Coffin of Artemidora from Meir (AD 90-100). Isis and Nephthys are a constant in the iconography. Photo: metmuseum.org
The funerary mask of Artemidora was the most decorated element of the whole set. In contrast to the body art the head appears as the selected support for a more complete composition. We can even distinguish an upper and lower register with their corresponding scenes.
he first thing that attracts attention is the background color: black.
Over this background at each end (left and right) appear a mourning woman. Both present interesting features:
- Unidentified (no name and no symbol)
- Half mane (or short hair) and a tape around the forehead.
- Half naked. They are just wearing a simple skirt.
Funerary Mask of Artemidora. Right side with one of the mourners. Photo: metmuseum.org
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 iconography in Ancient Egypt was not gratuitous. Every image had a reason to be, but also every space.
From the Old Kingdom the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephthys were accompanying the dead until the tomb at both ends of the mummy. The hieroglyphs of the wooden coffins from the Middle Kingdom tell how Isis was located at the feet and Nephthys at the head. This position could be due to a will of reproducing the moment of the rebirth of the deceased.
Later on the art of Ancient Egypt found in the coffin a new surface for including several icons, as the two professional mourners. From the XXI Dynasty became common to include these two female figures upside down in the in the external feet surface of the lid of the anthropoid coffin.
The inner part of the coffin offered also the artists of ancient Egypt a great surface for the sacred iconography. So, what was outside could also be drawn inside. At that point is emblematic the outer coffin of Nesykhonsu (XXI-XXII Dynasty), in whose interior…
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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…
The most evident proof of the importance in Ancient Egypt of Isis and Nephthys in a rebirth process is in the Books of the Day and Night, which describe the journey of the sun god through the sky.
According to the thought of Ancient Egypt, especially during the New Kingdom, Nut was the goddess of the sky, so the sun made a journey through the goddess’ body.
The dusk happened because Nut swallowed the solar disk and during the night he traveled all over the Nut’s belly. The morning after, the sunrise meant that Nut was giving birth the solar disk. That is the iconography that the artist of Ancient Egypt depicted on the ceilings of tombs from XX Dynasty.
But Nut was also Osiris’ mother and the resurrection of the dead in Ancient Egypt happened because the corpse was assimilated to Osiris, so the new-born was Osiris, son of Nut, who was assisted by Isis and Nephthys.
Isis and Nephthys receiving the solar disk. Book of the Night. Tomb of Ramses IX.Photo: Thebanmappingproject
Taking that into consideration, it make sense that the priests of XX Dynasty included the figures of Isis and Nephthys in the sun disk rebirth. As a consequence the artists of Ancient Egypt had to create a new iconography with the union of the sun rebirth and the Osirian tradition of the two divine mourners.
The religion of Ancient Egypt developed during the New Kingdom sophisticated religious texts, which combined the solar theology with the Myth of Osiris. As a consequence, the art of ancient Egypt included in its corpus of images a new solar-Osirian iconography.
As we saw in the previous posts, the artists of Ancient Egypt started painting during the XVIII Dynasty the solar god Khepri in the company of two human kneeling figures of Osiris in the eleventh hour of the Amduat. In the XIX Dynasty, Isis and Nephthys, the two mourners of Osiris took part of the solar imagery and they were depicted at both sides of Re-Osiris and of the solar disk.
Isis and Nephthys with the rising Ositis and Re. Chapter four of the Book of the Caverns. Tomb of Ramses V-VI. XX Dynasty. Photo: The Theban Mapping Project.
During the following history of Ancient Egypt this tendency was even more evident. In the XX Dynasty the artists of Ancient Egypt created for the Book of the Caverns and The Book of the Earth new icons of the solar rebirth with the assistance of Isis and Nephthys…