Shaped on His Potter’s Wheel

Egyptian mythology answers the question of where people come from in multiple ways (as ever with the Ancient Egyptians, they were not fond of restrictively singular answers to questions). Some are highly symbolic (the joyful tears of Atum) and some rather more practical: the god Khnum, controller of the inundation, fashions people from the clay brought with the flood on his potter’s wheel.

Khnum is an Upper Egyptian god, and his main cult centre is on the Island of Elephantine near the modern town of Aswan. From this position at the traditional southern border of Egypt he’s said to control the annual flooding of the Nile. This doesn’t mean that he is “the God of the Nile” – rather oddly the Egyptians don’t seem to’ve had any god who was the personification of the river in the same way that for instance Geb was the personification of the land. Instead he’s regulating the floodwaters which were said to start in a hidden sacred pool on the island. Clearly the Egyptians can’t’ve believed this in any literal sense – they traded with Nubia throughout their history, they conquered bits of it several times, so they must’ve known that the floodwaters came from far further south than the Island of Elephantine. But as a symbolic belief it was a strong one, persisting into the Ptolemaic era and beyond. There is a text carved into a rock face on the nearby island called Sahel which is called “the Famine Stela” which purports to tell of events during the reign of Djoser in the Third Dynasty – it says that at that time there was a famine throughout Egypt, caused by poor inundations for 7 years. Djoser asks Imhotep for guidance and is given some rituals to perform in honour of Khnum, the director of the floodwaters. After he has done these Khnum appears to him in a vision and promises to bring a flood that will end the famine. Despite the events being set in the Old Kingdom it was actually carved during the Ptolemaic Period, and most scholars agree that it was also composed then – the temple of Khnum projecting a sense of the longevity of their cult and showing us that Khnum was still regarded as controller of the floods in this later period.

Mummy of a Ram, The Osiris the Ram of Khnum. From a necropolis of rams dedicated to Khnum, at Elephantine.

The association with the inundation develops over the course of Egyptian civilisation into Khnum’s role as a creator god. The flooding of the Nile brings silt which not only fertilises the land but is also a useful material for making pots and mudbricks to build houses. So it’s not surprising that a god who brings the flood has associations with making things. In the Old Kingdom in the Pyramid Texts Khnum is referred to as a creator of inanimate objects, like boats and ladders. By the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom he is seen as creating living things from on his potter’s wheel but he is not yet a universal creator. He only gains that role in the New Kingdom when he becomes the creator of gods, people (explicitly both Egyptians and foreigners), animals and even plants.

A lot of our knowledge of the details of the cult of Khnum come from his surviving temple at Esna – the structure as it currently exists is mostly from the Roman Period, but founded in the Ptolemaic Period on the site of a temple that’s referred to in texts as early as the time of Thutmose III (a king of the 18th Dynasty, in the early New Kingdom). The texts in the temple detail the annual round of cult festivals, and describe Khnum’s attributes. They include a “Great Hymn to Khnum” which is to be recited at the “festival of installing the potter’s wheel”. It details how he shapes the bodies of mankind in anatomical detail, then supervises the moment of conception and 9 months later initiates the contractions that begin the birthing process. These activities of Khnum appear in earlier texts as well. For instance the Westcar Papyrus which dates to the Second Intermediate Period and tells stories set in the Old Kingdom. In one of these tales the first kings of the Fifth Dynasty are born in secret and three goddesses along with Khnum come to assist at the birth. And in the New Kingdom Khnum is depicted on temple walls supervising the conception and birth of Pharaohs (most famously at Deir el-Bahri where Hatshepsut is detailing her divine parentage).

Khnum is normally represented as a man with a ram’s head (or sometimes as a ram). He is often shown seated at a potter’s wheel shaping a person and their ka, and may be wearing two tall plumes, the Atef Crown or the White Crown. His ram’s head hints at his early origins in Egyptian history. There were two sheep species domesticated by the Egyptians over the course of their history – the first one was Ovis longipes which has a heavy build and the ram has horns extending horizontally out from its head which are wavy. This is the ram which is associated with Khnum, and is also the ram depicted by the hieroglyph E10 in Gardiner’s sign list. In the Middle Kingdom the species Ovis platyra was domesticated – it is of a lighter build, has a fat tail and horns that curve downwards around the face. This is the ram that the ram-headed sphinxes at Karnak depict. Amun doesn’t get his association with the ram until relatively late through a partial absorption of the cult of Khnum, hence the newer species being used for his ram.

The word for ram in Ancient Egyptian is ba which sounds the same as the word for one of the spirit parts of a person, and this pun leads to another of Khnum’s roles in Egyptian religion. He is seen as the ba (spirit) of a variety of gods – most often Re but also Osiris and Geb. Because of this when Re is shown travelling through the netherworld during the night he is often shown in his barque with a ram’s head, representing his ba Khnum, and sometimes this deity is called Khnum-Re.

Khnum also has the typical family associations of Egyptian gods – he has consorts and children, who are different in different times and places. On Elephantine his family is Anuket (consort) and Satet (child/consort) who are also both daughters of Re, but in Esna his consort is the minor lioness goddess Menhyt and he also has strong associations with Neith in that temple. He is sometimes also regarded as the father of Sobek, the crocodile god, with Neith as the mother. In some situations his female counterpart is the goddess Heket, a frog goddess who was the personification of childbirth.

Khnum doesn’t just illustrate how the Egyptians had multiple ideas on where people came from, he’s also a good example of how Egyptian culture & religion wasn’t static. Over the millennia he develops in an organic fashion from a local controller of the floods to a universal creator deity associated with the major cults of the Egyptian state.


Resources used:

“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture” Richard H. Wilkinson

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From His Own Mouth Condemned

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale of uncle contending with son over the estate of Osiris and the guile of a mother battling for her son!

And in those days after the great god Osiris had travelled to the Duat there was a need for a successor to his estate, a new ruler for the Two Lands. Horus, son of Osiris and his sister-wife Isis, was conceived after his father’s murder and was not yet of an age to lead men and administer justice in accordance with the precepts of ma’at. So Seth, brother and murderer of the great god Osiris, came to rule while Isis hid Horus in the marshes of Lower Egypt for fear of his uncle.

When the boy became a man, the thoughts of Horus and his mother Isis turned to claiming for him what was rightfully his. They travelled together to the great court of the gods, presided over by the great Re-Horakhty himself, and laid their case before the assembled gods for Seth to answer to. And great was the confusion and debate. Great were the arguments, proposals and counter proposals. For Seth was not willing to give up what he’d taken, and there were those amongst the council who preferred the known strength of the usurper to the untested wisdom of the rightful heir. To tell all the tales of this time would need a multitude of years, and we would all have joined with Osiris in our turn before I finished my story! Suffice it to say that Seth grew increasingly angry with the sympathy aroused by the wise & eloquent Isis, until his rage gushed forth like the floodwaters of the Nile.

“So long as that woman is present I, Seth, shall not be!”
“So long as that woman is present this case cannot end!”
“For each day that woman is present my wrath will only be sated by the death of one of you!”

And the great gods of the court bent like reeds in the wind before his mighty bellowing.

The great Re-Horakhty himself commanded that the court reconvene on an island in the midst of the river. The great Re-Horakhty himself commanded that Nemty the ferryman should convey no woman to this island.

But Isis the wise & eloquent was also Isis the powerful & cunning, and she was not to be denied so easily. She transformed herself into the form of an old woman, stooped under the weight of her years, carrying a bowl of gruel and wearing a single golden ring. And in this guise she came to the river, and to the boat of Nemty: “Come my child, carry me across the river! I go to bring my grandson his meal while he tends the family’s herds out on that island in the midst of the river.” But with the commands of the great Re-Horakhty himself and the bellowings of Seth ringing still in his ears the ferryman refused: “No, good mother, this cannot be. I am forbidden to carry any woman to that island, lest she be Isis whom Seth hates.” Undaunted Isis spoke persuasively of how unlikely it would be for a goddess to let herself been seen as an aged woman, and of how hungry the poor young herdsman would be if she couldn’t reach him. And as she spoke she let the golden ring on her wrinkled hand glisten and glimmer in the light of the sun, and the greed of Nemty reared its head. With his heart clouded by lust for the gold he permitted himself to be persuaded by the silken words of the wise & eloquent Isis and in payment for her crossing and his risk he took that glistening, glimmering ring.

On the island in the midst of the river sat the great gods of the court of Re-Horakhty at their meal, and with them sat Seth and Horus. And past them as they sat came a young peasant woman. Dressed simply in rough linen her beauty shone forth as radiant as the sun, but her face was clouded with care and with sorrow. Seth, heart full of desire, arose from his place and stopped the beautiful, sorrowful woman: “Why do you weep, oh beautiful one?”

She answered him thus: “Oh will you hear my tale and pass judgement, oh god great in knowledge of ma’at? I married a young herdsman and bore him a son. Our child grew strong, our herds increased and all was well in our lives. But now my husband is dead and all is full of despair! Though of an age to inherit my son is still young, and a man of the village has seen an opportunity. He threatens my son with violence, he wishes to take our cattle and our house, saying my son is not strong enough to stop him! How do you judge this case, oh god great in knowledge of ma’at?”

On hearing this story Seth, impetuous Seth, heart clouded with desire cried forth indignantly: “Can it ever be right to give a dead man’s cattle to a stranger when that man’s son yet lives?”

And Isis, for it was she, gave a great shriek of triumph and flung herself into the air as a falcon! “Condemned by your own words, brother Seth, you pass judgement on yourself! Horus son of Osiris yet lives, he must have his inheritance!” And Seth fled in tears at his own foolishness.

From his own mouth condemned Seth went once more before the great god Re-Horakhty himself and all the assembled court of the great gods, and now he found no supporters. From his own mouth condemned Seth was judged and bound to give up his throne to Horus, son of Osiris and rightful heir. From his own mouth condemned, yet not willing to submit, Seth cursed at the treachery of his sister Isis – but that, my friends, is a story for another day.


Resources used:

“Egyptian Myths” George Hart
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

This is one episode from “The Contendings of Seth & Horus”, a long narrative about the legal (and sometimes physical) battle between Seth and Horus for the kingship of Egypt. I’ve taken the basic story from the sources above, then retold the story in my own words.

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Hawara

My bonus article for January is available on Patreon for my subscribers at all tiers and is about Amenemhat III’s second pyramid: Hawara.

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Amenemhat III

The Middle Kingdom was regarded by later Egyptians as a cultural high point, a classical period to look back on. For such a key period in Egyptian history I’ve got a pretty hazy grasp of the Middle Kingdom: the 12th Dynasty is the one with all the Senwosrets and Amenemhats in the middle. Before them came the Montuhoteps and the reunification of Egypt, and afterwards the 13th Dynasty with a revolving door of kingship as the country slipped back into disunity and the Second Intermediate Period. And I must confess I can get a little lost amongst the Amenemhats and Senwosrets – I don’t have strong associations with any of them so can’t keep them straight (or even give any sort of summary of any of them off the top of my head). So I have looked up Amenemhat III in my books – picked because I’ve visited one of his pyramids (at Hawara) and seen the other one (at Dahshur) in the distance, and really I should know a bit a more about him.

He fits into the overall sweep of the 12th Dynasty near the end – a long reign of peace & prosperity before the dynasty and the whole of the Middle Kingdom started to unravel. He was co-regent with his father Senwosret III for perhaps as many as 20 years. The length of this co-regency is unusual, but the fact that he was co-regent at all was business as usual for the 12th Dynasty who seem to’ve gone out of their way to ensure an orderly transition of power. The usual caveat applies here – not all scholars agree that these co-regencies occurred. The evidence tends to be stelae with a date in each king’s reign which can be interpreted as having two dates or as having the same date written two different ways.

Amenemhat III inherited an enlarged and prosperous country from his predecessors. Egyptian power ran down into Nubia in the south securing access to the gold mines there. And in the north-east the caravan routes to the Levant and the Middle East were protected by the Egyptian state along a corridor of forts known as the Ways of Horus. Amenemhat III had good relations with the rulers in the Levant – he showered gifts on the princes of Kebny (Byblos) and the Palestinian rulers in Sinai were close allies who helped with logistical support for Amenemhat III’s many quarrying expeditions there. Across the country Amenemhat III’s reign saw an increase in quarrying and mining activity – gold from Nubia as I already mentioned, granite from Aswan, limestone from Tura, greywacke from Wadi el-Hammamat, amethyst from Wadi el-Hudi and around two dozen expeditions to the Sinai for turquoise.

This quarrying supported an increased building programme – focused on the Faiyum region which rose in prominence in the later 12th Dynasty. This is an area to the south-west of Cairo with a lake fed by a branch of the Nile. Even now the lake is impressively large, but in the Middle Kingdom it was even larger and the region all around it was flooded when the inundation came and so fertile land. The reign of Amenemhat III saw the completion of an irrigation system in the region. Well, that’s how most of the books refer to it but John Romer in volume 2 of his “A History of Ancient Egypt” thinks it may’ve been intended to control the river rather than irrigate the Faiyum. He says that the floods in the earlier part of Amenemhat III’s reign were particularly high and violent, and siphoning off more of the water into the Faiyum would mean that the river was less destructive when it reached Memphis and the other regions downstream. I suspect one should embrace the power of “and” here: pacification of the river by increasing the fertility of the Faiyum is a win-win situation.

Amenemhat III

I’ve spoken so far of the Middle Kingdom as consisting of three parts – the rise (late 11th Dynasty), the high point (the 12th Dynasty) and the fall (the 13th Dynasty). But the statuary and other material culture of Amenemhat III’s period fit into a different narrative which divides the Middle Kingdom into two periods. The rather fuzzy line is drawn somewhere around the reign of Senwosret II (Amenemhat III’s predecessor’s predecessor). Before this royal statuary shows the king with a very idealised, youthful appearance. But the statuary that survives from Senwosret III and Amenemhat III depicts a king with a more mature and human looking face (the body is still idealised & youthful). This is almost certainly not a switch to a realistic, life-like representation of the king – Egyptian art doesn’t ever seem to go in for portraiture as we would think of it even though each king had a distinctive “look” for his statues. Instead it presumably reflects changing ideas about kingship in Egyptian culture. No longer does the king want to be represented as an un-ageing divinity, instead he wishes to be seen as a mature man capable of the job of Pharaoh.

As part of his building works Amenemhat III did not neglect his afterlife. His first pyramid complex was built at Dahshur but it appears to’ve run into the same problems as his ancient predecessor Sneferu did with the Bent Pyramid – the foundations were not strong enough to bear the weight of the structure and cracks began to appear before the complex was finished. Despite this the pyramid was finished off, and two queens of Amenemhat III were buried in the complex. As with most Middle Kingdom pyramids it was constructed with a mudbrick core covered by a limestone casing – so now all that remains is the core (referred to as the Black Pyramid) because the casing was stolen for reuse in ancient times. Amenemhat III himself wasn’t buried there, he had time in his long reign to finish a second pyramid complex, this time at a new site in the Faiyum – Hawara. This pyramid was also not entirely ideal. It was too close to the water table and has flooded – Joann Fletcher says in “The Story of Egypt” that bits of bone were found floating in Amenemhat III’s sarcophagus, so the body of the king presumably remained even though the tomb was robbed but the water has destroyed the mummy.

Not that much solid is known about Amenemhat III’s family. His parentage is uncertain – but he was probably a son of Senwosret III. Even though Senwosret III had three known wives it’s not clear if any of them is Amenemhat III’s mother. Amenemhat III himself had two definite wives – both buried in his pyramid complex at Dahshur. We only know the name of one of them – she was called Aat and used the titles King’s Wife, United with the White Crown. Another possible wife is a woman called Hetepti – this is more tenuous, as what is known for sure is that she was the mother of Amenemhat IV. Amenemhat IV does refer to Amenemhat III as “father” in inscriptions, but in this context it might mean he was his actual Dad or it might mean he was his predecessor as king. And Hetepti has several titles listed on the relief where she appears, but none of those titles are King’s Wife. Instead she is: King’s Mother, Mistress of the Two Lands, United with the White Crown. So suggestive, but not definitive evidence for her being Amenemhat III’s wife.

There are no definitively known sons of Amenemhat III – the only candidate is Amenemhat IV and as discussed above it’s not known for sure if he was a son. In terms of daughters we are on rather firmer ground for two women, and there are another four potential daughters. These last four are only known from fragmentary evidence found at Amenemhat III’s pyramid complex at Dahshur. So there’s a good chance they were his daughters but it’s also possible they were later burials during the 13th Dynasty and not connected to him. The known for sure daughter is a woman called Neferuptah, who uses the titles Great of Sceptre and King’s Daughter of His Body. She’s also the second woman known to have her name written in a cartouche (which was reserved for kings alone until the 12th Dynasty, and rare outside the king even then). Aidan Dodson speculates that this might indicate she was designated heir to the throne, and then predeceased her father. There is a sarcophagus for her in Amenemhat III’s pyramid at Hawara, but she was actually buried in her own pyramid a few kilometres away. Either her mummy was moved & reburied, or she didn’t actually predecease her father and so she couldn’t be buried with him in the now sealed pyramid. Sadly her pyramid too was both robbed & flooded so no more remains of her than does of her father.

The last probable daughter was also the last ruler of the 12th Dynasty. Sobekneferu ruled after the short reign of Amenemhat IV, but made a real point of associating herself with Amenemhat III and so was probably his daughter. Manetho, the Egyptian historian who wrote in the 3rd Century BCE, believed that she was Amenemhat IV’s sister, but there’s no corroborating evidence for that. She the first absolutely definite female ruler of Egypt – there may’ve been women before her who ruled in their own right but there’s not enough evidence to be sure whereas for her there is. One of the books I looked at said that a woman taking the throne was a sign of desperation from the family who’d formed the 12th Dynasty – whether or not that was the case she didn’t rule for long and the dynasty fizzled out with her.

So that is Amenemhat III. The brief summary (the tl;dr as the kids these days would say) is that he built peace and prosperity on top of the military successes of his predecessors and so presided over a golden age. After him, the fall – his offspring too old or too female to hold on to power for long.


Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt” Bill Manley
“Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed. Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“A History of Ancient Egypt: Volume 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
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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Hundreds of Thousands

I remember one year when I was in primary school we collected frog spawn from some local pond and put it in a fish tank in the classroom so we could watch the tadpoles hatch. And I remember being a bit in awe of just how much there was – all that frog spawn and we’d only taken a little bit of it, and there were so many tadpoles in our fish tank! There were going to be so many frogs! Of course some years later I realised that most tadpoles would get eaten by fish long before they got to be adult frogs, but the point still stands. So it should be no surprise that the ancient Egyptians, who were a lot closer to nature than a city girl in the early 1980s, should have a similar association between frogs and fertility & rebirth. It’s even embedded in their writing system – there is a frog shaped hieroglyph (used as an ideograph for the phrase wekhem ankh “repeating life”) and a tadpole shaped hieroglyph which is used to write the number 100,000.

Frogs appear in Egyptian art & artifacts from Prehistoric Egypt right through into Christian times. In Predynastic times the most common frog shaped object is small stone jars – a suitable size and material to hold small amounts of a precious or volatile liquid. Some of these have been found in non-funerary contexts and have features (like handles suitable for hanging them up) that suggest they were used in life. Sadly none of the jars that have been discovered contained any residue that could be analysed. One always needs to be cautious about making assumptions about prehistoric Egypt based on known Pharaonic beliefs but even with such caveats Diana Craig Patch speculates (in “Dawn of Egyptian Art”) that these may’ve contained substances used during childbirth.

Early Dynastic Frogs

As I alluded to in the last paragraph in Pharaonic Egypt there’s an association of frogs with childbirth. The deity most associated with the frog is a goddess called Heket. She is venerated as the female counterpart of Khnum, and is sometimes shown as a frog-headed woman assisting him at his potters wheel while he forms the person & their ka. Heket first shows up in the Pyramid Texts, helping the deceased king on his way to the sky and his afterlife. By the Middle Kingdom she is associated with childbirth and in particular the final stages of labour – she features in the Middle Kingdom story about the founding of the 5th Dynasty assisting with the birth of the three kings that inaugurated the dynasty. Also in the Middle Kingdom midwives might’ve been referred to as “servants of Heket”. She’s shown on ivory wands from the Middle Kingdom as a frog, and frog shaped amulets are fairly common from the New Kingdom onward. They’re never as common as Bes or Taweret amulets, but even during the Amarna period they are still found in reasonable numbers.

Heket had some of her own temples and her main cult centre was at a place called Herwer (but it’s not known where that actually was). She also appears depicted in temples dedicated to other deities, for instance she shows up in Seti I’s temple at Abydos receiving an offering from the king himself. Due to her association with birth and fertility she becomes associated with the Osiris mythology, for instance there’s a relief in the Late Period temple at Hibis where she’s depicted as a frog overseeing the conception of Horus. Her cult survives through until at least the end of the Late Period, as she’s mentioned in the reliefs of the tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel which dates to around 300 BCE.

Heket was not the only deity to be associated with the frog. There are also the four male deities of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. The Ogdoad are the eight primordial gods that existed before the world was created in the Hermopolitan mythology. They were Huh and his consort Hauhet, Nun and his consort Naunet, Kuk and his consort Kauket and Amun and his consort Amaunet. At first they are depicted as human deities, but later in Egyptian history they are shown as pairs of frog (male) and snake (female) headed deities. As well as this the frog is sometimes depicted with the god Hapi as part of a symbol of fecundity – for instance at the temple at Philae. Frogs as a symbol of rebirth don’t even die out when Pharaonic Egyptian culture fades away – they make it into Coptic Christian iconography as a sign of the resurrection!

And the last bit of frog-related iconography to look out for is tadpoles sitting on shen rings, or associated with notched palm leaves or staves. The tadpole is here as the hieroglyph for 100,000 and the two or three symbols taken together express a wish for the king to reign or live for hundreds of thousands of eternities. I didn’t know about this till I was reading up on frogs for this article, and I wish I had – so many missed opportunities to look out for tadpoles in reliefs!


Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” Diana Craig Patch
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson

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

Ahmose-Nefertari

The queens of the late 17th and early 18th Dynasty appear through the mists of time to’ve been formidable women, involved in the running of the kingdom that their husbands were re-unifying. They were also much longer lived than their male counterparts and so provided the continuity necessary to keep the family in power. Ahmose-Nefertari’s 70 or so years meant that she saw the reigns of at least 5 different kings, and was an active participant in at least two of them.

She was born in the early 16th Century BCE around 1570 BCE, possibly in the brief reign of her grandfather Senakhtenre Ahmose. He was a king of the 17th Dynasty (in the Second Intermediate Period) and really only ruled in Thebes. His son, Seqenenre Tao, began the process of reunifying Egypt which was taken up after his death by his son (or brother) Kamose, his wife Ahhotep and finally the job was finished in the reign of his son Ahmose I who is considered the first king of the 18th Dynasty. Ahmose-Nefertari was married to Ahmose I and she outlived not just him but their son Amenhotep I – she didn’t die until early in the reign of her son-in-law Thutmose I in around 1505 BCE.

During these fairly turbulent times the ruling clan believed firmly in keeping power in the family – Ahmose-Nefertari’s parents were both children of Senakhtenre Ahmose and his Great Wife Tetisheri. Ahmose-Nefertari herself was a full sister of her husband Ahmose I, and it seems likely that their son Amenhotep I was also married to one of his sisters. As well as simplifying the power structure at court this would’ve had theological justifications – it mirrors the relationships between the gods from whom all kings are supposed to be descended. A new pantheon for a rebirth of the Egyptian state.

Ahmose-Nefertari’s brother-husband came to the throne around the age of 10 after the deaths of both his father and brother (or uncle) during the wars against the Hyksos rulers of Lower Egypt. Their mother Ahhotep was regent for him at the beginning of his reign and kept the momentum going in the fight against the Hyksos. This is not a situation like that of Hatshepsut and her stepson – when Ahmose I becomes an adult he rules in his own right – but Ahhotep is still the preeminent woman in the court and it’s not until after her death that Ahmose-Nefertari becomes more visible.

Statuette of Ahmose-Nefertari

Along with the titles that define her by her relationships to the men of her family (King’s Daughter, King’s Sister, King’s Great Wife, King’s Mother) Ahmose-Nefertari holds significant religious and political titles of her own. She is, like her mother before her, Mistress of Upper & Lower Egypt – a mirroring of one of the king’s titles. She also holds multiple titles in the priesthood of the cult of Amun, which gave the royal family some control of and presence in this politically significant cult. The three titles she held were Divine Adoratrice, 2nd Prophet of Amun (deputy high priest, in effect) and God’s Wife of Amun. It’s not clear from what I read whether Ahmose I created this last title for her or whether she inherited it from her mother (who would then have been the first). It is clear that she regarded this as one of her most important titles: she used it more than any of her other titles, including King’s Great Wife. The role of the God’s Wife of Amun was as a female counterpart to the high priest – in rituals she would play the part of the god’s consort. The title was passed down from queen to queen during this period and reinforced the mythology of the 18th Dynasty which depicted each king as the son of Amun (who was supposed to impregnate each queen by impersonating her husband). Later in Egyptian history it acquired a different significance – in the Late Period each God’s Wife of Amun was a virgin daughter of a king instead of his wife.

Ahmose-Nefertari and Ahmose I had at least 5 children – 3 daughters and two sons. The eldest of their sons, Ahmose-ankh, was named crown prince but sadly predeceased his father. This meant that when Ahmose I died in his thirties his heir, Amenhotep I, was young and so Ahmose-Nefertari followed in her mother’s footsteps by being regent for the new king. And she transitions from this to acting in place of his consort for the rest of his reign – it seems his sister/wife died young and even though there may’ve been another wife she was not family or Great Wife.

Amenhotep I died both young (like his father) and childless (unlike his father). Which does rather make one wonder about what recessive genetic traits were coming to light because of these full sibling marriages! One of the books I looked at tried to argue that the fact that Pharaohs married other women who weren’t their sisters as well meant that “the line was not enfeebled”, but given that the heirs were the product of the incestuous relationships that doesn’t really hold water. And even though the Egyptians would have no conception of the dangers of inbreeding the royal family was nonetheless forced to bring in some new blood at this point due to the lack of a male heir. Thutmose I appears to’ve been an outsider, who was then married to a sister of Amenhotep I to provide legitimacy for his reign. Ahmose-Nefertari remained matriarch through this transition too, presumably still providing continuity and stability despite her advancing age.

When Ahmose-Nefertari finally died she is thought to’ve been buried with her son Amenhotep I. They had a joint mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri which has almost entirely vanished now – a few remnants and stamped mudbricks have been found but nothing substantial. It’s unclear where their tomb originally was – there’s a case to be made for a tomb at Dra Abu el-Naga, and a case to be made for KV39 in the Valley of the Kings. Either way their bodies were moved along with many other royal mummies during a period of state-sanctioned tomb robbery – the kings & queens were re-wrapped and re-buried at TT320 at Deir el Bahri where they were found in modern times. An enormous coffin labelled as Ahmose-Nefertari’s was found there – it is 3m in height even without the detachable pair of plumes that are its headdress! Inside were two mummies – one of these still enclosed in a cartonnage outer layer was assumed at first to be the woman herself, but turned out to be Ramesses III. The other has no identifying labels but is assumed to be Ahmose-Nefertari. If so, she was in her 70s when she died and was a fairly small woman by modern standards (being about 5′ 2″ in height). The mummy appears to still have quite a lot of hair – but this is mostly false, braids added by the embalmers so she has a full head of hair in the afterlife. Rather gruesomely when unwrapped in 1885 her body appeared to putrefy before the eyes of the horrified onlookers and she was reburied briefly in the grounds of Cairo Museum! This cured the “putrefaction” which was more likely a consequence of remaining natron paste on the mummy being exposed to damp air than anything happening to the body itself.

Ahmose-Nefertari had another, rather less gruesome, afterlife as well. She was one of the few Egyptian queens who was deified after death, and she was worshipped along with her son Amenhotep I as the patron deity of Western Thebes for several centuries. She and her son are credited with founding the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina and so were particularly favoured deities there – perhaps the most important ones for this community. There is no hard evidence that they did found the village – it certainly seems possible, but the earliest inscribed mudbricks date to Thutmose I’s reign. As a goddess she’s often depicted with a black face – this is almost certainly symbolic rather than literal (particularly if the mummy in her coffin is hers, as that woman shows no sign of Nubian origins). Black is a colour the Egyptians associated with fertility – the colour of the soil left behind after the Nile flood had renewed the land. And Ahmose-Nefertari (as a goddess of the necropolis and those who worked in it) was associated with resurrection.

As so often in ancient history this is more of a skeleton of a biography than a fully fleshed out picture, there must be so much she saw and did that we’ll never know.


Resources used:

“An Ancient Egyptian Case Book: Intriguing Evidence that Undermined Incredible Headlines” Dylan Bickerstaffe
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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

Beauty and Entrails

My bonus article for December is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about canopic jars: Beauty and Entrails.

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

Parts of a Person

What makes a person a person? What is it that makes a person alive and conscious? What are the necessary constituent parts and what happens to them when the person dies? In Western Christian thought there’s the body and the soul, and the soul lives on once the body is dead. In a more secular framing you might wonder if there’s any such thing as a soul, but would then replace it with the idea of the mind. And is that a separate thing – there’s the body and then there’s also a separate mind that somehow animates the body – or is it rooted deeply in the physical body? It’s a slippery subject even when talking about one’s own cultural concepts, which makes it even more difficult to get a proper handle on a different long dead culture’s ideas. There’s also all the usual problems of ancient Egyptian history – many fewer texts have survived than were written, and those that survive are biased towards particular types. In this case at least the bias is towards texts that deal with making sure the right things happen to the parts of a person after death, but then again these texts don’t start by defining their terms. And anyway, there’s several millennia of Egyptian history and their culture did not stand still any more than ours did. I mean, even if I could give a coherent theologically correct definition of the modern Christian conception of the soul it wouldn’t be the same as the same definition from 500 years ago, let alone 3 millennia (when there wasn’t even any Christianity). So this already slippery and esoteric subject gets a bit more slippery.

So having established that this is complicated, what did the Ancient Egyptians think were the constituent elements of a person? There were at least 5 parts – the body, the ba, the ka, the name and the shadow. The body is the easiest to get a handle on as it’s pretty much the same as our own concept of a body. Of course the Egyptians didn’t realise that the brain is the organ we think with, so the heart was the most important part of the body in their eyes – the seat of reason and emotion. For a person to survive into the afterlife they needed all their parts and so it was important for the body to be preserved after death as a mummy. In a case where the mummy was destroyed statues labelled with the person’s name could function as a substitute. Which means that the many statues of a king were an aid to his long term survival after death rather than simply a matter of propaganda during his lifetime.

The next easiest to think about is the name. For us a name is a label – a convenient way of identifying someone in particular. But for the Egyptians one’s name was an integral part of one’s self, and a person didn’t come properly into being until they were named. Thus it should be no surprise that a person could not survive in the afterlife if their name was erased. People would have their names written as often as possible in their tomb decoration to make it more likely that one instance would eternally survive. Erasing someone’s name – as happened with Hatshepsut or with Akhenaten – wasn’t just eliding someone from the history books it was also an attack on that person’s existence in the afterlife.

The shadow was the least discussed part of the person in the books I looked at while writing this article, and the least consistently described. The general idea seems to be that as the shadow is an image of the body that emanates from the body it is therefore integral to and contains some part of the person, and is thus necessary for existence. It is associated with the ba and some of the spells in the Book of the Dead are to do with its survival in conjunction with the ba. The books variously discuss it as being important for free movement after death and being protective.

There is much more known (and said) about the ba and the ka, which are the two parts of a person that come closest to the concept of the soul as we know it in Western culture. In fact the word ba is often translated as “soul” but I think that’s misleading as it carries all sorts of connotations that don’t really sit right. The ba is more closely akin to our idea of personality – it’s all the things that make someone uniquely themselves other than the physical body. After death the ba is the part of the person that can move freely between the tomb and the living world, and many of the spells in the Book of the Dead are to do with this – in fact the Egyptian name for this text, “The Book of Coming Forth By Day” references this ability of the ba. Many of the spells in this text give the ba the ability to change into another form so that it can go where it wishes. Many of these forms are those of birds, and the normal representation of the ba has a bird’s body and a human head (and sometimes human arms as well as wings). But the ba does not just get to flit about, changing form and enjoying its time in the living world. Each night the ba must return to the tomb and reunite with the body and this rejuvenates the body and is part of what ensures survival in the afterlife.

The Ba Reuniting with the Body

Human beings are not the only possessors of a ba – gods have them, and so can inanimate objects (like doors, apparently). The bas of gods may be rather more substantial than the human ones, and can be thought of as the earthly manifestation of the god. So the Apis Bull was the ba of Ptah, and the wind was the ba of Shu.

And the fifth part of a person, the last of those I began by listing, is the ka. This is sometimes translated as “spirit” or as “life force” and the latter made the most sense to me in the context of what I read. The ka is made by the creator at the same time as the physical body – shaped by the god Khnum on his potters wheel. Each person has their own, and it is what makes the difference between a living being and a piece of flesh. Once the person dies and the parts of the person separate the ka continues its existence and remains in the tomb (although separate from the body). The ka must be nourished (in life as well as in death) by the energy in food and drink – it is the ka to whom the offerings in a tomb are made. As the physical food and drink is not consumed, just the energy, it makes sense that depictions on the wall might also magically contain the energy required to sustain the ka. The ka was often shown as a double of the body, standing behind the person.

Where the concept of the ka gets really slippery is that it is both this spirit uniquely associated with one individual, and also a life force that is passed from father to son, down the generations from the creator god Atum through his divine offspring to the king and thence to all humanity. This may be the origin of the symbol of the ka as two outstretched arms – it is the embrace that passes on the ka. Kings have two kas – the one that everyone is born with, and also a divine royal ka that they receive during the coronation ceremony. Gods also have kas and these are the part of the god that can temporarily reside in the cult statues that are kept in temples.

I started out this discussion talking about five parts to a person. But even that confident assertion gets a bit slippery once you look a little closer. It’s clear that the Egyptians thought a person was composed of multiple elements, but there isn’t a definitive list of exactly what they all are or how many of them. So these five are the most commonly mentioned in ancient texts, but there may be more – Jan Assmann refers to a text that has 14 different parts, including things like “birthplace”. The mummy is also sometimes elevated to be a part of a person as something distinct from the body (which has ceased to exist with the ending of life in this way of thinking about it). And of course with this being such a long lived civilisation ideas evolved over time. The one that modern scholars seem not quite sure whether to include in the standard list or not is the akh – which doesn’t exist in life, but is absolutely critical to generate in the afterlife. This non-physical form is the result of a union between the ba and ka of the individual that will only occur once they have passed the Weighing of the Heart and been judged as having been virtuous and followed ma’at in their life. If you fail to make it to the Hall of Judgement you are just dead; if you get there and are deemed unworthy you die the second permanent death; and if you pass you are transfigured into a glorified being of light. The word akh can be translated as “effective” and it’s thought it refers to the ability of the deceased now to function effectively in both life and death. The akh has the most freedom of all the parts of the deceased – it can move anywhere in the created world whether that be in the sky, in the Duat (underworld) or the living world.

So that’s my understanding of the modern understanding of the answers ancient Egyptians would give to my opening questions. But I must confess I’m left wondering what the ordinary man on the Nile boat would really think. This is all the stuff of priests and theologians – complex and nuanced and really rather slippery. Would a normal person have had these ideas in mind when they were taking their food offerings to Granddad’s tomb?


Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Death and Salvation” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization” Barry J. Kemp
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” ed. John H. Taylor
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson

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

She Who Must Be Obeyed

In a twist on the usual “donkey leg in a hole” mythology of tomb discovery the most intact elite burial of the 4th Dynasty was discovered when the leg of a photographer’s tripod broke through the seal at the top of the shaft. The photographer in question was Mohammedani Ibrahimi, who was working for George Reisner at Giza in 1925, and the tomb was that of Hetepheres, a queen of the early 4th Dynasty dating to around 2500 BCE. The tomb is a type of tomb known as a shaft tomb – a descriptive name meaning the entrance is a vertical shaft and the chambers are at the bottom (or off the sides) of this. In this case the shaft was completely full of limestone blocks for its entire 27 meter length. Partway down they discovered a small sealed side chamber with an ox head and some beer jars. Many tombs have reliefs with ox heads and beer jars as part of their offering scenes, and texts that refer to offerings of “bread, beer, oxen, birds, alabaster, clothing, and every good and pure thing upon which a god lives.”. This chamber was a literal manifestation of the same wish for Hetepheres to have all that she needed in the afterlife.

When the excavators reached the bottom of the shaft they could see that the south wall was made of limestone blocks rather than bedrock and behind this was a short corridor. At the end of the corridor another wall of limestone blocks. Just as Howard Carter had done at Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, they removed a block and peered through into a room that glistened with gold! And then promptly sealed it back up and Reisner spent 10 months planning the excavation that was to follow. Sadly the contents of the tomb weren’t in nearly as good condition as Tutankhamun’s were. Not only because the objects were some 1000 years older, but also there had been a water leak into the chamber which had hastened the deterioration of the wooden and other organic elements. As a result the gold leaf that had covered much of Hetepheres’s furniture was in fragments and no longer attached to what was left of its supports. It took Reisner and his team two years to meticulously clear this relatively small chamber (about 17 feet by 9 feet) to the point where they could reach the large alabaster sarcophagus that they could see from the very beginning.

The sarcophagus was intact and in an undisturbed tomb so expectations were high when it came time to open it. The reality was rather more … confusing. Inside there was nothing at all! But her organs were discovered sealed in an alabaster canopic chest tucked into a sealed niche in the tomb wall, so clearly her body had been mummified. Reisner came up with an explanation for the missing body, which John Romer rather delightfully refers to as an “Ali Baba-ry” of a tale. In this story Hetepheres is initially buried at Dahshur near her husband, but then her son decides she should be reburied at Giza. When his officials go to organise the moving of the tomb contents they discover the tomb has been looted and the body destroyed; no-one can quite bring themselves to tell the king that his mother is no longer in her tomb, so they reseal the sarcophagus and bury the empty box with full honours! More recently Mark Lehner has proposed a more sober explanation, with some similarities but a bit less farce. The idea again is that Hetepheres’s place of burial was upgraded some time after her death, but in this version she is initially buried in the tomb that Reisner excavated. She is then exhumed and reburied in one of the small pyramids near the Great Pyramid with fresh & more elaborate funerary goods. These are subsequently looted in antiquity and so all we have are the discarded original set.

Carrying chair of Hetepheres, original gold foil on modern wood.

So who was Hetepheres? Prior to the discovery of this tomb her name was completely unknown in the modern world. But from the inscriptions on objects in her tomb we can now glimpse her rather indistinctly through the fog of time. One part of her funerary assemblage, a frame for a large canopy, has the cartouches of the 4th Dynasty founder, Sneferu. Another part, a carrying chair, has the name of Sneferu’s successor who built the Great Pyramid at Giza – Khufu. Khufu’s name is also on the sealings of items found in the tomb, so Khufu’s bureaucracy was involved in the provisioning of Hetepheres’s tomb. This gives us a good idea of when she lived and a good idea of her status, both of which are backed up by the proximity of this tomb to the Great Pyramid and by the high quality precious items discovered inside.

The titles she bore give us some more clues. One of these was “Mother of the Dual King”. Of the two kings named in her funerary assemblage it seems most plausible that she was Khufu’s mother – she died during his reign and this tomb is found in close proximity to his tomb. The other title that gives us relationship information is “God’s Daughter of His Body” – the god in question is the king, and “of his body” indicates a biological rather than honorific relationship. Her father is rather unlikely to be the other named king in her tomb – that would require an extra generation between Sneferu and Khufu that there’s no other evidence of. So it’s most plausible that Sneferu was her husband and his predecessor Huni was her father.

Hetepheres had other titles which reflect her high status in Egyptian society like “guide of the ruler” and “favourite lady whose every word is done for her”. I’m using John Romer’s translations here – none of the books went for what I thought was the obvious joke/reference: “She Who Must Be Obeyed”! If you take these literally it implies that Khufu did what his mother told him to do, but I’m inclined to go with those who see them as an indication of status and power but not necessarily literally able to order the king about.

Her funerary goods also give some indication of what that high status meant in terms of material wealth in her society. She was buried with the usual assortment of provisions for the afterlife. As well as jars and boxes she had some large items of furniture including a bed and a frame for a canopy to surround it. These were painstakingly restored from the pieces of gold leaf and wood remnants by Hag Ahmed Youssef Mustafa (who later restored one of Khufu’s solar boats) and are now in the Cairo Museum. Even if these specific items were ceremonial & funerary rather than her everyday furniture they give us an impression of a magnificent and opulent court – being able to bury that much gold is a sign of great wealth, after all. The design is lightweight and portable – the bed and canopy can be disassembled and reassembled easily. This fits with other evidence that indicates that the Egyptian court was peripatetic: more like a medieval English king than the fixed seats of government that we have today.

As so often in ancient history we have this tension between feeling like we know about someone but not really knowing anything for sure. Hetepheres’s tomb reinforces our view of Old Kingdom Egypt as a culture with a conspicuously wealthy elite moving around the country looking practically god-like in comparison to the average person. And it gives us a flavour of a society where a woman could hold high status and perhaps wield great power but was nonetheless defined primarily by her relationships to men. But we still know nothing certain about the woman herself beyond the fact of her existence.


Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life and Death for Rich and Poor” Wolfram Grajetzki
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Egypt: How a Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered” Joyce Tyldesley
“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

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

I Gave Bread to the Hungry

“I gave bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked;
I anointed those who had no cosmetic oil;
I gave sandals to the barefooted;
I gave a wife to him who had no wife.”

If you looked at that and thought it didn’t look quite right then that’s more than likely because you were expecting part of the Gospel of Matthew but this is part of the autobiography of Ankhtifi, as carved into his tomb walls. Ankhtifi was a regional ruler of part of southern Upper Egypt during the First Intermediate Period, which falls between the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom c. 2100 BCE. Central authority had broken down at the end of the Old Kingdom and men like Ankhtifi rose to fill the power vacuum in their own region.

Ankhtifi’s tomb is at Mo’alla, which is about 25km south of Luxor on the east bank of the Nile opposite Gebelein. It is cut into the rock of a hillside as is common, but Ankhtifi chose his hillside with grand thoughts in mind. It is not part of a continuous cliff face, instead the hill is shaped like a pyramid thus giving Ankhtifi’s resting place a royal flavour. And he didn’t stop there with his usurpation of kingly attributes. In front of the tomb is a courtyard laid out like a temple, and there are signs of a causeway leading towards the Nile and of a valley building. All very reminiscent of an Old Kingdom pyramid complex. Despite the royal pretensions in the layout of the tomb it was not made by someone with the resources of royalty. The tomb chapel is not a regular shape, instead the craftsmen appear to’ve made use of the fractures in the limestone to create their walls. This suggests that their tools (and perhaps skills) were not up to the tougher job of carving out a symmetrical room through more intact rock.

Exterior of the Tomb of Ankhtifi at Mo’alla

The tomb chapel ceiling collapsed at some point during the Pharaonic period (presumably due to the poor quality of the limestone) and this preserved the tomb and its contents until modern times. John Romer suggests that it was only discovered & robbed in the last few years before archaeologists found the tomb in the 1920s – there was a surge of tomb furniture of the right period on the antiquities market at that time, which was thought to come from somewhere at Mo’alla. One of those tantalising might-have-beens, if only the archaeologists had got there first!

There’s not much information to be gleaned about Ankhtifi the man (as opposed to the ruler) from his tomb – he had a wife called Nebi who appears to’ve predeceased him, some daughters (one of whom also predeceased him) and four sons. The eldest of these sons was called Idy, but neither he nor his brothers appear to’ve inherited Ankhtifi’s rulership of the local area. What the tomb inscriptions do, in grandiose style and at length, is tell you what a fantastic ruler and man he was! No-one before him was this awesome, and no-one to come can possibly live up to the awesomeness that was Ankhtifi. I paraphrase, but I don’t exaggerate. As well as describing himself in terms such as “I am a hero without peer” it describes key events from his reign – his takeover of a second region which had been neglected by its overlord, his conflict with the Theban controlled regions to the north, his conscientious and effective administration that fed his people whilst all around them starved.

Well, I say “describes key events” but it’s important not to be over literal in interpreting the text. This inscription is an example of a literary genre of tomb autobiographies, it has clear poetic elements and features common tropes that show up throughout the history of Egyptian literature and beyond. The poetic elements come through even in translation – there are repeated elements, such as the phrase “I am a hero without peer” which is a regular refrain in the text and it makes extensive use of metaphor. In short, think Beowulf and other heroic poetry rather than a sober and accurate recounting of a life.

One reason I opened with the piece about feeding the hungry and the reminder of the resonance with the Gospel of Matthew is that this illustrates one of the common tropes of the autobiographical genre. From the Old Kingdom (when tomb autobiographies begin) onward and percolating out into modern Western culture via Christianity is a narrative that a virtuous wealthy individual is one who uses some of that wealth to help those in need. Perhaps it’s universal, I don’t know enough about anthropology to know. So when Ankhtifi tells us that he fed the hungry, and that no-one under his protection starved despite widespread famine, he might be talking about specific events – after all famines were not unusual at the time. But he’s at least as likely, if not more so, to be telling us he was a wealthy and virtuous man and exaggerating both the desperation of the times and the efficacy of his response.

The conflict with the Theban region that Ankhtifi also boasts of is open to an awful lot of interpretation. On the one hand you have Toby Wilkinson’s interpretation – armies marching north, fortresses sacked, a strategic refusal to engage in pitched battle on the part of the Thebans so that they could later sweep south and crush all before the might of their armies (obviously Ankhtifi doesn’t mention that last bit, it comes after his death and even if it didn’t it wasn’t glorious enough). And at the other extreme John Romer thinks it was some minor police action by a small militia group dealing with civic disturbances rather than anything approaching a war or armed conflict between regions. I’m inclined to think the truth lies somewhere between these extremes. I just can’t find it in me to buy into Romer’s peaceful interpretation – this is clearly a society that values military might, that’s why Ankhtifi is evoking the image of himself as a great war leader. But the image Wilkinson conjures up is rather large scale, and feels like he’s taking Ankhtifi’s rhetoric at face value rather than with a large pinch of salt. In Jan Assmann’s translation* of the relevant section of the text Ankhtifi refers to his “trusty young squad”. So rather than armies massing at borders are we really talking about raids by relatively small groups designed to cause mayhem, acquire wealth and intimidate the locals into switching allegiance to Ankhtifi so that he raids elsewhere for a change.

*Andrew Jenkin’s English translation of Assmann’s German translation, that is.

As well as giving us a very murky glimpse of the events of his life the autobiography does illustrate the way that Egyptian society is changing during this period. We’re on rather firmer footing once we zoom out to this meta-level too! There’s a clearly a complete breakdown in central authority. In the Old Kingdom period tombs of people of Ankhtifi’s rank are full of references to the king commanding this or rewarding the deceased for that. In Ankhtifi’s tomb the nominal king is mentioned once, and more as an ally than as an overlord – all the rest is Ankhtifi acting on his own initiative and the gods who are pleased with his behaviour and the source of authority. You can also see the evolution of later kingly rhetoric – the way Ankhtifi describes conditions before he arrived in the second region he took over is similar to how the Middle Kingdom kings referred to conditions during the First Intermediate Period. And the positioning of the king as steward for the gods also traces its roots to the rhetoric of men like Ankhtifi (rather than the Old Kingdom image of the king as an incarnation of a god).

Ankhtifi may or may not have been a successful regional ruler, and he certainly wasn’t successful in the long term as it was his Theban rivals who re-unified the Egyptian state. But nonetheless his tomb autobiography gives us a glimpse into the time in which he lived – not necessarily the specific events but the flavour and psychology of the society.


Resources used:

“The Mind of Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins)
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“Egypt’s So-Called First Intermediate Period and the Tomb of Ankhtifi” Glenn Godenho (talk given to the Essex Egyptology group, see my write up on my other blog)
“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” Ian Shaw
“Decrees, Papyri and Biographies in the Age of the Pyramids” Nigel Strudwick (talk given to the Essex Egyptology group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Lives of Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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