Egyptian Symbols: Sistrum
The sistrum is one of the most sacred instruments in ancient Egyptian cosmogony. It is used in several ceremonies including dances, worship and celebrations especially for the goddess Hathor. The handle of the sistrum is in the shape of a U resembling that of the goddess’ face and horns in her cow form. It usually made of metal (brass or bronze) or wood with small metal discs that are rattled or shaken by hand. The sound it produces resembles that of the jangling sound when the breeze hits and blows through the papyrus reeds. Its basic shape resembled the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life.
The ancient Egyptians call the sistrum as the shesheset or iba used in numerous celebrations especially for the cult of Hathor especially in the Old Kingdom. It derived its name from the sound the instrument makes when shaken. It was believed that this sound appease and attract the attention of the gods and goddesses. This practice may have been derived from the shaking of another symbol of Hathor – the papyrus flower. The shesheset variety is in the shape similar to the Naos temple above Hathor’s head embellished by ornamental loops on the side. It is usually slid in side a box of naos and is normally carried by women of higher rank. The iba version is a simple loop resembling a closed horseshoe with along handle and loose metal cross bars above the Hathor head.
Aside from soothing the gods, the sistrum is also used to reduce the devastating effects of the flooding of the Nile. Isis, in her role as mother and creator, may be seen holding a pail that symbolizes the inundation of the Nile and the sistrum on the other hand. Sometimes, it may be shaken to frighten away Set. It is also carried by Hathor in her role as goddess and mythological character of joy, festivity, fertility, eroticism and dance. Because of its association with Hathor, it became a symbol of her son Ihy as well. Eventually, it has been absorbed in the cult of Amun, Isis and Bastet.
The popularity of the sistrum extends even to mortuary settings from small tombs to large temple. One of the most popular representations of the sistrum is in the temple of Hathor in Dendera.
In the Greco-Roman Period, the use of sistrum spread together with the cult of Isis and followed wherever the kingdom stretched.
To date, the sistrum is still visible and important in worship rites in Coptic and Ethiopian churches.