In this article, I argue from eight lines of evidence that paddle dolls represent female members of

the Theban khener-troupe of musical performers that served the goddess Hathor and were perhaps

co-opted and appended by Nebhepetre to his royal mortuary cult at Deir el-Bahari. Some of these lines

(especially those having to do with tattoos and costume) take up threads of ideas that have been proposed

by others, 11 but many lines are new (especially those dealing with location, demographics, and

the association of the paddle dolls with clappers, harps, and mirrors) and derive from a study of the

unpublished archaeological contexts of paddle dolls excavated in the environs of Deir el-Bahari. These

tombs in Asasif represent by far the largest corpus of excavated paddle dolls, with other examples

coming in much reduced numbers from nearby Theban tombs, from Beni Hasan, Sheikh Farag, Naga

el-Deir, and from Rifeh. In the course of this essay, I will discuss all these lines of evidence, but the

arguments inspired by the excavated contexts of the igurines constitute the meat of the study.

Paddle dolls are found in burials that date from the late Sixth Dynasty to the Thirteenth Dynasty,

although their period of greatest popularity seems to have been the late Eleventh and early Twelfth Dynasties.

12 Many of the observations pertinent to paddle dolls are also applicable to the fully-rounded,

Middle Kingdom igurines of nude, bejewelled, and frequently tattooed women with truncated legs,


which have been so thoroughly discussed by Geraldine Pinch, Angela Tooley, and others. 13 Although

the main focus of this article is paddle dolls, the relationship between this “barbarous” genre and its

quintessentially Middle Kingdom counterpart will be touched upon as well. The largely unpublished

records from Lisht North provide particularly important comparative material, as this cemetery is the

provenience of the greatest quantity of excavated, truncated, nude, female igurines of Middle Kingdom

date. 14

The Khener and Their Dances

From the end of the Middle Kingdom and onward through the New Kingdom, female igurines

of many different types were dedicated at temples, particularly those wholly or partially devoted to

the cult of Hathor. 15 It is my contention that in the late Eleventh Dynasty, when the manufacture of

paddle dolls is irst witnessed in earnest, and when the tradition of offering votives at temples was

not strong, paddle dolls were manufactured primarily by craftsmen associated with the temple at Deir

el-Bahari and distributed (or perhaps sold) to people who wished to associate themselves with the

khener-dancers and/or to those who desired the essence of the dancers to perform “beautiful dancing.

. . . every day” 16 for their own ka.

Before launching into a discussion of the archaeological and iconographic evidence that links paddle

dolls to real performers, it is important to discuss the identity and function of the khener. Studies by

Del Nord 17 and William Ward 18 in the 1980s effectively challenged the long held equation of khenerwomen

(xnrwt) with members of the harim. The verb xnr can be read “to conine,” and so scholars

typically equated the musically inclined khener-women with inhabitants of the king’s private chambers,

shown performing in scenes of palace-life at Amarna. As Nord pointed out, however, members of the

khener often included both males and married women. This rendered problematic the analogy of the

khener-woman with the hypothetical Egyptian concubine “who, like the Japanese geisha, was always

well turned out, well mannered, and adept in music, games, and polite conversation.” 19


Paddle dolls closely resemble the women who originally staffed the strongly Hathoric cult of Nebhepetre

Mentuhotep II. In certain instances, they bore the same tattoos as some of the women interred

on temple grounds—diamond-shaped patterns known to be associated with cultic dancing from the

iconography in the tomb of Wah-ka II at Qau. Further, just as Nebhepetre’s cultic staff included both

women and young girls, single sets of paddle dolls could be comprised of a cohort of regularly sized

igurines and a single miniature igurine. Like Nebhepetre’s Hathoric functionaries, paddle dolls were

found mostly in close association with his mortuary temple. Their elaborately patterned costume is

extremely unusual, and it is therefore fascinating that a very close sartorial parallel was found in the

dresses worn by the women of a khener-troupe of Hathor that belonged to one speciic unnamed

Theban temple in the tomb of Kenamun. Given the remarkable resemblance between the paddle dolls

and Kenamun’s khener-women, it is not at all improbable that the latter hailed from the Hathor temple

at Deir el-Bahari.

A clue as to the nature of the paddle dolls’ imagined performance is provided by their very

prominent public triangles, the exaggerated nature of which suggests that at a crucial moment

in the dance the performers lifted their skirts to revive the dead king or the dead person

in whose tomb they were interred. The dead soul would thus be identiied with Re and they with Hathor. Certainly, the instruments and accoutrements buried in statistically signiicant numbers with

the paddle dolls are precisely those shown with the khener performers sacred to the goddess: clappers,

harps, and mirrors. Sistra, interestingly, are never found, though they do not occur in Middle Kingdom

graves generally, being perhaps too sacred. Menats, the other main insignia of devotees of Hathor are

also virtually never discovered in graves, perhaps for the same reason. The argument has been made

above, however, that the paddle dolls effectively served as personiied menats—menat-dancers who

could cause the dead to rise and could bestow upon them all the blessings of the Golden One.

With the exception of the equation between the shape of the menat necklace and the shape of the

igurine, virtually all of the lines of evidence that link the paddle dolls to the khener-women also apply

to the genre of the truncated Middle Kingdom female igurine. These igurines are found both with

(602, 828) and without (518, 809) paddle dolls at Asasif. Further, in general they are more frequently

found in graves and houses at sites with royal mortuary temples or temples closely identiied with the

cult of the dead king (Lisht, Kahun, Hawara, Heliopolis, Abydos, Abusir = forty four dolls) than at sites

without such structures (Kubban, Deir el-Bersha, el-Matarya, and Esna = six dolls total). 142

The faience truncated igurines in particular frequently bear the diamond-shaped tattoo marks common

to the dancer and the paddle doll alike. They have occasionally been found in groups, as in the

tomb of Hepy, and some, distinguished by hairstyle particularly, seem to have represented prepubescent

girls. The nude females are not infrequently associated with clappers, and at least one was discovered

with both a hand-shaped clapper and a mirror—a kit that would allow her to perform the mirror

dance. As in the case of the paddle dolls, the pubic triangle is almost always shown, though it should be

noted that on the rare occasions when it is covered, the dresses worn may resemble those of the paddle

dolls. The lack of clothing worn by the majority of these igurines, however, is perhaps their most

striking departure from the iconography of the paddle dolls. It is thus tempting to suggest that the

dance of the truncated female igure was different than that performed by the paddle doll. Perhaps the

former type of igurine represented the all nude khener-dancer who occasionally performed amidst

completely clothed counterparts, such as in the tomb of Kaiemankh at Giza (G4561) (see ig. 17). 143

This dancer no doubt also honored the goddess Hathor, but the point of her dance differed from that

of the paddle doll in that concealing and revealing the secret of the khener-women was evidently not

a central theme.

The tradition of the truncated female igurines began at Lisht in the reign of Amenemhet I, when

the royal mortuary cult was transferred from Thebes to Lisht, and it is signiicant that the vast majority

of provenienced truncated igurines come from this site. 144 At Thebes, paddle dolls continued to

be fashioned and still represented the women who danced in Nebhepetre Menuthotep’s mortuary

temple, but the newer type of igurine was also manufactured—sometimes replacing the paddle dolls

and sometimes co-existing with them or with other experimental versions of female igurines. The

commonly held notion that paddle dolls and their truncated descendants, should be considered “generic

images that related to the general notion of fertility, encompassing sexuality, conception and the

successful bearing and rearing of children” 145 must be reconsidered and their speciic social persona

acknowledged. These igurines were khener-dancers, whose exuberant, theatric, and ultimately regenerative

dances performed for the beneit of kings and deities could also be harnessed for those that

owned them. Royal resurrection appears in Middle Kingdom times—as both earlier and later—to have

been largely placed in the hands (or womb) of the goddess Hathor, the patroness of music, dance,

resurrection, and the much beloved “Mistress of the Vulva” and “Mistress of the Menat.” These female

igurines should be interpreted as the sacred performers that gladdened the heart of the goddess and

raised her radiant father. 146 Materialized in ownable form, or placed in the grave as identity markers,

the khener-women could be called upon by those who possessed them to serve as intercessors to the

goddess and to perform in perpetuity for the beneit of the tomb owner’s departed spirit.

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