Nile Catfish Pendant
This fish pendant represents a Synodontis Batensoda, more commonly known as the Nile catfish, a species of fish named for its black belly. Often worn at the end of a plait of hair, amulets like this one were used by children and young women to protect against drowning.
This fine amulet is made of gold with stone inlays, including a red stone for the right eye and a green stone for the left. Amulets in the form of the Synodontis Batensoda were particularly popular during the Middle Kingdom, when the fish might have been identified with an astronomical constellation.
A fish pendant features famously in an ancient Egyptian tale that is part of what we now call the Westcar Papyrus. The story describes how young, beautiful women from the royal palace, wearing only “nets,” were rowing a king across a lake when one woman’s turquoise fish pendant fell from her braid into the water. She stops rowing, thus disrupting the boat party.
Though the king offers her a replacement, the woman refuses; she wants her own pendant returned. The story ends happily when a magician recovers the lost pendant by moving half of the water in the lake onto the other half!
The ancient Egyptians had intimate knowledge of the several species of catfish that they observed among the rich life of the Nile River. Individual species are often clearly identifiable in Egyptian art and iconography.
Egyptians attributed rich symbolic and mythological roles to the catfish. The upside-down catfish (Synodontis batensoda), for example. was imbued with symbolic importance. Its “flipped” orientation allows it to position its mouth close to the water’s surface, from where it appears to be swimming upside down. Belly-up on the surface, it appeared dead but was clearly alive, suggesting powers of regeneration.
Amulets of these creatures have been found throughout Old and Middle Kingdom sites in Egypt. These objects, it was believed, prevented drowning and were worn as necklaces or as hair ornaments. One gold pendant from the early second millennium B.C. is so naturalistic, it can be easily identified as the upside-down catfish.
Middle Kingdom, 12th dynasty, ca. 1985-1773 BC. Gold with Egyptian green glazed faience, chalcedony, turquoise, carnelian, lapis lazuli and black stone inlay. Dimensions: H: 11/16 x W: 1 9/16 x D: 3/8 in. (1.75 x 3.97 x 1 cm). Now in the Walters Art Museum. 57.1072