Turtle headed demon – still missing!

Turtle headed creatures are quite rare in iconography of ancient Egypt and examples are scattered through different contexts. We can meet them mostly in funerary sphere where they serve as guardians. In the case of late Third Intermediate Period coffins, turtle headed creatures can be seen on three different coffins dating to the times of 25th and 26th Dynasties. 

Two examples are quite similar in iconography, showing us turtle-headed creatures as taking part in a procession of apotropaic creatures and animals. Such compositions are known from different objects, mostly from coffins, but also from tombs and temples. (See Fig. 1 and MISSING: Armed and possibly dangerous!)

Drawing of turtle-headed demon from a coffin

Fig. 1. Turtle-headed figure sitting on the ground and holding knives is named Hw33.t, which refers to the guardian demon from the Book of the Dead.
From the qrsw coffin of Ankhefenkhons (CGC 41001bis). Drawing by D. Haładaj.

A third example of turtle-headed creature who is pictured on outer anthropoid coffin NME 00004 from Stockholm is quite different. If we take a closer look at the coffin case, we will see 6 hybrid figures per side surrounded by columns of text. They look very similar dressed in white shrouds with yellow necklaces, wearing blue wigs adorned with cones or feathers and holding knifes on their knees. Their iconography varies only in the shape of the head which can be anthropoid or zoomorphic. These creatures, described by A. Dodson as “underworld deities” (Dodson 2015: 32), fall into a few categories, representing 4 Sons of Horus, Thoth and Horus-Iunmutef, and three figures of uncertain character bearing the names Lady of the West, Lord of the West and Lady of the Lakenb.t S.t.

One side of decorated coffin of Isisirdis

Fig. 2. Decoration of the coffin-case belonging to Isisirdis. Photograph number 15421D, Copyright ©2017 Medelhavsmuseet.

It is the Lady of the Lake who is interesting for us because of her iconography: she is sitting on the ground, holding a knife on her knees, with her head represented as a turtle. Both her name and iconography refer to aquatic regions of the Duat, what is not surprising because the turtle is first of all a water-dwelling animal. As for her name there are no analogies—the closest are epithets used for Sobek, Lord of the Lake (Leitz 2012, vol. III: 745) and for Hathor, Lady of the Red Lake (Leitz 2012, vol. IV: 139). Her function here focuses on the protection of the body of the deceased placed in the coffin. However, it seems that her nature can be different than the usual guardian demons as she does not appear in spells connected to the protection of the gates.

Close-up of Turtle-headed demon on coffin

Fig. 3. Turtle-headed figure from the coffin belonging to Isisirdis. Photograph number 14884D, Copyright ©2017 Medelhavsmuseet.

If you have any information regarding this demon, please contact the author of this post:

Dagmara Haładaj
PhD student, Antiquity of Southeastern Europe Research Center
University of Warsaw