The distinct design of the fish categorises it as a tilapia fish or ‘bolti’ fish, known in Egyptian as ‘nekhau’. Amulets of this type were said to be worn in women’s hair, as a charm against drowning. However, like most amulets it also symbolised regeneration, important for the afterlife. Associated with Hathor, tilapia fish were a symbol of fertility and renewal, as they carry their young in their mouth. For the ancient Egyptians, the orifice was an unusual source for birth and symbolised regeneration.
Mention of tilapia amulets is first mentioned in a Middle Kingdom text, known as the Westcar Papyrus, after the archaeologist who discovered it; Henry Westcar. Written in hieratic, it is a literary text possibly used for entertainment in the Middle Kingdom and details five fables told at the royal court of king Khufu, from the fourth Dynasty, by his sons.
The third tale explicitly mentions a fish amulet, worn by a young woman. Told by Khufu’s son, Baufra, the tale is set during the reign of his grandfather; Sneferu. In a fit of boredom, the pharaoh is advised to sail around the palace lake. He acquires twenty young women, fashions them with oars and instructs them to row. One of the young girls however loses her fish amulet and refuses to continue rowing without it. The Pharaoh’s adviser is able to part the waters so that the amulet can ultimately be retrieved. The tale exhibits a subtle amount of satirical writing, meant ultimately to poke fun at the incapable pharaoh Sneferu. It also highlights, however, the important of the fish amulet and the belief held in their powers and supposed apotropaic properties.