The Man She Was Made For

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale from days gone by, of Bata the strong and his unfaithful wife, made for him by the gods but torn from him by her own wicked heart!

And in those days Bata lived alone in the Valley of the Cedars, having fled from the household of his brother, from the treachery of his brother’s wife. His heart he had placed for safe keeping in the top of the tallest tree of the forest, and he built his house at its roots. By day he was successful at his hunting in the desert, by night he slept deeply in the comfort of his bed. And in all things ma’at was upheld.

For all his good fortune Bata grew lonely, and the Great God, Re-Horakhty himself, took pity upon him. He called Khnum to him and commanded him to fashion a wife for Bata, a beautiful wife, a fragrant wife, a wife suitable for Bata the best amongst men! And this Khnum did, and Re-Horakhty brought her to Bata and they lived in Bata’s house as husband and wife in all ways but one. For the loss of his member to the catfish of the Nile meant that Bata the strong was no longer Bata the virile, he could not lie with her as a man does with a woman. And this left his wife, the beautiful one, the fragrant one, unsatisfied with the life for which she was made, and her heart grew heavy with the weight of isfet.

Husband and Wife

Of this Bata knew nothing, and his heart filled with love & joy at his life and fear & anxiety that it might chance to change. From love he told her of the secret place of his heart, that she might revive him should anything go amiss. From fear he forbade his wife to walk by the shores of the Great Green Sea, for if it were to carry her away he should not be able to rescue her. But his wife, his fragrant wife, his treacherous wife, went out to walk on the shore, for she could not bear to be shut up in the house under the cedar tree all her days.

And the sea saw her and her beauty and surged forth to claim her!
She turned and she fled and she returned to the house,
leaving only a lock of her hair caught in the trees for the sea to seize.

Far far away the sea carried this fragrant, beautiful lock of hair until at last the waters deposited it in the Nile where the clothes of the king were washed. The scent of her hair was so strong and so beautiful that anything that touched the waters was drenched with perfume! And Pharaoh was vexed for his clothes returned without the clean scent of freshly washed linen ready for his own perfume. He commanded the chief of the washermen to search for the source of the perfume and bring it to him so that he could destroy it. But when it was brought before him the lustrous and fragrant lock of hair was so enticing and seductive that Pharaoh instead resolved to make this woman his own!

He sent forth his troops to search for the girl whose hair shone forth the scent of her beauty! But Bata, Bata the strong, Bata her husband, slaughtered those who would take his wife from him. Saving only one to carry the tale back to Pharaoh of the woman’s protector. And so Pharaoh resorted to guile and to trickery, and sent forth a woman from his household laden with gifts fit for a princess or a queen. The heart of Bata’s wife grew covetous at the sight, and filled with desire for trinkets and baubles she stepped away from the path of ma’at.

Out of her house, away from her husband.
Out of the Valley of Cedars, away to the Two Lands of the Nile.
Out and away, and she was gone from Bata and the life she was made for!

Entranced by the girl, her beauty and her scent, Pharaoh made her his Great Royal Wife and first amongst all of the women of his household. And so completely did she forget her duty to the man she was made for that she told Pharaoh of the secret of Bata’s heart. For she feared that Bata, Bata the strong, Bata her husband, would come and take back that which was his. So Pharaoh sent forth his troops to the great cedar tree and they made haste to cut it down. And when the heart of Bata reached the floor, he fell like the tree and lay like Osiris in death.

And Pharaoh and his queen, the false wife of Bata, rejoiced for they believed she was safe from the man she was made for. They did not know that this was not to be, for they had not reckoned with the loyalty between brothers, the elder went to the younger’s aid and Bata would rise again like Osiris himself!

But that, my friends, is a story for another day!


Resources used:

“Egyptian Myths” George Hart
“Red Land, Black Land” Barbara Mertz
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

This is the second part of a story called The Tale of the Two Brothers, which is known from a 19th Dynasty papyrus written by a scribe called Inena (or Ennana) – the first part is here: Weaving with Her Words a Cloth of Deceit, and the third part will be coming later! I have taken the plot from the sources above, and retold it in my own words.

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Pepi II

The Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi (aka Pepi II) was the fifth king of the 6th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom, and he reigned for a very long time around about the 23rd Century BCE. Manetho (a 3rd Century BCE historian in Egypt) credits him with 94 years on the throne, a king list dating to around the 13th Century BCE (or perhaps later) now in the Turin Egyptian Museum agrees with more than 90 years. I think modern scholars are fairly sure that he reigned for over 62 years but after that there are no attested dates (so far?). Unsurprisingly he took the throne as a young boy, somewhere between ages 6 & 10 (with most books I read following Manetho and making him 6 years old on accession). His immediate predecessor was Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and before that there was Meryre Pepi (aka Pepi I).

Pepi II seated on Queen Ankhenespepi II’s Lap

Who his father was is not entirely clear, so let’s start with his mother. She was a woman called Ankhenespepi or sometimes Ankhenesmeryre, one of three or four of that name living around that time. The name means “Pepi/Meryre lives for her”, and was taken by her on her marriage to Pepi I – in modern literature she is known as Ankhenespepi II to distinguish her from Ankhenespepi I (also married to Pepi I) and Ankhenespepi III & IV who were both married to Pepi II. As well as the identical names for multiple people this family is also one of those terribly convoluted Egyptian royal families where everyone seems to have at least two different relationships with every other person. Ankhenespepi I and Ankhenespepi II were sisters, and were both married to Pepi I. Both were the mothers of kings: Ankhenespepi I was the mother of Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and Ankhenespepi II was the mother of Pepi II. A relatively recently discovered inscription (within the last 25 years) tells us that Ankhenespepi II was also the wife of Merenre Nemtyemsaf (her step-son/nephew) after Pepi I’s death. And so you see where the uncertainty about Pepi II’s father comes in – it’s definitely one of his two immediate predecessors, but which one it is depends on how long you think Merenre Nemtyemsaf reigned for. More than a decade, and Pepi II must be his son, significantly less and he can’t be. I think the current consensus is that Pepi II is the son of Merenre Nemtyemsaf and the grandson of Pepi I, and the son & great-nephew of Ankhenespepi II and the grandson & nephew of Ankhenespepi I.

As he was so young when he took the throne Pepi II had regents who acted on his behalf – these were his mother, Ankhenespepi II, and her brother, Djau, who had held high office in the reign of Pepi I. It’s from this early part of his reign that we have one of the few glimpses into an Egyptian king’s personality as recorded by the Egyptians of the time. It’s rather a charming anecdote, a combination of childish joy and absolute power. We know the story from a letter written by Pepi II to a courtier called Harkhuf – who was so proud of the fact that he had personal correspondence from the king that he had the letter copied out onto the walls of his tomb to be remembered for eternity. Over his life Harkhuf had been sent on four expeditions to lands south of Egypt – the last of which was in Year 2 of Pepi II’s reign. As he returned he wrote to his king to tell him about the riches he was bringing back – including a dancing pygmy from the land called Yam. And Pepi II was so taken with the idea of this pygmy that he wrote quite a long letter back to Harkhuf, most of which is enthusing about this pygmy. It’s too long to quote the whole thing, so I shall excerpt a few bits of it (following Miriam Lichtheim’s translation):

“[…] You have said in this dispatch of yours that you have brought a pygmy of the god’s dances from the lands of the horizon-dwellers […] Truly you know how to do what your lord loves and praises. Truly you spend day and night planning to do what your lord loves, praises, and commands […] Come north to the residence at once! Hurry and bring with you this pygmy whom you brought from the land of the horizon-dwellers live, hale and healthy, for the dances of the god, to gladden the heart, to delight the heart of King Neferkare who lives forever! When he goes down with you into the ship, get worthy men to be around him on deck, lest he fall into the water! When he lies down at night, get worthy men to lie around him in his tent. Inspect ten times at night! My majesty desires to see this pygmy more than the gifts of the mine-land [Sinai] and of Punt! When you arrive at the residence with and this pygmy is with you live, hale, and healthy, my majesty will do great things for you […]”

It’s formal, and full of repetition (as I think is standard for Ancient Egyptian letters) – but even with the stylised prose we clearly hear the voice of a gleeful little boy who’s just been promised the Best. Present. Ever!

This little humanising anecdote, charming as it is, does cause a few problems for my mental image of the king – it’s easy to remember the excited little boy, but obviously that’s one brief part of a long life and probably something he rarely thought about once the novelty wore off. Information about Pepi II as an adult seems rather scarcer. He had at least five wives, some of whom were his sisters or aunts – Neith, Iput, Ankhenespepi III and Ankhenespepi IV were all King’s Daughters. Another wife was Wedjebten, whose relationship is less clear. And of course he had children, though I’m not sure if it’s known how many or who predeceased him and who survived.

His long reign was relatively peaceful, in fact none of the books had very much to say about it. Outside Egypt the political landscape was changing – the lands to the south were coming together in a coalition of states and Egypt’s influence wasn’t as strong as it had been. But that doesn’t seem to’ve led to any particular problems during his reign. However there are other indications that Egypt was no longer in as healthy a state as it had been. Pepi II built a pyramid complex for his tomb, as his predecessors had done – but despite having at least 62 years to do this in it’s just a standard 6th Dynasty pyramid. No signs of embellishment or additions or new ideas. Perhaps just that there was now “a standard” so he didn’t deviate from the proper way to do things. But he also copied the decoration scheme for the pyramid temple pretty much entirely from the 5th Dynasty king Sahure’s pyramid temple. Again, there could be positive reasons that he did this that we just don’t know – but it’s not really an indication of a vibrant and creative culture. And there are signs of an economic downturn as well. There may’ve been a period of prolonged low floods, leading to reduced tax revenue and the population not thriving – and no sign of a robust response from the king. Perhaps there was no way Pepi II’s administration could’ve responded effectively, perhaps the devolution of power to local governors had left the central authority too weak, perhaps we just don’t have the evidence.

Whether or not Egyptian culture had become stagnant and the government ineffective during Pepi II’s reign, it is clear that things don’t go terribly well immediately afterwards. Just like for planets there is a Goldilocks zone for the length of reign of a monarch. Too few years, and the changes at the top lead to instability. Too many, and chances are the king outlived his heirs. But a small handful of decades – that’s just right, neither too long nor too short. Sadly for Old Kingdom Egypt the reign of the Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi fell outside this zone and into the range where your average Egyptian might believe that his divine ruler was in fact immortal. Ten viziers had come and gone while he ruled, countless courtiers must’ve lived their entire lives while he ruled. He did still have a living son to inherit, but Nemtyemsaf II didn’t long outlive his father – and his successor was also fairly ephemeral (so much so that for millennia he was thought to be a woman, but is now thought to’ve been a man, a fairly basic detail to be unclear on). And after that we’re into the revolving door of the next dynasty none of whom lasted long on the throne.

The Egyptians themselves did not remember Pepi II fondly – the other anecdote from his life is posthumous, much less charming and much less likely to be true. In it Pepi II is portrayed as a man distracted from the business of kingship by a torrid affair with one of his generals. He’s described as sneaking out of the palace at night to climb up a ladder into this general’s bedroom, then once he had “done what he desired” with him he sneaks back to the palace in the hopes that no-one would notice. This is unlikely to mean that Pepi II is history’s first recorded gay ruler – it has the flavour of a story to explain “what went wrong” at the end of the dynasty. It reminds me of the way that all Chinese imperial dynasties are traditionally said to start with a wise, brave, honourable ruler and end with a cruel, out-of-touch, perverted tyrant. Not necessarily true but it’s the narrative they use to explain historical events.

As always with figures from the deep past like this we have tantalisingly few facts to build our own narrative on top of. And so Pepi II is probably always going to be that over-excited boy anticipating the arrival of his pygmy in my head, despite how unrepresentative that must’ve been.


Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“Ancient Egyptian Literature: Vol I The Old and Middle Kingdoms” Miriam Lichtheim
“A History of Ancient Egypt: Vol 2 From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“Texts from the Pyramid Age” Nigel C. Strudwick
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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The Harem Conspiracy

My bonus article for May is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Hem-Netjer & Khery-Hebet tiers and is about the end of Ramesses III: The Harem Conspiracy.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!

Medinet Habu

It’s easy to visit Medinet Habu and think of it as just the one temple, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, standing in proud almost-isolation with only a brief mention of the palace next door and something something harem conspiracy. A bit like a great medieval cathedral, self-contained and singular. But that’s really not true of Medinet Habu (nor necessarily of cathedrals, but that’s a story for someone else’s blog entirely!).

The temple the name Medinet Habu conjures up in the mind isn’t even the earliest remaining temple on the site – that is what is now referred to as the Small Temple, which was founded by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. And beneath that are the remains of a Middle Kingdom structure. This temple was built to house the primeval mound the creator god Amun-Re Kamutef rose from and returned to to be rejuvenated – referred to as “The Mound of Djeme” or “The Genuine Mound of the West”. Every 10 days a festival procession came to the temple bringing the image of Amun from Luxor Temple to be rejuvenated at the mound, before returning to Luxor. This didn’t stop when Ramesses III built his much bigger temple just next door some 300 years later. It is a measure of its continuing relevance that the Small Temple was still the occasional recipient of royal building works well into the Roman Period. The last structure here is an unfinished court & portico begun by Antoninus Pius in the 2nd Century CE.

It is fair, however, to say that the mortuary temple of Ramesses III dominates the site. For a long time I thought mortuary temples were just sites where the king was worshipped after he died, a bit like the medieval practice of saying masses for the deceased in a chantry chapel. But, as seems to be the theme today, there’s more to them than that somewhat misleading name. The Egyptians called them Temples of Millions of Years and they were not solely concerned with the king (deceased or otherwise) nor were they solely religious in nature. I mustn’t downplay the mortuary function too much, though. The practice of making offerings to the deceased king goes back to at least Early Dynastic times if not before, with kings of the 1st & 2nd Dynasties constructing large enclosures within which their funerary cult was practised. Over time the forms and rituals evolved with changing beliefs, but the basic idea of ensuring a smooth (and permanent) transition into the afterlife for the king by means of a funerary cult remained the same. The decoration scheme of some of the innermost chambers of Ramesses III’s Temple of Millions of Years reflects this. In one set of chambers he is shown partaking in the Osirian afterlife – ploughing and harvesting in the Field of Reeds. In chambers on the other side of the same hall he is shown travelling with Ra in his sacred boat. Both sets of scenes are intended to guarantee the successful rebirth of the king.

Medinet Habu

Other festivals not directly connected with Ramesses III’s afterlife were also celebrated at this temple, during the king’s life and beyond. There’s a calendar of these festivals on the outside of the south wall of the temple which gives details of the necessary offerings, and some of the major ones are shown on the walls of the second courtyard. There are daily offerings to be made, as well as much bigger annual festivals. One of these was the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, where the sacred boats of Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu came across the Nile from Karnak Temple. Originally they visited the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, and then as each new Temple of Millions of Years was built it was added onto the processional route so the festival got longer with each Pharaoh’s reign. There was also a one day annual festival of Min and a several day festival of Sokar, both of which are shown on the walls of the second court of the temple.

The king visited the temple to take part in these ceremonies (the major ones, that is), and so he needed suitable accommodation. To the south side of the temple are the remains of a palace. Or rather remains of two palaces – the original buildings were pulled down and rebuilt during Ramesses III’s reign. The palace was attached to the south of the temple, with access into the first court as well as a window of appearances overlooking this court. From the window Ramesses III could view and participate in festivals, and be seen by his courtiers and priests – it makes me think of the Royal Box in the Royal Albert Hall (and other theatres). As well as providing access to the religious ceremonies the palace was also the seat of royal ceremony. There’s a throne room with a raised dais, where presumably Ramesses III would sit in state. And as almost every book and tour guide is keen to point out, the throne room also has an en-suite loo accessed via a door in one corner.

As well as the ceremonial rooms of the palace there was other accommodation provided for the king and/or his household. The whole of the site is surrounded by a double wall, through which there were two gates. One of these was small and at the back (west) of the site – the servants entrance, for minor officials, temple employees, delivery men and the like. At the front (east) of the site there is a much more impressive structure – modelled on a Near Eastern fortress called a migdol. And within this imposing gatehouse are other rooms for the royal household. Often these are referred to as the harem where the king’s women would stay, and the internal decoration is said to represent the king indulging in pastimes with his concubines. But Betsy M. Bryan (writing in “Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West” ed. Kent Weeks) suggests that these might’ve been the more functional accommodation for the king, leisure rooms away from the formality and ceremony of the palace proper. And she then interprets the young women in the reliefs as Ramesses III’s daughters. A reminder that we don’t actually know for sure the purpose of these rooms, and that we are still working our way through the hangover from what 19th Century Europeans thought about “exotic eastern cultures”.

So, a couple of temples, some fortifications and palaces – is that it for Medinet Habu? It’s not even the end of what was built on the site during the time of Ramesses III! As I said there are two enclosure walls around the site – the outermost one is a real fortification, whereas the inner one is more symbolic and intended to protect the temple from the profane outer world. Between these two walls were the houses for the priestly and administrative staff necessary to keep the temple functioning. This is the equivalent of the rather more famous Middle Kingdom town next to the pyramid of Senwosret II at Lahun. And inside the inner enclosure wall around the back and north side of the temple were great storage magazines for grain. These are far far bigger than would be necessary for feeding the residents of the temple and the offerings presented in the temple – if full they would hold 56,972 sacks of grain, which would be enough to feed something on the order of 1,000 families for a whole year. Instead one must remember that grain was wealth in Ancient Egypt, and that people were paid with rations of grain. These magazines were the stored wealth of the king used to fund the wars he showed off about on the temple walls, as well as being a significant part of the local economy.

These administrative functions are probably the reason the site is so well preserved – each Temple of Millions of Years was set up like this, but as each Pharaoh built a new one it replaced his predecessor’s one as the administrative hub. Ramesses III built the last one, and so it continued to be the centre of the local economy. For instance this is where the workers at Deir el Medina get their rations (wages) from not only in the reign of Ramesses III but in those of his successors – and this is why when they go on strike over non-payment of wages it’s Medinet Habu they go to. During the 21st Dynasty they even move into Medinet Habu, safe behind the fortifications in the more unsettled times after the end of the New Kingdom.

And so the site continues to evolve and be built on even after Ramesses III is long gone. The neat rows of houses don’t long out last the New Kingdom, Barry Kemp positions this as a triumph of self-organisation rather than decline, however. The palace gets remodelled for senior priests, and may even have been occupied by the God’s Wife of Amun during the 25th & 26th Dynasties. At this time the role was occupied by a daughter of the king and she exercised his authority in Upper Egypt. Four of these priestess princesses were buried in the forecourt of Medinet Habu, Amenirdis of the 25th Dynasty and three more from the 26th Dynasty.

The town that Ramesses III’s Temple of Millions of Years has evolved into continues to thrive into the Coptic era. There may’ve been a gap in occupation before the Roman Period – although it’s hard to tell if this is a real gap or if the Romans levelled out the site before they built on it and destroyed the traces of the immediately preceding houses. Later the Copts converted part of the mortuary temple in the second court into a church, as the Copts were prone to do. And even into very modern times the site retained some significance in the eyes of the local population – in Kent Weeks’s Illustrated Guide to Luxor he says that until the 1970s local women still came to pray for children or to avoid illness.

Not just a temple for the soul of a dead king, not just a religious centre for the state religion, a place of worship and separation from the world – instead a thriving hub for a widespread community, full of bustling bureaucrats and people living their everyday lives.


Resources used:

“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt” Bill Manley
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Illustrated Guide to Luxor: Tombs, Temples and Museums” Kent R. Weeks
“Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West” ed Kent R. Weeks
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson

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Some Sort of Canid

Most Egyptian deities are closely associated with an animal – depicted in art either with the head of the animal or as the animal itself. The animal chosen for a deity generally represents some important feature of the deity in question. The gods I’m writing about today are all represented by some sort of canid, a dog-type animal, and are gods that are associated with cemeteries and death (including Anubis, of course). There’s an obvious link between these types of animals and death: in Predynastic times, and throughout Egyptian history for poorer people, bodies were not buried in elaborate sealed tombs but were put in shallow graves in the desert sand. And so they were vulnerable to being dug up and destroyed by desert scavengers, like jackals and other canids.

“Some sort of canid” is a pretty mealy-mouthed way to put it, isn’t it? Surely everyone knows that Anubis’s animal is a jackal so why am I being so vague? Well, it turns out that there’s a fair amount of debate about which canid species is actually represented. The opinions I read while writing this article range from “of course it’s a jackal, I can even tell you the precise species” through to “a composite of canid features”, via “some sort of hybrid seen in the wild”. The matter isn’t helped by the fact that our neat categories (dog or jackal or wolf) don’t actually map terribly well onto either how the Egyptians thought or the real world. The Egyptians don’t seem to’ve separated jackals from dogs with quite such a hard line as we do. And when you look at populations of canids in North Africa there are signs of a large amount of interbreeding between nominal canid species, including with domestic dogs. So “some sort of canid” is probably the most accurate way to phrase it, and its at the jackal-y end of this spectrum.

Coffin Detail with Canid

This canid has large erect ears, a slender neck, long legs and a bushy tail. It is represented either standing (generally on a standard) or sitting (often on a shrine) with its tail hanging vertically down in both cases. It may wear a tie around its neck, and when it’s Anubis it often has some of Osiris’s regalia sticking out of its back (a sekhem sceptre or flail or both). It is often black, but generally that is not thought to be a feature of any real animal it’s based on but rather to be symbolic. As well as the usual associations with black – the fertile soil of the Nile and thus rebirth – it may also relate to the colour a corpse will go if you don’t embalm it, an example of protection by invocation of the thing you’re protecting against.

Canids of this sort are rare in Predynastic art but there are examples from funerary contexts. One of these is a rather fine figurine found in a Naqada III period (c. 3300-3100 BCE) burial, almost in the round – it’s carved from greywacke (usually used for palettes) so it’s fairly flat because of the nature of this stone but modelling of the body is apparent. The animal is portrayed standing up, and it was found propped up against some vessels in front of the face of the deceased woman – perhaps to protect her. Other examples in Predynastic art are amulets in the shape of recumbent canids, some dating to even earlier than the figurine. Obviously one can’t just assume that later beliefs apply in the Predynastic Period, but it seems plausible that these are a precursor to the later protective funerary deities like Anubis and Khentiamentiu.

All of the three or four major canine deities are attested in the Early Dynastic Period. Anubis is the one who is most familiar to us as he remains prominent throughout Pharaonic Egypt. Before the rise of the cult of Osiris he was the most important funerary deity and he continues to play a key role after Osiris takes over. Anubis is the deity who oversees the embalming process and protects the tent where this takes place as well as the burial chamber. He also watches over the necropolis to keep it safe. Mythologically speaking he gets hooked into the Osirian family in a variety of ways (depending on the telling) – often a son of Osiris, perhaps with Nephthys as his mother – and he performs the mummification process on Osiris when Seth has killed him.

As well as Anubis there was another early protector of the necropolis & the dead, mentioned above – this was Khentiamentiu, the canine deity who was worshipped at Abydos. The first temple at Abydos was founded in the Predynastic Period, and was probably dedicated to Khentiamentiu at that point. It’s definitely dedicated to him through the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom, and is still referenced as his temple during Pepi II’s reign (the very last king of the 6th Dynasty and the Old Kingdom). After that the temple is dedicated to Osiris, and from then on Osiris is the primary deity worshipped at Abydos. This doesn’t seem to’ve been a hostile takeover. Khentiamentiu means “Foremost of the Westerners” which is a title or epithet that Osiris later uses – so the two gods may have merged, or it’s even possible that they were always the same deity. In his book on Early Dynastic Egypt Toby Wilkinson speculates that they may always have been the same god, that “Khentiamentiu” was a way to (perhaps euphemistically) refer to Osiris.

There are also another one or two major canine deities who are represented by a canid in Egyptian art. A motif that is seen from at least the 1st Dynasty onwards is of a canid standing still on a standard, with his legs together rather than in motion (like Anubis normally is). This can be Anubis or Khentiamentiu but more often it’s Sed (in very early periods) or Wepwawet from the 3rd Dynasty onwards. It’s not clear if these are two separate deities or if Sed first gained the epithet Wepwawet and then changed his name to Wepwawet. The name Sed may live on after this change or replacement in the sed festival. This festival is generally celebrated by the king in his 30th year of reigning (if he gets that far!) and every few years after that, and is intended to prove his continued fitness to rule. None of the authors I read was willing to 100% commit to the god Sed being the reason the festival is called that – not least, I think, because we can’t be absolutely sure it really was the same word for both. The Egyptian script only records the consonants of the word, so for all both are written “sd” it’s possible they had different vowels. The similar name is not the only link, however – the canid standing on a standard shows up in depictions of the sed festival.

Wepwawet is how this god is known for most of Pharaonic Egypt. His name means Opener of the Ways, which has a variety of interpretations (not so much as alternatives, rather they are all aspects of this deity). The canine association here is not from their habit of eating the dead, but from the fact that they live on the peripheries of human settlement – at the boundary between the cultivation (the living) and the desert (the dead). And who better to lead you from one place to another than one who dwells in the space between? And so one facet of Wepwawet’s opening of ways is that he leads the deceased through the underworld, and the king to ascension. He is also involved in the magical opening of the deceased’s mouth and eyes after mummification – the “adze of Wepwawet” is one of the tools used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. But he is not purely involved in death – in the Memphite Theology he’s called “the opener of the body” which may refer to him opening the way out of the womb as a first born. And in a similar vein the Pyramid Texts refer to him opening the way for the sun to rise in the sky. Death, birth, and also during life – Wepwawet’s standard was often carried in front of the king or deity in a procession, opening the way for him. And his frequently attested warlike character sees him opening the way to military conquest for the king. All of which is a rather significant set of characteristics for a god that a lot of us (me included) think of as “the one that looks like Anubis, but isn’t”!

The theme that kept coming up over and over while I was reading for this article was blurry boundaries – in the modern day we tend to want to put things, events, ideas into neat little categories with no overlap but the world doesn’t always co-operate. “Some sort of canid” because we can’t even divide the real animals up into neat non-overlapping groups or species, let alone match the consistent yet ambiguous way that this canid is depicted in Egyptian art to one of those groups. It’s also difficult to tell which god is meant by a given canid depiction, unless there is an accompanying label. Even the gods are not entirely clearly defined. Appropriate, I think, for a collection of deities whose roles straddle the boundaries between this world and the next to be neither clearly the one thing, nor clearly the other.


Resources used:

“Animals in the Ritual Landscape at Abydos: A Synopsis” Salima Ikram
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris” David O’Connor
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” ed. Diana Craig Patch
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Wepwawet in Context: A Reconsideration of the Jackal Deity and Its Role in the Spatial Organization of the North Abydos Landscape” Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

Ahmose II

Despite its own rhetoric Egypt has never existed in splendid isolation untouched by the outside world. There’s evidence of trade and cultural contact with the Middle East, for instance, way back before there was even really an Egypt. But it is possible to talk about the life of a lot of kings without really mentioning the outside world much – other than a brief nod to trade with here, or a conquest of there, or a letter to the king of somewhere else. By the Late Period, however, this really doesn’t hold true, the outside world can’t be ignored or glossed over. Take Ahmose II whose reign is shaped by the wider politics of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and even a lot of our information on him and his reign comes not from an Egyptian source but from Herodotus.

Ahmose II reigned from 570 BCE to 526 BCE and is the penultimate king of the 26th Dynasty, although we might as well call him the last one as his son only manages about 6 months on the throne. The boundaries of this dynasty are defined politically rather than by all the kings being the same family – Ahmose II is a usurper and in no way related to the previous kings. His mother is named on a statue of herself (pictured) and another inscription as Tashereniset. His father may have been called Taperu, but this is more shaky as it depends on a libation bowl inscribed for an Ahmose-sineith-Wahibre who may or may not be the same Ahmose as eventually takes the throne.

The King’s Mother Tashereniset

The first time our Ahmose definitely appears in the historical record is in the act of usurping the throne. It’s possible there’s an earlier reference to him in a graffito at Abu Simbel, which names an Ahmose as being in command of the Egyptian soldiers of an army sent to Nubia by Psamtik II in 592 BCE. If this is our Ahmose then he must surely have been in at least his late teens or early 20s when he was commanding troops in 592 BCE, and thus in his 80s when he died. Not outwith the bounds of possibility for sure and our Ahmose was definitely a military man, but there’s no hint of “living to a great age” in the books I read and I’d’ve thought that would be noteworthy.

So possibly a commander in 592 BCE, but definitely a general in 570 BCE. At this time Ahmose II’s predecessor (Apries) had sent his army on campaign against the Greek city of Cyrene in Libya where they suffered a disastrous defeat. This was the final straw for the Egyptian soldiers in the army, who were already unhappy with perceived privileges for the Greek mercenaries they fought alongside. Ahmose II was sent to quash the rebellion but instead joined it and was proclaimed Pharaoh. He defeated Apries in battle in 570 BCE, then again in 567 BCE when Apries returned at the head of a Babylonian army. This second time was final – Apries was either killed in battle or captured and then later killed, it’s not clear which. So you can see how right from the beginning outside forces drive events: Ahmose II takes advantage of Apries’s foreign policy stumbles, and sees off the subsequent foreign invasion as he consolidates his power.

Ahmose II reigned for 44 years, and Herodotus’s remark is: “in all of which time nothing very unusual had happened”. But he also takes the time to tell us stories of Ahmose II the heavy drinker and country bumpkin. In actuality the evidence suggests that Ahmose II was a rather good Pharaoh, and that Herodotus’s stories are probably the result of Greek annoyance with his taxation of their traders and a helping of snobbishness about his non-royal origin. Domestically this was a time of prosperity, and Ahmose II undertook an extensive building programme – including one of the early buildings dedicated to Isis on Philae. He also boosted the country’s economy by confining Greek trade to single city (Naukratis) where he could tax it more effectively – presenting it to the Greeks as giving them a city of their own as a base, and to the Egyptians as keeping the Greeks out of everyone’s way.

But in many ways this domestic prosperity didn’t matter much for Ahmose II’s legacy – it was the successes of other kings that shaped the second half of Ahmose II’s reign. Ahmose II cultivated close ties with the Greeks, initially as allies against the Babylonians who had form for military expeditions against Egypt (witness the Babylonian army that came with Apries). But the Babylonians themselves were soon more concerned with matters to their east as Cyrus the Great’s Persian Empire began to steamroll its way across the Middle East. Egypt then entered into an alliance with the Babylonians and the Lydians against this new threat, but when they were conquered Egypt still had her Greek friends to fall back on. Ahmose II did succeed in keeping the wolf from his gates for the rest of his life, but only just.

In terms of dynastic stability, if it had only been Egypt’s internal affairs that mattered then Ahmose II had done a pretty good job with that too – especially for a usurper. He had at least two wives: Nakhtubasterau (whose grave has been found) and Tentkheta (the mother of his heir, Psamtik III). And Herodotus also reports a wife of Greek origin from the city of Cyrene (although she’s mostly the subject of one of Herodotus’s colourful stories so I’m not clear if she really existed). He had an heir (Psamtik) plus a couple of spares (Ahmose, Pasenenkhonsu). He also probably had a couple of daughters – definitely Nitokris and possibly Tashereniset. The first of these was destined to fill the other major power role of Egypt of the time – she was the designated heir to the God’s Wife of Amun in Thebes.

Sadly once again Egypt’s internal affairs were not the most important events, and Ahmose II’s best-laid plans went agley (as Robert Burns would put it). Ahmose II died in 525 BCE, about 5 years after Cyrus the Great, and was buried as planned in his prepared tomb in the court of the temple of Neith in his capital at Sais. This tomb was still visible in the time of Herodotus, but nowadays it is completely destroyed and there is a small lake where the temple once was. Psamtik III took the throne, as planned, but at this point the Persians invaded – Cyrus the Great’s successor Cambyses II had had 5 years to get himself sorted out and ready to take the first opportunity to continue what his father had started. A transition of leadership was just what he was looking for, and the less experienced Psamtik III barely lasted 6 months on the throne. As part of digesting Egypt and fitting it into the Persian Empire Cambyses II abolished the role of God’s Wife of Amun, and so Niktokris didn’t go on to fulfil her intended destiny either. And Herodotus would have us believe that Ahmose II didn’t get the afterlife he was hoping for – he tells a story of Cambyses II having Ahmose II’s mummy exhumed, tortured(!) and burnt.

In another era Ahmose II might’ve ushered in a new golden age for Egypt, and a couple of the books I read did refer to this period as a final “renaissance” for the Egyptian state. But equally, in another era Ahmose II probably wouldn’t’ve managed to take the throne. He came to power via the failure of his predecessor to balance domestic and foreign policies, he kept the economy strong and the country independent through his trade and alliances with foreign powers, and after his death his dynasty and country fell to the enemy from the East that he’d kept at bay for so long.


Resources used:

“The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories” trans. Andrea L. Purvis, ed. Robert B. Strassler
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson

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She of Nekheb

My bonus article for November is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about Nekhbet: She of Nekheb.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!

Nekheb

Some 50 miles south of Luxor are the remains of two of the earliest urban centres from the Early Dynastic period of Egyptian history. On the west bank lies Nekhen (also called Hierakonpolis) – perhaps most well known as the site where the Narmer palette was found. And on the east bank lies Nekheb (modern name is el Kab), whose local goddess (Nekhbet) is one of the Two Ladies who represent Upper & Lower Egypt. Before I visited el Kab in 2014 I’d probably heard more about about Nekhen – not just the Narmer palette but I’d also seen the famous ivories and other objects from the Main Deposit in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and been to a talk by Renee Friedmann about her work on the Predynastic settlement and cemeteries there. But Nekheb is also a fascinating (and important) site with evidence of ancient Egyptians from very early indeed through to late antiquity.

In fact el Kab gives its name to one of the cultures of Prehistoric Egypt – the stone tools and camp remains of the Elkabian culture were first found here in the late 1960s. Three layers of camps were found one on top of the other dating between c. 6400 BCE and c. 5980 BCE on the riverbank of the ancient channel of the Nile. As well as the stone tools and waste from making stone tools there were ostrich shell beads, and lots of fish bones. The latter gives us a good idea of why the people were here! The position of the camps relative to the Nile means that they wouldn’t’ve been inhabitable during the inundation, so we can conjure up a vision of a semi-nomadic group of people who each year came to live by the banks of the Nile for a while to eat the abundant fish and (presumably) the plants that grew on the well watered & fertilised soil.

There’s not much obvious continuity between these Elkabian people and the later Predynastic communities either culturally or temporally – a gap of perhaps a thousand years or more. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t any continuity – what gets preserved and what gets later found at any site are only tiny fractions of the material that was once there. But there definitely is evidence of occupation from the late Predynastic, around the time when the Egyptian state was forming, which ranges from extensive cemeteries to domestic remains. And from there on the site is continuously occupied through until late antiquity – after which it ceases to be a town, which is pretty great for archaeologists as it means there aren’t modern people living on top of the archaeology.

Vulture Rock

The town itself was built on the banks of the Nile, and if you visit now you will see it surrounded by the remains of a large mudbrick wall measuring around 550×550 metres (with one of the corners washed away by the shifting path of the Nile). Actually as a tourist you don’t get to go into that bit – you visit the tombs built into the cliff near the town, the temples in the Wadi Hilal and Vulture Rock. This last feature was actually my favourite part of the site when I visited. It’s a large rocky outcrop in the middle of the wadi that from some angles looks a bit like the body of a vulture as the Egyptians would draw it for a hieroglyph. And it is completely covered from top to bottom in inscriptions and graffiti (as are the walls of the wadi nearby) – encompassing nearly the whole of the time of occupation of the site, from prehistoric petroglyphs through to Ptolemaic inscriptions.

The walls that are visible around the town are from the Late Period, but inside there are some remains of a much much earlier wall. This one probably dates to the Early Dynastic Period and is circular. Inside there are some domestic remains from the late Predynastic Period and a little Early Dynastic stuff. However, rather frustratingly for finding out about the early settlement it seems that at some point in the late Early Dynastic Period or the early Old Kingdom this part of the site was levelled off and swept clear of remains in order to build a temple. In general there’s not much securely datable evidence of the Early Dynastic Period occupation of the site – some remains of stone buildings including a block found (and now lost) with Khasekhemwy’s name on it, and some high status graves. It was clearly an important place, however, as the local goddesses of backwater villages don’t tend to end up the representative of a whole region! But nonetheless it was still overshadowed by Nekhen across the river during this period. However by the end of the Second Intermediate Period Nekheb had risen sufficiently in prominence to take over from Nekhen as capital of the Nome (administrative district), and it was to keep this position through the New Kingdom. Subsequently it becomes less important again – but is clearly still a thriving town throughout the Ptolemaic Period.

Outside the town and cut into the hillside are the tombs of the town’s inhabitants. Even if you’re only thinking of the high-status people with their tombs cut into the rock of the cliff there were still a lot of these over the millennia, and at a talk I went to by Luigi Prada he described the rock as being like a “block of Gruyère” because so much has been cut into it. The most interesting tombs for a modern scholar are a clutch of late Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom tombs (which include the ones that you get into as a tourist). Egyptian officials often include an autobiographical text in the decoration of their tomb – the edited highlights of their life, focusing on everything they did that was great and good. And some of these officials detail their service in (and command of) the armies involved in the reunification of Egypt that started the New Kingdom period – and it’s these inscriptions that give us most of our information about that period. One of the inscriptions also provides evidence of a previously unknown incursion by a Kushite force – and explains the presence of Second Intermediate Period Egyptian artifacts at the Kushite site of Kerma (in modern Sudan) as the loot carried off by this expedition.

As you move away from the town and necropolis in a north-easterly direction up the Wadi Hilal you come to two temples (as well as Vulture Rock which I already talked about). The first of these is called the Hemispeos, because it is half cut into the rock. It was begun by Ramesses II, but later extensively re-worked by the Ptolemies – and later still turned into a Coptic hermitage, at which point they destroyed the decoration up to about 2m so that there wasn’t pagan imagery at eye-height in a Christian place. The other temple is quite far into the wadi, and is actually a barque shrine. When deities were taken on procession they were carried by priests in model boats (called barques), and on processional routes there were often small temples where the barque (and the deity within) rested before moving on to the next place. This example was initially begun by Amenhotep III (or his father Thutmose IV), and was dedicated to Amun-Ra, Nekhbet and Horus of Nekhen – and would’ve been where Nekhbet rested when she visited this part of her domain. Later in Graeco-Roman times the religious focus had shifted a bit – this was now a place where a form of the goddess Hathor rested while on a procession commemorating a winter solstice myth. In this myth Hathor fled south to Nubia after an argument with Re (and as his Eye she took the light of the sun with her), and then Thoth was sent to persuade her to return (and so to bring the sun back to Egypt). And you can see how the temple decoration was updated by the people of the time – adding ibises and baboons as red ink graffiti.

It’s the sense of the whole sweep of history and the way you can see (even as an amateur) how there was both continuity and evolution of culture across the millennia that makes el Kab so fascinating to visit. Vulture Rock was the place to leave one’s mark, even if the rationale behind it must’ve been different for the first person to carve as compared to the carvers of the Ptolemaic Period inscriptions with all that weight of history around them. The temples weren’t static (or rebuilt as a single event by kingly decree), they evolved in meaning and were altered in less formal ways to suit. Even the tombs underwent some evolution: parts would always have been open to visitors so that they could leave offerings for the deceased, and these have graffiti from centuries after the initial burial, sometimes reinterpreting this ancient tomb as a shrine to a minor deity. This happened everywhere, of course, I just found that I could feel it at el Kab.


Resources used:

“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“Egypt Before the Pharaohs” Michael A. Hoffman
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Travellers and Pilgrims Under the Last Pharaohs: Recent Investigations by the Oxford Expedition to Elkab” Luigi Prada (talk given at the October 2019 meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group and written up on my other blog)
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“Tombs and Temples of El Kab: Current Fieldwork and Research”; Bloomsbury Summer School Study Day 2 June 2018

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Weaving with Her Words a Cloth of Deceit

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale from days gone by, of the brothers Anubis and Bata and of the woman who came between them.

And in those days the brothers lived well upon the bounty of the Nile. Anubis the elder was prosperous, with herds of fine cattle and wide lands to grow his grain. He had a beautiful wife, and a large house in which to live. Bata the younger was gifted by the gods: he was strong, he was handsome, he was a delight to the eye. He was blessed with understanding of the speech of cattle, and led them to good pasture so that they grew fat and multiplied. He tended his brother’s fields and brought Anubis the fruit of his labours as would a dutiful son. All was good, all was peaceful, all was in accordance with ma’at.

One day whilst sowing the grain upon the black earth the brothers realised they had insufficient seed for the fields, and so Bata returned to the house to fetch more. There he found that despite the lateness of the hour his brother’s wife had not yet finished getting ready for the day, and thus when he asked for more grain she instructed him to fetch it himself as she was occupied with her hair. Bata the strong, stronger than other men, carried out enough grain for the rest of the fields in a single load. His brother’s wife, hair only half tamed, cast her eyes upon him and marvelled at his strength. And at his fine physical form, as if she had never seen him before. And she forgot the duties of a wife to her husband, and loosened her hair to fall about her body as if she were still an unmarried girl.

“Bata! Bata the handsome! Bata the strong! Bata the virile! Come dally here a while with me!”

But Bata, strong Bata, handsome Bata, followed the path of ma’at in all things and was not tempted by this woman, the wife of his brother. And he became like a leopard in the fullness of his rage.

“Take your hands from me vile woman! You offend against ma’at, you who have been as a mother to me should not thus seek to lie with me. You who are the wife of my brother, who is as a father to me, should not thus loosen your hair. This is an abomination in the eyes of the gods!”

She retreated before his rage and as he did not wish to cause pain to the heart of Anubis his brother he bade her return to her household work. They would speak nothing of this to anyone. It would be as if it never had been.

And so he returned and tended the fields with his brother, speaking not of his brother’s wife and her lapse from righteous behaviour. Yet the wife of his brother could not, would not, did not believe that he would keep silent forever. Surely she needed always to be wary in case he exposed her infamy. Her shame and guilt fed upon each other and grew strong within her, and she resolved to ensure that she could not be so exposed.

Tending the Beasts in the Fields

At the end of the day Anubis to his house and his wife returned, while Bata went to gather the cattle and bring them to the stables, each in accordance with his usual custom. But what was this that Anubis found? The house in darkness, no fire for heat or light! No wife at the door to greet him with pure water to wash his hands! What had befallen his house whilst he was in the fields?

On her bed he found her, weeping piteously.
On her bed he found her, sick to the very stomach.
On her bed he found her, deep in distress.

And she poured forth a sorry tale, weaving with her words a cloth of deceit. An image of her own purity, innocence, adherence to the very essence of ma’at. An image of brother Bata as debaucher and abuser. Weeping she poured out her words with forked tongue, weeping she lied to save herself from the shame of that which she had done. Anubis heard her words with heavy heart, heart full of love for her, his wife. And he believed those wicked words of deceit, and he grew fierce and strong in his anger.

Snatching up his spear he left like the leopard seeking prey, and went to wait for his brother Bata.

When Bata, Bata the pure, Bata the upholder of ma’at, brought the cattle to the stable door the first cow to enter turned and said to him “Flee young Bata, flee! For your brother hides here with his spear!”. And the second likewise turned “Flee young Bata, flee! For your brother wishes you harm!”. And so the third also turned “Flee young Bata, flee! For your brother means to kill you this night!”.

And he turned. And he fled. Swift as the river he ran, swift as the falcon in the sky, swift as a desert lion. And after him ran Anubis, fierce in in rage, given speed by his anger. Bata cried out as he fled “Have I not always done that which is right in the sight of the gods? Grant me justice, Great God, I beg you!”.

And the Great God Re-Horakhty listened, and his heart was moved with pity for Bata, Bata the blessed, Bata the one of ma’at. Between the brothers opened up a vast expanse of water, to the left it stretched, to the right it stretched, and all along its length it rippled with the motion of crocodiles. Across the waters the brothers faced each other, one innocent and maligned, one full of rage inspired by deceit.

Night fell, the sun rose, and it was a new day.

And still the brothers faced each other across the waters. Bata began to speak, in anguish he told his brother the truth of that day, with his righteous speech he swept away the cloth of her deceit. “Why did you believe her, my brother? Have I not always been as a son to you? Have I not always upheld ma’at in your presence and in your absence? I call upon the gods to witness my truthfulness and my innocence!”. So saying he pulled out his knife and slicing off his member he flung it out into the waters, where from among the crocodiles rose a catfish to swallow it whole.

The veil fell from his eyes, the rage retreated from his heart, and Anubis saw the truth of his brother’s words. Deceived he had been, and now his brother was suffering. He resolved that she would die at his hand for this deceit and be flung amongst the dogs so that she would never come to the Field of Reeds, and he told his brother so and begged him to return. But Bata could no longer live where he had been so mistrusted and so abused. He too resolved to begin anew, to the Valley of Cedars he would go and would hide his heart at the top of the tallest of the pines there to keep it from the harms of the world, and he told his brother so. He bound Anubis with oaths, for if the tree were to fall Bata would die, and Anubis vowed to come to his aid to make restitution for his mistrust. And then the brothers parted, and each went to do as he said that he would.

But that, my friends, is a story for another day.


Resources used:

“Egyptian Myths” George Hart
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Ancient Egyptian thought in the Old Testament” Lorna Oakes (Talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group on 4 August 2019, see my write up on my other blog.)
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

This is the first part of a story called The Tale of the Two Brothers, which is known from a 19th Dynasty papyrus written by a scribe called Inena (or Ennana). I have taken the plot from the sources above, and retold it in my own words.

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Field of Reeds

Where do you go after you die? In fact, do you go anywhere after you die? That’s one of the big philosophical questions, and one that’s particularly impervious to investigation – after all, no-one ever comes back to tell us what it’s like. In some cultures there’s a belief in an afterlife where the deserving dead live an eternal blessed life, something almost to look forward to. And in some cultures the dead are, well, dead – even if there’s some sort of post-life existence it’s not something you want to be part of, and your “immortality” is through memory or your children. Think of the Greek Hades, or the way Gilgamesh’s reaction to knowledge of his own mortality is to seek to avoid it.

The Egyptians (as so often) embraced the power of “and” and believed in both. During the Old Kingdom normal people were simply dead, continuing to exist at their tombs if their names were spoken and offerings were made but not going on to an afterlife. But the king had a different experience – he was no ordinary man in life, and in death the Pyramid Texts tell us about his becoming part of the company of the gods or travelling with Re on his barque as he travels across the sky. During the First Intermediate Period and into the Middle Kingdom this sharp boundary between the king and normal humanity blurs in both the secular and religious spheres – and for the afterlife their beliefs undergo a shift that modern scholars sometimes refer to as the “democratisation of the afterlife”. Obviously this doesn’t mean that people voted for or against an afterlife! Instead it refers to a shift from having your entry into the afterlife determined by who you were to having it determined by what you knew. So potentially any Egyptian could navigate through the underworld to a blessed life, providing they knew the way and knew the right spells. This is what the Coffin Texts and the later Book of the Dead were all about – they contained all the knowledge you needed for a good afterlife.

So now it was open to everyone, where did the Ancient Egyptians think you went after you died? One of the possible destinations was the Field of Reeds, sometimes also known as the Field of Offerings (although sometimes this was a different place). The Field of Reeds does show up in the Pyramid Texts – there it was a part of the sky, and a place where the deceased king was purified before he passed on to his afterlife. By the Middle Kingdom it is also a destination for the more general deceased, and this is the role it plays in the Book of the Dead tradition. It’s not entirely clear where the Field of Reeds is supposed to be – it might still be in the sky, but it is also part of Osiris’s domain (and perhaps a synonym for the whole of Osiris’s domain) in the underworld. It is, however, in the east where Re finishes his night journey and begins his day journey – Spell 149 of the Book of the Dead announces “I know the gate in the middle of the Field of Reeds from which Re goes out into the middle of the sky”.

The Field of Reeds is an idealised version of the Ancient Egyptian landscape, where the deceased were to lead an idealised life. Spell 110 of the Book of the Dead talks about the deceased “ploughing therein, reaping and eating therein, drinking therein, copulating therein, and doing everything that was once done on earth by the reader”. This is where shabtis fit in, too – the eating, drinking and copulating clearly sounded just fine to the Ancient Egyptians, but servants were required for the ploughing and reaping! The crops here never failed, the waters never rose too high (nor did they ever fail to rise high enough). The Book of the Dead is also quite specific about what the crops would be like – larger than usual, but not to a degree that would be intimidating: “its barley stands 5 cubits high, with ears of 2 and stalks of 3 cubits, and its emmer stands 7 cubits high, with ears of 3 and stalks of 4 cubits”. 5 cubits is roughly 2.5m in modern measurements, so you can see that this is “the largest barley (or wheat) plants you’ve ever seen, taller than a man” but not so huge that you couldn’t see yourself harvesting it with a bit of effort.

Field of Reeds

As well as written descriptions the Field of Reeds is normally shown in a large illustration in copies of the Book of the Dead, sometimes the spells aren’t ever written out and the illustration stands in for them. It’s “read” from bottom to top and this reading matches the description in Spell 110. The registers of the illustration are separated by waterways, and at the bottom the deceased arrives by boat. There are normally two boats depicted – one belongs to Osiris, the other to the sun-god Re. Here the deceased meets the Great Ennead, a group of gods, and receives food & drink. Moving up a register the deceased has come to the place where the crops are grown. He (or she) is shown doing agricultural tasks – ploughing, harvesting, perhaps sowing the seed – normally dressed in their best clothes. Here the deceased receives an abundance of nourishment – symbolised by a depiction of the Heron of Plenty. And then in the top register the deceased comes to a place called Qehqenet where they may meet with their deceased parents, and once again travel by boat to meet the Great Ennead. As with so much in Ancient Egyptian thought this is a cyclical journey.

This conception of the afterlife has an afterlife of its own – I mentioned the Greek Hades at the beginning of the article as a place where the dead were dead, but the Greeks also had the Elysian Fields which were a place where the blessed dead lived an eternal blessed life. The Greeks themselves talked about this idea as having come from Egypt, and there are hints in the etymology of the Greek words used that back this up. Elysium has no obvious Greek origins as a word, but may be derived in part from the Egyptian for “reeds” – which can be rendered as iaru or ealu. Jan Assmann also points to similarities between the Greek word for blessed (makarios) and the Egyptian word for a deceased person who has reached the Field of Reeds (maa kheru, translated as “true of voice”).

All in all it’s a very Egyptian way of looking at the afterlife – that blend of esoteric and pragmatism that often characterises their outlook on life. First you travel through dangerous realms, meeting gods and demons, surviving your own judgement because of the knowledge and virtue that you possess. And then you get to the eternal life that waits for you, where you live a life very much like the one you had before death only bigger and better, and forever.


Resources used:

“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” ed. John H. Taylor
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson

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