9: Walk Like an Egyptian

So, looking back at some of the Egyptian statuary that we’ve discussed in earlier episodes of the podcast, seeing the fine contours of the physique and careful attention to proportion and perspective, you might be wondering why it is that we have such cartoonish, flat, and unrealistic figures in Egyptian painting. There’s a deeply complex answer to this question involving Egyptian concepts of cosmic world order, philosophy, religion, magic, and even hieroglyphs. And now we’re going to try to answer this burning dilemma — the eternal mystery of the walk like an Egyptian.

We remember this gal, the goddess Ma’at seen here decorating the neck of the mummy case of Paankhenamun. In episode 2, we learned that the deceased is said to be “justified” or “true of voice” (ma’a kheru), basically a euphemism for dead. The word ma’a in ma’a kheru is the same root in the name of the goddess Ma’at. Ma’at is the deified form of the Egyptian concept of truth, but “truth” doesn’t really capture the complete meaning of this concept. Ma’at is truth, law, justice, right, and goodness, the natural and cosmic order of things. Balance and permanence. The sun will continue to rise each morning as it always has, because of ma’at. The Nile floods each year … well, used to flood each year, till they build the Aswan High Dam in 1970, but back before then, the Nile would flood each year leaving behind a thick deposit of rich, fertile, black, alluvial silt — a sort of mud — ensuring a bountiful crop year after year, because of ma’at. And it was the pharaoh’s job to ensure the persistence of ma’at, to ensure that the cosmic order didn’t get all whacked. And he did this by offering up prayers and sacrifices to the gods.

The Egyptian concept of ma’at, however, goes a lot deeper. It’s really an all-pervasive concept in Egyptian society, philosophy, religion, and the arts. As “truth,” ma’at is not just the way things are and were, but the way they need to be and need to have been to ensure the proper continuity of cosmic order. So, we sometimes come across a deliberate rewriting of history by the Ancient Egyptians to set things right when they encounter an apparent cosmic discord. With pharaohs whose reigns were thought to have been improper, we see a deliberate attempt not just to suppress the truth of the matter, but altogether to eliminate the incongruity from history, such as with the heretic king Akhenaten. He radically transformed Egyptian religion and, thereby, the political and economic status quo, by banning the cultic practices of the prominent Egyptian gods and elevating his own preferred cult of the solar disk, Aten, with himself as the exclusive intermediary. It didn’t take long after he died for the Egyptians to completely level the new capital city that he had constructed, Akhetaten, and systematically seek and destroy every attainable shred of evidence of his existence. Yeah … good luck ever finding his mummy. All in the favor of ma’at. Preservation of the eternal cosmic clockwork. And earlier in the same 18th dynasty, we’ve got the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Despite however wonderful and beloved a ruler she was, her successor and stepson, Thutmosis III, much to his chagrin, was compelled by mounting pressure late in his reign to restore ma’at by eliminating evidence of a woman ever having been Pharaoh.

Ancient Egyptians closely regarded the manufactured or sculpted historical and written record as factual truth, not only in the negative sense of erasure from history, but also in the positive sense of “if it is written, then it is true.” And I don’t mean just paid lip service or wishful thinking, as we might encounter with the representation by other cultures of historical events, but I mean in a very literal way. Ramses the Great may have had an ignoble stalemate at the battle of Kadesh, after being ambushed by the Hittite army lying in wait, but he managed to rewrite the history of the matter, exclaiming how he single-handedly charged forward into the Hittite throngs, driving his valiant steeds with enemies underfoot, smiting foes left and right with god-like fury … because Pharaoh just doesn’t lose battles. Ma’at would not have it that way.

In Egyptian funerary inscriptions, we see an even greater literal interpretation of the written word as truth. Remember back in Episode 2 we had a look at this wall fragment from the tomb of Amenemhet from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. We saw how hieroglyphs are incorporated into the framework of the subject matter. The flowering reed hieroglyphic character used in place of sliced bread on the offering table, the loaves of bread, jugs of beer, and animal haunches are all represented the same way they’d appear in hieroglyphic inscriptions, like we see up above. So we see the direct incorporation of hieroglyphs in Egyptian painting. Just as with the historical examples we were just talking about: “if it is written, then it is true.” Not figuratively, but literally. The appearance of all these foodstuffs in essentially written form makes them “true” or permanent. So even if after a few generations, your great great grandchildren have long stopped making offerings of real bread and beer at your tomb, you’ve still got these representations made of stone. Being written and thereby literally truthful and really real, these representations of offerings in stone can magically function in place of real physical offerings, providing the same nourishment and ensuring the continued sustenance of the soul in the afterlife.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are a very potent magical language. The word “hieroglyph” literally means a “holy carving.” Hieroglyphs were largely reserved for use on sacred documents, funerary inscriptions, prayers, spells, and blessings. For every-day common written correspondence, legal documents, shopping lists, and the like, the Egyptians used something called hieratic — that is, that privileged one percent or so of the literate Egyptian populace. Hieratic is basically a highly cursive form of hieroglyphs, and so it’s essentially the same language. We see some hieratic here side-by-side with hieroglyphs on a fragment of the Book of the Dead from the Third Intermediate Period.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are a wonderfully ornamental language. Beyond the already imaginative use of mundane objects from everyday life in their language, the Egyptians also included themselves, that is different human figures and human body parts, in addition to a whole panoply of exotic and wild creatures, scores of different birds, beasts of burden, and dangerous, ferocious animals, like horned vipers, wasps, vultures, and carrion beetles. And remember in Egypt the written word is true, so much so that the bread and beer in funerary feasts figuratively emerge from the scene to offer their nourishment to the deceased. So what’s holding back the horned vipers and scarab beetles? We sometimes see the Egyptians expressing a sort of fear that the ferocious beasts depicted among their hieroglyphs might actually come to life and spring out of the inscriptions. The horned vipers might jump out and sink their venomous fangs into you. Ducks and geese could flutter forth and gobble up the bread left behind for the deceased. And scarab beetles may crawl about and burrow into the mummy itself. To prevent this from happening, we occasionally see something we call ritual mutilation of hieroglyphs. We might see the depiction of a little knife driven into the head of the horned viper, thereby killing it. Or we could see a duck, but it wouldn’t have any feet, so it’s not a whole, complete duck, a true duck. It doesn’t conform to ma’at, so it won’t run the risk of springing to life. It all comes back to ma’at. But it’s still legible and functions for the purpose of the inscription.

So what’s all this got to do with why the Egyptians represented the human form the way they did on a two-dimensional surface? Well, let’s take apart the human form, in a manner of speaking. The head is clearly in profile, yet we see two shoulders as though seen frontally. The chest is somewhat in between with the front breast seen frontally and the rear breast seen in profile. From the hips on down, the body is pretty much in profile. Interestingly, we always see two legs, whether they’re standing or sitting. There’s always at the very least a hint of a second leg peaking out from behind the front leg. We also always see two arms. If the figure were drawn the way we’re taught in grade school to draw someone from the side, we’d only see one shoulder and one arm, the other being hidden behind. And we’d only see one leg in front, the other one also hidden in back.

So why this contortion of the human form? Well, remember, to the Egyptians, “if it’s written, then it’s true” — true and eternal. Compare the painted human figure with the hieroglyph of a man. The Egyptians represented people in their art the same way they were written in their language. The human form in art is essentially a large version of the hieroglyphic human form, just as we saw with the grave goods piled on Amenemhet’s offering table. And remember the ritual mutilation of hieroglyphs that we were just talking about, where the horned viper might be ritually slain by a knife driven into its head or the truth or ma’at of a duck would be ritually nullified by not representing its feet? So, here on the mummy case of Paankhenamun, if Paankhenamun were represented quote-unquote realistically in profile with just one arm and one leg visible, forever here on after poor Paankhenamun would be hobbling around with just one leg and one arm in the afterlife. The Egyptians are essentially representing the salient characteristics that they considered to make up human physiology, that they considered critical for existence in the hereafter. It’s prescribed by ma’at that the human form be represent in this manner.

As a little curious aside, although the head is shown in profile, the eye is seen frontally, as though it’s staring out of the scene … but it’s not. Paankhenamun and Horus are clearly engaging with Osiris, not with us. If the subjects of a work of art are meant to interact with each other, the Egyptians would create a two-dimensional painting or relief carving. If the subject is meant to interact with us the viewer, the Egyptians would use a statue meant to be see fully frontally. Another curiosity in Egyptian painting and relief carving is seen in the feet. You never see little toes. Its as though you’re looking at the inside of both feet at the same time and you see only the big toe and the arch of the foot. Odd, huh? And that, children, is a story for another time.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

More Cicada Resources

We’ve got so many interesting resources on cicadas from this month’s podcast, that I thought it best to give them their own place online.

Indiana University’s award-winning film Return of the 17-Year Cicadas
http://www.bio.indiana.edu/~hangarterlab/broodx/broodxmovies/NSFmovie.htm

Indiana University’s Invasion of the Cicadas
http://www.indiana.edu/~preserve/research/CicadasPres/start.html

Field Museum of Natural History: Cicadas and Emerald Ash Borers
http://www.fieldmuseum.org/exhibits/cicadas_tempexhib.htm

Lake County Forest Preserves’ Species Database
http://www.lakecountyspecies.org/

Lake County Forest Preserves’ Cicada Mania! Brood XIII Cicada Emergence 2007
http://www.lcfpd.org/cicadas/

“So long, cicadas. I’m glad I got to know you” Chicago Tribune (June 23rd, 2007).
http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/chicago_gardener/2007/06/so-long-cicadas.html

“Cicadas in Illinois: Return of the noisy teenager” The Economist (June 14th, 2007).
http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9340263

“Cooking Up Cicadas” ABC 7 Chicago (June 21st, 2007).
http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=websites&id=5401799

Anyone try these or any other cicada recipes? What’s your opinion? Make your opinion known. Add a comment to episode 8: Cicadas.

Soft-Shelled Cicadas Snack

Ingredients:
1 cup Italian dressing
60 freshly emerged 17-year cicadas
4 eggs, beaten
3 cups flour
Salt, pepper, garlic powder, thyme & paprika
1 cup corn oil
1 cup marinara sauce, heated

Directions:
Remove the wings and marinate the cicadas (best done in a plastic ziplock “baggie”) in Italian dressing for at least four hours.
Mix the salt, pepper, garlic powder, thyme and paprika with the flour in a bowl.
Dip cicadas in the beaten eggs, and then roll them in the seasoned flour and gently sauté them for 3 minutes in hot oil until they are golden brown.
Serve with marinara sauce for dipping.

The Simple Cicada

Ingredients:
2 cups blanched cicadas
Butter
2 cloves crushed garlic
2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh basil, or to taste
4 oz. Shitake mushrooms
2 oz. fresh spinach
1 lb. of your favorite pasta
Olive oil

Directions:
Boil pasta in a pot of salted water.
Melt butter in sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add basil, cicadas, spinach and mushrooms and continue cooking, turning down the heat if necessary, for 5 minutes or until the cicadas begin to look crispy and the basil and spinach are wilted.

Toss with cooked pasta and olive oil; sprinkle with parmesan cheese, if desired. Yields 4 servings.

Chocolate-Chip Trillers

Ingredients:
2 1⁄4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup butter, softened
3⁄4 cup sugar
3⁄4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
1 12-ounce pkg. chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts
1⁄2 cup dry-roasted chopped cicadas

Directions:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.

In a large bowl, combine butter, sugar, brown sugar and vanilla; beat until creamy. Beat in eggs. Gradually add flour mixture and cicadas, mixing well. Stir in chocolate chips.

Scoop-up a teaspoonful of batter, and drop it onto ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat until all batter is used.

Cook for 8-10 minutes. Yields approximately 3 dozen cookies.

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8: Cicadas

It’s Sunday afternoon, June 10th, 2007 and I’m standing on a trail in the Chippewa Woods Forest Preserve in Des Plaines, Illinois, just a mile or so northeast of O’Hare Airport. You hear that constant, high-pitched, hissing noise in the background? It’s so load, it almost seems deafening and I’m wondering if it’ll going to leave a ringing in my ears. No, it’s not a 747 ready for takeoff. Just a few short weeks ago, the most prominent sounds you’d hear here were birds chirping, a nearby babbling brook, maybe some crickets, distant traffic, and jets overhead. This noise hasn’t been heard here on such a scale in quite a few years … 17 to be exact … and in just a few weeks, it won’t be heard here again for another 17. This is the sound of cicadas. Millions of insects singing their song. An elaborate symphony of percussion. This year — 2007 — marks the return of the 17-year swarm of the magicicada to much of the Midwest, known to the biologists and cicada enthusiasts under the austere moniker of Brood XIII.

17 years ago in early July, hundreds of billions of tiny cicada grubs hatched and burrowed on down into the earth to hang out and such on tree roots. Well, now they’re back, a lot bigger, and they mean business … of an adult nature. [love music] After 17 years of waiting underground, the surviving troopers have dug their way out, shed their hard shell, and are flitting about singing a song in hopes of attracting a mate. The noise you hear is their mating call. I’m in the midst of an insect orgy, here. They make that sound by vibrating little tymbals on the sides of their abdomens. Actually, only the males do the singing, so magnify the sounds by 2 and that’s how many cicadas we’ve got here.

Now, why is it that they come out every 17 years? Well, one of the more prominent theories — sounds a little too much like folklore to me, though — it says that particular species of cicadas have an emergence cycle of the high prime numbers 13 and 17 as a survival mechanism. The idea being that no predator of the cicada is likely to adapt its emergence to synchronize with the cicada.

It should come as no surprise that an article in the magazine “The Economist” manages to express this cicada emergence survival theory best, and I quote:

“It is no coincidence that the span of each brood’s cycle is a prime number of years. If a brood were to emerge in cycles divisible by a smaller number, then local predators could reap rewards by synchronising their own shorter cycles with one of the divisors.”

Of course! It’s simple economics!

But you may be wondering about the buzzing noise you swear you hear every year, and you’re probably right. There is such a thing as annual cicadas. In fact, the periodical cicadas that emerge in intervals greater than one year exist only in the eastern half of the United States, but annual cicadas live on every continent except Antarctica. Annual cicadas are often called “dog-day” cicadas, referring to the “dog days of summer,” the hottest days of summer in the northern hemisphere, around July to early September. The term “dog days” actually derives from the Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky (well, except for the Sun, of course). The Latin Sirius comes from the Greek Seirios meaning “glowing” or “scorcher,” referring to the extra heat it’s annual appearance seems to bring, but since Roman times it’s commonly been called the Dog Star since it’s the major star of the constellation canis major, Canis Major, the big dog. The Egyptians placed particular significance on Sirius, the Egyptian Sopdet, or Sothis when translated into Greek. The Egyptians kept a close lookout for the first annual appearance of Sothis, its heliacal rising, the first morning of the year when you could just barely make it out in the Eastern horizon only moments before the Sun begins to rise and wash out any other stars in the sky. Problem was, the Egyptians reckoned a 365-day year, so every year the rising of Sirius got nudged back a quarter day and some change. So it took a long time before the rising of Sirius coincided again with the start of the 365-day year. About 1,460 years. This span of time is the so-called Sothic cycle. Whew! Clear as mud, huh? Good thing you can rewind to hear that part again.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky … it’s a scam! It’s actually a binary system … two stars! Sirius A and Sirius B. No, I’m serious. Ha!

Over the past couple months, folks in the Midwest have been all a-buzz about cicadas. The media’s been churning out story after story on crazy cicada enthusiasm. The Ravinia Festival, the annual music festival just north of Chicago, actually moved some outdoor concerts inside and even rescheduled the performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra so they wouldn’t have to compete with the din of cicadas. And some adventurous folk have been serving up recipes on crispy, batter-fried cicada tempura, soft-shelled cicada bites, and — hey, why stop at entrees? — anyone care for a chocolate-chip cicada cookie? Of course, less discriminating palettes needn’t waste time with preparation. Birds, squirrels, raccoons, fish, and even the neighbor’s dog have taken up knife and fork to partake of this copious all-you-can-eat buffet. Getting back to cicada economics, safety in numbers is a much more practical means of survival of the species … and numbers we’ve got when you’re talking cicadas. They call that “predator satiation” — flooding the market with supply to curb demand through overeating. Of course, numbers — as in sheer quantity — are a tactic no natural predator can compete with in the case of the cicada, what with their numbers being estimated at two to three billion in Brood XIII alone. Prime numbers eat your heart out.

But the enthusiasm and fascination for cicadas is nothing new to humanity. The fascination stretches far back to the earliest of human civilization. The collection of Chinese jade figurines at the Art Institute of Chicago contains some of the most ancient art objects in the museum. The Art Institute’s Sonnenschein collection of over eight hundred Chinese jades includes a wide array of different figural forms and designs, some even dating to about 3000 BC. Most of these jades functioned as preservation jades, offering physical or spiritual protection when placed on and alongside a body in a wealthy person’s tomb from the Neolithic period, Shang and Zhou Dynasties, and beyond. Some jades were even placed inside the body, specifically within the mouth of the deceased, and even more specifically in the case of jade cicadas. Here we see a few examples from the later Han Dynasty, specifically the Eastern Han Dynasty, around AD 9 to 220. Although, here’s a little secret: the two on the right … they’re actually modern. The ancient Chinese considered jade in general to have a sort of life-preserving or longevity property and cicadas were regularly associated with rebirth, regeneration, and immortality, and a symbol of continuity between the generations. These associations, of course, likely arose from the observation of cicadas emerging very punctually in the same locations year after year. Don’t forget, periodical cicadas live only in the eastern US.

And here’s a remarkably realistic, 3-D jade cicada from the Shang or Western Zhou Dynasty around the 13th to 11th century BC. Jade is a particularly interesting material. Actually, the term “jade” was used by the ancient Chinese to refer to a couple different types of stone: jadeite and nephrite, and even other stones of similar qualities. And it took some serious elbow grease to carve jade. Well, it wasn’t so much carved as it was meticulously ground down with a lot of effort, skill, and determination using drills and some sort of abrasive like quartz and water.

Another art form that you’re likely to encounter nearby a collection of ancient Chinese jades is the piece-mold bronze vessel. As with many of the jades, these are also grave objects. Vessels of this sort come from the Shang Dynasty, around 1700 to 1050 BC, and also from the succeeding Western and Eastern Zhou Dynasties. They’re really remarkable for a number of reasons. One is that the technological skill involved in crafting vessels of bronze on this scale and with such intricacy is completely without equal at this time. In fact, we don’t see anything of this quality elsewhere in the world until the much later Archaic Greek period. Across the large region of China united under the Shang kings, we notice a strongly controlled decorative schema to the bronze vessels. This suggests a very centralized top-down ruling authority with little room for artistic innovation and stylistic variation. These vessels were all crafted under the strictest guidelines from the nobility above. And that’s where you’d originally find them too. They aren’t gonna be found in yer common bloke’s grave. The most prominent decorative motif encountered on nearly all bronze vessels and other contemporary arts is that of a sort of monster face or mask called a taotie. You can make out the taotie quite easily on this one particular large tripod vessel called a jia, used for holding and warming ceremonial wine at the Shang royal funerary rites. See the two large round nobs or bosses? Those are its eyes. In between you see the long raised nose ridge? Then above the eyes are some elaborate, curled horns and the smaller curls below the eyes are its fangs. You can follow the evolution of this taotie monster figure as it gradually morphs into later more familiar and recognizable forms, like dragons and ogres. But the thing I really want to point out on this vessel is further up the body. You see that neat triangular motif running around the rim? These are actually stylized cicadas. They’re facing downward, so the tips at the top are their butts and their eyes are at the bottom.

And here’s another Shang Dynasty bronze vessel called a fanglei, also used for wine. As common decorative motifs at this time, the taotie and cicadas emblazon this vessel too. Well, here, what if we just … zoom in a bit to the lid … and then … flip it upside down? There. The taotie. And then further on down the body at the tips of each one of these triangular wedges, we see a little cicada. Yeah … a little hard to see. If you can’t see it, you’ll just have to believe me. A little more gratifying, though, is this impression of the cicada that’s cast inside the vessel’s lid. So with the taotie and cicadas, we see an interesting use of both the imaginary and natural bestiary decorating these ancient bronze funerary vessels.

Much later on, the archaic bronze vessel shape and decorative patterns were emulated as a sort of archaism, a taste for antiquity, in the new precious material of high artistic and aristocratic achievement, porcelain. This blue-and-white square vase comes from the late Ming Dynasty, the Wanli period (1573-1620).

“’Late 14th century Ming Dynasty. Oh, it breaks the heart.’ ‘And the head. You hit me, Dad!’ ‘I’ll never forgive myself.’” (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

Thank you Dr. Jones. The shape is meant to mimic the bronze vessels from a couple thousand years earlier, like the fanglei we were just looking at. Notice the similar four-cornered shape bulging in the center, tapering at the shoulders and base, and a squat square box-like neck. This vase was probably in the ownership of a well educated scholar-bureaucrat. Something to show off his lofty classical education. The antiquarian taste seen in its archaic shape goes well with the highfalutin symbolism of the decorations. You see the regal dragon with its five-fingered claw, an ancient and generally auspicious symbol, little jade chimes, cranes and phoenixes skirting about wispy clouds, and flutes with cute little ribbons, which when played, draw down the phoenixes from the clouds. And above all that running along the neck of the vessel we see a somewhat familiar band of triangular shapes. This is yet another archaism on this Ming Dynasty vase, a band of highly stylized cicadas, just like on the Shang tripod jia we looked at earlier. So, just as the cicada is a symbol of resurrection and continuity, we see a great interest among Chinese art forms in the resurrection and preservation of ancient shapes and motifs.

And if that’s not all you ever wanted to know about cicadas, I urge you to hop on over to scarabsolutions.com to check out some good photos and video clips that I wasn’t able to squeeze into the podcast, plus links to various cool cicada resources, including a breathtaking award-winning video Return of the 17-Year Cicadas from Indiana University and some cicada recipes. But now that the Brood XIII magicicadas are all gone, you’ll just have to hold out for the “dog-day” cicadas to have your choco-fudgy-twirl cicada-sicle. And lastly, I’d like to thank Catherine Savage of Lake County Forest Preserves in Libertyville, Illinois and Dr. Gene Kritsky, Editor of American Entomologist and Professor of Biology at the College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati for their help in answering some of my stickier questions about cicadas.

Thanks for listening. So long and see ya next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

7: Gandharan Bodhisattva

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Or rather, you could be welcoming me back after this couple month hiatus from cyberspace. But we’re back online and good to go.

So, if ya ever bothered listening all the way through one of the earlier podcast episodes, you’d know that I often have little bits of news or other info at the tail end. Right about at the point when you tune out or switch over to NPR Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. But ha HA! Now I have tricked you and I’m putting the news at the beginning this time!

A little while back in Episode 4 I poked a little fun at the Art Institute of Chicago for not having a searchable freely-accessible online database of its collection. Well, if you’ve been to the Art Institute’s website recently, you may have noticed the subtle addition of a little search box on the Collection page. Yes, the Art Institute leaps headlong into the 21st century with the addition of this search box. It’s a work in progress, for sure. They claim to have a small but growing portion of the collection in the online database and the search functionality could use a little help, but it’s a definitely a very welcome addition for the scholarly community since they offer decent images, publication history, exhibition history, and provenance. These online collection databases with imagery and research details are a vital component to the mission of a modern museum. A big distinction between an art museum and a private collection is the accessibility of the collection to the general public. Keeping some 99% of one’s collection hidden away from public eyes doesn’t do anybody any good. Now, while the Art Institute’s definitely moving in the right direction by making its collection available online, is still pretty stingy with its images, though. They explicitly state that the images are for identification only and are not to be used for publication or presentation purposes. You need to drill down deeper into the terms and conditions to find a statement about fair use, but that still reads a little intimidating.

Images are one thing, but if you’re looking for audio … well, you’ve got this podcast, but you can also head on over to the Art Institute’s website again. Click on Exhibitions then Past Exhibitions where you’ll find a link to the recent exhibition The Silk Road and Beyond: Travel, Trade, and Transformation. Delve into the Silk Road exhibition website and you’ll find snippets from the audio guide on selected works from the exhibition. Sounds hard to find, huh? I’ll make it easy for you. Just head on over to scarabsolutions.com and click on the Silk Road link in the Additional Resources section. Some of the highlighted Silk Road objects even have relevance to the Ancient art context of this podcast, like this incredible Gandharan statue of a bodhisattva.

This statue is quite a departure from previous podcast topics. This is actually a Buddhist statue and technically it’s not even from the Ancient Mediterranean World. Gandhara is the name of the ancient kingdom from where we get this incredible statue. The name may not mean much to us nowadays, but we may be a little more familiar with its modern derivation, a city whose name had been all too frequent in the news of recent years, until we started liberating other nations … Kandahar. The ancient Gandharan kingdom encompassed approximately the region that’s now Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gandharan art, which dates to around the 2nd century of the Common Era, is actually among the earliest Buddhist art, even though Buddhism originated around in early 5th century BC.

The art of ancient Gandhara is a unique bridge between East and West. Look closely at the details of this figure. The musculature is so highly modeled and naturalistic, if not unrealistically idealized. The facial features are chiseled and well defined. We see incredible detail in his beautifully coifed hair with gently drilled, soft curls. As we move lower down his form we explore the dynamic quality to the drapery. We can really feel a sense of gravity, friction, tension, and movement in the folds of cloth. There’s a deliberate attempt by the artist to express the realism of soft fabric in this hard stone. Compare this to other Buddhist statuary even from significantly later periods, like this 10th century Indian stele depicting different pivotal scenes from the life of Buddha. Notice how here the artist chooses to represent the folds of the drapery in a very stylized, unrealistic manner of regular, parallel, almost concentric curves — a fairly common stylistic quality of South and Southeast Asian Buddhist art. But the Gandharan figure is quite different. Many of us buffs of Ancient Mediterranean art might see a certain similarity between the Gandharan Bodhisattva and Classical Greek statuary and there’s a good reason for that.

Y’all know this fella. Alexander the Great, born in 356 BC, came to succeed his father Philip II, King of Macedon, who united the entirety of Greece under the single Macedonian military authority. Alexander capitalized and expanded on that legacy by spreading his influence much further eastward. He conquered Persia, or some say Persia conquered him, with its sexy oriental exotique, and he even pushed his Greek army as far as the Indus River in northwest India before his disgruntled soldiers eventually compelled him to start pulling back. And at the age of 33 in June of 323 BC, Alexander the Great dies … but then, why should I tell you when yet another “great,” the legendary heavy metal icon Iron Maiden can tell you.

After the death of Alexander, this gargantuan swath of the world that he conquered was soon divided among his generals. Mesopotamia and Persia went to Seleucis, who in turn gave rise to the Seleucid Empire. Over time various territories of the Seleucid Empire rebelled and seceded. Around 305 BC, Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire, managed to wrestle Gandhara back from Seleucis, reuniting it with much of the Indian subcontinent. For a while Gandhara fell to the so-called Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, which was still under heavy Hellenistic Greek influence for a long time. It’s in the 2nd century of the Common Era, after changing hands more than a good pair of vintage jeans, when Gandhara experiences what’s considered its “golden period” with strong rulers engaging in expansive trade and a flourishing of the arts. This is the time period of our favorite Gandharan Bodhisattva. So even a good four/four and a half centuries after the death of Alexander, the seeds sewn by his campaign have a profound lingering artistic effect.

And just what is a bodhisattva? Well, very briefly, not doing the concept any justice, a bodhisattva is an individual who, through right living and meditation, has reached a state of being where he could achieve enlightenment and transcend beyond the physical world of suffering. But instead of making this leap, as the ultimate expression of compassion and charity, the bodhisattva chooses to sacrifice enlightenment and remain behind in the physical world to serve as a teacher and guide to help others reach this goal. We see bodhisattvas in Buddhism throughout the world from ancient Gandhara and India to modern Korea, China, and Japan. If you want to learn more about bodhisattvas, Buddha, and Buddhism … well, you’ll just have to stay tuned to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Thanks, take care, and see ya next time.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

6: A Classical Lekythos

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. In our last episode on the Art Institute of Chicago’s Corinthian pyxis, we saw how the early Archaic Greeks of the Orientalizing Period incorporate stylistic elements and ideas from their Near Eastern neighbors and also from their own Bronze Age ancestors. We looked at the emergence of monumental Greek temple architecture with its unprecedented massively impressive pedimental sculpture. And ultimately we came to understand how the Greeks paid homage to their Mycenaean Bronze Age ancestors by employing scenes of ferocious beasts and fiendish monsters on these early temple pediments. They did this as a means of confronting the viewer, engaging with them and conditioning their psyche for approaching the divine, just as the Mycenaeans did half a millennium earlier at the entrance to the great city of Mycenae. And on a far more diminutive, personal scale, we see this same confrontational conditioning effect employed on the funerary vessels of this early Archaic period in Ancient Greece as a sort of memento mori, a reminder of our ultimate fate.

In this episode, I want us to take a look at a significantly later example of Greek pottery and vase painting, also at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is an Attic white-ground ware lekythos from around 450-440 BC attributed to the Achilles Painter. OK … what does all that mean? Well, you’ll often come across the term “Attic” on gallery labels. That’s got nothing to do with where you keep your Christmas lights. Attic means it’s from Attica, which is the region of Greece that surrounds Athens. Aha! … Moving along now. “White-ground ware!?” See, you got yer black figure vase painting and yer red figure vase painting … and then you got your white-ground ware, because the figures are on a white background and “ware” is just the fancy word for ceramics … you know, like dinner ware. And finally a lekythos is a specific type of Ancient Greek pottery vessel usually in a tall slender vase-like shape with a tight spout and a handle, but you come across small more squat versions too. The lekythos was specifically use as a decanter for oil, mostly olive oil for Ancient Greek athletes. Now, the Greeks lived in a time before the invention of soap. Filthy buggers!? Not really. See, olive oil is an exceptionally good cleaning agent (not to mention a common ingredient in some exotic old-fashioned soaps). After a long day of rolling around with your classmates naked in the sand at the gymnasium, Greek athletes would rub olive oil on their lean, tight flesh. They’d then take a small curved metal tool called a strigil and scrape it along their skin, removing the oil and all the grime, sweat, and guck. Don’t believe me? Next time you take off a day-old BAND-AID® and it leaves behind that yucky glue residue, rub a little olive oil over it for a few seconds and presto! — ancient goo-begone. [This does not necessarily constitute an endorsement, neither expressed nor implied, of the aforementioned products BAND-AID® brand bandages and Goo Begone or any similar or related products on the part of the author or his affiliates; use at your own risk; do not attempt this at home; yadda yadda, etc etc.]

Before we dive headlong into the subject matter of this lekythos, I want to explain why the painted surface is not nearly in as good condition as most of the black and red figure vases you’ll spot at the Art Institute. You see, in the white-ground technique, the white background was painted onto the surface of the vessel after it had been fired and then the figures were painted on top of that. All the decoration of black or red figure vases was applied before the firing process as slip (not actually paint) and then fired, so baking the decoration onto the surface so it ain’t goin’ nowhere. Paint applied to the surface after firing, however, isn’t as durable and it’s prone to flaking over the eons.

The scene decorating this lekythos depicts a gray-haired elderly man with a long red cloak leaning on a cane. He looks forward into the eyes of a youthful mostly-nude male figure with a shield strapped to his back and holding a spear. The fact that the youth is nude indicates his function as a warrior. (And the shield and spear kinda help us draw that conclusion too.) Warriors in Ancient Greece, of course, didn’t march out onto the battlefield in the nude, not unless they had a few too many at the feast the night before. No, they were fully armored with a sturdy breastplate, greaves on the legs, and a helmet. Excavations in the latter part of the 20th century at Midea near Mycenae actually unearthed a magnificent Bronze Age Mycenaean cuirass or a breastplate from the 15th century BC, the time of the great heroic warriors whose legacy inspired the later epics, now in the Archaeological Museum of Nauplion in Greece. Check out the website — scarabsolutions.com — for a link to an image and description of the armor and the excavations at Midea. There’s also an interesting article in the March/April 2007 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review called “Historic Homer: Did It Happen?” which talks about this breastplate and other Mycenaean-period historical accuracies in the Iliad and Odyssey.

Despite the obvious use of armor, however, Greek artists imagined their mythological heroes were in fact nude. Throughout Ancient Greek vase painting we encounter the nude warrior, be it Hercules, Achilles, Hector, or any other heroic mythic warrior. Many a Greek male was fond of casting himself in the light of the mythic warrior, particularly upon death through the use of the nude male kouros statue as a headstone. The kouros is the earliest form of freestanding monumental Greek sculpture in the round, which finds its origin around the time of the Orientalizing Period, which we covered last time when looked at the pyxis. Perhaps a similar sort of desired effect is being attempted here — to cast the deceased in the light of the heroic warriors of yore. Remember, just about all the Ancient Greek vases you encounter in museum collections were actually grave goods. One might be inclined to interpret this scene depicted here as a father figure bidding farewell to the youth; their final goodbye before the youth marches off to battle. Perhaps the last time they will ever see each other … alive, at least. Neither figure has an expression of overwhelming emotion. They both bear a sober countenance, not betraying their torn spirits within.

Think about the difference in the way I’m describing the subject matter of this vase painting compared to the Corinthian pyxis from a century earlier. We’re trying to get inside the heads of the figures represented on the lekythos; we’re looking at a scene from some dreamt-up story. There’s definitely some sort of context here, in contrast to the decoration on the pyxis, where the creatures are outside of any context, any narrative or story. This is a big change taking place in late 6th, early 5th century Greek vase painting – a movement away from representations of ferocious confrontational beasts towards narrative scenes. Sure, representations of the Homeric epics go way back, but the narrative becomes firmly entrenched only in the mid to late Archaic Period, pushing aside the decorative flower patterns and the prominence of confrontational beasts common to the Orientalizing Period.

Beyond the heroic mythologized warrior, the nude in Ancient Greece also fires another neuron. I’m talking about the Greek athlete. Unlike the imaginary mythical nude hero, Greek athletes did in fact compete in the nude. Easy there tiger. The representation of this youth in the nude might draw us in two different directions. While all geared up, the youth is clearly preparing to head off for battle, but this solemn goodbye reminds us of the other activity of Greek youths — athletics, which perhaps the old man wishes the youth would sooner be doing before heading off to battle. And don’t forget the vessel on which this scene is depicted — a lekythos — a jar for an athlete’s oil bath. So what’s going on here? Why is the artist conjuring up a scene that might tug us in two directions? Well, just as with the Corinthian pyxis that we looked at before, this lekythos is also a funerary vessel, a grave good. So, to take our train of imaginative thought one step further, perhaps we have a scene here reflecting an actual occurrence or some imagined, mythologized, heroicized occurrence of a youth slain in battle, the loss of innocence, no more will he enjoy sport at the gymnasium with his fellow companions. So, he’s buried with a lekythos to recapture the activities of youth and he’s portrayed here as a heroic warrior worthy of all honor. Just as with the pyxis, here too we have a memento mori.

We see a big change taking place in the Archaic period as Athens emerges as the new cultural superpower, soon eclipsing Corinth. Perhaps the most significant stamp that Athenians place on the Greek world is their interest in the human condition, in morality, justice, pride, and suffering. And this shows up in their vase painting not so much in the stories that they tell, but more so in the way that they tell their stories. The artist could have chose to memorialize the deceased as a fallen warrior among other glorious dead or in the moment of a heroic death on the battle field. Or he could have represented some other mythical hero like Hercules, Achilles, or Perseus, casting the deceased in a brighter light. Instead we see a different sort of narrative aesthetic evolving in Attic vase painting. Well, by this Late Classical period it’s pretty much well evolved. Instead of showing the height of physical action, instead we’re presented with a subdued anticlimactic moment of pause, the quiet before the storm. It’s up to the mind of the viewer, up to us, to complete the narrative in our minds. Granted, this narrative technique relies on a sort of familiarity with the story. In this case, we may not necessarily be familiar with the story, but different clues like the nude form of the youth, his armament, and his classical contaposto (that’s the stance he’s taking, like a statue of some hero) — these clues lead us to the conclusion that he’s a warrior and the old man seems to be engaging with him. The rest is our own speculation, but it’s an educated and informed speculation.

We encounter a lot of similar examples in Archaic and Classical Attic vase painting where a moment just before the height of the climax is represented, rather that showing all the gory details, and the artist relies on the viewer’s familiarity with the narrative to connect the dots and lead up to the climax in his or her mind. Here’s a fairly early and exemplary illustration, The Suicide of Ajax, an Attic black-figure amphora from around 540 BC by the very well known artist Exekias, now in the Château-Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer (er … pardon my French). Ajax fought alongside Achilles in the Trojan War. In later myths and tragedies, he’s often elevated practically to the same status as Achilles. Alas, he’s probably most familiar to our contemporary audience as the big goober with the war hammer in the 2004 Hollywood production Troy, where Achilles is played by Brad Pitt. The Iliad just tells a fraction of the story of the siege of Troy. A lot happens between the Iliad and the Odyssey, where the latter recounts Odysseus’s journey back home from the 10 year-long siege. Apparently there were also other epics that told the stories of other warriors involved in the Trojan War beyond Achilles and Odysseus, sadly now lost – well … till somebody discovers a Greco-Roman mummy stuffed with papyrus fragments of some lost epic. … It’s not impossible.

But somewhere between the events of the Iliad and Odyssey, the unthinkable happens – Achilles is killed by Orlando Bloom … I mean, Paris. The armament of Achilles is to be rewarded to the most feared Greek soldier. It comes down to Odysseus and Ajax. They get into a big debate and the arms are finally awarded to Odysseus. There’re different accounts of what happens next, but one popular version says Ajax is completely distraught and goes into a mad rage, killing his Greek comrades left and right … or so he thought. Athena intervened and disguised the flocks as his fellow Greeks, so Ajax ended up only slaying the flocks. Completely embarrassed and distraught a second time for the harm he could have done, Ajax takes the sword of Hector (awarded to him after a stalemate battle against Hector), wanders off from the camp, and kills himself by burying the sword tip-up in the sand and impaling himself on it. So, here we see Ajax planting the sword, neatly packing down the earth around it. His shield leans lazily at the edge of the frame, his helmet and spears carefully placed atop. Incidentally, the spear was his weapon of choice, not the war hammer. And now we know what’s coming next. … Bleeehh! See, Exekias is relying on our familiarity with the story to bring us to the height the climax and all the gory bits without having to show the gory bits. It’s more engaging, less off-putting, and invites us to consider the Ajax’s state of mind. To ponder his pathos, the powerful Greek term for suffering and the human condition. And as if that’s not enough, Exekias also sneaks in a foreboding omen. Decorating the shield of Ajax is the fiendish Gorgon Medusa with snakes for hair, said to have been so hideously ugly that her gaze would turn you to stone. And above that is a glaring feline, similar devices to the ones we saw on the Corinthian pyxis. While it’s perfectly legitimate to have these devices decorating your shield (wouldn’t be a pretty sight to have that racing towards you on the battlefield), they also function in the context of the painting as ill omens of the impending tragic conclusion.

My goodness … how about that.

Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to hop on over to the website scarabsoltions.com for better quality images, links to external resources, and the extensive bibliography on Ancient art. I’m also adding transcripts for each episode, in case you’d prefer to read rather than listen to the podcast. That’ll also make it a lot easier if you want to revisit something you heard on the podcast, but can’t remember exactly where it was mentioned. Simply enter some keywords in the search box at scarabsolutions.com. And in case you haven’t noticed, you can leave your feedback for each individual episode at the website, if you have something nice to say or a particular axe to grind. You can also email me at scarabsolutions@mac.com. And while you’re at it, if you like the podcast, I invite you to go on over to iTunes and post a review. It’s gettin’ a little lonely out here. Take care and see ya soon on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

5: A Corinthian Pyxis

Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. This episode is coming out a little later than I had wanted on account of a cold that I’ve been getting over. But I’m pretty much decongested now and more or less back to normal.

In this episode, I want us to take a look at a cute little pyxis from Corinth. A pyxis is a specific type of Greek vessel used to store cosmetics, jewelry, or other trinkets. They come in a variety of different shapes—squat basket-like, cylindrical jars, box-like, and spherical, as we have here, along with a separate lid and handles. This pyxis at the Art Institute of Chicago is dated to about 580-570 BC, towards the end of the Greek Orientalizing Period, late 8th to mid 6th centuries BC. The Orientalizing Period is a time when the Greeks renew contact and trade with the different civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East after a long period of isolation during the Greek Dark Age and Geometric Period. This is a fascinating time of rediscovery, invention, and assimilation.

Albeit not the most politically correct term, the “Orientalizing Period” has nonetheless stuck. The term refers to the tremendous cultural and artistic impact that the renewed contact with Ancient Near Eastern cultures had on the blossoming civilization of Greece. One particularly successful center for the flourishing of culture and commerce during the Orientalizing Period was the city of Corinth located on the narrow isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus with mainland Greece. Due to its strategic location with ports accessing both the Aegean and Adriatic, Corinth became a rather lucrative port of trade for Syrian, Phoenician, and other Near Eastern merchants. Corinthians saw the influx of exotic metal ware and ivory trinkets, pottery designs, and elaborate textile patterns. Some scholars even think that Near Eastern artisans and craftsmen may have made their way over to Greece to ply their skills. The Greeks themselves began to travel more extensively to foreign lands, including great forays up and down the Nile of Egypt beginning in the mid 7th century. And all this exposure to foreign artistic motifs and conventions, long-standing monumental architecture of ancient civilizations, new stories, cultures, myths, and legends had a tremendous impact on the visual arts of Ancient Greece.

The artisans and consumers of Corinth had a particular appeal for the Near Eastern aesthetic, or at least their spin on what was seen as quote-unquote “Oriental.” While Athens continues to linger in the traditional Geometric vase painting design of the previous century, Corinth quickly pushes this aside in favor of new Oriental designs, like exotic chimeras and sphinxes, ferocious wild beasts and prey, and flowering rosettes and palmettes. The stark contrast of the darkly silhouetted Geometric figure against a background of meandering patterns, gives way to gentler curves and elaborate outlines of the figure’s contour with a smoother, flowing brush. Color also begins to make an appearance in Corinthian Orientalizing vase painting. You can clearly see the use of red, black, and white on the Art Institute pyxis. This pyxis also seems to display a sense of horror vaccui of the earlier Geometric Period. Every possible blank space on the background is strategically filled with some sort of rosette or linear pattern so as not to leave any large portion of undecorated surface.

What’s immediately most striking about this pyxis is, of course, the central decorative scene. In the very center we have a composite monster with the torso and legs of a lion, wings of an eagle, and head of a human female, known in Greeks mythology as the sphinx. This pyxis is attributed to the so-called “Ampersand Painter” because the shape of the sphinx’s tail is that of an ampersand (you know, the “and” symbol). This ampersand-shaped tail is the signature mark of this particular painter or workshop and it can be seen on other works in other museum also attributed to the Ampersand Painted. The earliest account of the sphinx in Greek myth comes from Hesiod’s Theogony, one of the earliest works of Greek literature, composed sometime in the late 8th to early 7th century BC. Hesiod briefly mentions the sphinx among his litany of the origins of all the myriads of hybrid monsters and creatures conjured up in Greek minds or imported by the Greeks from neighboring cultures and myths. Now, it’s hard to argue that the sphinx is a purely Greek invention when you’re faced with all the similar composite creatures of Near Eastern tradition that first started to make their way over to Greece around the time when Hesiod puts pen to paper, creatures like the lammasu, shedu, manticore, griffin, and chimera. But certainly the oriental influence contributes to the new forms of expression and experimentation, with both a profound interest in the ancient civilizations of the Near East and a new interest among the Greeks in their own ancient ancestry.

It’s around this time when the Greeks begin to look more closely at the remains of their own Bronze Age Mycenaean ancestors. At the same time when the great Homeric Epics of the Iliad and Odyssey were being recited, as the Greeks were weaving tales of the heroic warriors Achilles, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, so too were they looking out over the standing ruins of ancient Mycenae, the palace of King Agamemnon. There’s even evidence that the Dark Age and Archaic Greeks excavated Mycenaean tholos tombs, digging down to their entrances with their monumental Cyclopean masonry to establish shrines and offer votives at the tombs of these heroic warriors.

So where are we going with all of this? Well, the central sphinx is conventionally seen as some sort of Near Eastern or Oriental influence. Ok, I’ll buy that. Flanking the sphinx you’ve got a couple feline creatures usually interpreted as lions or leopards. Felines, particularly lions, are very prevalent throughout Ancient Near Eastern art in architectural relief from the walls of ancient Babylon and Persepolis to the smaller decorative arts. But I argue a very different and distinctly indigenous influence taking place here. See how the two lions have their bodies turned inward toward the central sphinx, but their faces gaze outward with giant, blank, piercing eyes fixed upon you, ferocious beasts of prey staring you down. I mentioned how the Greeks of this day and age were interested in exploring and rediscovering their own heroic and mythic past of the Bronze Age Mycenaean Civilization and that the ruins of Ancient Mycenae, the so-called palace of King Agamemnon were readily visible and available to the early Archaic Greeks. The most visually powerful and notable architectural remains at Mycenae is the well-known Lion’s Gate. Here we are confronted by two colossal lions, their muscular bodies rearing up on a central platform. Their faces are now lost and the dowel holes suggest that they were carved separately. The way the dowel holes are positioned and the form of what’s remaining lead most scholars to believe that the faces were likely turned to gaze outward, staring down at the lowly people passing underneath the monumental gateway. Throughout Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures and even well beyond into the Middle Ages of Europe, lions are a common emblem of kingship. The effect of this in-your-face confrontation by these gargantuan beasts conditions the viewers approaching the gate. The Lion’s Gate conveys this message of “Beware! Know that the king within is as mighty as a lion.”

The Lion’s Gate was in plain sight of the Greeks. In the day when monumental art, sculpture, and architecture reemerge from a long period of dormancy, it’s not surprising that they’d look back to their country’s former glory while also incorporating ideas and motifs from exotic civilizations abroad. In the mid 7th century BC the Greeks began creating their first monumental temples in stone. Perhaps the earliest known stone temple in Greece is that of Apollo at Corinth with a date somewhere between 670 and 630 BC. And in a couple generations, the Greeks settled on the sort of temples we think of when we think of Greek temples, with the surrounding columns called a peristyle, the pitched roof, and triangular pediment, all that sculpture above the east and west sides. The earliest known Greek temple of this style is the one to Artemis on the island of Corfu, just off the western coast of Greece. Built around 580 BC, right around the time when the Art Institute’s pyxis was created, the temple of Artemis displayed a magnificent pediment with a sculptural motif that should be pretty familiar to us by now. Seen from their sides, two great cats poise with their muscular bodies ready to pounce. Their faces are turned outward, just as in the Lion’s Gate, gazing at the tiny worshippers below as they make their approach to the house of the maiden huntress Artemis. In the center of the pediment between the lions stands the Gorgon Medusa, a fiendish creature with snakes for hair, said to be so ugly that her gaze would transform you to stone. This presentation of otherworldly ferocity and might is certainly something to give you goose-bumps, if you were an Ancient Greek not used to seeing such incredible displays nor desensitized by modern horror flicks.

And moving along to our darling little pyxis, the Ampersand Painter seems to have jumped on the bandwagon of Orientalism and Mycenaean revivalism (and that’s not a real term. As far as I know, I just made it up.) But why use this confrontational lion motif that might otherwise be more appropriate for temples and royal palaces? I don’t think the message here is “Beware the cosmetics housed within!” No, more likely it’s just meant to give us a little moment to pause … a jarring experience (ugh … pardon the pun). Remember, what we’re looking at here, as with most Ancient Greek ceramics throughout museum collections, is a grave good, something buried with the recently departed. This vessel exists because someone has died. While a pyxis for the living might be plain or decorated with little flowers and prancing deer, this vessel for the dead has a confrontational gaze inducing a moment to pause and reflect. A memento mori. A reminder of our own mortality.

On that cheerful note …

Thanks for listening. And don’t forget to swing by the website, scarabsolutions.com for additional resources, an extensive bibliography on ancient art and civilization, photos, and links to great external resources. And most recently, I’ve added a link that’ll let you subscribe to the podcast in MP4 format, so you can play it with images on just about any digital media player. Check out the website for more details. Take care, stay warm, and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

4: Statue of Osiris

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast, your guidebook to the art and culture of the Ancient Mediterranean World. I’m your host Lucas Livingston.

In our second podcast episode on the Mummy Case of Paankhenamun, I mentioned that the Art Institute has a really nifty statue of Osiris, the kind of statue that you’d commonly find in the burial chambers of well-to-do Ancient Egyptians. In this episode, I want to take a closer look at this statue and see how it fits in to the broad context of Egyptian funerary practice and ideology.

Here we have a statue of the Egyptian god Osiris, king of the gods, god of the dead, and lord of the underworld. This statue is dated to Ptolemaic Period, the time between the deaths of Alexander the Great in 332 BC and Cleopatra in 30 BC, when Egypt was ruled by a line of Macedonian Greek Pharaohs. It’s really during the earlier Late Period of Ancient Egypt when this statue type becomes common. You might more frequently encounter a statue of this type referred to as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, a later composite form of god similar to Osiris, but incorporating aspects of the cults of Ptah, the ancient creator god of Memphis, and Sokar, and somewhat lesser known god of … nebulous origin. Sokar seems also to come from Memphis and was already associated with Osiris way back in the Old Kingdom and with Ptah even earlier.

When I say that this is a common type of statue, just what is it that makes up this “type?” Well, you’ve got the tightly bound mummy of Osiris standing upright on a large rectangular base that juts pretty far out in front of him. The base of this figure, as with many of its companions, is hollowed out to form a little cavity that would contain a scrap of papyrus with a spell from the Book of the Dead or a miniature mummy figure somewhat inappropriately referred to as a “corn mummy.” I’ll say a little more on that later. Sometimes the base isn’t hollowed out, but the statue itself is and then the little papyrus scroll is rolled up and shoved inside.

Also characteristic of this statue type is the crown that Osiris wears. You come across a variety of different crowns on Osiris, but the popular one for this figure is the twin-plumed crown with solar disk and ram horns, like the one we encountered on the anthropomorphic Osirid djed pillar on the mummy case of Paankhenamun.

But this Osiris statue at the Art Institute’s collection is a real beauty. I’ll give you a little challenge. You just try to find a more exquisite statue of this type and if you think you’ve found one, then drop me an email at scarabsolutions@mac.com. The artist has chosen a pretty diverse palette here including various reds, greens, blues, white, and yellow pigment, and gold leaf. The choice of colors might remind you of Paankhenamun. Similarly the gilding of his face. The skin of the gods in Ancient Egypt was said to be made of gold, so Osiris is shown that way here and Paankhenamun was appropriately represented similarly on his mummy case, when upon death he joins the pantheon and is identified with Osiris. Now, just to set the record straight, the mummy case and the statue of Osiris come from completely different tombs and completely different times. This figure comes from the tomb of a woman centuries after Paankhenamun. We know her only by her name from the inscription on this figure. Her name is Wsr-ir-des, which translates into something like “Osiris made her.” The inscription is a similar, but much later version of the offering prayer that we already encountered on the wall fragment from the tomb of Amenemhet.

The decoration of Osiris’s body is particularly exquisite with the elaborate netting meant to resemble detailed beadwork that may have originally adorned the mummy of Wsr-ir-des. An incredible necklace adorns his chest with rows of beautiful rosettes and lotus blossoms and items that may represent polished gemstones, tear-drop-shaped rubies and lapis lazuli. Falcon heads with solar disks suspend the necklace at either side, clasping it together in back. As with the beaded netting, the necklace was perhaps based on an original example that may have accompanied Wsr-ir-des in her tomb or could have previously been known to the artist.

We discussed in the earlier episode on Paankhenamun how the pedestal that the djed pillar stands on looks like a doorway, reminiscent of the niched façade of early royal tombs and the surrounding walls to mortuary temples. This niched façade motif shows up all over in Egyptian art and architecture, going back as far as Egyptian history itself. One of the earliest examples is even seen on the Narmer Palette, the ceremonial plaque traditionally interpreted as commemorating the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first king, Narmer. This little design is called a serekh, which is kinda like an early version of the cartouche, the emblem that surrounds and designates the king’s name. With its niched architectural façade pattern, it can be read symbolically as the gateway to the royal palace, literally housing the name, while figuratively housing the king. Later during the Old Kingdom this niched motif is seen in the surrounding perimeter wall of the mortuary temple and pyramid complex of King Djozer. The niched façade motif quickly takes on a funerary context and as funerary art and architecture evolves, we see it being used a little differently. Sarcophagi adopt a distinctly architectural appearance, incorporating the niched façade pattern and cavetto cornice (that curved eaves at the top), seen here in a line drawing of the sarcophagus of King Menkaura, now somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

During the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, as private individuals begin to participate in the luxury of elaborate funerary rites, the niched façade motif begins to show up decorating the exterior of coffins. Here’s one Middle Kingdom example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Coffin of Khnum-nakht. Beautifully detailed hieroglyphic bands of funerary spells and invocations form the decorative pattern of the niched façade. The architectural idea of the coffin is further elaborated with the appearance of a false door, which would originally decorate a wall in the offering chamber of the deceased as a spiritual doorway through which the decedent’s ka emerges to receive the nourishment of the offerings left behind. The false door itself also repeats the niched pattern, suggesting the grand entry of an Old Kingdom royal mortuary temple. Above the false door we see two eyes staring out, the Eyes of Horus, through which the deceased can look out to observe the people bringing offerings. Now, once Khnum-nakht was interred and his tomb sealed, people wouldn’t be able to see the coffin, but he likely had an attached chapel with a false door and offering scene, perhaps with the Eyes of Horus, where one would leave offerings for his ka.

Here, for example, is one such offering scene that may have decorated the panel area above a false door, similar to the wall fragment that we looked at in our earlier podcast on the Mummy Case of Paankhenamun. Both come from the Middle Kingdom, when this was all the rage for the Egyptian nouveau riche. Not to be confused with the example from the earlier podcast, which shows Amenemhet with his wife Hemet and son Amenemhet, here we see Amenemhet (no relation) with his mother Yatu. And notice the Eyes of Horus above.

It took a few eons before the private individual could participate in all the pomp and circumstance of an elaborate funeral and burial, which previously had been reserved for royalty. This change takes place around the time of the First Intermediate Period after the collapse of the Old Kingdom. And then it took another eon or two before said individual could participate in the same rite of passage upon death, the Osiris resurrection mystery.

I already summarized the myth of Osiris’s murder, dismemberment, and resurrection. Osiris has always has a strong connection with death resurrection, and fertility, chiefly in an agrarian sense. This apparent contradiction of embodying both life and death didn’t seem to bother the Egyptians. We find what seem like contradictions and dichotomies throughout Egyptian mythology, which might make us scratch our head and wonder. But the Egyptians were never burdened by our Western tradition of Platonic logic. What we may perceive as a contradiction could have been perfectly alright to them. Getting back to Osiris, the Egyptians weren’t unique with their association of fertility, life, and death. We find a similar concept of a particular deity presiding over both life and death or creation and destruction in various cultures throughout history, like the Greek Demeter or Hindu Shiva, just to name a couple.

After Isis gathers up and puts together all the pieces of Osiris’s dismembered body, Osiris essentially becomes the first mummy and it’s in this state that he is almost always depicted, all tightly wrapped up. Being the first mummy, his murder arguably is also the first instance of death in Egyptian myth, and the first entombment. The ideas of life, death, fertility, entombment, and resurrection all come together in the statue of Osiris. The pedestal that Osiris stands on bears a striking resemblance to that Coffin of Khnum-nakht and the drawing of the sarcophagus of Menkaura. The pattern painted on the wooden base is meant to mimic the traditional niched pattern of early mortuary temple façades, Old Kingdom sarcophagi, Middle Kingdom coffins, and false doors. And just as there is always something further behind the façade, ultimately a mummy, here too as I briefly said earlier, we often find a little corn mummy under the trap door in the cavity of the box. I said that the corn mummy is a misnomer. That’s the case because there was no corn in Ancient Egypt. Corn is a New World crop. Egyptian grew a variety of other grains like barley and emmer, but not corn. Now, this is all semantics with a distinctly American bias. “Corn” is just the word used by English anthropologists to denote the staple crop of a region. Corn as it’s known to your average American is technically and more properly referred to as “maize.” So. The corn mummy is composed of earth and grain, the key ingredients, which when mixed with water, create life. Germination parallels resurrection, two distinct aspects of Osiris.

The corn mummy plays out in microcosm the whole ideology of death and resurrection in Ancient Egypt.

And kinda like a series of nested Russian dolls, we find the corn mummy within its tomb, which in the form of the Osiris statue is placed within the larger tomb of the deceased.

How’d-ya-like them apples!

As always, I encourage you to check out the website — scarabsolutions.com. If you’re listening this podcast in iTunes, you can just click on the link in the artwork display. I’ve added a couple useful links on the website. One to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which I talked about last time. The MFA has a great online database that lets you browse or search over a third of a million objects in its collection. And their collection of ancient art is something to be envied.

I’ve also added a link to the Met’s online collection, where you’ll find the Coffin of Khnum-nakht and a gazillion other works of art.

And in a year or two the Art Institute may also begin to participate in the 21st century by putting the bulk of its collection online in a searchable database with images.

I’ve also added a new section to the SCARABsolutions website featuring links to a few of my other favorite podcasts, which of course I highly recommend, including the Art Institute’s new MuseCast. So check it out, or just search the iTunes Store for the Art Institute of Chicago.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

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