She Who Loves Silence

Not all gods in Ancient Egypt had great big fancy temples dedicated by Pharaohs, a state run cult and stories of how they created the universe or such like. Some were much more domestic in scale – Bes and Taweret, for instance, who were invoked in ordinary people’s homes for protection. And some fell in between these poles – the goddess Meretseger is one of those. Worshipped by ordinary people, but not really part of the domestic sphere.

The cult of Meretseger was mostly geographically constrained to the Theban necropolis and centred on Deir el Medina, although her worship does show up in Elephantine – probably taken there by craftsmen from Deir el Medina sent to work on construction projects. She is also known as Dehenet-Imentet which means “The Peak of the West”. This name refers to the pyramidal shaped mountain that looms protectively over the tombs of Pharaohs, queens & other nobility in the Valley of the Kings and the rest of the Theban necropolis. The goddess was believed to dwell in this mountain & in some sense was this mountain. Meretseger means “She Who Loves Silence” which is an appropriate name for a goddess whose domain was mostly inhabited by the dead and a small village of craftsmen and their families. I once walked from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina and once you’re up & out of the Valley there’s a sense of being the only people in a vast empty landscape. I imagine this would’ve been enhanced for the original occupants of Deir el Medina as they walked from the hustle & bustle of a living village to a valley where the quiet was only broken by themselves working on another royal tomb. Although having said that, they presumably made quite a bit of noise themselves so probably most of them didn’t really think about it!

Ostracon Showing Meretseger as a Snake

Despite the strong association with the mountain peak Meretseger wasn’t represented as a mountain. She was mostly shown as a snake or a woman with snake’s head (or vice versa), or sometimes as a scorpion. There are quite a few snake deities in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon – male snake deities can be either good or bad but generally dwell in the Duat (the afterlife or underworld). Female snakes, in particular cobras, were regarded as good protective mothers and female snake deities show up more often in the living world. For instance the uraeus worn by a Pharaoh is the symbol of the goddess Wadjet protecting the king. Meretseger takes on this protective role for the whole Theban necropolis. And on a more prosaic level – the only things that seem to live natively in her desert home are snakes and scorpions so they are the most appropriate symbols for her.

During the peak of her cult many stelae (both formal and in the form of ostraca) were dedicated to her at Deir el Medina. I tend to think of Ancient Egyptian religion as emphasising knowledge over actions – if you know the right things to say then that will override the things you may’ve done. For instance if you have the spell to tell your heart not to testify against you then you will make it through the weighing of the heart regardless of your deeds in life. But some of the stelae dedicated to Meretseger show a different side to the religious life of more normal people. They show more of a sense of humility before the divine and implore the goddess for her forgiveness. From these stelae we learn that she was believed to punish people for their wrongdoing by blinding them or subjecting them to venomous bites, and that she could show mercy and cure the punished wrongdoer as well. The most famous of these stelae is now in the Egyptian Museum in Turin and was dedicated by a wealthy craftsman called Neferabu. It talks about how he was ignorant & foolish and knew not good from evil. He was punished by the goddess being “in her hand by day as by night”. But he propitiated her and “She was merciful to me, having made me see her hand. She returned to me appeased, she made my malady forgotten”.

Her cult was restricted in time as well as geography, and the period in question correlates well with the period when the Valley of the Kings was an active cemetery. She’s not attested as a goddess before the New Kingdom. Then once no more tombs are being built and the craftsmen leave Deir el Medina worship of Meretseger fades away leaving her in the silence that she loved (until the treasure hunters, tourists and archaeologists descended on the Valley of the Kings!).

Resources used:

“Interfaith Dialogue in Ancient Egypt. The anthropology of intercultural discourse in New Kingdom Elephantine and Deir el-Medineh” Martin Bommas (in “The Gods of the others, the gods and the others, Studi e Materiali di Storia delle religioni” ed P. Buzi & A. Colonna)
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Ancient Egyptian Literature II: The New Kingdom” Miriam Lichtheim
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Ancient Lives: The Story of the Pharaohs’ Tombmakers” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods & Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson

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

A Named Enigma

My bonus article for October is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about Neithhotep: A Named Enigma.

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

The Two Lords are at Peace in Him

History gets divided up into epochs with hindsight, which makes it easier to understand and remember but doesn’t always reflect how it would’ve seemed to the people who lived through it. The high level narrative we have for early Egyptian history is pretty straightforward – Narmer unifies the two kingdoms under one ruler, there are then the rulers of the Early Dynastic Period. This is followed by a transition to the Old Kingdom, which ends with a collapse into the disunity and chaos of the First Intermediate Period after nearly a thousand years of unified stability. Of course once you begin to look more closely at the evidence there are signs that it wasn’t as straightforward nor as peaceful as that narrative would suggest. For instance there’s a period where it looks like Egypt began to fragment, long before the First Intermediate Period, but the process is halted by a re-assertion of royal control across the whole country.

This hiccup doesn’t happen quite where you might think, either. Just looking at the narrative I’d expect any discontinuity to happen just before the Old Kingdom – in the same way that the Middle Kingdom or New Kingdom start with a reunification of Egypt. Instead it is the last ruler of the Second Dynasty who re-asserts royal power across the whole of Egypt. So this reunifying ruler is either a person before or whole dynasty (plus a person) before the start of the Old Kingdom, depending on whether one puts the Third Dynasty into the Early Dynastic Period or the Old Kingdom.

The whole period is rather murky and it’s hard to figure out what actually happened. Not only is it a very long time ago (around 4.5 thousand years ago) so most surviving inscriptions are short cryptic fragments, but the Egyptians also had a habit of not writing down bad things. If writing fixes something for eternity, then it makes sense to only record favourable events but that really doesn’t help later historians! So the evidence is also tangential, and not all scholars agree – for instance in his book “A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer pours a certain amount of scorn on the idea of civil war during the Second Dynasty (although he doesn’t propose an alternative explanation as far as I could see).

Later king lists are fairly consistent in their lists of First Dynasty & Third Dynasty rulers, but the middle of the Second Dynasty has a lot of variation. This might suggest that there were differing viewpoints on which rulers were legitimate and which were rebels. There’s also a sudden oddity in the royal iconography. During this period rulers are generally referred to in inscriptions by their “Horus name“, which is written inside a schematic drawing of a palace facade (called a serekh) with a falcon (Horus) sitting on top of it. But there is one king whose name, Peribsen, is written inside a serekh with the Seth animal sitting on top of it. His successor, Khasekhem, writes his name in the traditional Horus topped serekh. Later in his reign he changes his name to Khasekhemwy and writes it in a serekh topped with both Horus and Seth together. Some scholars see this as evidence of a split in the country with a Seth faction and a Horus faction, and suggest this might be a historical seed from which the later myths of Horus and Seth fighting over the throne grew. Others (including Romer) think that’s a rather literal interpretation, and that perhaps it was just an attempted rebranding of the monarchy (I paraphrase). Personally I’m inclined to think that changes in iconography (or indeed branding) tend to mean something and combining the two symbols sends a message of unification. And you only need to make a propaganda point about that if it wasn’t unified before. Much like Henry VII’s use of the Tudor rose to combine emblems of the warring York & Lancaster factions in late 15th Century CE England.

Statue base, with feet of statue and Khasekhemwy's name in a serekh in front of the feet and dead enemies below.
Base of a statue of Khasekhemwy from the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis showing his name in a serekh at his feet and his dead enemies beneath

The name change of Khasekhemwy is also indicative of some sort of conflict. He starts off as Khasekhem which means “the power has appeared”, and inscriptions with this name are primarily found in Hierakonpolis. After he changes his name inscriptions are found more widely across the country and the new name, Khasekhemwy, means “the two powers have appeared”. He also added an epithet to his name of “the Two Lords are at peace in him”. All of which suggests that he started off a more regional power in Upper Egypt and then unified the two lands again.

Further supporting evidence comes from inscriptions on two statues of Khasekhemwy, and on some stone vessels found in his tomb. The statues show the king seated wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, and round the base are carved contorted bodies of slain enemies. The inscription on the statues gives the number of “northern enemies” who were killed. The stone vessels show the Upper Egyptian vulture goddess Nekhbet standing on a ring containing the word “rebel” with an inscription that reads “the year of fighting the northern enemy”. Again it’s tangential evidence – the northern enemies needn’t be in Egypt, after all – but it’s another piece of the jigsaw.

To counterbalance all of this there is the fact that Khasekhemwy wasn’t remembered by later Egyptians as one of the great unifiers of the Two Lands. When Montuhotep II does it some 600 years later to found the Middle Kingdom he’s remembered as a second Narmer, and Ahmose I is also venerated for reunifying the country to begin the New Kingdom. So this perhaps suggests that there was no civil war, and Khasekhemwy did nothing as impressive as the other unifiers. Or maybe Khasekhemwy was just overshadowed by his son Djoser whose tangible and visible construction of the first monumental stone building outweighs the political reunification of Egypt in the memory of the people.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“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
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. 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

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My Robe No Mortal Has Yet Uncovered

If you ask someone to name an Egyptian goddess, you’ll get a variety of answers: maybe Isis, maybe Sekhmet (my personal favourite), maybe Hathor, maybe Bast (for the cat lovers out there).  There are a lot to choose from, after all.  However, I think it’s unlikely that the average person on the Clapham omnibus will answer “Neith”.  But she’s attested through more of Egyptian history than the others I mention, and at various times rather more important too!

This may be understandable – she doesn’t seem to have any good surviving stories. I’d hoped to write a Neith story article to go with this one, but she only shows up as a bit part in stories with narrative.  The closest we get is The Contendings of Horus and Seth: a Ramesside period text which has the Universal God trying to make a judgement between Horus and Seth as to who should be Osiris’s successor.  Horus is in the right, and wins every challenge or contest, but the judge would prefer Seth to get the office.  Neith is written to for her opinion, which boils down to “Give Horus the job, compensate Seth with wealth & marriage, do what I tell you or I’ll bring the sky crashing down!”.  The gods ignore this; the books I read make no mention of her response but the sky does still seem to be up where it should be.  That’s not really Neith’s story, though, she’s just another instance among many demonstrating that Horus is in the right. Neith does have a family, but that isn’t a story either – the Egyptians liked to group their deities into families, and temples are often dedicated to the god X, his consort Y and their child Z. Neith is a bit unusual here in that whilst she is often said to be the mother of Sobek, her consort isn’t entirely clear (although he may be Seth, at some times & places).

Predynastic pot painted with red decoration including an early version of the Neith symbol of crossed arrows on a pole.
Pot with an early version of the crossed arrows on a pole symbol for Neith

So, no stories, but there is plenty of evidence for her cult throughout Ancient Egyptian history.  She is an important goddess in the Early Dynastic Period, with solid evidence going back to the 1st Dynasty and enough hints to let Egyptologists extrapolate back into the Predynastic Period and earlier.  She’s closely associated with royalty during those periods, royal women in particular have names that reference Neith.  For instance Neithhotep (“Neith is satisfied”) is the wife of the king who is credited with unifying Egypt (Narmer). Neith’s cult waxes and wanes through the centuries, but even into the Roman period she is still an important deity. There are texts at the (relatively late) temple of Khnum at Esna which retrofit her as an Upper Egyptian creator goddess who only moves to the Lower Egyptian town of Sais after she’s done with creating the gods.

Neith is normally shown in human form from the Old Kingdom onward, and wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt from the 5th Dynasty.  She may also be shown in reliefs with a crown of two stylised bows and her earliest symbol was two crossed arrows.  To this were later added two click beetles (Agrypnus notodonta) facing each other across the arrows to make a symbol that’s referred to as the “bilobate sign”.  This rather odd sounding name is really a cover-up for the fact that for a long time Egyptologists couldn’t identify the parts of the symbol.  It seems that even the Egyptians forgot the original meaning over their history and the symbol morphed into an oval with crossed arrows which was then identified as a shield with crossed arrows.  Some of the books I read while writing this article said it was a shield or a bow, but “Dawn of Egyptian Art” (ed. Diana Craig Patch) was firm that it has now been convincingly argued that the two lobes are click beetles.  These beetles do show up in other contexts associated with Neith, including on a model shrine that dates back to the Predynastic Period. She does have some anthropomorphic representations during later periods, including as a cow (in her creator role) and a serpent (in her protective role).

This is the point in the article at which I should say something like “Neith was the goddess of X”, but it’s not that simple. She may have no stories, but she has several different associations and roles. I’ve touched on two of them already – the first of these is that she’s a goddess of hunting and warfare, hence the weapons for her earliest iconography. And she is strongly associated with Lower Egypt, not only the town of Sais but also she is the protector goddess of the Red Crown. This is also an aggressive role judging by a reference in the Pyramid Texts to “May the terror of you come into being … like the Neith Crown which is on the King of Lower Egypt”. Another pair of overlapping roles is that she is a creator goddess and a mother goddess. The first references to these roles come relatively late in the timeline for Neith – the Pharaoh Amenhotep II claims that he is “one who was moulded by Neith”. She also comes to be associated with the waters of Nun that preceded creation and with the process of creation itself. And she is also a funerary goddess – as early as the Pyramid Texts she is one of the goddesses associated with the Sons of Horus. As their role evolves into protectors of the deceased’s internal organs the goddesses take on the role of protectors of the protectors. In this role Neith is the protector of Duamutef who is the guardian of the stomach.

A difficult goddess to pin down across this gulf in time and distance in culture from the Ancient Egyptians. But even to them she was a mystery, Joyce Tyldesley quotes an inscription on a statue of Neith in Sais that rather aptly reads: “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe no mortal has yet uncovered”.

Resources used:

“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” ed. Diana Craig Patch
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson

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

The One Who Unites the Two Lands

If you’ve been to Luxor to see the ancient sites, then you have almost certainly been to see Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. While there you may not’ve paid much attention to the ruins of a temple just to the south – certainly I didn’t the first time I visited, and I don’t think tourists are allowed to go and walk round it. But that temple was one of the reasons Hatshepsut put her temple where she did, and that temple’s terraced design formed the inspiration for her own more elaborate version. This was a deliberate association of herself with the great king Montuhotep II who reunified Egypt and was venerated alongside Narmer and Ahmose I as one of the three founders of the state.

Montuhotep II was born around 4000 years ago at the end of what we nowadays call the First Intermediate Period, and the Egyptians themselves saw as an era of disorder and disunity. Following the reign of Pepi II at the end of the Old Kingdom the central government of Egypt began to disintegrate and the country splintered with each region operating autonomously. Although at first these local rulers paid lip service to the idea that they were ruled by an overall king by the time Montuhotep was born this was not even nominally the case, and new powers were jockeying for the title. In Lower Egypt the House of Khety had taken control, governing from their home base of Herakleopolis. In Upper Egypt Montuhotep’s predecessors, three generations of rulers called Intef, had done the same from their home base of Thebes.

Ruined columns of the temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri.
Mortuary Temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri

The local war god worshipped at Thebes was called Montu, and Montuhotep means “Montu is satisfied” – and our king certainly did his best to live up to that name. Given the length of his reign (50 or so years) he must’ve taken the throne in his teens or early 20s, and all seems to’ve been quiet for the first 14 years. In Year 14 of his reign he took advantage of the rebellion of a province to his north (called This, which includes the town of Abydos) to make his move. Having crushed the rebellion he then swept north with his armies and eventually defeated the House of Khety at Herakleopolis itself. The timeline other than the turning point of Year 14 isn’t entirely clear. There’s evidence of unrest rumbling on for a while, so it wasn’t a single campaign and done. Certainly by Year 39 he feels he has completed the job – at some point before this (probably when he celebrated his jubilee) he changed part of his royal titulary to reflect that. His Horus name is changed to Sematawy which means “the one who unites the two lands”.

Montuhotep II’s reunification of the land ushered in a new golden age of high culture in Egypt. During the fragmentation of the country art styles in the regions had diverged from each other, and early reliefs from Montuhotep II’s time (including some of the decoration of his mortuary temple) are in a local Theban style. The Old Kingdom style of art had survived in the Memphite region, where the capital had been in that period. As part of asserting his legitimacy as a continuation of the Old Kingdom Montuhotep II employed artisans from Memphis on his own building projects and over his reign both styles merge with the Memphite style coming to dominate. As well as a return to a sophisticated and unified art style there is also a increase in historical documentation surviving from his reign and an increase in building projects throughout the country.

A fair amount is known about Montuhotep II’s family, mostly from burials within his mortuary temple complex although also from other sources. We know that he was the son of Intef III* and Iah, and we know the names of several wives although only one child. His chief wife was his sister Neferu who appears to’ve died early in his reign. The other senior wife was called Tem, and she had the title of “Mother of the Dual King” – this means that Montuhotep II’s successor (Montuhotep III) must’ve been her son. There are also six other female burials in Montuhotep II’s mortuary complex. Three of these women were definitely wives: Ashayet, Henhenet (who died in childbirth) and Sadhe. One was definitely not: a child of 5 or 6 years old called Mayet. And two who might also have been wives or concubines: Kawit and Kemsit. Montuhotep III is the only known child of Montuhotep II – which is one of those cases where one needs to remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Records of royal children are often patchy, particularly of sons until they are adults. And we only have evidence of Montuhotep III because he rules after his father, not during his childhood.

*Although Gae Callendar, writing in “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw, is less sure of this – she feels he makes too much fuss about his father being Intef III for it to’ve been that straightforward.

As well as Montu other gods were also important to Montuhotep II. The women buried in his mortuary complex all have titles that call them Priestess or Prophetess of Hathor, as did Montuhotep II’s mother. And Hathor was behind his choice of site for his mortuary complex – she was thought to dwell as a cow in the Western Mountain at Thebes. So Montuhotep II’s tomb and temple were situated so that he would spend eternity in the embrace of Hathor. The temple also faces towards Karnak across the Nile – the temple of Amun. I think the evidence for his support of the cult of Amun is circumstantial but it is known that this is the period when the cult begins to rise.

Another god that was important to Montuhotep II was … himself. There’s evidence Montuhotep II was, unusually, deified in his own lifetime – the only one of the three founder kings who achieved that. It may be that this was a key part of reasserting central control over the newly reunified kingdom. During the First Intermediate Period local rulers had begun justifying their authority as having been handed to them by this god or that god rather than from the king. So by setting himself up as a god Montuhotep II fit neatly into this new narrative for propaganda purposes. He was also to be worshipped after his death as a god – which doesn’t seem so unusual to us because that became the standard situation in the New Kingdom several hundred years later. But he took it further than had been the previous norm. And his self-deification appears to’ve stuck, despite his relative lack of name recognition in the modern day. There is evidence that later Middle Kingdom rulers venerated him, erecting statues of themselves in his temple precinct or dedicating objects to him. Hatshepsut clearly felt the association with him would enhance her status. Even into the 20th Dynasty there are private tombs which have inscriptions celebrating him as a founder of Egypt.

In many ways Montuhotep II is the archetypal Pharaoh – great war leader; bringer of peace, prosperity and order from chaos; a god to his people. Montu must indeed have been satisfied with this monarch.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Ancient Egyptian Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“A History of Ancient Egypt Volume II: 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
“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.

The Sister of Isis

My bonus article for September is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Hem-Netjer & Khery-Hebet tiers and is about Nephthys: The Sister of Isis.

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

The Draught of Her Wings was the Breath of Life in His Nose

Come! Listen! Let me tell you a tale of days gone by, of brother murdering brother and of the grief of a sister weeping for her husband.

And in those days Osiris son of Geb ruled over mankind as their king with his consort, his sister-wife Isis, by his side. Their rule was just and upheld the proper order of things. Their rule was wise and men learnt to plant wheat and barley as the flood waters dwindled and to reap grain for food. Their rule was good and brought peace, prosperity and plenty to the lives of men. And when all was in order in his lands Osiris went forth from the banks of the Nile to spread his wisdom and peace amongst those who dwell far from the bounty of the river, leaving his sister-wife the beautiful Isis to rule as if she were himself.

There was but one scorpion in this house of peace & prosperity, and that was Seth. Seth the brother of Osiris, Seth the second son of Geb, Seth the angry who punched his way out of the side of his mother Nut. Where others saw virtue, Seth saw dullness and compared it unfavourably to his own brilliance. Where others saw justness, Seth saw weakness and compared it unfavourably to his own strength. And he brooded on this both alone and with his companions, until his twisted heart came up with a way to shine in the eyes of others as he shone in his own.

When Osiris returned to the banks of the Nile there was much rejoicing amongst the people of the land. He travelled the length of the Nile and all houses were open to him and much cattle was slaughtered for feasting and celebration. And when he came to the place of Seth, his brother, even there was provided a large and joyful meal. And Seth and Osiris and 72 of Seth’s closest companions sat long at the table, drinking and making merry. At the climax of the day as the sun retreated behind the hills of the west Seth commanded a chest to be brought to the banquet. Such a chest as you never have seen, made of the finest cedar wood new from the city of Byblos, coated in gold and studded with jewels. And all the assembled were amazed and awed by this, the most beautiful of chests.

“Let he who fits the chest have it to keep!” pronounced Seth, and one by one his companions tried it. One was too short, and the next too tall. Another too great in girth, and the next too small. And so it went through each and every one of the 72 companions of Seth, until only Osiris was left to try. Osiris now befuddled with strong wine, Osiris forgetting the enmity his brother Seth bore him, Osiris full of desire for this most magnificent chest. He climbed in and lay down and it fit like it had been made to his measure, for that was indeed what his brother Seth had done. And Seth’s twisted heart grew full and heavy with triumph.

Quickly, quickly, before the great Osiris arose the chest lid was slammed shut. Quickly, quickly, before the great Osiris arose the chest lid was bolted. Quickly, quickly, before the great Osiris arose the chest was sealed up with molten metal.

Osiris, son of Geb, the ruler of the Two Lands was dead, and the chest his coffin.

And the coffin was cast upon the Nile to float downstream, far from the land and far from those who would mourn him.

Seth now was in no-one’s shadow, his light not diminished by the brighter one beside him. But he had reckoned without Isis, his sister, the wife of his brother. Isis the beautiful, Isis the wise, whose grief when she heard was inconsolable. She cut her hair in mourning and went through the land from the source of the waters to the Great Green itself searching for the lost body of her lord. Even beyond the lands of the Nile did she go, finally finding the chest in the city of Byblos. Heart full with grief she returned with her dead husband, her dead brother, the great Osiris, to give him a burial as befitted the king and god that he was.

A wooden statue of the goddess Isis with her hands in front of her face in an attitude of mourning.

But Seth heard of this and angry that even in death Osiris would out shine him he was determined to prevent it. He found where Isis had hidden his brother’s remains and tore open the chest, and in his fury tore up the body of the great Osiris. Then he went through the whole of the land scattering the pieces of his brother as he went. When Isis saw what he had done her fury blazed with the heat of the desert. Even Nephthys, her sister, the wife of Seth was shocked by this outrage against all proper order. As falcons the sisters flew throughout the land seeking the remains of their dead brother. Each piece as they found it they mourned, and built for it a tomb.

Then once they had collected all that they could the pieces were placed back together to give form to the dead king once more. Only one part was missing, and for all that they searched the phallus of Osiris was lost, swallowed up by the greedy Nile perch and never to be found. In order that Osiris, her brother, her husband, should be complete for eternity Isis the wise fashioned for him a new phallus.

Then in her falcon form Isis called upon all of the gods to aid her and the draught of her wings was the breath of life in his nose.

She copulated then with her resurrected brother and she conceived of a son. But Osiris now burgeoning with new life was nonetheless no longer to live in the realm of mortal men, his time as their ruler was over, the light of his sun had set behind the hills of the west. He was buried with all the rites that should be performed for a king and came to the Duat, there to rule over the reborn dead as their king for eternity.

And Isis was left to guard their son Horus, as Seth’s heart grew ever more twisted. But that, my friends, is a story for a different day.

Resources used:

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

For the plot of the legend I mostly followed Plutarch’s version as described in both Shaw & Tydesley’s books, and then retold it in my own style combining Egyptian imagery with my own cultural references. Plutarch may have the most complete form of the myth that we have from ancient sources, but he does include several parts that are not corroborated by older more purely Egyptian sources – including the chest, however I liked that imagery so have kept it in the story. I did skip the dead baby prince of Byblos subplot, though, as that seemed to’ve wandered in from a completely different mythos!

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Something that can be hard to remember when thinking about the ancient world is how vibrantly, even garishly, coloured much of the elite culture actually was. My mental image of Greek statuary stubbornly remains that of pure white marble, even though I’ve seen many representations of “what it once looked like”. Despite knowing better, it was still almost a shock to see Assyrian relief carvings in a recent British Museum exhibition illuminated with the colours they were once painted. So one of the joys of Ancient Egyptian artifacts and architecture is that often you don’t need to studiously remind yourself of the colours, because they are still there to see! Go into any Egyptian gallery in a museum and see the vibrant and intricately decorated coffins. Visit the tombs of kings, queens and even nobles on the West Bank at Luxor and you can see many wall paintings, some of which still look fresh and as if they were finished yesterday. Even some of the temples, where the art hasn’t been locked away underground or otherwise out of the elements, still have enough colour that you are sure you can tell how it must’ve looked when newly painted.

Four columns and ceiling at the temple of Medinet Habu in Egypt showing colour survival on the stone.
Colour Survival at Medinet Habu

The Egyptian approach to colour is not that of traditional post-Renaissance European art, they were not interested in subtle graduations of colour designed to convey a realistic view of a subject. Instead they usually applied their paint in flat washes, colour by colour, and used drawn outlines to give the shapes definition and to add detail. There are exceptions, of course, sometimes the fur of an animal would be carefully painted to look like fur. Or the scales of a fish, or the veining of a fine stone vase. Choice of colours tended towards the schematic rather than realistic, particularly for human skin colour where there were accepted conventions for the colour of Egyptian men (reddish brown), Egyptian women (paler pink or yellow ochre) and various groups of foreigners. Mixing of paints was also less common than in Western art, although it was sometimes done – in particular the addition of white to lighten & opacify another colour. Translucent washes of colour on top of one another were also used – sometimes to produce a different colour through optical mixing and sometimes to indicate that a piece of linen clothing was of such fine quality that the wearer’s limbs could be seen through it.

The main pigments used were identified by Egyptologists in the late 19th Century, but analytical techniques have improved since then. Over the last couple of decades more pigments have been identified and some pigments have turned out to be more commonly used than previously thought. Most of the pigments are mineral based, rather than organic – although black is an exception to that as it was generally made from soot or charcoal.

The yellows and reds were primarily derived from ochre which is a mineral earth that contains iron oxide, and this pigment is still used in modern paints. The colour can range from yellow through to brown depending on the hydration levels of the iron oxide, and ochre that contains haematite is a red colour. As well as this there were other yellows derived from earths containing iron sulphate, and a bright yellow was obtained from orpiment (an arsenic sulphide mineral). Orpiment is an example of a pigment that was once thought to be rare, before modern analytical techniques showed it is part of the standard suite of pigments from at least the Middle Kingdom. As well as being very toxic orpiment also fades quickly, in a matter of hours if it is not varnished, so areas of paint that were a slightly sparkly yellow for the original viewers are now a sludgy off white colour. Another arsenic sulphide used as a pigment is the red mineral realgar which is a more orange-y red than red ochre. It is used from the New Kingdom period onward, and like orpiment it is both toxic and fades (to a yellow colour).

There are multiple white pigments as well. The most common are calcium carbonate and calcium sulphate based, but a more brilliant white was also obtained from a mineral called huntite. The various whites, as with the other pigments, were not just used as substitutes for each other. Sometimes more than one variant was used in the same piece of art to create different effects. The background of a wall painting might be done in a calcium carbonate based white, which would give a creamy white colour. And then the clothes of the figures might be painted in a huntite based white so they stood out as brighter white against the background.

Most greens were mineral based (generally malachite) but some green and almost all blues during the Pharaonic period were made using an artificial pigment. This is another first for the ancient Egyptians as Egyptian blue is the first known artificial pigment. It is made from a mixture of limestone (calcium carbonate), quartz sand and a copper containing mineral (like malachite) or scrap metal. These are heated together with an alkali such as natron to a high heat (~900°C) for some time (as much as 3 days!) until a glassy “frit” is formed. Altering the proportions of the ingredients changes the colour so both greens & blues can be produced – the green was more rarely used than the blue. The glassy substance produced is ground down to be used as a pigment and the finer it is ground the more pale the resulting paint.

Of course, paint is not just pigment – you also need a liquid binding medium to make it flow and stick to the surface you are painting. The ancient Egyptians used either a plant gum (like gum Arabic) or animal glue for this. They might also varnish the finished work, the shiny yellow coffins of the 21st Dynasty are an obvious example of this. Some areas of wall paintings were also varnished – part of the reason that Nefertari’s tomb paintings look so fresh and new is that the reds and yellows have been varnished with egg white & resins.

The survival of colour on so much Egyptian art is part of what makes it eye-catching amongst a sea of marble statues & limestone reliefs. It’s also clear that the distinctive look of the art is not just about how the subjects were drawn. The techniques used to apply the paint and the palette of pigments used are a part of what makes something recognisably Egyptian.

Resources used:

“Egyptian Art” Cyril Aldred
“House of Eternity: The Tomb of Nefertari” John K. McDonald
“The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun” Richard Parkinson
“The Art of Ancient Egypt” Gay Robins
“Illuminating the Path of Darkness: Artificial Light in Ancient Egyptian Ritual” Meghan Strong (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“The Coffins of Nespawershefyt and Pakepu at the Fitzwilliam Museum” Helen Strudwick (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt” ed. Helen Strudwick and Julie Dawson
“Egyptian Wall Painting” Franceso Tiradritti

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The Naming of Kings

The naming of Kings is a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games … No, wait, that’s cats (and my apologies to T. S. Eliot) – but the naming and titling of an Egyptian king was also a rather complicated thing. Have a look at this one:

Horus ka nakht tut mesut. Nebty nefer hepu segereh tawy sehetep netjeru nebu. Bik nebu wetjes khau sehetep netjeru. Nesu bity Nebkheprure. Sa ra Tutankhamun heqa Iunu shema.

Or in English:

The divine power of kingship is incarnated in Strong Bull, Fitting of Created Forms who resides in the palace. He of the Two Ladies: Dynamic of Laws, Who Calms the Two Lands, Who Propitiates All the Gods. The Golden Horus: Who Displays the Regalia, Who Propitiates the Gods. The Dual King: The Lordly Manifestation of Re. The Son of Re: Living Image of Amun, Ruler of Upper Egyptian Heliopolis.

(Before I go on I should note I have followed Nicholas Reeves for the transcription & translation of the names, and James P. Allen for the translation of the Horus name title, the rest of the titles were fairly consistent across the books I looked at although the transcription varied in details. Hopefully in picking my variants I haven’t made too much of a mess of it!)

The English doesn’t help one recognise which king this is, but if you know even the least little bit about Ancient Egypt and you scan through the Egyptian you will have the sudden realisation near the end that “oh, it’s King Tut!”. And when I started to learn about Ancient Egypt I had no idea that Tutankhamun had quite so many more names than just that.

An alabaster vase decorated with hieroglyphs, including the Son of Re and Dual King names of Tutankhamun.
Alabaster vase with the Son of Re and Dual King names of Tutankhamun

There are five parts to the name, each of which has a title and a name that is unique to the king in question. The titulary develops over time, but by the Fifth Dynasty all five are in use even if sometimes we don’t know all the names for a given king. Taken all together the five names give some insight into the Egyptian ideology of kingship. Three of the names stress the king’s divinity (Horus, Golden Horus and Son of Re names) and two stress duality (the Two Ladies and Dual King names). Once the complete kit is developed we know that the king chose four of them (the first four) on his accession to the throne and the last one was his birth name (although that can change too, for instance Tutankhamun began life as Tutankhaten). It’s not clear who actually chose the names – the king himself? priests? courtiers? – and it probably varied depending on time period and the personal circumstances of the king. The names chosen can be mottos or statements of intent for how the king intended to rule, and they might change after significant events that the king wanted to emphasise – for instance once he’s established control over a re-unified Egypt Montuhotep II changes his Horus name to Sematawy which means “the one who unites the two lands”.

The first & oldest is the Horus name – for the early kings like Narmer this is the only name we have for them. It is written in a serekh with a falcon perched on top. The serekh is a schematic of a palace. The lower part of it is a depiction of the niched facade of an early palace building and the box that the name is written in is the ground plan of the palace. The falcon on top represents the god Horus, son of Osiris and the last divine king of Egypt in Ancient Egyptian mythology. This therefore links the king directly with his divine predecessor and with his seat of power, and Allen’s translation of it conveys those nuances (which is why I used it rather than just saying “The Horus:”). Tutankhamun’s Horus name is “Ka nakht tut mesut“. The first part of it (Ka nakht) is an epithet that New Kingdom kings use in their Horus names, and means Strong Bull or Victorious Bull. “Tut mesut” can be translated in a variety of ways (depending on how the grammatical forms of the two Egyptian words are interpreted), Reeves goes for “Fitting of Created Forms” and other interpretations are things like “Fair of Births” or “Perfect of Birth”. So there is a flavour of perfection, creation and birth to it, but it’s hard to know (even for the experts) what it conveyed to the people of his time.

The second part of the name is the Two Ladies name, the Nebty name. The two ladies in question are the protective goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt – the vulture Nekhbet and the snake Wadjet, respectively – and references the king’s descent from and protection by these deities. This name begins to be seen from the second half of the First Dynasty. It’s one of the less commonly found names and shows more variation for each king as well. Reeves gives three variants for Tutankhamun, none of which are found associated with the king when he was still using the name Tutankhaten. The main variant “Nefer hepu segereh tawy sehetep netjeru nebu” is translated as “Dynamic of Laws, Who Calms the Two Lands, Who Propitiates All the Gods” which can be seen as a reference to his returning the country to the old ways of religion after his predecessor Akhenaten’s reforms.

The other less commonly seen name is the third name, the Golden Horus name. It’s also the latest to appear, it’s not seen before the reign of Khafre in the Fourth Dynasty (the builder of the second largest of the pyramids at Giza). And it’s the least understood by Egyptologists – the books I looked at were reluctant to get more specific than suggesting that it has something to do with divinity and/or eternity as the flesh of the gods was said to be made of gold. As with the Nebty name Tutankhamun has multiple forms of this, the primary variant is “Wetjes khau sehetep netjeru” which means “(He) Who Displays the Regalia, Who Propitiates the Gods”. A similar theme to his Two Ladies name, so you won’t be surprised to learn that the Golden Horus name is also only seen after he’s changed his name to Tutankhamun.

The fourth name, the Dual King name, is the one which kings were most likely to be referred to with from the Middle Kingdom onwards. If there was any ambiguity the Son of Re name would also be used. These two are the ones that you find written inside a cartouche, which looks like an elongated version of the hieroglyph for eternity. It once represented the king’s dominion over the whole world, but in the Middle Kingdom it shifts to just being an indicator that this is a royal name and important royal women begin to rate cartouches. The title “nesu bity” is literally translated “He of the Sedge and Bee”, and in the earlier days of Egyptology it was translated as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”. There is some correctness to this idea, as even for the Egyptians there was a sense that this title referred to the two major regions of the country. But it is more nuanced than that – for instance the two words (nesu and bity) can also refer to abstract/divine kingship and the mortal man who is this particular king, respectively. So more recently there has been a shift to translating it as “Dual King” which is vague enough in English to give less of a false impression. Tutankhamun’s Dual King name is “Nebkheprure” which can be translated as “The Lordly Manifestation of Re” – most Dual King names reference Re (even that of Akhenaten!).

And finally we come to the name that we recognise for any given king. The Son of Re name is the king’s birth name, and first begins to be written with the title Son of Re in the Fourth Dynasty which was a time when the cult of Re was in the ascendancy. As with other families the kings of Egypt tended to name their sons after recent respected ancestors – hence a string of Amenhoteps and Thutmoses in the 18th Dynasty, and the line of Pharaohs called Ramesses after the great Ramesses II. As I said above the Egyptians solved this ambiguity by mostly using the Dual King name, or both the Dual King and Son of Re names. Egyptologists have generally taken a different tack – they add a Roman numeral on the end of the Son of Re name, like we do for European monarchs’ names. And of course it’s now “stuck” like that because it has been the convention for so long. Which is a shame because I think it gives the impression that the Ancient Egyptian ideology of kingship is closer to our own Western cultural ideology than it necessarily is. “Tutankhamun” can be translated as “Living Image of Amun” but before year 4 of his reign he was known as “Tutankhaten“, i.e. “Living Image of Aten” – this name change shows very clearly how he stepped the country back from Akhenaten’s changes. Once he’s changed his name he also almost always adds the epithet “heqa Iunu shema” following Tutankhamun inside the cartouche. This translates as “Ruler of Upper Egyptian Heliopolis” which is a reference to Thebes & the cult centre of Amun.

So the naming of an Egyptian king is indeed a complicated thing, and so is translation (particularly from a dead language) so Egyptologists haven’t quite managed to reverse engineer it in all possible detail yet. But there does seem to be a consensus on what the flavour of the titles & names are even if the precise meanings aren’t always clear. The example of Tutankhamun also shows how the names chosen can provide a thematic statement for the reign – you can see that the king (or whoever chose the names he adopted around year 4 of his reign) was keen to stress his proper worship of the gods, and to align him with Amun and Amun’s cult centre. Which illuminates the history around him, and provides Egyptologists with an idea of just how quickly Akhenaten’s attempt to reform his nation’s belief system fell to pieces.

Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of the Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Unknown Tutankhamun” Marianne Eaton-Krauss
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and On Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson

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Peace, Calm and a War God

My bonus article for August is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about the temple at el-Tod: Peace, Calm and a War God.

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