This thick-snouted fish with a long dorsal fin,
pairs of ventral fins front and back, and a
bipartite tail is a member of the Mormyrus
genus, more commonly termed the Oxyrhynchus
fish in Egyptological literature. The more
common name of this fish is that of the village of
Oxyrhynchus situated in the Egyptian Faiyum,
the agriculturally-rich region to the southwest of
modern Cairo. Hollow cast in bronze with the
eyes originally inlaid, the fish rests on a
rectangular base. The fish wears as an attribute
the horns of a cow fronted by a sun disc.
The ancient Egyptian traditions which grew up
around the Oxyrhynchus fish are varied and
complex. The best known, preserved by Plutarch,
a Greek priest of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi
writing in the second century A.D., in chapter 72
of his monumental opus De Iside recounts how
the citizens of Oxyrhynchus engaged in a bloody
confrontation with the citizens of neighboring
Kynopolis because the citizens of Kynopolis ate
the Oxyrhynchus fish. That account in Plutarch
differs from the two ancient Egyptian accounts of
this fish, both of which are associated with the
god Osiris. As one recalls, Osiris and his brother,
Seth, became embroiled in a conflict for power
with the result that Seth triumphed over Osiris.
In so doing, he dismembered the body of Osiris
and scattered it far and wide. Isis, the dutiful
wife and, incidentally, sister of Osiris, gathered
up the pieces and reassembled them, but not
before the Oxyrhynchus fish ate his phallus. The
phallus was necessary for the posthumous
conception of Osiris’s son and heir, Horus. In
another version of the myth, the Oxyrhynchus
fish emerged from the wounds of Osiris himself.
Whatever the truth in these matters might be,
the Oxyrhynchus fish was inextricably associated
with the god Osiris and revered by the ancient
Egyptians. That reverence explains why this fish
wears as attributes the sun disc and cow horns,
associating it with Isis in her role as the reviver
of her husband Osiris.
Such objects were frequently dedicated in
sanctuaries by pious pilgrims as ex-votos to
accompany their prayers. The rectangular base
on which this example rests may have originally
held the mummified remains of all or part of an
Oxyrhynchus fish in order to imbue the object
with more efficacious powers.
Douglas J.Brewster and Renée F. Friedman, Fish
and Fishing in Ancient Egypt (Cairo 1989), pages
51-52, for a zoological discussion of this fish.
Wolfgang Helck and Eberhard Otto, Kleines
Lexikon der Ägyptologie [edited by Rosemarie
Drenkhahn] (Wiesbaden 1999), page 216, for a
succinct account of this fish and the village with
which it was anciently associated.
Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, British Museum
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London 1995),
pages 100-101, for a discussion of fish in
general and the Oxyrhynchus fish in particular.