum is shaken.

British Museum 

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