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