By Jacqueline Engel
Sculpted from an alabaster block, this altar was used either as a sacrificial altar or a libation table. It is decorated with the forms of two lions, whose front and back paws are beautifully defined. The altar slopes downward towards a circular basin, around which the tails of the lions are curled.
Magical offering formulas and prayers were recited when libations like water, milk, beer or wine were poured over the altar.
The liquids were then collected in the basin and presented to the gods or to the ka of the deceased.
The same magical and sacred formulas were required during sacrificial rites performed on the altar, and in this case, the blood of the sacrificial animal was collected in the basin.
The use of lion heads and paws, as decorative elements on thrones, chairs and beds, was a popular theme in ancient Egypt.
The lion was associated with the horizon, where the sun god rose, and these features imbued the item of furniture with an air of strength and protection. Funerary beds matching the style of this altar were found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, as well as in the funeral procession scenes in the Tombs of the Nobles in Thebes from the New Kingdom Period.
The alabaster stone, often referred to as calcite by Egyptologists, was called shes by the ancient Egyptians, and quarried at Hatnub near Minya, 250 km south of Cairo.
Old Kingdom, end of 2nd Dynasty, around 2690 BC.
From the Mortuary Temple of Djoser, Saqqara.
Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 1321