Ankh: The Libation Dish

This year I will be doing The Pagan Blog Project. To kick it off I will start with an essay I wrote in college for one of my ‘Art of the Ancient Near East and Egypt’ Classes.

Background info: This dish sits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I decided it would be good for A as one of the components is an Ankh.



At the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an Object called “The Libation Dish”. This beautiful work of art was used in Ancient Egypt during the first dynasty, in the year 2960 BCE. The dish is comprised in a set of two objects, one is the fan-like shape of a palm leaf, and the other is an ankh shaped bowl in which water is filled for the libation of the user. The arms folding down to form the box on the right say “Ka”, or “spirit” and the loop and knot in the center says “Ankh” or “life” both of which are hieroglyphs, and translated together they could be read as “Life to my Ka” or “Giving life to my spirit”.

“The Libation Dish” is carved out of a solid block of siltstone by chipping away until the artist finds it satisfactory to then continue to chisel the fine details. Since this object is carved from a solid block of stone it is heavy but easily manageable since it had to be picked up, carried, and used with accessibility and ease to the person using it.  The craftsmanship of the object lends itself to how carefully the artisan was able to sculpt this to be thin, flat, and elegant, yet it had to be able to hold up to many uses and years. The dish is graceful and relatively light yet sturdy.

Both of these objects are a set, and together they are used to make libations to the users “Ka” or spirit, soul, or life force. The shape of the object on the left is carved into the shape of a palm leaf, elegantly formed to show the graceful turn of a natural leaf as if it had just fallen to the ground, fresh and new. The upward turn in the back dipping down to the front shows this. If one looks at the front of the piece one would see the fold where the edge of the leaf at the ends would dip down then rise back up only to dip down again into the center section of a palm leaf. Even though the picture does not show it well, the opposite side of the leaf is also another curve for when the center of the leaf ends and the third section starts. This also shows an awareness to symmetry, which is stylistically common for Ancient Egyptian works of art. On the surface we see very accurately carved into this piece, the veins of the palm, rendered out precisely. The lines on the surface, though used as a technical tool for allowing the viewer read the object as a leaf; The veins are also used as a decorative motif for the fan. The pattern these lines form creates a melody and movement like wind flowing over the and across the leaf. The second object on the right is the actual dish. The lines of this object are very creative in their crafty way of mixing the functional with the decorative. The two arms folding down the upper left and upper right form the hieroglyph “Ka” while also creating a barrier to stop the overflow of water from being released. The Loop and Knot also create the same effect and are also hieroglyphs reading “Life”. The loop in the center creates the bowl where the user pours their water in, and the knot and ties make up the bottom barrier of the dish. This is a very creative way of solving two problems, the stylistic and functional, together.

The texture of the piece is very smooth, and polished as if water flows constantly over stone. This reestablishes the use of the dish itself, as being used for water libations to their soul. The user would not want their water libation to run jagged into their soul, but smooth free flowing water, giving life to their spirit. The object is smooth, inviting, calm, soft, and cooling to the sight and soul of the user. The siltstone was a perfect material in it’s ability to withstand the ages, the color and form is still in good shape and has changed little since this was being used in ancient times.

The object on the right was meant to be laid flat down on a desk or on a mat on the floor since it held water. But the object on the left if you look on the left side of the object it has a handle in which to hold. This was used to “fan life into the soul” of the user, so this object was meant to be held in the hand and fanned towards the bowl of water.

In Ancient Egypt the idea of the “Ka” ,or life force, had a very different meaning for them than to us in modern times. They believed that the Ka must be fed or sustained, and had a life of it’s own. Unlike the Ba, which is a person’s individual personality and is the closet to the western notion of a soul. The Ka must be fed food and water, and through Ma’at and spiritual practice the Ka could continue animating your existence. Once a person’s Ka left or “ran out” it was the moment of death and the Ba could leave the body. So because of this belief the practice of Ka Libations became a regular practice by Ancient Egyptians. One would use “the Libation dish” with the purpose of feeding one’s Ka. The ritual would be set out by first pouring clean water into the dish, then sitting in the “Henu” position. Arms must be out to the side bent upward at the elbow and hands raised with palms facing out and fingers together, as illustrated in the shape of the arms on the rim of the dish. The user would then, with the right hand, pick up the fan and while reciting a prayer, would fan the water into their Ka.

This function of “The Libation Dish” can tell us that the Ancient Egyptians were a very spiritual people who were concerned about the health of not just their body’s but of their minds and souls. The Ka is a person’s life force and vitality; if one feeds their Ka properly they also are constantly feeding their mind, learning something new every day, or perfecting what they already know. One also feeds their Ka by “Doing what is Ma’at or what is right, harmonious, and stable; Herodotus once wrote “The people of Egypt are the most pious I have ever known of a society.” This same philosophy can be seen in the style of the work of art itself. The Libation Dish is symmetrical, clean and is beautiful yet has a very important function. These same adjectives could also be used to describe Ancient Egypt as well because all of the art is similar for the first dynasty, which tells us that stability, health, and beauty with a function is what they, as a society at the time, found important.  The work of art is the physical manifestation of the act itself. The physicality of the palm is like the wind that flows through it like the wind the object creates to fan into the soul. The Dish forms the hieroglyphs meaning “Ka” and holds the water to feed it. So symbolically the dish itself is the act in which the “Ka” will be fed. Again, this is also telling of the Ancient Egyptians incorporating the stability of function and beauty, along with personifying spirituality.

The Ancient Egyptians were a complex people with complex ideologies. All of the art produced, especially in the first dynasty, were beautiful in their functionality and meaning. Everything that goes into an object has a specific purpose behind it; the smoothness of the fan like flowing air with the patterns of lines that create the movement of the object. The dish is literally the act of feeding the Ka, the hieroglyphs are the dish and the dish is the hieroglyphs which hold the water is which to feed the Ka. Every aspect of these objects is particular, purposeful and beautiful in the function of it. And considering this object was used for this purpose in every echelon of the society it tell us that this is not just a royal practice but what every Ancient Egyptian found meaning in and practiced. “The Libation Dish” is one of the best examples of Ancient Egyptian art that the Metropolitan Museum has to offer.


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