Category Archives: Egyptian

Ancient Egyptian Michael Jackson Look-alike

Ancient Egyptian Michael Jackson Look-alike:

All links last retrieved on August 30, 2009.

Online media coverage:

“Egyptian statue ‘looks like Jackson.’” Yahoo News 2009-8-8.

Gilmer, Marcus. “Michael Jackson = Ancient Egyptian?.” Chicagoist.com 2009-8-5.

“Egyptian Statue Looks Just Like Michael Jackson!” Media Outrage. 2009-8-6.

Sneed, Michael. “Did Michael Jackson model face after Egyptian bust?” Chicago Sun Times. 2009-8-5.

“Egyptian bust in Chicago museum bears eerie resemblance to Michael Jackson.” Chicago Sun Times. 2009-8-5.

Greiner, Andrew. “Busted: Statue’s a Dead Ringer for Jacko: Jackson-like bust gets attention at Field Museum.” NBC Chicago. 2009-8-5.

“The Top 3 Exhibits at Chicago’s Field Museum.” Speaking-up.com.

“Egyptian Statue Totally Looks Like Michael Jackson.” Totallylookslike.com. 2009-6-2.

“Ancient Egyptian Woman or Michael Jackson?” flickr.com by mandalariangirl. 2007-11-8. The flickr photo that started it all … or at least the one that’s referred to once or twice in the news.

Ancient Egyptian Michael Jackson. flickr.com by Lucas Livingston. 2005-7-13. Flickr photos by yours truly, Lucas Livingston of the Ancient Art Podcast.

“The Pharaoh of Pop?” Discovery Channel. 2009-8-12.

“Statue Thrills Jackson Fans.” iafrica.com. 2009-8-8.

Esaak, Shelley. “Statue of a Woman. Egyptian, New Kingdom, ca. 1550 B.C.-1070 B.C.” About.com. The only online article I could find (besides the Ancient Art Podcast) that actually has some intellectual information.

Other online articles related to Episode 23 “King Tut and Beyond”:

“Hawass says that Tutankhamun was not black.” Touregypt.net. 2007-9-26.

Yurco, Frank J. “Were the Ancient Egyptians Black or White?” BAR 15.5 (Sep/Oct) 1989.

(Full text available online here.)

YouTube and other related video media:

“Jackson’s Egyptian Statue Sings.” 2009-8-12. Silly parody on the Remember the Time video incorporating the Field Museum statue.

“Michael Jackson – Remember the Time.” 2008-3-24. Official Michael Jackson video for Remember the Time.

“Michael Jackson ~~ The Ancient Egyptian Statue.” 2009-8-6. Video from Field Museum galleries with spokesperson.

“Michael Jackson – The Pharaoh of Pop ???” 2009-8-7. Cool morphing faces.

“King Tut.” Saturday Night Live. Steve Martin’s classic 1970’s homage to the Egyptian boy king. Not YouTube, but it totally rocks.

Lorraine O’Grady Resources

1. Lorraine O’Grady (American, born 1940), Miscegenated Family Album, 1980/94, Art Institute of Chicago, Through prior bequest of Marguerita S. Ritman, 2008.81.1-16.

2. Miscegenated Family Album, Alexander Gray Associates, press release, 10 Sep 2008.

3. Lorraine O’Grady (official website of the artist). http://www.lorraineogrady.com/

4. Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline (official website)

5. Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline at Oberlin, 1982

6. Miscegenated Family Album (official website)

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/

8. Cotter, Holland. “Lorraine O’Grady.” New York Times, 26 Sep 2008. Accessed 7/6/2009. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A0CE4DB103EF935A1575AC0A96E9C8B63

9. Allen, James P. “The Amarna Succession.” Accessed 7/6/2009. http://history.memphis.edu/murnane/Allen%20-%20Amarna%20Succession.pdf

22: Nefertiti, Devonia, Michael

On October 31, 1980 at Just Above Midtown Gallery in New York City, artist Lorraine O’Grady, dressed in a long red robe, debuted her new work of performance art. On a dark stage with a slideshow backdrop and dramatic recorded narration, O’Grady enacted hypnotic, ritualized motions, like the priestess of an ancient mystery cult, incanting magicks over vessels of sacred sand and offerings blessings of protection to the projected images of the Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and her late sister Devonia Evangeline O’Grady Allen. In the piece entitled Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, Lorraine O’Grady confronted her relationship with her sister through the lens of Nefertiti and Nefertiti’s own apparent sister, Mutnedjmet — a relationship which O’Grady felt would have been equally troubled. O’Grady’s sister Devonia tragically died just a few short weeks after the two of them had finally begun speaking after many years of a strained relationship.

Inspired two years later after a trip to Egypt, O’Grady began researching Queen Nefertiti and her famed family of the Amarna Period. While in Egypt, O’Grady encountered a new found feeling of belonging — as the artist says in her own words, “surrounded for the first time by people who looked like me” (Art Journal 56:4, Winter 1997, p. 64). Of African, Caribbean, and Irish descent, O’Grady never felt a similar sense of kinship in her homes of Boston and Harlem. In a New York Times article from September 26, 2008, “she remembers her youthful efforts to balance what she has called her family’s ‘tropical middle-and-upper class British colonial values’ with the Yankee, Irish-American and African-American cultures around her.” Building on a resemblance that she long thought her sister had with Nefertiti, she was struck by what she saw as narrative and visual resemblances throughout both families. While pairing members of her own family with those of Nefertiti, O’Grady weaves together various narratives connecting personal stories with historical events (Alexander Gray Associates press release, 10 Sep 2008).

In 1994, from the performance piece Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline originally composed of 65 photographic comparisons, O’Grady took about a fifth of the diptychs and framed them in an installation piece entitled Miscegenated Family Album, which has been exhibited in various galleries, including the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008. O’Grady’s work often focuses on black female identity and subjectivity, as well as cultural and ethnic hybridization. Miscegenation, in the title of the piece, is the procreation between members of different races, which was still illegal in much of the US as late as 1967, when it was finally overturned by the Supreme Court.

The ethnic identities of Nefertiti and Akhenaten have been debated in the spheres of Egyptology and African studies, with no immediate end in sight. Not quite as much as Cleopatra, but still. In Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline and Miscegenated Family Album, O’Grady directly confronts the racism of a white-dominated, Western-European interpretation to the field of Egyptology. While the notion of a black African cultural and ethnic influence on Ancient Egypt is frequently discussed today, we should bear in mind that in 1980, when O’Grady first performed Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, this was still seven years before the publication of Martin Bernal’s highly acclaimed and criticized work Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.

Now, I’m not saying that the sub-Saharan African influence on Egyptian civilization is definitively confirmed. It’s still a hotly debated issue with many shades of gray. Ancient Egypt was a huge nation surviving thousands of years. And during that time there was frequent contact with surrounding countries, including periods of foreign occupation. By the time of Nefertiti and Akhenaten in the mid to late 14th century BC, parts of Egypt were pretty ethnically diverse, which likely got even more ethnically diverse as the centuries led up to the Ptolemaic period of Cleopatra. I’m excited to see that the University of Manchester museum will be hosting a conference on “Egypt in its African Context” on October 3rd and 4th, 2009. You can read about the conference online. The URL’s kinda long: www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/collection/ancientegypt/conference. [As of at least 12/22/2010, this link is no longer active. Visit http://egyptmanchester.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/egypt-in-its-african-context-programme1.pdf for a PDF of the conference agenda. Visit http://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/sally-ann-ashton-talking-at-the-manchester-museum-at-the-conference-egypt-in-its-african-context-3-4-october-2009/ for videos.] So, check out the transcript at ancientartpodcast.org for the link or see my recent tweet on Twitter at “lucaslivingston.”

One point that we need to bear in mind when considering the ethnicity of Ancient Egyptians is the baggage we bring with us to the discussion. We all have a lot of baggage, but what I’m specifically talking about is the whole preoccupation with ethnicity. I don’t know about kids these days, but not too long ago when I was a wee lad, every American schoolboy or girl could tell your their heritage, breaking it down by the percentage. Blame it on the African diaspora, Western imperialism, or Ellis Island, but I would argue that this obsession with the argument over whether the Ancient Egyptians were black, white, Greek, Berber, or other is something of a modern development. The Egyptians were an ethnically diverse lot and they would have said to us “So what!?” What mattered to the Egyptians was that you were Egyptian. You don’t hear of Ancient Egyptian race riots.

The beauty of O’Grady’s Miscegenated Family Album is that it looks more than skin-deep. O’Grady draws a few parallels between her sister Devonia and Nefertiti. They both marry, have daughters, and perform ceremonials functions — one as a priestess, the other as a bride. Devonia passed away at the age of 37 before the two sisters could fully reconcile their differences. Nefertiti suddenly vanished from the written record after the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign, around the year 1341. Back in the 1980’s when O’Grady was researching for her performance piece Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, the prevalent theories for Nefertiti’s disappearance involved her death or fall from grace, perhaps due to Akhenaten elevating another consort to Great Royal Wife. Akhenaten did, in fact, elevate someone else to be the Great Royal Wife at that time — his eldest daughter Meretaten.

Nefertiti may have died, or some argue that she was elevated to co-regent, like a king-in-training. Another theory is that Akhenaten’s fourth daughter, Neferneferuaten Jr., became co-regent. She’s junior, because another one of Nefertiti’s names was also Neferneferuaten, and since the co-regent was named Neferneferuaten … well, hence the confusion as to exactly who was co-regent. After the death of Akhenaten around 1336 BC, we then have king Smenkhkara, ruling just a short while before our boy King Tut came onto the scene.

Another parallel that O’Grady draws is between herself and Neferitit’s apparent younger sister Mutnedjmet. Just as the younger O’Grady was left behind after her sister’s sudden and tragic passing, Mutnedjmet would also have been abandoned after Nefertiti’s sudden disappearance, according to the theories at the time. Just to bring everything else up to current theory, contrary to popular speculation, there’s no evidence that Nefertiti’s sister is the same Mutnedjmet, who was queen to the later king Horemheb. Also the more widely accepted translation today of Nefertiti’s sister’s name is Mutbenret, which is spelled exactly the same in hieroglyphs. But those are both minor technicalities that have little to no impact on O’Grady’s overall work. The importance of Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline and Miscegenated Family Album is that the immediate physical resemblance in the framing of O’Grady’s family members with figures of ancient history is indicative of deeper sentiment and associations. The past becomes an idealized and humanized film through which our own lives are filtered and compared.

So much comparison between these ancient and modern figures compels me to draw one comparison from my own imagination …

[…]

Keep on moon walking, Michael, in the great beyond.

You’ll find a whole lotta great links about Lorraine O’Grady and her work at ancientartpodcast.org. Click on Additional Resources and scroll down to the post prominently titled “Lorraine O’Grady.” If you’re interested in seeing Miscegenated Family Album in person, Lorraine O’Grady has posted on her own blog that it should be installed in the Art Institute of Chicago’s new Modern Wing some time in the near future, and I have an unconfirmed corroborating report from unnamed sources. But if you want to find out for yourself, over at ancientartpodcast.org among the additional resources on O’Grady, you’ll find a link to the Art Institute’s online collection record for Miscegenated Family Album, which tells you whether or not the work is on display.

You can follow me on Twitter at lucaslivingston. If you have any questions you’d like me to discuss in future episodes, be sure to email me at info@ancientartpodcast.org. You can also give feedback on the website and fill out a fun little survey. You can comment on each episode on the website or on YouTube. And if you like the podcast, why not share the love with some iTunes comments? It helps get the podcast noticed. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

1. Lorraine O’Grady, Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline: “Stirring sand, closeup.” 1980.
2. … “Told to swing an incense censer, she stirs sand instead.”
3. … “Instead of a ‘beef heart’ described on the soundtape, she lifts a heart of sand.”
4. … “I open your mouth for you.”
5. … “You are protected, and you shall not die.”
6. … “The voice on the tape says: ‘Mount and straddle tubs of sand, which are now touching…face audience.’”
7. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Sisters I (L: Nefertiti, R: Devonia), 1980/94.
8. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Sisters II (L: Nefertiti’s daughter Merytaten, R: Devonia’s daughter Candace), 1980/94.
9. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Sisters III (L: Nefertiti’s daughter Meketaten, R: Devonia’s daughter Kimberley), 1980/94.
10. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Sisters IV (L: Devonia’s sister Lorraine, R: Nefertiti’s sister Mutnedjmet), 1980/94.
11. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Ceremonial Occasions I (L: Devonia as Matron of Honor, R: Nefertiti performing a lustration), 1980/94.
12. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Ceremonial Occasions II (L: Devonia attending a wedding, R: Nefertiti performing an Aten ritual), 1980/94.
13. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: A Mother’s Kiss (T: Candace and Devonia, B: Nefertiti and daughter), 1980/94.
14. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Motherhood (L: Nefertiti, R: Devonia reading to Candace and Edward, Jr.), 1980/94.
15. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Young Princesses (L: Nefertiti’s daughter Ankhesenpaaten, R: Devonia’s daughter Candace), 1980/94.
16. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Worldly Princesses (L: Nefertiti’s daughter Merytaten, R: Devonia’s daughter Kimberley), 1980/94.
17. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Crowned Heads (L: Nefertiti’s husband Akhenaten, R: Devonia’s husband Edward), 1980/94.
18. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Young Queens (L: Nefertiti, aged 24, R: Devonia, aged 24), 1980/94.
19. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Progress of Queens (L: Nefertiti, aged 35, R: Devonia, aged 36), 1980/94.
20. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Cross-Generational (L: Nefertiti, the last image, R: Devonia’s daughter Kimberley), 1980/94.
21. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Hero Worship (L: Devonia and 14 and Lorraine at 3, R: Devonia at 24 and Lorraine at 13), 1980/94.
22. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Sibling Rivalry (L: Nefertiti, R: Nefertiti’s sister Mutnedjmet), 1980/94.
23. Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album: Sisters I (L: Nefertiti, R: Devonia), 1980/94, one of set of sixteen silver dye bleach print diptychs, framed; edition five of eight, 67.3 x 95.3 cm (26 1/2 x 37 1/2 in.) each, Art Institute of Chicago: Through prior bequest of Marguerita S. Ritman, 2008.81.1-16.

1. Stela of the Royal Family, probably from Amarna, Dynasty 18, reign of Akhenaten, 1351-1336 BC, Limestone, Egyptian Museum, Berlin, 14145.
2. Chair of Tutankhamun and Queen Ankhesenamun.
3. Golden Mask of Tutankhamun, Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
4. Head of Queen Tiy, Egyptian Museum, Berlin.
5. Colossal Head of Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
6. Right-hand sided tomb statue of Tutankhamun, Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
7. Statue of an unknown Amarna-era princess. New Kingdom, Amarna period, 18th dynasty, ca. 1345 BC Egyptian Museum (21223), Berlin, photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts, 15 Dec 2006.
8. Statue of King Horemheb with the god Amun, Egyptian Museum of Turin, photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera, 14 Sep 2008.
9. Small head of a princess, probably Amarna period, Louvre Museum (E14715).
10. Statue head of a woman, limestone, New Kingdom, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago (31713), photo by Lucas Livingston.

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21: Akhenaten and the Amarna Style

Hello and welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston. In this episode, we’ll scratch the surface of one of the most interesting periods from Ancient Egypt, the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Any enthusiast of Ancient Egyptian history will probably have heard of Akhenaten, the so-called “Heretic King,” and if not Akhenaten, then at least you’ve heard of his wife Nefertiti, arguably the most famous Ancient Egyptian woman, second only to Cleopatra. Akhenaten ruled in the 18th dynasty from about 1353 to 1336 BC. In that relatively short time of only 17 years, he radically transformed Egyptian state religion and developed an entirely new artistic iconography.

At the beginning of his reign, Akhenaten, who then went by the name Amunhotep IV, commissioned works of the traditional sort. As with many of his predecessors and successors, he built additions to the Temple of Amun at Karnak decorated in the very traditional canonic Egyptian style. But then in his second or third year he changed his name from Amunhotep to Akhenaten, which means something like the “Spirit of Aten.” So, he stripped the god Amun from his name and replaced it with Aten, the solar deity represented as a disk rather than an anthropoid god. Aten wasn’t anything new. His father King Amunhotep III already celebrated the cult of Aten, majorly elevating its status, and Aten as the life-giving power of the sun goes back at least as far as the Middle Kingdom.

The changes Akhenaten made were to more than his name alone. He outlawed many of the major cults, especially the cult of Amun, closing their temples and pissing off a lot of priests. He enforced the worship of Aten, with himself (and sometimes Nefertiti) as the sole intermediary between Heaven and Earth. He built a vast new capital city called Akhetaten, meaning the “Horizon of Aten.” Now it’s mostly rubble and sand, because it was destroyed after Akhenaten’s reign, and much of the rubble was used as filler for later additions to Karnak, but it once held huge open air temple courts where offerings were given up to Aten on a daily basis. The open air architecture was very different from the tiny, dimly lit, secretive back rooms of Karnak, Luxor, and other traditional Egyptian temples where a few special high priests would gather and perform sacred rituals enshrouded in mystery and secrecy.

This is a fragment from the Great Palace at Akhetaten, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. On it we see Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their eldest daughter Meretaten praying and making offerings to the solar disk, much like we might imagine them having routinely done those many millennia ago. Notice the subtle linear band along the top of the scene. That’s actually the hieroglyphic character pet, meaning the “sky,” further reinforcing the doctrine of open-air worship to Aten. As the giver and sustainer of life, Aten’s rays of light reach down to its supplicants and hold symbols of the ankh, the hieroglyphic character for “life,” to their noses. In effect Akhenaten and Nefertiti breath in the life-granting essence of Aten. The hands at the end of Aten’s rays remain the only vestige of anthropomorphism to an otherwise abstract divinity.

This fragment exemplifies the innovative artistic style from the reign of Akhenaten, often called the Amarna style from Tel el Amarna, the modern Egyptian name for the area around what once was Akhetaten. The Amarna revolution abandons the idealized representation of the human form, especially the Pharaoh, who, as we might remember from our discussion of the statue of Ra-Horakhty back in episode 14, was always shown as an eternally youthful, muscular exemplar of human physique. The Amarna style, however, could be described as down-right caricature, a deformation of an individual’s characteristics. Just like the cult of Aten, itself, Akhenaten’s not uniquely responsible for inventing the Amarna style. He adopts, augments, and elevates many artistic characteristics that were already making their appearance during his father’s reign.

A couple other big developments in Egyptian art that the Amarna style picks up and runs with are the representation of movement and snapshots of moments in time. More typical of Ancient Egyptian religious and royal artwork is a very static timeless quality with almost no effort to represent any kind of action among the figures. But in the Amarna style, we definitely feel a sense of movement. Expression of emotion is also a big development that Akhenaten adopts from his predecessors. Take for example this delightful royal family portrait from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Here we see two young princesses cuddling up in the lap of Nefertiti, one daughter affectionately touching her mother’s chin. Akhenaten playfully dangles an earring like a piñata before Princess Meretaten. Note also the comfortable reclining pose that the king takes. I mean, this is a family at leisure, or at least they’re acting like it for the camera. All the while, the life-giving rays of the Aten shine upon them. This is all quite different from classic representations of the royal family like Menkaure with his wife here at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A beautiful piece and sure she’s holding him with some minuscule degree of affection, but you have to wonder if they slept in the same bed. Of course, then the summer 2009 issue of Kmt, the popular journal on Ancient Egypt, has to go and accuse this lovely relief of Akhenaten and his family of being a modern counterfeit, but at least we still have this very similar example in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. Check out the article “Nefertiti’s Final Secret” by Rolf Krauss in volume 20, number 2 of Kmt.

We also see a big change to the actual stylistic execution of relief carving. The sunken relief carving of the Amarna period is rendered with deeply cut, bold, smoothly flowing contour lines. Particular attention is given to detail, especially in individual parts of the body, like fingers and toes. Remember back at the end of episode 9, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” we learned that you never see little toes in Egyptian painting or relief carving. Well, the Amarna period may be the only general exception to this rule.

What makes the iconography of the Amarna style most distinctive, however, is the unusual physiology of Akhenaten and others. Instead of the ideal physical specimen of masculinity, Akhenaten is represented with an elongated face and head, full, heavy lips, enviably slender waist, spindly limbs, a pendulous belly, and thick, rounded thighs. … And Pharaoh got back! … So, what gives? It’s like Akhenaten’s trying to mix together exaggerated masculine and feminine characteristics. There’s absolutely no evidence to back up the idea that Akhenaten may have been physically deformed, although you come across a lot of people espousing that misconception. In fact, for many many centuries, the ancient god of the Nile’s annual flood, Hapi, was represented with breasts and a pregnant belly, yet masculine attire, a typical god’s beard, and otherwise generally masculine physique. Akhenaten is adopting an iconography similar to Hapi, blending masculinity and femininity into a singular being of idealized androgyny as the sole provider to the Egyptian people, thereby legitimizing his divine right to rule.

You get a lot of theories for why Akhenaten made the changes that he did to Egyptian society, religion, and art. Most of the theories are variants on the idea that he was either crazy or enlightened. He’s frequently given credit for introducing the concept of monotheism when all the rest of the world was running around worshiping different gods, rocks, and shrubbery, but that’s just not true. Akhenaten wasn’t a monotheist; he was more like a henotheist. Henotheism is the worship of one god, while believing that others exist and can get a little bit of credit too. Even though Akhenaten preached that the Aten was the one and only god, his motivation was largely political, not religious or ideological. In the generations leading up to Akhenaten, the state cult of Amun had risen to such unprecedented heights that it almost came to eclipse the authority of Pharaoh. The temple was the administrative and financial center of Egypt, holding massive tracts of land and immense influence over all aspects of Egyptian society and national affairs. In an effort not to become a puppet of the temple, Amunhotep III, Akhenaten’s father, already started to take measures to return to the unquestionable authority of Pharaoh, and Akhenaten took it that much further. But it didn’t work. Almost immediately after Akhenaten’s reign, Amun was reintroduced as the state god, royal iconography began reverting, and the Amarna style was dying out, giving rise to the Post-Amarna Period. But this fragment, rich in iconography, expression, and eternal supplication to Aten, is a prime example of the unique, short-lived, and beautiful artistic revolution of the “Heretic King” Akhenaten.

Want to learn more? Check out the bibliography in the Additional Resources section at ancientartpodcast.org. One particularly great resource is the catalog and website to the exhibition Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen from 1999. You can email me at info@ancientartpodcast.org. You can also give feedback on the website and fill out a fun little survey. And why not share the love with some iTunes comments? Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

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15: Origin of Greek Sculpture

Hey folks. Lucas Livingston here at the SCARABsoltuions Ancient Art Podcast. Great to have you back. In this episode, we’ll take a brief look at the historical climate that gave rise to Greek sculpture. Yeah, tall order.

“Gave rise to Greek sculpture” you say? There actually was a time before sculpture in Ancient Greece. Well, between sculpture, actually—the Greek Dark Age—between the relatively advanced Bronze Age and the much later Orientalizing and Archaic Periods. Remember back in episode 5 on the Art Institute’s Corinthian pyxis, we talked about the Orientalizing Period of approximately the 7th century BC—to quote myself, “The Orientalizing Period is a time when the Greeks renew contact and trade with the different civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East after a long period of isolation during the Greek Dark Age and Geometric Period. This is a fascinating time of rediscovery, invention, and assimilation.”

In that episode we looked at a few of the interesting Near Eastern influences in the developing arts of Greece. On Greek vase painting, we start to see fantastical creatures of the Near East, like sphinxes, griffins, and chimeras, and the adoption of long-standing, stock, Near Eastern decorative motifs like rosettes and palmettes. The Orientalizing Period was a time when the Greeks were suddenly thrust onto the world stage through mercantile exchange with Phoenicia, Syria, and other Near Eastern nations. The Greeks became familiar with Near Eastern artistic traditions through all the patterned textiles, decorated vessels, and other ornamentation that these foreign merchants brought with them to Corinth and other ports of trade. But just as the Greeks enjoyed and adopted these Near Eastern designs, they also immediately assimilated and adapted them to suit their own needs. And we discussed one example of this assimilation at length in the decoration of the Art Institute’s Corinthian pyxis.

There are a number of other profound developments in the Greek arts at this time, like the general manner in which the human form is represented on a two-dimensional painted surface. In episode 5 we explored how some areas of the Greek mainland, like Athens, continue in the traditional vase painting design of the previous century, with a stark contrast of the darkly silhouetted geometric figures against a background of meandering patterns. Corinth, however, pushes this aside for a more natural style of gentle curves and elaborate outlines of the figure’s contour with a smoother, flowing brush. We see the detail of human anatomy, facial features, and pleats and folds in the drapery. Coloration also makes its way onto the scene with the use of added red and white. The human form also becomes more dynamic, breaking away from the static paratactic pose of the Geometric Period. Shoulders and the chest might be seen in profile as opposed to the odd rendering of two shoulders and a frontal chest with a face turned in profile. So we start to see an increased attention to the naturalism, the manner in which the reality of the three-dimensional world works and how it can be expressed on a two-dimensional surface, a feat which the Greeks are only now beginning to undertake. But I don’t mean to give all the credit to Corinth. During the Archaic Period of the late 7th and 6th century BC, Athens was breaking new ground too, as we’ll soon see with the advent of sculpture.

The introduction of free standing monumental sculpture stems from another fascinating influence on the developing Greek arts, which deserves a lot of attention—but for this influence we need to look a little south to Egypt. Contemporary to the second half of the Greek Orientalizing Period and first half of the Archaic Period was the Egyptian 26th Dynasty, the Saite Dynasty of the Late Period. We call it the Saite Dynasty on account of the capital of Egypt at this time, the city of Sais in the delta region. And what time is this? We’re talking 664-525 BC. During the prior few centuries of the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt really blew it and lost all the power and influence that it acquired during the New Kingdom. Now during the Late Period, many of the nations surrounding Egypt had become major political and military powers that Egypt had to contend with. Since the Egyptian army wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to boast about, Pharaoh Psammetichus I (or in the Egyptian Psamtik) took the bold leap of hiring foreign mercenaries to fill the void. Psammetichus not only wanted to establish a strong military presence in Egypt, but he also wanted to forge military, political, and economic alliances with sympathetic foreign powers, namely the Greeks.

The Saite Dynasty is one of the coolest time periods in the history of the Mediterranean, because this is when we see for first time a strong Greek presence is Egypt. Psammetichus and other Saite rulers used Greek mercenaries to fight their battles and Greek merchants and craftsmen to support a strong economy of foreign trade in the Mediterranean. We even see the establishment in Egypt of Greek military barracks and the thriving development of a Greek civilian settlement. The port city of Naukratis exploded onto the scene as the short-lived, but preeminent port of trade in the Mediterranean. Sadly, today there’s not much more remaining than a few foundations. Naukratis was a fascinating melting pot of Egyptian and Greek culture. Greek and Egyptian temples were erected side-by-side. Greek merchants and craftsmen set up shop and traveled the Nile, seeing firsthand the splendors of the two-and-a-half thousand year-old Egyptian civilization. And just as the Greeks were inclined to adopt Near Eastern ideas to enhance their artistic repertoire, there are also some very distinct Egyptian influences on the cultural development of Greece in the aspects of domestic and religious art, temple architecture, and even religious belief and ritual. Greeks begin to visit Egyptian temples, dedicating bronze Egyptian votive statuary with Greek prayers inscribed on them. Greek votive statuary begins to take on an Egyptian form like this figurine of a seated woman nursing a child, which closely resembles the very popular figure type of Isis nursing the child Horus.

So, at the beginning of this episode I said we’ll take brief a look at the historical climate that gave rise to Greek sculpture. We did that, the stage is set, and before I start to lose you, we’re going to wrap things up here. We’ll pick up next time with a close look at one of the earliest known and most intact Greek sculptures of a particular statue type called a “kouros”—the so-called “Metropolitan Kouros” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Be sure to check out the bibliography at scarabsolutions.com for a number of references on the Greek contact with Egypt during the Saite Dynasty. On a technical note, if you were having trouble viewing some of the photo albums on the website using version 3 of Firefox, that’s because of a javascript incompatibility between iWeb and Firefox 3. After much searching of the online Apple support forum, one crash, and some colorful language, I think I’ve managed to implement a fix, so you should be able to browse the photo albums again. Thanks for listening and tune in soon for the next episode of the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

14: Ra-Horakhty

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

9: Walk Like an Egyptian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

4: Statue of Osiris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’d-ya-like them apples!

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

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

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

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

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

2: The Mummy Case of Paankhenamun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, what that says is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• And the jackal-headed Duamutef held the stomach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2006 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

1: The Scarab in Ancient Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2006 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org