Egyptian ostracons (part 3)
Ostracons often go beyond traditional motives. Among them there are drawings of a parody and satirical character. A number of plots, in which parallels to fables are guessed, are almost not represented in any other art form, except ostracons, papyri and individual reliefs. Here, traits characteristic of humans are transferred to animals – cats graze geese, talk with monkeys, moreover, the animals themselves change their roles in relation to each other, for example, cats cater to mice and lions to goats. The ostracons of a parody theme cause disagreement among scientists in their interpretation: some see caricatures of the pharaoh and priesthood in them, others – illustrations for fables, others consider humorous scenes.
Of particular interest are the drawings of the “animal epic.” Among them are such plots as the war of mice and cats, playing lion and goat in checkers. Apparently, the Egyptians also invested allegorical meaning in them, expressing in a veiled form their attitude to the dark sides of reality. Involuntarily begs in a number of plots parallels with the world of people. Unfortunately, almost no texts of ancient Egyptian fables have been preserved in the literature. The first evidence of their existence in Egypt relates to the New Kingdom. The drawings of the “animal epic” can not always be attributed to any particular plot. One of the ostracons from the Berlin Museum presents a red cat with a raised paw, talking to a baboon. Her image looks like a lioness, which hints at the iconographic closeness to the image of the goddess Tefnut, who, in addition to the lion’s appearance, also appears in the form of a cat. This figure is related to the legend of the return of the goddess Hathor-Tefnut from Nubia. Perhaps this is one of the few graphic parallels to the mythological plot. But the question arises: how are the birds in the nest (at the top of the figure), the cat and the baboon connected in meaning?
All elements of the composition are balanced in rhythm and color, and this is no accident. On the left, on a small elevation, a cat sits, its face is bared, and in its front paw there is a rod with a bent end. Reddish streaks run through the animal’s hair with flaming flashes. The whole appearance of the cat indicates that it is aggressive towards the monkey, which, on the contrary, expresses calm and complacency with its posture. In the right paw of the animal are the fruits of the date. Above the monkey and the cat is a bird, spreading its wings over the nest. The grayish-blue color of the baboon and the bird hints at their divine essence, for this color symbolized involvement in an unearthly beginning. If we accept the version that this picture is connected with the myth of “The Return of Hathor-Tefnut from Nubia”, then the monkey should personify Thoth, the date fruit should hint at the scene of action – Nubia, and the angry cat – at Tefnut itself. In this episode of myth, the god Ra, needing the protection of his daughter Tefnut, sends Thoth after her, who, having taken the form of a baboon, pacifies the angry Tefnut with wise tales in which fables were supposedly interspersed. One of them – about the bird – is probably illustrated by this drawing. The meaning of the fable was that the cat entered into an alliance with a kite and they promised to protect each other. But she treacherously violated the oath and began to encroach on his nest. With this parallel, Thoth wanted to remind Tefnut of her duties towards her aging father, the god Ra. This version unites in meaning all the elements of the composition.
The ostracons, where animals with musical instruments are represented, do not have such a close analogy in the texts. It is characteristic that in these drawings the Egyptian masters did not illustrate the plot, but revealed its content by figurative means.