Ihy is the ancient Egyptian god of childhood, music and joy. His name has been translated as meaning “sistrum player” or “calf.” He is closely associated with the music of the sacred sistrum, a musical rattle form of percussion instrument first used by the ancient Egyptians in their dances and religious observances.
Alluded to only a handful of times in ancient Egypt’s Coffin Texts and the iconic Book of the Dead, Ihy played a comparatively minor role in Egyptian mythology. Ihy is frequently shown as a child or a young boy with a youthful sidelock playing the sistrum and holding a menat. His depiction as a child-god underpinned the ancient Egyptian belief in their gods as a family group.
In his child god manifestation in the inscriptions in Dendera temple’s birthing house or mammisi, Ihy is shown as a young, naked boy. His tumbling side locks of hair are carefully braided, indicating he is less than 14 years old. One hand holds his sistrum, a sacred rattle made of brass or bronze, the other hand holds a finger to his mouth in a childish pose. Ihy is shown wearing a sacred menat necklace together with a red and white Pshent crown adorned with the uraeus symbol of Lower Egypt.
Facts About Ihy
- His name translates as “sistrum player” or “calf”
- Ihy is the son of Ra and Hathor
- Represented joyous childhood and the perfect child
- Ihy appears a handful of times in the Coffin Texts and the iconic Book of the Dead
- Depicted as a young boy with a youthful sidelock playing the sistrum and holding a menat.
Ihy’s Divine Lineage
Despite his status as a minor divinity in Upper Egypt, Ihy is part of an imposing family tree. Ihy’s earliest references portray Ihy as the child of Horus, Isis, Neith or Sekhmet. Over time the popular view was that Ihy was the son of Hathor and Horus the Elder. He was worshipped with Hathor at Dendera and invoked during religious festivals.
His birth is honoured in wall inscriptions on several birth houses in Dendera. The ancient Egyptians believed joy and music should welcome children upon their birth. Egyptologists note Ihy was clearly adored by his divine family reinforcing his status as the quintessential immortal child.
Hathor’s expansive temple in Dendera holds most of the surviving sources on Ihy. Together with Hathor’s other children Ihy played a crucial role in the metamorphosis of Hathor in his worshipers’ perception from an implacably avenging goddess to an affectionate, loving mother.
Despite symbolising all the wonder and beauty of childhood, Egyptian texts suggest ancient Egyptians maintained a healthy respect for, and even fear of, Ihy.
More Than Childhood Joy
As ancient Egypt’s god of music, Ihy defined childhood playfulness. Embodying a purely musical embodiment of infancy, Ihy stood for the joy that stems from playing the sistrum. The Upper Egyptian culture connected playing the sistrum with Hathor’s cult.
With the passage of time, Ihy emerged as an icon for more complex religious concepts than just music. His exuberant expression of music merged with his part in worshipping Hathor to reshape him into their god of lust, pleasure and fertility. Ihy was also notable as being the ancient Egyptians’ “Lord of Bread,” who oversaw beer. Ancient Egyptians were convinced that to worship Hathor, they needed to be intoxicated. By worshipping Ihy this way, they could also communicate with his mother.
Ihy’s natural association with his mother gradually evolved into the symbol for a mother’s devotion to her child. As Hathor was worshipped as a cow-headed goddess, Ihy naturally assumed the role of her calf. Ancient Egyptians often used an “Ihy” to help move a herd of cattle across a stream or river. The calf or “Ihy,” was loaded onto a boat. The calf’s mother followed the boat, leading the heard across the stream.
Reflecting On The Past
The worship of Ihy illustrates how the ancient Egyptians organized their gods in family structures, which helped them to explain their gods’ often fickle actions and family feuds.
Header image courtesy: Roland Unger [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons