The image in Ancient Egypt had a power in itself.
Why? Because in addition to evoking a reality, they made it arise. In Ancient Egypt everything that was depicted was also happening.
The Power of Scenes on Walls.
The mural scenes that we observe in the mastabas of the Old Kingdom depict very realistically scenes of daily life. However, they did not consist in the memory of an earthly world that the deceased wanted to take to the Hereafter. In the belief of Ancient Egypt those scenes were moments and situations that happened perpetually.
Making Bread. Mastaba of Ty in Saqqara. V Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
The depictions of bread manufacture or agricultural and livestock activities provided food for the dead eternally. The iconographic environment surrounding the deceased was an ideal reality in which he would live forever and which was in his best interest.
In the same way, the ancient Egyptian reliefs that invaded the walls and columns of the temples (whether funerary or state) immortalized the rituals that took place in them. It was the way to make the rite always happen.
The physical space in which an ancient Egyptian plastic production is located is essential to analyse it.
Reliefs, paintings and statues of ancient Egypt we know come mainly from temples and / or tombs, that is, from sacred spaces impregnated with spirituality.
Serdab with the statue of Ti. Mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
The art of Ancient Egypt was not “contemplated”.
The tombs were houses of eternity that remained closed in perpetuity (except for receiving the funerary cult) and the temples were sacred constructions to which only the royal house and the priesthood had access. Therefore, the mural scenes and sculptures of Ancient Egypt were not conceived for being contemplated.
Egyptian artists did not think of a spectator,..
The king in Ancient Egypt, despite his solar nature, was also a human being. After dying, the pharaoh became also a corpse, so a mummy.
Therefore it was inevitable to asimilate the dead souvereign with Osiris. And he required also a resurection following the belief of Ancient Egypt. Even Akhenaten needed it.
Sarcophagi of Hatshepsut and Amenhotep II.
Royal sarcophagi in Ancient Egypt needed also protection for the Pharaoh in the same way particular coffins did. For that reason, Isis and Nephthys, as the mourners of the dead Osiris, were present also at both ends of sarcophagi of kings of the XVIII dynasty.
But what happenend during the Amarna Period?
Isis, Nephthys and later on also Serket and Neith were essential in the regeneration sphere. They, as women/goddessees, played a crucial role in the process of resurrection in Ancient Egypt.
Canopic chest of priest of Montu Pady-Imenet. Neith pouring water on Qebehsenuef, the son of Horus who protected the intestines. XXII Dynasty.Luxor Museum.
For that reason, ancient Egyptian artist included their images in every funerary artefact related with the mummy (at both ends of coffins and sarcophagi, in canopic shrines, ushabti boxes…).
Nevertheless, what happened under the reign of Akhenaton? During the Amarna Period the official religion changed into a kind of monotheism. The only officialy worshipped divinity was the sun disk Aten and every old divinity disappeared, included the goddesses.
How did they managed the matter of the resurrection and the women/goddesses involved in it?
The most important female figure in that period of the history of Ancient Egypt was Nefertiti. She had a higher status than former royal wives did, even in religion.
Sarcophagus of Akhenaten. Cairo Museum. Photo Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
Not only she had her own role in the cult to the Aten, iconography shows how it was considered that Nefertiti had a reviving power in herself.
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Let’s start with that: women were crucial in Ancient Egypt for the dead’s resurrection.
The rite of the professional mourning ritual in ancient Egyptian funerals was based on the Osirian theology.
That happened becasue in the belief of Ancient Egypt the dead (Osiris) was regenerated thanks to aid of his wife/sister Isis (and by extension of his sister/sister in law Nephthys).
She was able to recover many vital functions to the corpse: breath, movement, virility…Not for nothing the image of Isis (and of Nephthys) was present in funerary artefacts (coffins, sarcophagi, caponic chests…)
Goddess Nephthys from a coffin in Brooklyn Museum
We also know that in some moment of the history of Ancient Egyp that regenerating role was responsibility also of Serket and Neith. They formed with Isis and Nephthys a group of four goddesses who contributed actively to the dead’s resurrection. That is why, their images were present in funerary furniture (sarcophagi, ushabti boxes, canopic shrine…).
hat shows how important were women/goddesses for the dead’s resurrection from a professional and official point of view. Their status in this sphere was high enough to become indispensable.
What happened in the Egyptian thought in this regard during the Amarna Period? Under the reign of Akhenaton these divinities disappeared from the pantheon. However, the need of a resurrection did not disappear.
Funerals, mummification, tombs… still existed. But what happened with the concept/image of women/goddesses, who performed a role in the resurrection?
The tomb of Tutankhamun needs to be seen as an historical document.
Nowadays everyone knows about Tutankhamun. His mummy, his funeral mask, his golden sarcophagus, his jewels, his spectacular furniture … are familiar to anyone.
But this familiarity towards the figure of Tutankhamun and his tomb does not always mean true knowledge.
The Tomb of Tutankhamun is a testimony.
The objects are so spectacular that sometimes they have shaded its true meaning. These objects are more than just forms with precious materials. They are testimony to Ancient Egypt, its religion, its belief.
The tomb of Tutankhamun is a historical document with information on the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians and on their conception of the Hereafter. To discover this information we have to contemplate the treasure of Tutankhamun as an ensemble of elements together with the tomb conceived to ensure eternal life to the pharaoh.
Thanks to the tomb of Tutankhamon we know that many objects deposited in the burials of Ancient Egypt followed a concrete order for a concrete aim.
The meaning of Tutankhamoun’s Treasure.
In the “Treasury” the Egyptian craftsmen made three key elements:
Isis and Nephthys overlaped behind Osiris in a Papyrus from Turin.
The artists of Ancient Egypt had a particular conception of perspective, which affected in the way they depicted groups of living beings and amounts of things.
In our last posts we saw how in Ancient Egypt the funerary scene of Osiris being flanked by Isis and Nephthys was usually depicted with the two mourners of Osiris juxtaposed. It allowed to draw Isis always preceding her sister Nephthys and to make both images complete, so effective for the dead’s resurrection.
Isis and Nephthys juxtaposed behind Osiris. Book of the Dead of Khonsumes.
But the ancient Egyptian artisan could also use the technique of superposition for drawing collectives of people (troops, groups of workers…), of animals (for instance flocks) or amounts of objects (offerings, vases…).
The superposition was also applied to the scene of Isis and Nephthys behind the resurrected Osiris on his throne. We can see it for instance in the famous Papyrus of Ani from the XIX Dynasty and in many others.
The two Drty (two kites), offering nw vases to the four pools. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net
In Ancient Egypt a couple of two professional women in the role of Isis and Nephthys were actively involved in the dead’s resurrection. They appear usually at both ends of the coffin, during the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony or, from the New Kingdom, kneeling and offering two globular vases nw at the end of that funerary ceremony.
At the beginning we thought that this scene of the professional mourners offering the vases nw was something exclusive of the New Kingdom and of the Theban area. However we were maybe wrong; Ancient Egypt reveals always something new.
In some tombs from the Old Kingdom and from the Memphite area the artists of Ancient Egypt included an iconography, which remembers that one from later periods and from the south.
That is the case of the tomb of Iasen in Gizah (G2196) from the Old Kingdom. In the funerary chapel, to the left of the niche with the statue of the deceased, there is an image of Iasen seated and facing the offering table. Underneath two unidentified kneeling men are facing the dead and offering nw vases. Their position clearly reminds the one of the two professional mourners at the end of the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, which will become so common during the New Kingdom.
In Ancient Egypt the Legend of Osiris was so important that it was integrated into the solar theology. As a result Isis and Nephthys, the two mourners of Osiris, became an essential part of some solar iconography, so both from the New Kingdom were depicted flanking the solar disk in its daily rebirth.
Book of the Dead of Nespakashuty. XXI Dynasty. Photo: www.louvre.fr
It also had an effect in the holy conception of geography in Ancient Egypt. If the rising sun occupied the east and the sunset the west, the two mourning goddesses had to be also located somewhere, so they had to have also a geographical assignation: north and south. At that point the titles of the two goddesses are quite explicit. In Ancient Egypt, Isis was “The One of the South” and Nephthys “The One of the North”.
Cartonnages in Ancient Egypt were used over the wrapped mummy mainly for mummy masks and some important parts of the body.
The cartonnage of Irtirutja in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York dates from the Ptolemaic period. In it one can see how the artist of Ancient Egypt dedicated this technique for covering some special parts of the mummy.
The fact of choosing those parts of the anatomy could reveal an intention of including the essential elements in the belief of Ancient Egypt for the dead’s resurrection.
Obviously the mummy mask was obligated, since, among the many faculties the dead had to recover, there were the faculties of seeing and breathing.
The feet of the mummy were covered with two images of Anubis. It seems as if they were inverted, but they are actually dressed to the deceased’s eyesight.
Two images of the scarab with the solar disk were also a grant of the mummy’s rebirth. In Ancient Egypt, the Osiriac resurrection and the solar rebirth were united, in the iconography and in the religious texts.
Image of Nephthys mourning in the mummy of Irtirutja. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.
The four sons of Horus (two at each side of the body) were also included in the composition, They were a personification of the canopic jars, which contained the dead’s viscera, so they accompanied always the deceased.
Finally, the ancient Egyptian artist could not omit two of the most important figures in the dead’s resurrection: Isis and Nephthys, the two professional mourners, who making a mourning ritual gave the faculties back to the mummy…