3: A Donkey-headed Rhyton

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABSolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

In the previous two episodes, we’ve been having a lot of fun in Ancient Egypt. In this episode, we’re going to jump forward a little bit and hop the pond on over to Greece. I want us to look at what’s probably my favorite piece in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection of Ancient Greek ceramics. The Art Institute has a few very beautiful and entertaining objects in its Ancient Greek collection, but this one really takes the cake.

Nestled in a vitrine among all the grandiose High Classical red-figure amphoras, kraters, kylixes, and stamnoi, we find a cute little rhyton, a drinking cup. OK, here … let’s do it right. *Ahem* This is a mid 5th Century BC Attic red-figure rhyton in the shape of a donkey’s head attributed to the very prolific late Archaic, early Classical Athenian vase painter named Douris.

To start things off here in our examination of this rhyton, let’s first check out its interesting manufacturing technique. It exemplifies three primary methods for crafting ceramics in Classical Greece. The neck and rim of the cup was thrown on a potters wheel, the body of the vessel (which corresponds to the head and snout of the donkey) … this part was fashioned in a mold, and the ears and handle were shaped by hand. It’s certainly not unique in this way, but it’s nonetheless pretty interesting to see all three techniques used on one vessel.

We could of course go into much further detail on its manufacture, specifically the firing process of black and red-figure Greek ceramics, but let’s save that whole spiel for a later podcast.

The rhyton is a common type of drinking cup in the shape of an animal’s head. This vessel shape stretches far back to the Bronze Age Civilizations of Ancient Greece, the Minoans and Mycenaeans, the time of the heroic mythic warriors of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and even to earlier periods in the civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Rhyta (that’s the plural) from different regions come in a variety of shapes and sizes and aren’t necessarily restricted to being in the shape of just the heads of an animals. They could be the whole front of the animal, the entire animal itself, or even just parts like a horn.

Rhyta were also commonly used in rituals for libation offerings. Now, these rhyta regularly have a small hole in the mouth of the animal’s head through which the libation offering pours out on to the offering table or whatever it was meant to pour out over.

This style of rhyton that we have here is fairly common to Archaic and Classical Greece — just the head and neck — and in this case here, there’s no hole in the mouth, so its function is clearly meant to hold a beverage instead of letting it pour through. And by “beverage,” of course, I mean wine.

Wine in Ancient Greece, however, was a little different from wine nowadays. The Greeks, believe it or not, actually watered down their wine. Not to do so was considered barbaric, literally, as in how the barbarians drank their wine (mostly Northern Europeans). And interestingly enough, the word barbarian derives from how the Greeks perceived certain foreign languages to sound. When foreign people spoke, all the Greeks heard was “bar-bar-bar-bar-bar.” Sounds pretty silly and made up, but it’s the truth.

Now, back to the rhyton. The one we have here is made out of ceramic. Earthenware, specifically terra cotta. It was most likely crafted with the intent of being buried in someone’s grave, where it’s said to have been found — similar to all the other ceramics in the Art Institute’s Ancient Greek collection (not all from the same grave, of course). Rhyta were used in daily life, but by and large the rhyta crafted for use by the living were made of precious metals, like bronze, silver, and gold. The rhyton was not the drinking cup of your average bloke. These vessels were reserved pretty much for the aristocracy of Greek society, be it Classical or earlier. These are the goblets used in the heroic feasts by great warriors on the eve of battle. The dinnerware of Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaeus, and Odysseus at the siege of Troy.

Of course, that story was late Bronze Age, early Iron Age. Fifth century BC Athenian aristocracy didn’t regularly engage much in heroic warrior feasts. Instead, wealthy Athenian good-ole-boys would get together at dinner parties and drinking engagements to socialize, talk politics and money, and on special occasions maybe say something intelligent.

The types of animals rendered in the shape of the rhyton are also significant. You frequently comes across a rhyton in the shape of a goat, ram, bull, deer, or horse, and in this example here, a donkey. It’s not coincidence that these are the same kinds of animals used as sacrificial victims in Greek religion. See, while engaging in their modern drinking parties, the Classical Athenian aristocracy was symbolically participating in those heroic warrior feasts of yore. On the eve of battle with the great warriors gathered around, a priest offers up a sacrifice to Zeus and whatever other gods were listening, slicing the throat and spilling the warm blood of the goat, ram, etc. Whereas here, the Athenian, leisurely sprawled on his couch, pours the bright red liquid from the throat of the animal and down the hatch. And the thanks is offered up to a different god. Dionysus, the god of wine.

Decorating the neck of the vessel (cute, huh … the pottery term “neck” actually corresponds here with the literal neck of the donkey) … decorating the neck of the vessel, we see a couple figures — the half-goat half-man satyr (followers of Dionysus) with his bushy beard, pointy ears, long bristly tail, and penchant for not wearing pants (because pants would just get in the way of the satyr’s other penchant), in hot pursuit of a maenad, female followers of Dionysus that would run off into the woods at night in wild Dionysiac reveries, and in packs chase down live deer and with their bare hands, rip them apart limb from limb, and consume the hot raw flesh and blood. The Greeks actually had a word for that. It’s called sparagmos.

The Classical Greek drinking party was nothing nearly as violent, or religious for that matter, but they had a word for that too. The symposium. Now, when we think of a symposium, we picture a bunch of professors getting together, reading some less-than-exhilarating papers, and then having a little wine and cheese. The Greeks skipped the papers … went straight to the wine … and cheese was optional. The Greek word symposion with an “ON” (from which we get the Latin symposium with a “UM”) literally means “drinking together.

You’re probably thinking I’m off my rocker, at least those of you who’ve heard of Plato’s Symposium where Socrates and a bunch of his friends get together one evening and each in turn makes a grand speech on “what is love” and extolling its virtues. But if you look back towards the beginning of the text, you’ll see a very different side to their refined symposium.

And I quote, section 176A&B from a translation by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Hackett Publishing Company, etc etc):

When dinner was over, they poured a libation to the god, sang a hymn, and—in short—followed the whole ritual. Then they turned their attention to drinking. At that point Pausanias addressed the group:

“Well, gentlemen, how can we arrange to drink less tonight? To be honest, I still have a terrible hangover from yesterday, and I could really use a break. I daresay most of you could, too, since you were also part of the celebration. So let’s try not to overdo it.”

Aristophanes replied: “Good idea, Pausanias. We’ve got to make a plan for going easy on the drink tonight. I was over my head last night myself, like the others.”

So, we see, even Socrates’s philosophical brood was not impervious to the temptation of drink.

Getting back to the shape of the donkey-headed rhyton, just how do you set it down? Many other rhyta, especially the ritual libation rhyta and the ones from Near Eastern and Eastern European civilizations, have a flat bottom, so they could be set down right-side up, but the only way to set down this example is on its side or upside-down! So, if you want to set it down, you have to polish off your drink first! The shape of this rhyton, therefore, actually encourages drinking! What a perfect cup for a symposium. And just how does one drink from it? If you drink from it the same way you normally drink from a mug, with the handle to the side, the donkey’s ear would get in the way and you might just dribble on yourself. You’re best bet is probably to hold the handle underneath so the donkey face is right-side-up. And then as you’re kicking back your head, tipping the rhyton up to polish off your wine, suddenly you’ve got the face of an ass!

This idea of transformation through drink was not lost on the Ancient Greeks. Wine was regularly attributed with various therapeutic, medicinal, or even malignant properties. And in some examples, we even come across wine being equated with a sort of magic potion capable of transforming the drinker in various ways. The characters in Plato’s Laws briefly discuss the qualities in wine that transform one to be braver, bolder, more conceited, and looser with the tongue. Another relatively common expression of transformation through wine in Greek art can be seen on a large number of kylixes, another kind of drinking vessel more so in the shape of a bowl rather than a cup.

A brief side-track first. The kylix was also frequently used in Greek symposia, and not just for drinking. The Greeks actually had drinking games. One particular favorite was called kottabos and here’s a kylix that even came with instructions. This mid 5th century Attic red-figure kylix at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts shows a reclining youth in the act of playing kottabos. As I mentioned earlier, Greek wine was a little different from the wine that we have today. Not only was it watered down, but it also had far more sediment, so you’d likely have some dregs leftover in the bottom of your cup. The idea in kottabos was to twirl your kylix around, flinging out the sediment, to see who could come closest to the target in the middle of the room, whether the target be a jug or some poor flute girl.

Now back to the idea of how the kylix was commonly used to express the idea of transformation through drink. The typical kylix is decorated on both the inside, with a lovely picture for the drinker, and on the outside with pictures to be seen by all of his friends as he holds the bowl high to his lips. On the outside decoration of the kylix, you often come across two large glaring eyes penetrating the onlooker, as we see here in another example from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The drinker grasps the kylix by the two handles and holds it up to his face as he takes a drink, thereupon donning a monstrous mask, a face like the Gorgon Medusa, who’s said to have been so fiendishly ugly with snakes for hair, that her gaze would turn you to stone.

We might also remember that interesting chapter from Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus’s comrades are transformed into pigs by the witch Circe through a magic potion and a touch of a wand.

As Richmond Lattimore translates …

And at once she opened the shining doors and came out and invited them in, and all in their innocence entered. Only Eurylochos waited outside, for he suspected theachery. She brought them inside and seated them on chairs and benches, and mixed them a potion with barley and cheese and pale honey added to Pramnian wine, but put into the mixture malignant drugs to make them forgetful of their own country. When she had given them this and they had drunk it down, next thing she struck them with her wand and drove them into her pig pens and they took on the look of pigs with the heads and voices and bristles of pigs, but the minds within them stayed as had been before.

And here’s another great kylix from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts showing Circe in the act of drugging Odysseus’s friends and transforming them into pigs. The shape of the vessel that Circe uses for her potion helps the message along in that it resembles the kylix on which this scene is painted. With each casual glance, then, as the wine gradually disappears, the drinker from this kylix constantly reminds himself that he too may share the fate of Odysseus’s men, becoming, well, … a sloppy drunken animal if he doesn’t watch his liquor!

Alright, thanks for listening. Be sure to check out the website scarabsolutions.com for slightly better resolution images used in the podcast. I’ve also updated the bibliography to include some resources on Ancient Greece.

And as always, feel free to leave you comments on the website or at the iTunes Store. Just launch iTunes, click on the iTunes Store, and in the search box type however much you care to of “SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.”

Take care and see ya next time!

©2006 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

2: The Mummy Case of Paankhenamun

Please excuse the theme music. It looks like I’ve still got a little Halloween in me. But it helps set the stage as we begin the unwrap the dead …

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. In this episode, as promised, we’ll take a close look at one particularly exquisite artistic masterpiece from Ancient Egypt, the Mummy Case of Paankhenamun at the Art Institute of Chicago. Let’s check out the iconography and symbolism throughout its decoration and see how the ornamentation works together to express a unifying theme paramount in Ancient Egyptian funerary belief.

Come now as we unwrap The Case of the Mysterious Mummy.

The first point I want to talk about is the importance of hieroglyphs in Egyptian art. Hieroglyphs play a very important role in Egyptian ornamentation and iconography. The way that the Egyptians depict the 3D world on a 2D surface, like in relief carving and wall painting, is deeply related to how 3D objects are represented in Egyptian hieroglyphs, both stylistically and symbolically. They’re related stylistically in the shape of objects and figures on a 2D surface and symbolically in the meaning that an object, figure, or some sort of emblem has — the meaning of the object and its function as it relates to the rest of the composition and often also the accompanying inscription. So, funerary reliefwork and painting often complement the accompanying inscription.

I know, I know … this is getting complicated. So let’s simplify this with an example.

This is a wall fragment from the tomb of fella named Amenemhet. He’s the big guy in the middle and that’s his wife Hemet standing beside him holding the lotus flower to her nose and affectionately resting her hand on her husband’s shoulder. To the right of them you see another small figure standing in among all the goods for the funerary feast, holding a big bovine leg. That’s their son, also named Amenemhet. Amenemhet was a very common name during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. A number of kings had that name too. What is being depicted here is the classic funerary feast, a common scene in private funerary shrines stretching back as far as the Old Kingdom. An offering table piled high with grave goods stands before Amenemhet — enough food and drink to keep his ka (his spirit) well nourished in the hereafter.

This type of funerary feast and offering scene really functions as the ritualistic culmination of the funerary procession and decorative reliefwork of a private mortuary shrine. The entire decorative scheme of the surrounding walls leads up to this point, where the deceased celebrates his life with his family, enjoys the nourishment of his soul, and has an offering presented to the gods on his behalf. The inscription running along the perimeter of the scene is very important here. It’s an offering formula, a common prayer encountered alongside representations of the funerary feast throughout the Old and Middle Kingdom and surviving well beyond even after Egyptian private funerary practice takes on a rather different appearance. The painted scene here is basically a representation of the prayer. It’s called the hetep di nysw and it goes something like this:

Hotep di nysw kha te henket, ka, apd, shes, menkhet, hotep djefaw, khet nebet wabet ankht netjer im, imakhy r Aser neb Djedw, netjer aa, neb Abdjw.

Now, what that says is:

An offering that the king gives consisting of a 1000 loaves of bread, 1000 jugs of beer, oxen, fowl, alabaster, and cloth, an offering of provisions, and everything good and pure on which a god lives for the revered one Osiris, lord of Djedu, great God, lord of Adydos.

And then if we look at the painting, we’ll see that a lot of what we just encountered in the inscription is represented here on the offering table and scattered about the room. On top of the table we have these slices of bread. And on top of that there’s that big leg of an ox. To the side of the table we have some jugs of bear, a head of an ox, parts of geese inside there, and various fowl. But those slices of bread on top of the table—those tall, thin, vertical slices—they’re not exactly in the conventional format in which the Egyptians represented slices of bread. If we look at another example here from the Art Institute of Chicago—another wall fragment from a person’s tomb—this is actually from the Old Kingdom, centuries earlier, from the tomb of Thenti. So here we see on the offering table slices of bread. If we look at the base of the slices, they’re flat resting perfectly on top of the table, and then the slices nicely meet together to form good loaves. If we go back to the scene of Amenemhet, we see that the slices are not flat on the base of the table. There’s a roundness to the base of those slices there. They’re not actually slices of bread, even though that’s what they’re meant to function as here, but what’s actually being represented are hieroglyphs. This is actually the hieroglyphic character for the flowering reed. If we look at the inscription above all the way to the left, we see an owl. Just in front of that owl there’s another flowering reed. If we look closely, that flowering reed in the hieroglyphic inscription is represented the same way that the flowering reeds on the table are represented. So literally we have hieroglyphs incorporated into the decorative reliefwork. The manner in which the flowering reeds and the bread and beer and fowl are represented here in this scene is precisely the same way in which Egyptian scribes would represent them in their hieroglyphic form. What the flowering reed is meant to represent here and standing in place of sliced bread is really … you could say … all the fruits of the field, as the inscription says: “everything good and pure that a god needs to survive.” The whole produce section at the supermarket.

So, now we have an idea of how hieroglyphs smuggle their way into Egyptian funerary art and add further symbolic messages to the scenes being depicted. Hieroglyphs have the distinct advantage of being not only words and language, but also real-world objects that can nicely and cleverly be incorporated into the scene. You oftentimes hear someone speaking of reading a work of art. In Egyptian art that phrase takes on a very literal meaning.

So let’s turn now, finally, to the Mummy Case of Paankhenamun. Let’s examine the symbolism behind the rich ornamentation and see how it can all be read together as a composition expressing a unified theme in Egyptian funerary belief, namely the idea of birth, death, resurrection, and eternal life, which we already touched on last time with our discussion of Khepri, the scarab beetle.

The mummy case is later than the two wall fragments that we just looked at. It actually comes from the Third Intermediate Period, a time of decentralized, fragmented government in Egypt after the collapse of the New Kingdom (that time of all the famous kings like Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, King Tut, and Ramesses the Great). Lack of a unified Upper and Lower Egypt, however, certainly didn’t hamper the artistic achievements of the Egyptians at this time. This is truly one of the most beautiful mummy cases I’ve come across, with it’s brilliant colors and wonderfully symmetrical and almost minimalist composition … well, inasmuch as one finds minimalist composition in Ancient Egypt. What I mean is, the artist was not afraid to leave plenty of white space, which gives it a far less cluttered feeling than many other mummy cases.

Prominently displayed on the chest we see a falcon-headed version of the winged scarab beetle, Khepri, the god of the rising sun, pushing the solar disk above his head out of the eastern horizon. This symbol of rebirth and resurrection, appropriately enough, is very prominent in Egyptian funerary art. Just beneath this scarab, we see a little circle sitting on a flat base. This is the Egyptian hieroglyph called shen. It’s actually a loop of rope tied in a knot and represents the concept of eternity. Specifically eternity in a cyclic sense, like the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening and it does this day after day forever and ever, like the pendulum of a clock swinging back and forth. And it’s very appropriate to be found here right next to Khepri, since Khepri also embodies that very same idea through the Sun’s rebirth in the morning, death in the evening, and rebirth again the next day. As a little side-note, if you take the shen symbol, the little loop of rope, and stretch the loop into an oval rather than a circle, you get the cartouche, the round emblem that contains an Egyptian king’s name.

Going a little further on down, we come to a very critical moment, where Paankhenamun is lead hand in hand by the falcon-headed god Horus, the god of kingship to an audience with Osiris, the king of the gods and god of the hereafter. In this later period, funerary practice becomes more democratic than in the Old and Middle Kingdoms and private individuals could enjoy the same benefits of the afterlife that were previously reserved primarily for the king. Now, the private citizen becomes one with the gods in death and only starting around the time of the New Kingdom do we see anyone other than the king being in the physical presence of the gods and actually touching the gods.

What I’m particularly interested in here is what’s between Horus and Osiris. Sprouting out of the ground is a beautiful lotus blossom, kinda like the one we saw Hemet sniffing on the wall fragment of Amenemhet. The lotus in Ancient Egypt is another symbol of birth and rebirth, it’s also a symbol of creation. In one of the few different Ancient Egyptian creation myths, you start off with this swirling primeval chaos, the primordial ocean called Nun … nothing else. Then a mound of earth spontaneously rises from the water. Eventually a single lotus bud springs forth, emerging from the murky, muddy depths of water and earth. The bud blossoms to reveal the infant god Nefertem. He goes by other names in different creation myths, like Atum and Ra, but we’re talking about the lotus here. Just like in the creation myth, the lotus flower thrives in the dark, marshy water of the Nile. It rises to the surface from the dark depths, this brilliantly beautiful object emerging from the ugly muck, and opens its petals each morning to greet the sun’s nourishing rays. Each night it closes up, symbolically dying according to the Egyptians, and is then reborn each morning with the rise of the sun again. Contrary to popular belief, though, it doesn’t actually sink down beneath the water’s surface with the setting sun and then rise up again the next morning. That would make for very attractive symbolism, though.

Standing on top of the lotus in this scene, we’ve got these four little guys all wrapped up in mummiform, just like Osiris behind them. These are the four Sons of Horus, minor funerary deities that serve to protect the internal organs of the deceased. You might recognize them as the heads on the Canopic jars, the four vessels buried with the deceased which contained the nicely-wrapped, individually preserved soft internal organs. Early on it was more common to have four Canopic jars with just human heads, but later (around the late 18th dynasty) it became standard to use the four different heads of the Sons of Horus. Everybody wants to know which head protects which organ, so here it goes … and they’ve got names too!

• The first guy, his name’s Imsety and his Canopic jar contained the liver.

• The falcon-headed Qebsenuef took care of the intestines.

• HAPY (yes, that’s his name, Hapy) with the baboon head watched over the lungs.

• And the jackal-headed Duamutef held the stomach.

The heart, of course, as we all know, ideally remained in the body.

Relevant to the discussion here is the placement of the Sons of Horus on the lotus blossom and their diminutive size relative to the gods around them, as though they are representing the concept of Nefertem, the child god born from the flowering lotus at creation. Just another drop in the hat of this ongoing theme of life, death, rebirth, and resurrection throughout the ornamentation of the mummy case.

A fascinating example of using hieroglyphs as symbols in the ornamentation of the scene is present here in the platform that Osiris is standing on. Notice that it’s not a perfectly rectangular platform. Rather the front of the platform is at an angle (roughly 30 degrees maybe). The back side of the platform however is a sheer drop-off. The shape of this platform is actually exactly that of the Egyptian hieroglyph called ma’a, which means truth, law, justice, and order, And it’s often deified in the more recognizable form of the goddess Ma’at and her symbol, the feather of truth, against which the heart is weighed on the scales of judgment in the entry to the afterlife. So here we have Osiris, god of the dead and afterlife, king of the gods, standing firmly on the platform of truth, law, and justice. (Sadly a platform somewhat lacking in current politics.)

The goddess Ma’at also makes a personal appearance on the mummy case. We see her sitting practically at the throat of Paankhenamun facing the Benu bird, the Egyptian Phoenix. (More on that in a second.) But the appearance here of Ma’at is particularly significant. The deceased in Egyptian funerary inscriptions is frequently said to be “justified,” or literally “true of voice” (ma’a kheru), meaning that you don’t speak untruths at judgment and that you were a truthful, just, and righteous individual in life. Ma’a kheru can also essentially be taken as synonymous with “dead,” just as today we sometimes append “rest in peace” after the names of the deceased when written or spoken. We also see the words ma’a kheru written here above and to the left of the benu bird. In this example, you read it from right to left and the second hieroglyph, or the one on the left, actually represents the human windpipe and lungs.

How ‘bout that? See … I don’t make this stuff up!

Briefly, the benu was the sacred bird of Heliopolis, the seat of the sun-god cults of Ra and Atum. The word benu likely derives from weben meaning “to rise,” as in what the sun does each morning. And as with the scarab beetle, the benu bird also symbolizes the idea of rebirth.

Moving along now down the mummy case, beneath the presentation scene, we come to a peculiar object — the ta-wer. This is the ceremonial standard for the Egyptian nome (or region) called Thinis, also the town of Abydos, a sacred cult center and the mythic burial place of Osiris. Ta-wer means “great land” or “eternal land,” meaning the ancient resting place of the god. This emblem is actually a representation of a sacred reliquary of Osiris. The central dome-shaped portion supposedly contains the head of the dead god, surmounted on a tall pole that rises up from the Egyptian hieroglyph for the word “mountain” called djew. This hieroglyph took on a certain afterlife and burial significance, with the association of the western, mountainous, desert region of Egypt with graveyards and the land of the dead. The hieroglyph for “horizon” has a similar appearance, with two mountain peaks and a sloping valley in between, and then a solar disk nestled between the peaks, as the sun might rise or set along a mountainous horizon. This gives the ta-wer a certain charming ambiguity. Is this symbolic of Osiris descending upon death below the western horizon to the land of the dead, or rising as the sun in the eastern horizon, reborn in the afterlife? The answer is undoubtedly … “Yes.” You can see that the dome-shaped portion is meant to signify that it houses the head of Osiris, since it wears the twin-plumed crown (which we also commonly see worn by the gods Amun and Min), and also the double cobra uraeus, appearing twice here: on the crown and as a headband coming off to the right of the reliquary. The latter pair also have their own little crowns, the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt, showing that Osiris is the ultimate king of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The placement of the ta-wer in this location on the mummy case takes on further symbolic significance. As you can see, it’s located at something approximately in the area of Paankhenamun’s nether regions. Kinda sorta in the phallus area. Although being god of the dead, the cult of Osiris also has a distinct fertility aspect. Both vegetative (as a god of agriculture) and sexual. The Classical Greek historian and traveler Herodotus has a somewhat amusing account of an Egyptian festival to Osiris in his book nowadays simply called The Histories. Here’s a translation of that passage by Aubrey de Sélincourt. It’s in book 2, section 48. Oh, and the Greeks have this thing where they associate the gods of other lands with their own gods. And the association can sometimes be on a pretty deep level. So, here, Osiris is constantly referred to as Dionysus.

In other ways the Egyptian method of celebrating the festival of Dionysus is much the same as the Greek except that the Egyptians have no choric dance. Instead of the phallus they have puppets about 18 inches high. The genital of these figures are made almost as big as the rest of the bodies and they’re pulled up and down by strings as women carry them around the villages. Flutes lead the procession and the women, as they follow, sing a hymn to Dionysus. There’s a religious legend to account for the size of the genitals and the fact that they are the only part of the puppet’s body, which is made to move.

Unfortunately, Herodotus doesn’t really offer any sort of explanation of this religious legend, but presumably he’s referring to the Egyptian myth of Osiris’s murder at the hands of his jealous brother Set, who then dismembers the body and scatters it all over Egypt. Isis, the wife and sister of Osiris, then goes around collecting all the pieces and reassembles his body. The only piece that’s missing is the phallus, eaten by a fish. She cleverly fashions a phallus for Osiris out of the rich, fertile Nile silt (what the Egyptians planted all their crops in). And from this, she conceived their son, Horus.

The final major decorative band on our journey across the mummy case of Paankhenamun reveals a marvelously anthropomorphic version of the Djed pillar. Let’s focus on the central column with the alternating red, blue, and green horizontal stripes. In the upper segment of the column, the yellow dividing bands are somewhat elongated, extending horizontally beyond the width of the column. Together, this is the Egyptian hieroglyph djed meaning endurance, stability, and health. It’s a stylized representation of a human backbone, specifically the backbone of Osiris. As we can clearly see, it’s association with Osiris through the crossed arms, the royal mummy pose, holding the crook and flail, two implements of kingship (the shepherd and the warrior). The Djed also wears an elaborate royal crown of Osiris. Two ostrich feathers stick up above the wavy horns of a ram, on which also rests a small red solar disk is the center. Flanking the feathers, two cobras rise up like the uraeus, each in turn surmounted by the solar disk. This very distinctive crown of “two feathers” is similar to, but not the same as the crown we just saw on the ta-wer above. The “two feathered” crown also commonly appears on votive statuettes of Osiris placed in the burial chamber of the deceased. There’s a great example of this type of statue in the Art Institute’s collection, which I hope to explore in a later podcast.

I’m particularly intrigued by the pedestal on which the Djed stands. It looks a lot like a doorway, reminiscent of the niched façade of early royal tombs and the surrounding walls to mortuary temples. This niched façade pattern makes an appearance in many different forms of Egyptian funerary art and architecture … on sarcophagi, as the false door, and even in the serekh, an early version of the cartouche, the emblem denoting and literally housing the royal name.

In the treatment of perspective in Egyptian artistic convention, above generally denotes behind. In this case, if the niched façade is meant to be a doorway to some structure, like a sarcophagus, tomb, or mortuary temple, behind would be within. So here we have the anthropomorphic, deified, mummified Djed pillar of Osiris enshrined within his tomb. It’s too bad that the mummy case isn’t installed in a free-standing vitrine so it could be seen from behind, because there’s actually a giant Djed pillar running all along the back of the mummy case.

The Wedjet or Eye of Horus is seen here flanking the Djed on either side. The Eye of Horus nowadays has a distinctive apotropaic function, that is, it protects the wearer from evil forces and averts the evil eye. It had a protective function in Ancient Egypt too, but also serves as eyes through which deceased can look out. We also frequently encounter the Wedjet painted on the side of coffins, as amulets decorating the mummy, and carved into scenes decorating the mortuary chapel.

And just as we began, so do we end with the winged scarab beetle, Khepri, god of rebirth and the rising sun. I know I already covered this in the last podcast on the Scarab in Ancient Egypt, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate. The appearance of the scarab on the head and at the feet nicely bookends this entire volume of work on life, death, and rebirth in Egyptian funerary thought. The sun god is swallowed at his death in the evening by the goddess Nut, travels through the underworld during the nighttime journey, and is reborn as the rising sun each day. Similarly, Khepri makes his appearance at the head, journeys along the body with its unified message of life and rebirth in the eternal hereafter, and explodes forward at the end, pushing the solar disk aloft to continue the journey and repeat his message for all eternity.

So there ya have it. That’s the end of this episode of the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. Be sure to visit the website at scarabsolutions.com. Just click on the Ancient Art Podcast link to find additional resources, like bigger versions of the photos, and links to other useful sites. One recent addition is a link to the Perseus Project, a valuable resource for reading and searching Classical texts, like that bit from Herodotus above. I’ve also added a bibliography with some useful books, articles, and websites, which is sure to grow over time. And feel free to leave your comments online at scarabsolutions.com. This is your host, Lucas Livingston, signing off. See ya next time!

©2006 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

1: The Scarab in Ancient Egypt

Welcome to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Join us in each episode as we explore the art and culture of the Ancient Mediterranean World. Together we’ll uncover the truths and discover new ideas on the civilizations that shaped our modern world.

In this, our inaugural podcast episode, I thought I would begin the podcast appropriately enough with a short introduction to the Scarab, known to the Ancient Egyptians in its Hieroglyphic form as kheper, or “to come into being.” Known also as the Scarab beetle god Khepri, a manifestation of the Sun-god Ra as he rises in the morning on the eastern horizon. Ra assumes multiple manifestations throughout his daytime journey across the sky. At his midday zenith he assumes the form perhaps most recognized by us today — the falcon or falcon-headed man. And in the evening as the sun sinks below the western horizon, Ra assumes the form of the aged ram-headed Atum falling to his daily death and his nighttime journey through the underworld.

This cyclic action of the sun rising and setting closely parallels the pattern of birth, life, and death, and then resurrection … a iconographic motif that we routinely encounter throughout Ancient Egyptian funerary art. In New Kingdom tomb painting and funerary papyri (also known as the Am Duat or Imy Duat which means “That which is in the Underworld”), we see Ra making his journey across the heavens and being swallowed in the evening by his mother Nut, as we can see here in this image from the ceiling of the burial chamber in the tomb of Rameses VI — KV9 in the Valley of the Kings, photo courtesy of the Theban Mapping Project. And then at dawn, Ra is reborn by Nut in the form of Khepri pushing the sun disk up from the depths and into the sky.

The question of why the Ancient Egyptians would come to represent their Sun god, or at least one aspect of him, as the Scarab, the unglamorous dung-beetle, begs for an answer. While unfortunately we don’t benefit from the Ancient Egyptian’s own writings on this matter, it’s generally held that the scarab beetle came to be closely associated with the idea of resurrection as the Egyptians observed the larvae of the beetles being born from death, that is when the eggs are lain in the round balls that the beetle forms out of scavenged animal dung, the dung being the waste or lifelessness cast off by animals; dung also being a potent fertilizer or catalyst for life in the form of vegetation. The eggs hatch, and feed, and the scarab beetle thus emerges from the darkness, like a sort of phoenix rising from the ashes.

And along the same lines, we also observe the scarab beetle rolling balls of dung along the ground, just as we see the god Khepri pushing the solar disk up from the horizon, as we see here again in the burial chamber of Rameses VI.

Another appearance of the scarab prevalent in Egyptian funerary artwork is as necklaces and amulets decorating the exterior and interior of mummies. Scarab amulets take the form of little scarab beetle figurines fashioned out of faience, a type of ceramic material found throughout Egyptian history and prehistory and usually painted with a blue or green glaze to imitate precious stones like lapis lazuli and turquoise. The so-called “heart scarab” is just one type of amulet among many that would decorate the Egyptian mummy. On the flat underside of the heart scarab we typically find a spell carefully inscribed in hieroglyphs (or sometimes crudely scrawled in chicken scratch). We call the spell by the attractive name of “30B.” This spell is also found on funerary papyri during the judgment scene when the heart of the deceased (the seat of all consciousness) is being weighed against the feather of truth, Ma’at. Perhaps a little ashamed of what they may have done in life, they Egyptians included this spell as a little extra insurance to make sure things went their way at this moment of judgment. The spell goes something like this, as is translated by Raymond Faulkner in his 1972 Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

O my heart which I had from my mother! O my heart which I had from my mother! O my heart of my different ages! Do not stand up as a witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance, for you are my ka which was in my body, the protector who made my members hale. Go forth to the happy place whereto we speed; do not make my name stink to the Entourage who make men. Do not tell lies about me in the presence of the god; it is indeed well that you should hear! (p. 61, 2005 edition)

Egyptian funerary iconography really emphasizes rebirth and resurrection rather than death. It’s only logical to understand then why representations of Khepri occur so frequently. We see here, for example, an exquisite piece from the ancient art collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Mummy Case of Paankhenamun from the Third Intermediate Period. Prominently decorating the chest of the mummy case, painted in beautiful detail with brilliant colors, we see Khepri interestingly represented here with the falcon head holding the solar disk aloft. If we examine the mummy case only a little more closely, we see that it sports a couple more representations of Khepri — another extraordinarily beautiful one on the feet … and where’s that last one … ? Here you have to get up on your tippy toes and look on top of his head and we’ll find the third scarab. You might just say he’s covered with scarabs “from head to toe.”

Well, that’s it for this short introductory episode. Be sure to check out the next episode as we examine all the iconographic details and symbolism of the mummy case of Paankhenamun in excruciating detail. Come on … you know you want to know what all those funny shapes and figures mean. And if you’re really nice, I may even read the hieroglyphs for you.

Be sure also to visit us online at scarabsolutions.com for more information and links to other great resources, like images from the Art Institute of Chicago and other famous collections. And you’ll definitely want to visit the Theban Mapping Project at thebanmappingproject.com. Here you can explore all the tombs of the Valley of the Kings in a virtual 3D environment with tons of accompanying photos and videos and related articles.

See you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2006 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org