7. “‘Miscegenated Family Album’ at Alexander Gray Associates (New York), September 10–November 11, 2008.” ARTINFO, 1 Nov 2008. Accessed 7/6/2009. http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/29166/lorraine-ogrady/
Alright, welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. It’s time to wrap things with part 3 of the Ancient Olympics. We looked at the foundation myths for the four major crown games at Delphi, Nemea, Isthmia, and Olympia. We also, ahem, exposed the concept of nudity as a quintessentially democratic Greek dynamic to ancient athletics. This time we’re getting in to the nitty gritty where we can smell the sweat and taste the dirt. Ancient athletics never felt so real. We’ll keep looking at what makes the Greek games essentially Greek and we’ll run through a survey of the different types of athletic events at the Olympics. Then we’ll go on a nice little marathon run and polish things off with some character portraits of notable athletes.
Like nudity, explored in episode 19, another fascinating quality to the ancient Greek games, which contributed to their idealized democratic nature, was how judging took place. All subjectivity was removed from judging. There were no points awarded for grace or form. Judging was done using objective standards. Who hurled the javelin furthest, who ran the fastest, or who threw his opponent to the ground first. Judges are fairly easy to spot in Greek vase painting. Just look for the guy with the big stick. We see judges calling matches to an end when a victor is declared, or sometimes intervening in a match when a contestant breaks the rules. The beauty of competing in the nude — no, this isn’t going where you think — but it’s that the aristocrat and laborer were judged alike and judgment was swift and harsh.
Most of the events of the Ancient Olympic Games are familiar to us. The earliest type of event, the only event that would have been held at the supposed first Olympiad of 776 BC, was the stadion, from which we get the word “stadium.” The stadion was basically just the ancient equivalent to the 200 meter dash. Contestants would run down the length of the stadium, which was 600 ancient feet. Funny thing is, though, the official length of a foot varied from location to location. The length of the stadium at Olympia was different from the length at Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea. But that sort of standardization didn’t really matter to the ancient Greeks. Another footrace that was added to the Olympics in 520 BC was the hoplitodromos, where athletes would run down the stadium and back in armor, wearing helmets and greaves, and carrying shields. Again, there’s no evidence that there was any sort of standardization to the weight of the armor being carried. Similarly, in the pentathlon, one event was the long jump. Athletes would often jump with the aid of handheld weights called halteres, or halters. Halters have been excavated from different sites and periods and there’s no apparent pattern to their shape or weight. Much like a bowling ball, you’d use whatever weight works best for you. The other four events of the pentathlon, which originated in 708 BC, included the discus, the javelin, the stadion, and wrestling. You might think that’s where we get modern Greco-Roman wrestling from, but that’s just Victorian nostalgia run amok.
Similar to wrestling was another full contact event called pankration, literally “all-powerful,” the no-holds-barred ancient equivalent to mixed martial arts or the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The only illegal moves in the pankration were gouging and biting. Everything else was fair game. The idea for these rules comes from Hercules’s battle against the Nemean Lion. The lion’s hide was impenetrable to sword and spear, so Hercules was forced to grapple with it, choking the beast to death. Now, the pankration was not by definition a death match, but yes, some contestants did die. One of the most well known is Arrhichion of Phigaleia, pankration victor of the 572 and 568 Olympics. In his third attempt at an Olympic victory in 564, his opponent managed to get a good strangle hold on Arrhichion, slowly choking the life from him. But as darkness swept over him and the sleep of death crept in, Arrhichion swiftly executed one final move to wrench his opponent’s ankle from its socket. His opponent, still applying the choke hold, signaled submission to the judge. Arrhichion simultaneously became a three-time Olympic victor and slipped away into death.
We also see boxing, called “pyx,” added to the Olympics in 668 BC. And to round out the gymnikos agon, the nude games, we see the diaulos added in 724 BC. The diaulos was the second event added to the Olympics, after the stadion. Diaulos is the word for a double-flute, a common instrument from Ancient Greece. Playing on that term, the diaulos race was a double stadion, or down and back, just like the later hoplitodromos. And at the next Olympiad four years later in 720 BC, we see the addition of the dolichos, the long-distance run, somewhere around 20 to 24 laps of the stadium. It’s interesting that you can identify which race is being depicted in art based on the position of the runners’ knees and arms. If their arms are raised high up with knees high in long strides, they’re running the shorter stadion. If their knees aren’t quite as high, it’s likely the diaulos. Arms carefully tucked in to the torso like jogging, that’s certainly the long-distance dolichos. But if you’re not sure, inscriptions next to the runners sometimes provide additional evidence.
What about the marathon, you ask? The famed 26.2 mile run popular throughout the world today named after the famous ancient Greek site of the Battle of Marathon? You might be surprised to know that there was no such thing as the marathon run in the ancient world. It’s an entirely modern invention. The idea of the marathon originates from two possible stories that may have gotten mixed together in later times. The Battle of Marathon was a major Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BC. The basic story is that the Athenians sent a messenger named Pheidippides to run from Marathon to Athens after the battle to announce their victory. As soon as he arrived and shared the news, he dropped dead. But there’s no mention by Herodotus in his contemporary account of the Battle of Marathon of anyone running from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news. He does mention a messenger named Pheidippides or sometimes Philippides in some manuscripts, who ran from Athens to Sparta before the battle to seek Spartan aid. The other story that gets mixed with Herodotus’s is that the Athenian hoplite force, after defeating the Persian army at Marathon, marched at a high pace in full armor the 25 or so miles all the way from Marathon to Athens to defeat a second wave of the Persian attack. So, as I said, these two stories of two different runs eventually get mixed together to form the much more romantic account of Pheidippides, his valor, and his tragic self-sacrifice to bring news of the victory of democractic Greek heroism over the barbaric imperialism of Persia at the Battle of Marathon.
And the marathon run itself? Yeah, that was invented for the first modern Olympics in 1896 in an attempt to echo the legendary glory of Ancient Greece. As a side note, the distance was eventually standardized to 26 miles and 385 yards after the 1908 London Olympics. Today’s marathon run is not the distance from Marathon to Athens, but the distance from Windsor Castle to the royal box at the London Olympic stadium.
We’ve talked a lot about the gymnikos agon, the nude events, but what about the hippikos agon. I already mentioned that, despite all the hooplah about chariot races in art and literature nearly as far back as the Greek Dark Ages, they weren’t officially part of the Olympics until 680 BC. The first horse race to be added was the tethrippon, the four-horse chariot race, which was 12 laps around the hippodrome. But, of course, it shouldn’t surprise you any more that the length of the hippodrome wasn’t standardized from location to location. We also find the synoris, a two-horse chariot race, and the keles, a mounted horse race. As with today, it was advantageous to have as small and light a jockey as possible, but back in Ancient Greece that usually meant having a young slave boy race your prize horse. This silver coin from the Art Institute of Chicago commemorates the keles race won by Philip II of Macedon in 356 BC, father of Alexander the Great. The youthful jockey holds a palm branch, a secondary victory trophy given out at the games by this time. Philip’s name is stamped on the coin fragmented by the horse’s head. And on the other side (technically the obverse, if you want to talk numismatics) we see the god Zeus, the ultimate victor at the Olympics. Don’t forget — he’s the reason for the season.
Despite all this talk about the Olympics being the ultimate emblem of Greek democracy, there was definitely a social divide among the competitors and events. While any decent athlete could compete in the nude events, the horse races always held a certain air of snobbery and elitism. To enter in the horse races, one had to be able to afford a horse, chariot, rider, and training, which only the wealthiest of Greeks could afford. Last time in episode 19, we saw in the funeral games of Patroklos in Book 23 of the Iliad that Odysseus excelled in the footrace and wrestling match. Interestingly, though, he doesn’t compete in the chariot race, perhaps because he is one of the less affluent Greek kings at Troy and couldn’t afford to lug a team of race horses and chariot with him on a military campaign.
But this social divide didn’t prevent the masses from reveling in the spectacle of the horse races. By all accounts they were extremely popular. Popular for the masses and also as a means for political maneuvering and exploitation. The coin commemorating Philip’s keles victory ensured his fame and name would be dispersed throughout much of the Greek world. As Philip expands his outreach, he gains control of game sites, maneuvering to unify all of Greece in part through athletic competition, not as a series of disparate sacred centers and city states, but as a united nation of Hellenic people.
Hopefully this trilogy of episodes on the Ancient Olympics has whetted your appetite to delve a little deeper. If you’d like to learn more, visit the bibliography in the Additional Resources section at ancientartpodcast.org, where you’ll find a section under Greece on “the Olympics and Other Greek Games.”
©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org
Hi everyone. Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host Lucas Livingston. You may have noticed … or maybe not … that the Ancient Art Podcast is now available on YouTube. Just head on over to youtube.com and search for “Ancient Art Podcast,” or go to ancientartpodcast.org and you’ll see the embedded YouTube video there. You also may have noticed the addition of an iPod-compatible format to the podcast stream. Much to my chagrin, after I finally bit the bullet and purchased a video-capable iPod (relegating my awesome first generation iPod to the drawer), I suddenly discovered, having had no test platform prior to this, that the high-definition Ancient Art Podcast doesn’t play on video iPods. What the heck! So instead of conceding quality to compatibility and downgrading the podcast, I thought it wise to offer both formats—HD and iPod—in the same stream, for your choosing. One looks great on a huge plasma screen, while the other fits nicely in your pocket. And for those listeners with the iPhone or iPod touch, the iPod version is what you’ll want to download directly to your device, not the HD version.
If you listen to MuseCast, the official audio podcast of the Art Institute of Chicago, you may have heard in the November 2008 episode about the grand opening of the Alsdorf Galleries, the new galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art. Well, the MuseCast episode gave you a brief audio introduction to the galleries and has a great interview with curator Madhu Ghose, but I’m so excited about this much anticipated installation that I want to talk about it myself … with pictures, no less.
If you’ve been to the Art Institute in the past year or so, you may have noticed that the famed corridor of medieval armor, weapons, and decorative arts has been removed, much to the dismay of rambunctious adolescents and nostalgic gamers. Don’t worry. It’ll be coming back in a different and even better display, but that space, the long corridor that spans the commuter railroad tracks, has undergone an incredible transition from the musty medieval hall to the majestic, colorful, day-lit corridor of South and Southeast Asian treasures. There’s quite a feast of artwork on display here, including some works that may be a little familiar to avid listeners, like the Gandharan Bodhisattva from episode 7 of the Ancient Art Podcast, now exhibited among a number of his Gandharan contemporaries. One remarkable architectural element is the installation of a long set of windows offering a sweeping panorama of the Art Institute’s new Modern Wing, Millennium Park, and the Chicago skyline north of the park. Bright natural light is okay in this gallery, because all the exposed works are statuary made of stone, bronze, or wood, and whatever paint they originally had on them has long since disintegrated. But so as not to be confronted by a plodding series of dull gray sculpture, broad swaths of color have been added among the casework, auspicious colors exemplary of the cultures that produced these works of art, like saffron, the color of sacrifice worn by the Buddhist monks of Tibet, yellow, the color of the Indian spring festival, and red, the color of traditional bridal dress. Color is a very important part of South and Southeast Asian life. Nearly all works surrounding us in this gallery were once originally vibrantly painted with a variety of colors and also originally draped in fine textiles. Some works even retain part of their original coloration; not so much those in the Art Institute, but some works even in-situ, like this 17th century granite sculpture of a divine marriage ceremony from the Madurai temple in Tamil Nadu in Southern India. Notice also the floral garlands draped over the figures. And in this 19th century Indian watercolor of priests worshipping the god Krishna, now in Australia. While it’s a 2-dimensional work, you can still get a sense of how the images of gods and goddesses were and still are today draped in extraordinary fabrics in Hindu and Buddhist temples.
The colored panels in the Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art serve to remind us that these works of art surrounding us are now stripped out of their original sacred context. These magnificent works of sculpted stone and cast bronze, while being beautiful works of art in their own right, were not created for the purpose of being displayed in a museum behind airtight glass in a precision temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. These sacred works are consecrated icons of divine beings. As in Western traditions, an icon, or a work of art that undergoes a religious consecration, is literally thought to house the spirit of the divine form. It’s called the “eye-opening” ceremony, when the icon is unveiled and awakens with painted open eyes as the spirit of the divine enters the figure. In the original context of a temple or shrine, one would expect to encounter these sacred works, like this 12th century Indian statue of the Divine General Kartikeya, adorned with fine drapery, colorful pigment, flowering garlands, and all manners of religious offerings piled at his feet, like incense, flowers, food, and money.
This colossal figure is one of the centerpieces of the Alsdorf Galleries. He and the adjacent contemporary South Indian Buddha are hard to miss when passing through, but hopefully you’ll do more than just pass through. Hopefully you’ll even stop to enjoy these works on your way from the gift shop to the restaurant. The statue of Kartikeya exemplifies much of the rich iconography and symbolism of the Hindu tradition. The multiplicity of arms and heads reflect the celestial, superhuman quality of his divine form. (Although, to be very specific, the six heads on Kartikeya here actually refer to the story surrounding his mystical birth, six heads to nurse from his six foster mothers, but multiple heads is a common element of Hindu iconography.) Each of his hands holds some sort of ritual implement or weapon, each having a precise meaning. Like the lotus blossom (“padme” in Sanskrit) in one of his right hands, symbolic of enlightenment—the lotus flower rising from the murky depths of the marsh out of the darkness up to the heavenly light of the sun—also symbolic of the feminine energy of the human spirit. And the vajra, or thunderbolt, in his upper left hand, symbolic of the masculine energy of the human spirit. The lotus and vajra can be read together as a union, a balance, between our feminine and masculine sides. People aren’t one or the other. There’s a duality to us all. To reach nirvana, to reach an enlightened state of being, we need to strike an internal balance, a harmony of these forces within. To borrow something from the Far East, it’s like the yin and yang, a harmony in the unified circle of two swirling opposites. We also need to strike an internal balance between our compassion and wisdom. Interestingly, wisdom in the Hindu tradition is generally equated with femininity, whereas compassion is equated with masculinity … kinda opposite to the Western tradition.
Notice that two of Kartikeya’s hands aren’t holding anything. Those hands, instead, are striking very specific poses. It’s called a mudra. A mudra is a gesture that conveys a specific message. There are hundreds of different mudras, each having their own specific meaning. Mudras are employed throughout Hindu and Buddhist iconography and can be seen repeatedly among the statuary and paintings in the Art Institute’s galleries of Asian art. You’ll also come upon the widespread employment of mudras in classical Indian dance. What Kartikeya’s striking is very common. It’s actually two different mudras. His right hand with the fingers pointing up and the palm forward is the Abhaya mudra, the “gesture of reassurance.” With this mudra, Kartikeya is saying “fear not, rest assured, everything will be fine and I’ll take care of you.” Think of it like a hand stretched out to offer a reassuring pat on the shoulder. The mudra of his left hand is similar—palm facing out and fingers straight—but pointed down instead. That’s the Varada mudra, the “gesture of charity or compassion.” Think of it as a hand stretched out either asking for or receiving alms. So, these two mudras can be read together conveying a combined message of “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you and everything will be peachy … so long as … you lead a good, charitable, and righteous life according to Dharma, the rule of law.”
Notice also the smoothly polished, blackened regions along his legs, whereas the rest of the figure is somewhat rough and pocked with a dull gray color. The figures is made of granite, an incredibly hard stone. You might think of your kitchen countertop with its smoothly polished finish, but that’s thanks to modern industry. Preindustrial granite statuary is generally not so smoothly polished. What do you suppose would cause this discoloration and extremely smooth polish? Well, talking so much about hands just a few seconds ago, how about hundreds of year of people touching him on his legs? Remember, many of these works were originally consecrated icons. To touch the icon will bring you all that much closer in touch with the divine. Of course, stripped from that context and now placed in a museum, whatever spirit once resided in the work has long since left and touching won’t do you any good and will just get you yelled at. Case in point, though, for why we don’t touch the art at a museum.
Something else that beckons our attention is his animal friend. What is that that he’s sitting on there? Some kind of bird, huh? It’s a peacock. That’s his regal mount, his trusty steed. In Sanskrit it’s called the vahana, from which we get the word “vehicle.” Many of the prominent Hindu deities ride a vahana. Kartikeya’s is the peacock. The god Shiva rides a bull named Nandi. The beloved, bulbous, elephant-headed god Ganesha rides a curious little vahana. It’s kinda hard to see at the base of this exquisitely-carved statue, but you can just barely make it out. It’s a rat! You see that the association of elephants and rodents goes back well into ancient times. And Vishnu rides a half-man half-eagle type of creature named Garuda. Sound familiar to anyone? How about Garuda Indonesia Airline? You see, these myths, stories, and divine beings are very much alive and well in the contemporary world. While the artwork we enjoy in the museum may be quite ancient and completely stripped from its original religious context, it’s helpful to recognize that these works are still very much applicable to contemporary culture. The iconography, attributes, individuals, and stories are expressed very similarly in traditional artwork produced today by people of these regions and cultures. So as you wander about exploring the ancient, medieval, and antique works from South and Southeast Asia, think of them not only as works from the past, but also as contemporary emblems of the panoply of global culture.
Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to visit ancientartpodcast.org where you’ll find credits for all the images used on the podcast, an extensive bibliography, links to other great resources, and recommendations from yours truly of other interesting podcasts. So long and keep on keepin’ on.
©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org]]>
Thanks for coming back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. As always, I’m your host, Lucas Livingston. In this episode, I want to discuss some of the basic formal concepts of Egyptian statuary. To do so, we’ll look at this standing figure of the Egyptian god Ra-Horakhty from the Art Institute of Chicago, whom we briefly met in episode 1, if you may recall, on the scarab in Ancient Egypt. Ra-Horakhty was a particularly prominent Egyptian deity, attested to certainly as far back as the Old Kingdom. He’s what’s referred to as a composite deity, which is a union of two or more gods into a single cult, like Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, whom we met in episode 4 on the Statue of Osiris. Incidentally, I encourage you to check out the Art Institute of Chicago Musecast for June of 2008. Here you’ll find a short discussion of the science behind the coloration of the Statue of Osiris and a bit on its history and conservation. You can get to the Art Institute Musecast by clicking on its logo in the Additional Resources section at scarabsolutions.com. Back to the concept of the composite deity, we also call this union or merging of religious and cultural systems “syncretization.” Now, there’s a good $5 word to stick in your pocket. Ra-Horakhty is the synchretization of two well known Egyptian gods, Ra, the falcon-headed god of the sun, and Horus, the falcon-headed god of kingship, son of Osiris and the god manifest on Earth as Pharaoh. Fortunately, in the case of Ra-Horakhty, the Egyptians didn’t have to debated long over which head to use. The “akhty” part of Ra-Horakhty means “horizons,” so his name is literally “Ra, Horus of the Two Horizons,” the two horizons, of course, East and West, being central to Egyptian spiritualism as symbols of birth and death. The cult of Ra exerted such a strong influence over other Egyptian religions that many different deities found themselves getting syncretized with him. For example, maybe the most well know Egyptian composite deity is Amun-Ra, the massively influential cult of Karnak and Luxor during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period.
This figure is made of bronze and is what’s known as a votive figurine. He’s about 25 cm or 10 inches tall and is dated to the Third Intermediate Period, some time from 1069 to 656 BC. Originally he almost certainly stood on a squat rectangular pedestal, like many of the other bronze votives on display next to him, and he also had an elaborate crown. You can tell because of the little hole on the top of his head where the crown, crafted as a separate piece, would have been inserted, but that crown is now lost. A votive figurine is a fairly common type of statuette found, well, now in a museum … but before that often buried somewhere within the precincts of a sacred structure, whether buried by time, accident, or intention. “Votive” isn’t entirely unfamiliar to us now-a-days. That little tea light — the small candle lit to keep your tea pot warm — is often called a votive candle. A votive is any sort of devotional object given as an offering to a divinity, whether a candle or a gilded bronze figurine. A votive offering is a sort of contract with the god. You give your god a gift and offer up a prayer and in return, hopefully, that prayer will be recognized with a blessing of some sort, whether it’s the cure of an ailment, a healthy birth, a fertile crop, or whatever. And a votive also has the real-life practical function of providing the temple or church with a small bit of additional revenue. I think a prayer is up to a buck these days.
So, let’s examine the formal characteristics of the Ra-Horakhty. He’s exhibiting the classic, canonic Egyptian pose for the standing male. This essential form is exhibited throughout the history of Egyptian sculpture, from its inception well into the Greco-Roman era. Notice the broad straight shoulders, arms straight down to his sides, with clenched fists, as though he were originally holding something. Perhaps a rod of some sort or a small sash—two common attributes of office or station. Trace amounts of gilding survive on his kilt, wig, and necklace. Gilding is the fancy word for a thin gold leaf coating. Notice also that despite having the head of a falcon, he definitely has human ears, albeit humorously big ones pushed outward by the wig. Also, if you look really closely, you’ll see his magnificent vanity belt buckle. The gilding here is surprisingly intact. The hieroglyphs read Ra-Horakhty pet netjeru, which mean “Ra-Horakhty, chief of the gods.”
He’s pretty fit too. We may not see the most well-defined musculature, but he definitely has a slender, athletic, idealized, youthful form akin to representations of nearly all the gods and kings. But it’s not entirely realistic and that’s something important to consider. Look at his legs. The left leg is forward. That’s an incredibly recognizable feature of this archetypical pose. But he’s not exactly stepping forward, is he? Otherwise his arms would be swinging to maintain balance and his upper body would be leaning forward too. It’s a little hard to see here, since he’s stuck behind glass and we can’t get a good profile view, but if he were stepping forward in a true stride, his back leg would also be at an angle slightly behind his center of gravity, but that’s not the case here. His right leg is perfectly vertical along his central axis. Both feet are firmly planted on the ground too, so he’s clearly not in mid stride. But realistically what he’s doing is physically impossible without bending his knees and swiveling his hips. The left leg of the figure is actually a little bit longer than the right one, just long enough so that it can reach the ground.
But what’s all this mean? A lot of ink has been spilled on speculations about why the left leg of Egyptian statuary is forward … and it’s invariably the left leg. Is there some secret meaning behind the left leg? Is this an attempt at rendering dominance, a sort of political propaganda or is something else at work? Well, unfortunately we don’t benefit from the Ancient Egyptians drafting treatises on their art, as we do with later civilizations, but one widely accepted theory has to do with Egyptian hieroglyphs. You see, hieroglyphs can be written in nearly any direction, but they’re most commonly found written right to left. Here’s a neat trick if you ever want to know which direction the hieroglyphs are written. Look at the animals or people. They’re always facing the beginning of the sentence. So, commonly the figures are facing to the right, since it’s commonly written right to left. If we recall from episode 9 “Walk Like an Egyptian,” the salient characteristics of the human form are always visible in writing and in relief, so you always see the hidden back leg peaking out from behind the front leg. In a right-facing figure, the left leg then becomes slightly extended forward to be visible out from behind the right leg in the forefront. What’s this got to do with sculpture? Well, as we saw all over the mummy case of Paankhenamun in episode 2, hieroglyphic characters and principles are regularly adapted to reliefwork and three-dimensional sculpture. When seen in profile facing to the right, the Ra-Horakhty and countless other Egyptian statues in this divine canonic pose participate in the uniquely Egyptian experience of the written word being adapted to sculptural form.
I hope that made sense. Keep this pose in mind for next time as we turn our eyes to Greece and the origin of Greek statuary. Thanks for listening to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.
©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org
Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston, your guide on our journey across the Ancient Mediterranean World. Last time in Episode 11, The Parthenon Frieze, Part 2, we continued to inch toward our understanding of the Persian influence on the Parthenon Frieze. We discovered that Ionian Greek artisans played a significant role in the construction of the Persian imperial cities of Persepolis and Susa. We also looked at further evidence for the employment of Ionian artists in the Ancient Near east, in particular Asia Minor, like at Xanthos in Lycia. So, in this cultural melting pot of the Persian Empire, we see a significant exchange of artistic, iconographic, and social ideas, some of which shape Persian and Near Eastern art, while other ideas make their way over from Persia to Greece.
In this episode, we’ll begin with a brief history of the Ionic frieze before diving headlong into the Persian influences on the Parthenon Frieze of the Athenian Acropolis. It’s not absolutely necessary to trace the history of the Ionic frieze, but since the Parthenon Frieze participates in this history, it’s important to isolate what’s traditional and what’s new and innovative, so we can more easily identify the various influences.
The early Ionic frieze was basically just a continuous decorative band running around the perimeter of sacred structures, like temples, shrines, and sanctuaries. It’s called the Ionic frieze, because it develops in Ionia, which we learned last time means the Greek nations along the western coast of what’s now Turkey. You typically see animals and human figures on the Ionic frieze engaging in hunting, horse and chariot races, feasting, and ritual processions or parades, but there’s really no attempt at representing specific identifiable stories … not at this early stage. Also, there’s seldom a clear beginning, middle, or end to the scene and we see a strong sense of repetition among the figures, creating a sense of rhythm as one passes by. As we’ll see more closely later on, many of these subjects and themes are also found on the Parthenon Frieze, coming together under a grand artistic and civic vision.
While the early Ionic frieze had a largely decorative function, with little mythological or historical narrative context, there seems to have been a change towards the end of the Archaic Period as the Ionic frieze regularly began to depict mythological stories. One of the earliest examples of this transformation is seen on the treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi from about 530 to 525 BC.
The Siphnian Treasury was a small sacred structure, like a chapel or shrine, dedicated to the god Apollo. It was built by the island city-state of Siphnos in the Aegean among the Cycladic Islands. It’s called a treasury, because it was where many devotional offerings dedicated to Apollo were housed, mostly statuary given by the people of Siphnos. This was a common practice by Greek city-states, especially at the sanctuaries of Apollo at Delphi and Zeus at Olympia. Dedicating a treasury was a form of national marketing, so other city-states could gawk at its lavish splendor and be jealous of your wealth and power.
The east face of the frieze on the front of the treasury is divided into two panels of equal length. We see an assembly of the Olympian gods to the left of center and a battle scene from the Trojan War to the right. The organization of the figures is very balanced and thoroughly planned. Even though the left and right panels are architecturally one single unit, they are perceived of as being separate. For one, they represent different narratives. They also, quite literally, have their backs to one another. Also, notice how within each of the two panels, the figures change directions? This helps create a sense of momentum in the figures and draws the attention of the viewer to the centers of each panel where just beneath stood the Caryatid columns, which we see here in a beautiful reconstruction of the Siphnian Treasury at the Delphi Museum. Unfortunately, the original center of the Olympian panel is now lost, but in the Trojan War scene we see what’s thought to be the lifeless body of Sarpedon lying in a crumpled pile, over which the warriors are contesting. So, we see two interesting changes to the Ionic frieze taking place on the Siphnian Treasury. First, there’s the introduction of narrative or stories, no longer just a repetitive meander of galloping horses and flittering birds. Second, further abandoning the traditional repetitive ornamental meander that stretched the entire span of the architrave, we see that the frieze is broken up into different segments with different stories and even subplots as groups of three or four figures interact more closely with each other. These innovations—the introduction of narrative and breaking up the frieze into isolated segments—directly carry over to the Parthenon Frieze.
If you’re looking for more nitty-gritty details on the Siphnian Treasury, check the article “Notes on the Development of the Greek Frieze” and other publications by one of the modern pioneers of Greek art history, Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Also check out Richard Neer’s article “Framing the Gift: The Politics of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi” in Classical Antiquity. You can find these references in the bibliography of the Additional Resources section at scarabsolutions.com.
We see another transformation to the Ionic frieze taking place in the Classical Period directly on the Parthenon Frieze itself. For the first time in the history of the Ionic frieze, an immediately contemporary ritual practice is alluded to or directly represented, what you might call the history of the now. As I briefly mentioned toward the beginning of this episode, the traditional Ionic frieze could represent ritual processions and cavalcades of horses. Here on the Parthenon Frieze, however, we see the Athenians representing not anonymous figures or mythic characters, but themselves. Sort of a civic self-portrait of the Athenians high above their heads as they parade alongside below in ritual procession.
A brief side note. Some of the images used here are modern replicas of the Parthenon Frieze. You’ll find these replicas of the original frieze decorating the front entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue and also on the north and south sides. You’ll also find them inside the Art Institute high above the grand staircase in the large day lit atrium officially known as gallery 200. These replicas look back to the early tradition and origin of the Art Institute as an art school rather than art museum. The galleries were once filled with plaster casts of great Classical and Renaissance sculpture to serve as models and teaching aids for the art students. But over the past century, the Art Institute has gotten rid of nearly all examples to make room for original works of art from throughout the world. One fun little thing I want to point out can be seen on the north side of the building. Here high above your head, you’ll see not only a replica of a portion of the east west [sorry … I meant to say “west” in the podcast] frieze of the Parthenon although the figures on the Art Institute aren’t actually in the same order as the current generally accepted reconstruction), but you’ll also see two of the three pivotal artists involved in the construction of the Parthenon. We have Pheidias, sculptor of the frieze and overall designer of the Classical Acropolis, and Ictinus, architect of the Classical Parthenon itself. Not present here is Callicrates, co-architect with Ictinus. Instead we have Praxiteles, famed Hellenistic sculptor of many well-known works, including the Aphrodite of Knidos, of which you’ll find a Roman period copy within the Art Institute. Perhaps we can take a closer look at this fabulous statue in a later episode of the podcast.
The traditional interpretation of Parthenon Frieze is that it represents the Grand Panathenaia, a parade held every four years in Athens that celebrates the birth of Athena and foundation of Athens with the offering of a new peplos or robe to Athena along with a hefty offering of tribute from all the different city-states within the Athenian Empire—technically still called the Delian League. The Delian League was a union of Greek city-states that came together as allies under the threat of Persian invasion and subjugation. It was formed after the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC, an early monumental victory for the Greeks over the Persians. The Delian League gets its name from the little island of Delos in the southern Aegean Sea where the treasury was kept for the money contributed by each city-state. Later on in 454 BC, Athens moved the treasury from Delos to Athens supposedly to keep it better protected, but that solidified Athens’s control of the finances and political dominance of the Delian League. With this turn of events historians often begin referring to the Delian League as the Athenian Empire, and Athens really starts to behave in a manner befitting an empire, which we start to see reflected in the arts. One of the many new purposes Athens assigned to the finances of the league was construction of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, and with that the Parthenon Frieze. It makes sense, then, that we see the Parthenon Frieze depicting the offering of tribute at the Grand Panathenaia—a portrait of the very civil practice by which the frieze was conceived. Thereby the Parthenon Frieze could also be seen as a form of propaganda—a justification or legitimization of the offering of tribute to Athens by cloaking the tribute in the context of a traditionally mythic, sacred, and even heroic context. As a side note, there are a few other interpretations of what the Parthenon Frieze might depict. If you’re interested in exploring some alternate theories, like the representation of the sacrifice of the daughter of Erechtheus, check out for starters Joan Connelly’s 1996 article “Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze,” in the American Journal of Archaeology, volume 100, pages 53-79.
So, why the big change? What caused this shift from an anonymous, almost generic representation of procession on the traditional Ionic frieze to a very specific Athenian parade on the Parthenon Frieze during this new Athenian imperial age? And I kinda just gave away the answer there. This is where we come to the Persian influence. Persepolis and the Athenian Acropolis show a pretty similar function when you look a little more closely. Both sites were ritual centers for their civic festival processions, both sites functioned as bureaucratic and administrative capitals of empires, and both sites served as treasuries to house the tribute given by subject nations of their empires.
These functional similarities could have led Athens to emulate the architectural model of Persepolis and the programmatic vision of Persia, her imperial forebearer, whose government Athens oddly enough came to parallel more and more in the wake of the Persian War. Similarly, it’s probable that Athens chose to model the Parthenon frieze in part after the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis to demonstrate a similar sort of civic pride and to pay respect to their national and now imperial godhead, Athena.
For over a century before beginning the new Classical Period Acropolis in 447 BC, Athens built little major, monumental statuary or sacred architecture. Pheidias was the artistic director of the building program on the Acropolis under the auspice of the great Athenian democrat Pericles. Pheidias gets credit for the general design and layout of the Parthenon’s frieze and sculptures and most likely for the initial models of the sculptures, but numerous artists and craftsmen from Athens and the many subject nations of the Athenian Empire were employed to execute most of the actual carving on the Parthenon.
By employing Ionian craftsmen, Athens sought to create an artistic style immediately relevant to and representative of this age of Athens as the new cosmopolitan center of the Mediterranean and leader of a panhellenic empire. Under the administration of Pericles and artistic genius of Pheidias, Athens carefully designed a new monumental architectural tradition, incorporating the local Doric order and the now more so than ever relevant Ionic order. Thus, the Ionian artists brought with themselves to Athens their traditional frieze design, and along with that their recently acquired ideas of Persian imperial propaganda.
We already mentioned some of the functional similarities between Persepolis and the Acropolis. Let’s look at some of the artistic similarities and perhaps some similarities in the way one might experience the two architectural wonders. The Audience Hall at Persepolis, called the Apadana, was the building used at the capital of the Persian Empire to received the tribute-bearing ambassadors of the subject nations. Emphasizing this function, the Apadana prominently displays extensive reliefs depicting the dignitaries with Persian and Median escorts lined up in a huge ritual procession paying honor to their ruler, patron, and protector, the Persian King. Similarly, the Parthenon frieze depicts a great assemblage of Athenians in festive, ritual procession to honor their protector and patron goddess, Athena. There’s no sense of domination or malevolent subjugation in the Apadana reliefs by some tyrannical, oppressive super-power. The ambassadors are peacefully guided by Persian and Median escorts holding hands with each other and with the lead dignitaries of each foreign party. Similarly, on the Parthenon Frieze the Athenians leading sacrificial victims and bearing gifts for their goddess are, themselves, being led by Athenian marshals. With Athenians guiding themselves in a ritual procession to the deities of the east façade, the implication here seems to be that Athens is divinely sanctioned to rule themselves, which is befitting of the placement of mortal Athenians at the culmination of the ritual procession on the east side of the frieze, the holiest external location of the Greek temple. The Olympian gods are actually pushed from the center of the Parthenon Frieze and mortal Athenians, engaging in an offering to Athena, take their place. With this, Athens effectively elevates herself to a sort of divine status, or the closest there is among Greek peoples. Similarly, at the center of the Apadana reliefs was the king—the closest human being to the divine, if not himself a living god—and around him the king’s court, where dignitaries present tribute to their patron. The event is so ritualized, so emblematic, as to become, in effect, the offering of sacrifice to their deity.
And then we come to the similarities between the Apadana reliefs and Parthenon Frieze that may function more so on a subconscious level—the common experience one might have had when participating in a ritual procession at Persepolis and on the Acropolis. What we’re looking at here on the Parthenon Frieze are different scenes of a long parade from beginning to end marching through Athens. Riders at the west end mount their horses and strap on their sandals, getting ready to take off. Horses, riders, and chariots speed along the north and south sides of the temple with the parade in full swing. Participants carry gifts and present sacrificial victims to the divine assembly at the east, with the ultimate culmination of the festival and parade being the presentation of Athena’s new peplos. Athenian and allied participants walking alongside the Parthenon in the Panathenaic procession would look up at the frieze through the intermittent breaks of the colonnade and see a familiar representation—the same thing that you’re doing right there—participating in a religious procession. And to help you engage with the frieze further, the occasional figure even looks out to the participants below. So the real life participants in a ritual procession are invited to associate themselves with the event of the Parthenon Frieze, the Parthenon itself, and the whole Acropolis.
And at Persepolis on the Apadana reliefs, the same technique is used to encourage onlookers to identify with the figures represented in the artwork, and also with Persepolis itself. The Apadana reliefs are thought to represent the annual festival of Nauroz, the Persian New Year’s celebration, when dignitaries of the subject nations were obliged to present their annual tribute, not entirely unlike the Panathenaic festival during the Athenian Empire. So, just as the figures in the Apadana reliefs are shown lined up marching to their king in a ritual parade, so too would the real-life dignitaries and soldiers be parading during the festival of Nauroz. And those aren’t just any figures in the Apadana reliefs. Their different styles of dress and the items they carry help us identify them as emissaries of the various nations subject to the Persian Empire, those very same tribute-bearing dignitaries and those very same Persian and Median soldiers, who themselves once long ago walked along these quote-unquote portraits in relief as they brought tribute to the king. The Apadana reliefs even help to channel the tribute bearers in procession as they climb the staircases to the Apadana terrace proceeding inward towards the king. And when seen in its entirety, all the hundreds of figures on the Apadana reliefs directly face the figure of the king, where he’s already receiving a Median marshal and spear-bearers, as seen here in this reconstruction drawing of the northern terrace of the Apadana from Margaret Cool Root’s 1985 article in the American Journal of Archaeology “The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs at Persepolis: Reassessing a Programmatic Relationship.”
So we’ve seen how the Acropolis of the new Athenian Imperial Age and the audience hall at Persepolis share a functional similarity as imperial treasuries and centers for tribute from subject nations. They were also both festival grounds for annual parades when the tribute was received. And they both served to unite a diverse group of cultures under a singular figurehead, in one case, the divine maiden and protector of democracy, Athena, and in the other, the Persian King, a living god.
We also explored a similarity in the experience of these sites by their respective festival participants in that the Apadana reliefs and the Parthenon frieze both demonstrate the same effect of connecting with the viewer, having him or her identify with the religious and imperial function of the site. We don’t see a lot of formal or stylistic similarities between the two sites, and that makes sense when you think that Athens wouldn’t directly and literally want to mimic the Persian government. Instead, by metaphorically associating themselves with their most immediate imperial forebearers, the Athenians justify their ascent to the role of emperor over the Eastern Mediterranean. By employing similar themes of tribute and the patriotic festival parade, Athens further manages to justify its claim in the eyes of the Ionian Greeks, who had long been familiar with these themes under Persian rule. And to bring it all home, Athens does all of this in the distinctly Ionian sacred artistic tradition of the Ionic frieze. How could the Ionians have possibly rebuffed their obsequious Athenian compatriots building bridges towards a new, allied, democratic Greece? Yeah, right.
Well, that concludes our long haul from Persia to Athens. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to visit SCARABsolutions.com where you’ll find the image library from the podcast and the ever-expanding bibliography in the Additional Resources section. And as always you can also read the transcripts for each episode plus search them, in case there’s something you know we covered previously, but don’t want to go back and listen to each episode until you find it. Plus the transcript helps to figure out how to spell all these strange ancient names I’m spouting. Also found among the transcripts is a list of links to more great Parthenon and Persepolis resources online. If you’d like to email me, you can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’d like to help me out, please consider offering your review of the podcast on iTunes. You’ll find a link at SCARABsolutions.com to visit the podcast in iTunes. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.
©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org
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
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 email@example.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
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
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