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 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…
The union of Re and Osiris in ancient Egyptian culture produced as a result new decorative motives in the ancient Egyptian iconography.
The earth god and the sky god needed to be reconciled in religious scenes and from the New Kingdom artist worked in creating new depictions of this mixed conception of ancient Egyptian religion.
In the Book of the Amduat Re in its journey had to unite with Osiris in the depths of the night and receive the power to be reborn in the morning. This idea written in hieroglyphs needed its iconographic reflection. Here ancient Egyptian artists from XVIII Dynasty started their brainstorming.
One of the main challenges for priests and artists in Ancient Egypt were to combine the osirian and solar cosmogonies in the funerary literature and iconography.
Ram-Headed mummy (Re-Osiris) with Isis and Nephthys. Tomb of Nefertari. XIX Dynasty.
The two main pillars in the belief of resurrection in Ancient Egypt were the myth of Osiris and the solar theory. The central aspect in the first one was the resurrection and new life in its most human version: a human body (Osiris), which needs to be embalmed and revived for the eternity. In the second one the stellar body (the sun-Re) did a cyclic trip through the sky; it died in the night and sailed in the solar bark through the dark sky; in the morning after the sun came back to life renewed plying the clear sky.
In Ancient Egypt both ideologies, due to its importance, were quickly conciliated as two versions of a same concept. In the thinking, ancient Egyptian priests could unite Re and Osiris in the funerary texts through the narrative, that is why, for instance, in chapter 67 from the Book of the Dead the dead Osiris wants to get out from the tomb and get into the solar bark of Re.
What happened in the art of Ancient Egypt?
In the last post it was considered the role of Nephthys in the religion of Ancient Egypt. It is a fact that Nephtys was a very important goddess in the ancient Egyptian pantheon. Isis needed her help for granting the resurrection of Osiris; they both Isis and Nephthys formed a perfect team. But it is also a fact that Nephthys in some cases seemed not to be indispensable.
Isis was the real one who stimulated the virility of Osiris.
Isis was the mother of Horus, so Isis was the one who could give a legitimate heir to the throne of Ancient Egypt. Nephtys was also important in that birth, since she was present during this childbirth. So Nephthys assisted her sister Isis.
Isis nursing Horus. Louvre Museum. Photo: wikipedia
The common icon in Ancient Egypt for maternity was the woman nursing her baby, applied by the artist of Ancient Egypt in private and royal art. It is very common the image of a mother suckling his baby in statues and reliefs from private tombs. We find also regular in royal monuments to find reliefs of Hathor or Sekhmet nursing the king; but the image of maternity par excellence in Ancient Egypt for maternity was Isis nursing Horus.
Nephthys was not a mother, but the wet nurse. According to the Pyramid Texts (Pyr. 365) she suckled the king, Horus on earth. So, as in the case of the chilbirth, Nephthys assisted her sister Isis.
There is a scene of the Book of the Dead from the tomb of Ay, in which are depicted on the solar boat the gods of the Heliopolitan cosmogony and the Myth of Osiris (apart from Seth): Re-Horakhty, Atoum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Horus…and out of the boat Nephtys stands alone apart from her fellows. Why?
Scene of the Book of the Dead from the tomb of Ay. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: www.osirisnet.net
Isis and Nephtys were usually represented together. They were a perfect divine team in Ancient Egypt for the favour of the Osiris’ resurrection. They were always depicted both collaborating together for the corpse’s resurrection.
However, Nephthys had in some way a secondary role and maybe not the same prestige as her sister Isis.
Firstly, Isis was the wife of Osiris, the dead god, so she supported the main responsability in the regeneration of her husband’s body. Isis, although assisted by Nephthys, was the one who made the ancient Egyptian mourning ritual on the mummy of Osiris for restoring his vital faculties.
Among the Ancient Egypt gods, Isis and Nephtys occupied a very important role.
All along our work we have been writing about those two women, who were essential in the funerary ceremony of Ancient Egypt, but what do we really know about them?
Two different ways of representing Isis and Nephtys assisting the deceased: as the two kites (tomb of Sennedjem) and as women (tomb of Nakhtamon). XIX Dynasty. Photos: http://www.osirisnet.net
Ancient Egyptian art shows the two professional mourners always at both ends of the corpse in the cortege to the tomb; they are identified as Isis and Nephtys or as “kites” (according to the legend of Osiris Isis adopted the shape of a kite for giving him back the breath and his virility), but the inscriptions do not clarify much more about them.
There is an important ancient Egypt document, which could help us in understanding better the requirements of these two representatives of Isis and Nephtys for “working” as official mourners in ancient Egyptian funerals: The Songs of Isis and Nephtys (Brisith Museum Papyrus No. 10188)…