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
Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. In our last episode on the Art Institute of Chicago’s Corinthian pyxis, we saw how the early Archaic Greeks of the Orientalizing Period incorporate stylistic elements and ideas from their Near Eastern neighbors and also from their own Bronze Age ancestors. We looked at the emergence of monumental Greek temple architecture with its unprecedented massively impressive pedimental sculpture. And ultimately we came to understand how the Greeks paid homage to their Mycenaean Bronze Age ancestors by employing scenes of ferocious beasts and fiendish monsters on these early temple pediments. They did this as a means of confronting the viewer, engaging with them and conditioning their psyche for approaching the divine, just as the Mycenaeans did half a millennium earlier at the entrance to the great city of Mycenae. And on a far more diminutive, personal scale, we see this same confrontational conditioning effect employed on the funerary vessels of this early Archaic period in Ancient Greece as a sort of memento mori, a reminder of our ultimate fate.
In this episode, I want us to take a look at a significantly later example of Greek pottery and vase painting, also at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is an Attic white-ground ware lekythos from around 450-440 BC attributed to the Achilles Painter. OK … what does all that mean? Well, you’ll often come across the term “Attic” on gallery labels. That’s got nothing to do with where you keep your Christmas lights. Attic means it’s from Attica, which is the region of Greece that surrounds Athens. Aha! … Moving along now. “White-ground ware!?” See, you got yer black figure vase painting and yer red figure vase painting … and then you got your white-ground ware, because the figures are on a white background and “ware” is just the fancy word for ceramics … you know, like dinner ware. And finally a lekythos is a specific type of Ancient Greek pottery vessel usually in a tall slender vase-like shape with a tight spout and a handle, but you come across small more squat versions too. The lekythos was specifically use as a decanter for oil, mostly olive oil for Ancient Greek athletes. Now, the Greeks lived in a time before the invention of soap. Filthy buggers!? Not really. See, olive oil is an exceptionally good cleaning agent (not to mention a common ingredient in some exotic old-fashioned soaps). After a long day of rolling around with your classmates naked in the sand at the gymnasium, Greek athletes would rub olive oil on their lean, tight flesh. They’d then take a small curved metal tool called a strigil and scrape it along their skin, removing the oil and all the grime, sweat, and guck. Don’t believe me? Next time you take off a day-old BAND-AID® and it leaves behind that yucky glue residue, rub a little olive oil over it for a few seconds and presto! — ancient goo-begone. [This does not necessarily constitute an endorsement, neither expressed nor implied, of the aforementioned products BAND-AID® brand bandages and Goo Begone or any similar or related products on the part of the author or his affiliates; use at your own risk; do not attempt this at home; yadda yadda, etc etc.]
Before we dive headlong into the subject matter of this lekythos, I want to explain why the painted surface is not nearly in as good condition as most of the black and red figure vases you’ll spot at the Art Institute. You see, in the white-ground technique, the white background was painted onto the surface of the vessel after it had been fired and then the figures were painted on top of that. All the decoration of black or red figure vases was applied before the firing process as slip (not actually paint) and then fired, so baking the decoration onto the surface so it ain’t goin’ nowhere. Paint applied to the surface after firing, however, isn’t as durable and it’s prone to flaking over the eons.
The scene decorating this lekythos depicts a gray-haired elderly man with a long red cloak leaning on a cane. He looks forward into the eyes of a youthful mostly-nude male figure with a shield strapped to his back and holding a spear. The fact that the youth is nude indicates his function as a warrior. (And the shield and spear kinda help us draw that conclusion too.) Warriors in Ancient Greece, of course, didn’t march out onto the battlefield in the nude, not unless they had a few too many at the feast the night before. No, they were fully armored with a sturdy breastplate, greaves on the legs, and a helmet. Excavations in the latter part of the 20th century at Midea near Mycenae actually unearthed a magnificent Bronze Age Mycenaean cuirass or a breastplate from the 15th century BC, the time of the great heroic warriors whose legacy inspired the later epics, now in the Archaeological Museum of Nauplion in Greece. Check out the website — scarabsolutions.com — for a link to an image and description of the armor and the excavations at Midea. There’s also an interesting article in the March/April 2007 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review called “Historic Homer: Did It Happen?” which talks about this breastplate and other Mycenaean-period historical accuracies in the Iliad and Odyssey.
Despite the obvious use of armor, however, Greek artists imagined their mythological heroes were in fact nude. Throughout Ancient Greek vase painting we encounter the nude warrior, be it Hercules, Achilles, Hector, or any other heroic mythic warrior. Many a Greek male was fond of casting himself in the light of the mythic warrior, particularly upon death through the use of the nude male kouros statue as a headstone. The kouros is the earliest form of freestanding monumental Greek sculpture in the round, which finds its origin around the time of the Orientalizing Period, which we covered last time when looked at the pyxis. Perhaps a similar sort of desired effect is being attempted here — to cast the deceased in the light of the heroic warriors of yore. Remember, just about all the Ancient Greek vases you encounter in museum collections were actually grave goods. One might be inclined to interpret this scene depicted here as a father figure bidding farewell to the youth; their final goodbye before the youth marches off to battle. Perhaps the last time they will ever see each other … alive, at least. Neither figure has an expression of overwhelming emotion. They both bear a sober countenance, not betraying their torn spirits within.
Think about the difference in the way I’m describing the subject matter of this vase painting compared to the Corinthian pyxis from a century earlier. We’re trying to get inside the heads of the figures represented on the lekythos; we’re looking at a scene from some dreamt-up story. There’s definitely some sort of context here, in contrast to the decoration on the pyxis, where the creatures are outside of any context, any narrative or story. This is a big change taking place in late 6th, early 5th century Greek vase painting – a movement away from representations of ferocious confrontational beasts towards narrative scenes. Sure, representations of the Homeric epics go way back, but the narrative becomes firmly entrenched only in the mid to late Archaic Period, pushing aside the decorative flower patterns and the prominence of confrontational beasts common to the Orientalizing Period.
Beyond the heroic mythologized warrior, the nude in Ancient Greece also fires another neuron. I’m talking about the Greek athlete. Unlike the imaginary mythical nude hero, Greek athletes did in fact compete in the nude. Easy there tiger. The representation of this youth in the nude might draw us in two different directions. While all geared up, the youth is clearly preparing to head off for battle, but this solemn goodbye reminds us of the other activity of Greek youths — athletics, which perhaps the old man wishes the youth would sooner be doing before heading off to battle. And don’t forget the vessel on which this scene is depicted — a lekythos — a jar for an athlete’s oil bath. So what’s going on here? Why is the artist conjuring up a scene that might tug us in two directions? Well, just as with the Corinthian pyxis that we looked at before, this lekythos is also a funerary vessel, a grave good. So, to take our train of imaginative thought one step further, perhaps we have a scene here reflecting an actual occurrence or some imagined, mythologized, heroicized occurrence of a youth slain in battle, the loss of innocence, no more will he enjoy sport at the gymnasium with his fellow companions. So, he’s buried with a lekythos to recapture the activities of youth and he’s portrayed here as a heroic warrior worthy of all honor. Just as with the pyxis, here too we have a memento mori.
We see a big change taking place in the Archaic period as Athens emerges as the new cultural superpower, soon eclipsing Corinth. Perhaps the most significant stamp that Athenians place on the Greek world is their interest in the human condition, in morality, justice, pride, and suffering. And this shows up in their vase painting not so much in the stories that they tell, but more so in the way that they tell their stories. The artist could have chose to memorialize the deceased as a fallen warrior among other glorious dead or in the moment of a heroic death on the battle field. Or he could have represented some other mythical hero like Hercules, Achilles, or Perseus, casting the deceased in a brighter light. Instead we see a different sort of narrative aesthetic evolving in Attic vase painting. Well, by this Late Classical period it’s pretty much well evolved. Instead of showing the height of physical action, instead we’re presented with a subdued anticlimactic moment of pause, the quiet before the storm. It’s up to the mind of the viewer, up to us, to complete the narrative in our minds. Granted, this narrative technique relies on a sort of familiarity with the story. In this case, we may not necessarily be familiar with the story, but different clues like the nude form of the youth, his armament, and his classical contaposto (that’s the stance he’s taking, like a statue of some hero) — these clues lead us to the conclusion that he’s a warrior and the old man seems to be engaging with him. The rest is our own speculation, but it’s an educated and informed speculation.
We encounter a lot of similar examples in Archaic and Classical Attic vase painting where a moment just before the height of the climax is represented, rather that showing all the gory details, and the artist relies on the viewer’s familiarity with the narrative to connect the dots and lead up to the climax in his or her mind. Here’s a fairly early and exemplary illustration, The Suicide of Ajax, an Attic black-figure amphora from around 540 BC by the very well known artist Exekias, now in the Château-Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer (er … pardon my French). Ajax fought alongside Achilles in the Trojan War. In later myths and tragedies, he’s often elevated practically to the same status as Achilles. Alas, he’s probably most familiar to our contemporary audience as the big goober with the war hammer in the 2004 Hollywood production Troy, where Achilles is played by Brad Pitt. The Iliad just tells a fraction of the story of the siege of Troy. A lot happens between the Iliad and the Odyssey, where the latter recounts Odysseus’s journey back home from the 10 year-long siege. Apparently there were also other epics that told the stories of other warriors involved in the Trojan War beyond Achilles and Odysseus, sadly now lost – well … till somebody discovers a Greco-Roman mummy stuffed with papyrus fragments of some lost epic. … It’s not impossible.
But somewhere between the events of the Iliad and Odyssey, the unthinkable happens – Achilles is killed by Orlando Bloom … I mean, Paris. The armament of Achilles is to be rewarded to the most feared Greek soldier. It comes down to Odysseus and Ajax. They get into a big debate and the arms are finally awarded to Odysseus. There’re different accounts of what happens next, but one popular version says Ajax is completely distraught and goes into a mad rage, killing his Greek comrades left and right … or so he thought. Athena intervened and disguised the flocks as his fellow Greeks, so Ajax ended up only slaying the flocks. Completely embarrassed and distraught a second time for the harm he could have done, Ajax takes the sword of Hector (awarded to him after a stalemate battle against Hector), wanders off from the camp, and kills himself by burying the sword tip-up in the sand and impaling himself on it. So, here we see Ajax planting the sword, neatly packing down the earth around it. His shield leans lazily at the edge of the frame, his helmet and spears carefully placed atop. Incidentally, the spear was his weapon of choice, not the war hammer. And now we know what’s coming next. … Bleeehh! See, Exekias is relying on our familiarity with the story to bring us to the height the climax and all the gory bits without having to show the gory bits. It’s more engaging, less off-putting, and invites us to consider the Ajax’s state of mind. To ponder his pathos, the powerful Greek term for suffering and the human condition. And as if that’s not enough, Exekias also sneaks in a foreboding omen. Decorating the shield of Ajax is the fiendish Gorgon Medusa with snakes for hair, said to have been so hideously ugly that her gaze would turn you to stone. And above that is a glaring feline, similar devices to the ones we saw on the Corinthian pyxis. While it’s perfectly legitimate to have these devices decorating your shield (wouldn’t be a pretty sight to have that racing towards you on the battlefield), they also function in the context of the painting as ill omens of the impending tragic conclusion.
My goodness … how about that.
Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to hop on over to the website scarabsoltions.com for better quality images, links to external resources, and the extensive bibliography on Ancient art. I’m also adding transcripts for each episode, in case you’d prefer to read rather than listen to the podcast. That’ll also make it a lot easier if you want to revisit something you heard on the podcast, but can’t remember exactly where it was mentioned. Simply enter some keywords in the search box at scarabsolutions.com. And in case you haven’t noticed, you can leave your feedback for each individual episode at the website, if you have something nice to say or a particular axe to grind. You can also email me at email@example.com. And while you’re at it, if you like the podcast, I invite you to go on over to iTunes and post a review. It’s gettin’ a little lonely out here. Take care and see ya soon on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.
©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org
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