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

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

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

Vulture Rock

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used:

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

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Weaving with Her Words a Cloth of Deceit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tending the Beasts in the Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used:

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

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

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Field of Reeds

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

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

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

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

Field of Reeds

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

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

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

Resources used:

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

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Beautiful Are the Places of Unas

My bonus article for March is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Hem-Netjer & Khery-Hebet tiers and is about the pyramid of Unas: Beautiful Are the Places of Unas.

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

Pyramid Texts

Ancient Egypt is a place of firsts or near firsts – the first monumental stone building, one of the first civilisations to develop writing, one of the first places people lived in cities – but one that I haven’t often seen mentioned is that it has the first significant corpus of written religious texts in the world. This is another of these things that we take for granted today, most of the extant religions of the modern world have a canonical body of written literature that underpins what people believe and how they practice their religion. It’s also an illustration of how comparisons to the modern world can be misleading – these Egyptian texts weren’t an ancient Bible or Book of Common Prayer. For starters the population was almost entirely illiterate and so these texts would’ve been no more than pictures & squiggles carved in stone to them (as, to be fair, they are to most of us who can’t read hieroglyphs). And secondly the copies we’ve found were carved on the inner chambers of pyramids – hence the modern name of Pyramid Texts – and so were inaccessible to everybody once the king had been buried.

Pyramid Texts

The Pyramid Texts were first discovered in the 1880s, much to the surprise of archaeologists in general. Most Old Kingdom pyramids, like the ones at Giza which we’ve all heard of, have nothing on the walls of their burial chambers. But something changes in the late 5th Dynasty and from then until the end of the Old Kingdom the walls of the internal chambers are covered in texts. There are (so far) 10 pyramids known to have these texts, all of them at Saqqara. The first is that of Unas, the last king of the 5th Dynasty (reigning some 200 years after the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza). The kings of the 6th Dynasty follow suit (Teti, Pepi I, Merenre, Pepi II), and some of their wives also have texts in their pyramid chambers: Ankhesenpepi II (wife of Pepi I) and three wives of Pepi II (Neith, Iput II, Wedjebetni). The last known king to have these texts was an obscure 8th Dynasty king called Ibi – in fact he’s so obscure that the only evidence for his existence is his pyramid texts! This isn’t the end of the line for the texts – they in some sense develop into or merge with the Coffin Texts (so called because they’re found written on Middle Kingdom coffins). The books I read are divided in how much they think this was an evolution of one turning into the other and how much the Coffin Texts were a parallel development that borrowed from the Pyramid Texts. Some aspects of the texts definitely survive through into the New Kingdom and beyond (like the Opening of the Mouth ritual), whereas others aren’t even found in all the pyramids that have Pyramid Texts. There’s also a bit of a renaissance for the texts in the Late Period (around 2,000 years after Unas) as part of a general culture of harking back to the “old ways”.

The texts are written in columns and were divided up by the ancient writers into sections – generally each starts with a word meaning “Recitation” and ends with “chapter” or “section”. We call these sections spells or utterances – I think I prefer utterances because spells has all sorts of connotations which don’t always seem appropriate, whereas if they themselves wrote “Recitation” at the beginning then they were all intended to be uttered. Modern scholars give them numbers to make it easier to discuss them, but these numbers have no ancient relevance. The original numbering was done by the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe who numbered them according to where they were found in the pyramid, going from the inside out. Then as more examples were found with extra utterances these were added onto the end of the list (not always consistently). There are around 800 utterances found in total (so far!) but not all of them are found in every pyramid, for instance Pepi II had over 600 but Unas had only a couple of hundred.

There are indications that the texts that end up on the pyramid walls were copied off a papyrus master copy written in a cursive script (rather than the monumental form carved in the stone). James Allen describes how you can use mistakes in the copying to detect this, and to detect how the spells were edited for their new location. For instance, some texts began life in 1st person but were edited into 3rd person to be carved on the walls with some 1st person pronouns replaced with the deceased’s name and some with the appropriate 3rd person one – and there are occasional places where the original pronoun is left intact, or a verb form hasn’t been changed to match the new grammatical structure. So this is very clearly not a new set of rituals or theology that spring up from out of nowhere in the 5th Dynasty. Instead it looks like an already existent tradition is expanding into a new context, that adds a level of permanence to the rituals and utterances.

The overall purpose of the texts is to ensure a successful afterlife for the king (or queen) for whom they were inscribed. They can be divided up into a few broad genres of texts, although almost every author seems to divide them up a bit differently. In essence there are texts that have to do with rituals, there are texts that have to do with protection from problems (which are the ones for which “spells” seems most appropriate) and there are descriptions of the journey the deceased must take into the afterlife and what he or she will do once there. The ritual ones often look like instructions for the priests conducting these rituals – words to be said and stage directions for the required actions. Some scholars (in particular Siegfried Schott) have used these to argue that the whole corpus should be interpreted as the funeral ritual written out on the walls in the order the priests should read it as they bring the body into the chamber. I think this specific idea is almost entirely discredited now, although the general concept that the ordering reflects order of “use” is still influential. James Allen’s recent translation of the texts sees them as being ordered for the convenience of the resurrecting king – in the burial chamber are texts to protect him and to help him resurrect and start his journey. Then in the antechamber and corridors there are spells that the king must read on his journey to the afterlife (via the exit from the pyramid).

Taken as a whole the texts do not form a coherent or consistent body of literature. They don’t even seem to’ve all been written at the same time – some have language & imagery that implies they are contemporary with the pyramids that they’re written in, some seem much older. And they appear to be deliberately obscure. To write things down was in some sense to make them magically present for eternity so that affected what & how the Egyptians were willing to write in their texts. Hieroglyphic signs that had the shape of dangerous animals were damaged to make sure they couldn’t cause harm to the king in his tomb. And myths tended to be talked round and referred to rather than spelt out – Mark Lehner suggests they might’ve been regarded as too potent to commit to writing. Altogether this makes it rather difficult to reverse engineer a sense of “the Ancient Egyptian Religion” from these texts, and I don’t think there’s even general agreement as to whether these texts represent a single tradition or a selection from co-existing and/or competing concepts for the gods & the afterlife.

In some parts of the texts the king is to rise from his tomb and make his way to the “imperishable stars” (the ones near the northern pole star that never set) there to join with the court of the gods. In some parts of the texts the king rises up to the sky (assisted by wind, by flying, by jumping like a grasshopper) and travels with Re in his solar boat across the day sky. And in yet other parts of the texts the king travels through the Duat (the underworld) to merge with Osiris and become reborn. But there is an underlying consistency – the king will rise from his tomb and go to join with the gods in some capacity. Contemporary non-royals expected an afterlife in the vicinity of their tombs – the idea that everyone might partake in the Osirian afterlife doesn’t develop until the Middle Kingdom after the political upheavals of the First Intermediate Period.

And finally I should mention the Cannibal Hymn, the most notorious utterances of the Pyramid Texts. This part of the texts describes quite graphically how the king will eat the gods and absorb their powers to become more mighty than them, and pretty much always gets brought up in any discussion of the texts. As is so often the case how the Cannibal Hymn is interpreted shines more light on the person doing the interpreting than the text itself. Some scholars jump in both feet first and use some indications of retainer sacrifice in Early Dynastic Egypt to back up a bloodthirsty story of ancient ritual cannibalism now only referenced in this one hymn. Other scholars clearly take a step back, reflect on the fact that we don’t think early Christians ever actually ate Jesus or anyone else during the Eucharist, and interpret the whole thing as entirely symbolic and magical. And yet others take a path that’s a mixture of the two – hinging round the fact that some Egyptian gods had bulls as avatars. The most well known one is the Apis Bull (an avatar of Ptah) and I’ve mentioned the Buchis Bull (avatar of Montu) in a previous article. In later periods of Egyptian history these bulls were mummified and buried in catacombs, but there’s some evidence that in earlier periods they were cooked and eaten – a presumably ritual & symbolic meal where the king consumed the powers of the god via this avatar. I’m most inclined to this mix of practical & symbolic, which presumably tells you all something about me!

Resources used:

“The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts” James P. Allen
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Serapeum at Saqqara” Aidan Dodson; talk given at Sussex Egyptology Society 28 September 2019
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt” Wolfram Grajetzki
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol I: The Old and Middle Kingdom” Miriam Lichtheim
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“A History of Ancient Egypt Vol 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“Pyramids” Miroslav Verner
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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A Well Connected Man?

The Amarna Period and its immediate aftermath is a tantalising period of Egyptian history – it feels like we’ve got so much information that we must know what really happened, and yet we really don’t. On the one hand there is quite a lot of documentation for the upheaval of these years and the players who took part in the drama. We know that Akhenaten succeeded his father Amenthotep III on the throne of Egypt towards the end of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom, and that he and his queen Nefertiti had 6 daughters. We know he changed the state religion of Egypt during his reign and moved the capital city of the country to a new virgin site in Middle Egypt (modern Amarna, hence the name of the period of history). After his death it gets very murky for a bit, but then we know Tutankhamun takes the throne as a child and his regime moves back to Thebes and begins restoration of the cult of Amun. Following him we have Ay, and then Horemheb, who complete the restoration of the old ways and set the stage for the 19th Dynasty including Ramesses II.

On the other hand there are still so many gaps in what we know for sure that you can construct several wildly different narratives that are all interpretations of the same pieces of evidence but are mutually incompatible. Take the Pharaoh Ay as an example. You can tell a story of a scheming courtier who possibly even murders his young king and usurps the throne from the rightful heir. Or you can tell a story of a loyal servant bound by blood to the young king who takes the throne in the aftermath of his unexpected death to avert a succession crisis. And really, we just don’t know.

Before I get into the personal side of Ay’s life we should start with the politics. In common with other important members of Akhenaten’s court he began construction of a tomb at Amarna and from this we know his titles during Akhenaten’s reign: Fan Bearer on the Right Hand of the King; Overseer of all the Horses of His Person; Real Royal Scribe, His Beloved; God’s Father. The Fan Bearer and Scribe titles indicate that he’s a close associate of the king, while the Horses one is taken to mean that he was the head of the chariotry wing of the Egyptian army. God’s Father is very unusual and there’s a lot of debate about what it actually means – but I’ll come back to that later as it ties in with speculations about Ay’s family relationships. Scenes in this tomb also show him and his wife receiving gifts of gold from the king personally (and then depict Ay going back to his own household to show off about it!). So clearly he was a mover & a shaker in the court of Akhenaten. And he doesn’t fall out of favour through the ensuing changes of leadership and religion – in Toby Wilkinson’s “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” he subtitled his biography of Ay as “The Great Survivor” which seems apt. While the cult of Aten was riding high, Ay publicly showed his allegiance to it & to Akhenaten; but when the times changed he was there helping with (perhaps even instigating) the return to the old religion and the old capital. In the court of Tutankhamun Ay is one of the powers behind the throne. The other one, Horemheb, gets more titles but in reliefs from Tutankhamun’s time Ay is often shown standing behind the king and on the same scale as him – unusual prominence for a courtier. He may’ve been Vizier – there’s a piece of gold foil from a chariot that gives him this title but the books I read ranged from thinking this meant he was Vizier to thinking that it was an indication of his high status but he didn’t actually do the job of Vizier.

And then Tutankhamun dies. I was a bit disingenuous in my opening to this article – I don’t think anyone seriously believes Tutankhamun was murdered anymore, the “evidence” around which those theories were based has turned out to be misinterpretation of relatively poor quality X-rays of his mummy that were done in the 1960s. However he died, and there are many theories, it seems to’ve been unexpected. His tomb was unfinished, seemingly so much so that wasn’t possible to get it ready in time and so he was interred in a much smaller tomb (probably originally intended for Ay). And Ay becomes the next Pharaoh. It’s not clear how smooth the transition was, and certainly Ay goes out of the way to emphasise his legitimacy in a way he wouldn’t feel the need to do if it wasn’t questioned. It’s possible that Tutankhamun’s widow Ankhesenamun tried to arrange herself a marriage to a Hittite prince so that she didn’t have to marry a commoner – certainly there’s correspondence between a widowed Egyptian queen and the Hittites at this time organising such a marriage on this basis (but the prince is murdered before he reaches the Egyptian court) and many people believe the widowed queen to be Ankhesenamun (rather than, say, Nefertiti). Ay is sometimes cast as instigating the correspondence, sometimes as arranging the ambush & murder of the prince, and sometimes both in a Machiavellian scheme to weaken the Hittites. There is also the question of Horemheb – his titles suggest he was intended to be heir, but then Ay takes the throne. A lot of the speculation around this hinges on how power was transferred from king to king – the new king had to be the one to bury his predecessor, and there was a set time frame that this must happen in. And it’s quite possible that Horemheb was away from the court involved in the ongoing conflict with the Hittites. So sometimes this is seen as Ay scrambling to bury Tutankhamun quickly and make it a done deed before his rival returns to claim his inheritance, sometimes as a planned arrangement where the elderly Ay gets his brief time on the throne before inevitably handing it over to his younger colleague, sometimes as just necessitated by timing. Whatever happened Ay was keen to depict his participation in the proper rites for eternity – he’s shown on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. This is unique – even when there are other examples of scenes of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony they don’t have a named person performing it, they’re more a general depiction of the ritual whereas this is a piece of propaganda.

Replica of a Relief from Tutankhamun’s Tomb showing Ay (far right) Performing the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony for Tutankhamun

Another part of ensuring he looked legitimate might’ve involved marrying Tutankhamun’s widow. The only piece of evidence for this is a ring which has the cartouches of both Ay and Ankhesenamun. As a piece of politics/propaganda it certainly makes sense, but you’d think that in that case she would also be prominent in the rest of Ay’s reign – and be his Great Wife. But instead she vanishes from the historical record after this, and Ay’s wife Tey is the one who is depicted in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings as his Great Wife. Perhaps Ankhesenamun died shortly after? Perhaps it wasn’t a marriage but instead indication of an alliance in some other sense?

Ay’s reign was not to last long. He was almost certainly elderly when he took the throne, based on how long he’d been an important courtier, and so it can’t’ve been a great surprise that he died only three years after Tutankhamun. There’s no speculation of foul play here, all the books seem pretty convinced it was a natural death. Ay had named a man called Nakhtmin (possibly his son) as his heir, but it’s not clear if he had predeceased Ay or if Horemheb just pushed him aside. During Horemheb’s reign he tried to erase all record of the Amarna period, and this includes Ay. His tomb was reopened and the contents removed, and his name removed from monuments and replaced with Horemheb’s.

And this glittering political career is one of the reasons that there is so much speculation around who Ay was related to: he’s a prominent official from the time of Akhenaten onward who eventually becomes Pharaoh and our understanding of Egyptian society is that this must mean that he was Somebody, rather than some lower class man who got an education and rose through the ranks.

Ay’s origins are unknown. He seems to’ve had a connection with the region of Akhmim, judging by later building work and inscriptions there. His name may also provide a clue to his origins – it looks a bit odd amongst other Egyptian names one sees, it’s short and doesn’t look like a phrase in Egyptian. There are other prominent people at this time from Akhmim who have similar looking names (which get even more similar when written in Egyptian) – these include Yuya and Tuya (the parents of Amenhotep III’s queen) and Tiye (that queen). It’s therefore suggested by several people that Ay was a part of this family, and given when he’s attested it would seem to make most sense that he was a son of Yuya & Tuya and thus brother-in-law to Amenhotep III. The problem with all this is that there’s nothing (surviving) that mentions him as a their child – and both Tiye and a brother of hers called Anen are named on objects in their parents’ tomb. Surely Ay would be too, if he was their son?

We do know for sure that Ay had a wife called Tey – she’s named as his wife in the tomb Ay started to build in Amarna and in his eventual resting place in the Valley of the Kings she is named as his Great Wife. So that’s a definite fact, and I think the only one we have for Ay’s family relationships. Possibly she’s a cousin of Ay’s, based once again on the similarity of names. They have no known children, although there is some speculation which I’ll come back to later in the article (as it’s on a higher level of the house of cards that we’re building here).

Did he have other wives and children by them? One chain of thought involves the man who was named as Ay’s heir: Nakhtmin. There is a statue of him that has a broken inscription where one of his titles is given as “King’s Son of…”, the broken bit could be filled in with “Kush” which would make him Viceroy of Kush but there are already known Viceroys of Kush covering the period in question so that seems implausible. And so it’s generally reconstructed as “King’s Son of His Body”, i.e. the literal son of the king. But which king? Nakhtmin gives shabtis to the burial of Tutankhamun, and these name him but do not use the King’s Son of His Body title – given its high status he would do if he had it. So that implies he didn’t get the title until Ay became King – hence he must be a son of Ay’s. Another inscription names Nakhtmin’s mother as a woman called Iuy. Given Nakhtmin is an adult in Tutankhamun’s reign Iuy must therefore be an earlier wife of Ay’s, who presumably dies before Tey marries Ay.

Another chain of thought revolves around Ay’s title of God’s Father. This is an unusual title which has meant at least three things over the millennia of Egyptian civilisation. In the Old Kingdom it seems to mean father-in-law of the king, but in the Middle Kingdom it’s given to non-royal fathers of kings (for instance the first Montuhotep who was never a king but his son Intef I was). By the 19th Dynasty neither of these interpretations seems possible as Merenptah (son and eventual successor to Ramesses II) holds this title during his father’s reign, so there must surely be a third meaning. In the 18th Dynasty there are few people who hold this title – Yuya and Ay are the most prominent. And Yuya was the father-in-law of Amenhotep III, so it’s possible that the title had returned to this meaning from the Old Kingdom. So from here we can speculate that Ay was also father-in-law of a king, with Akhenaten the obvious king, making Nefertiti Ay’s daughter. And that would certainly make him Somebody! And linked by blood to the royal line twice over if you believe Tutankhamun to be the child of Nefertiti and Akhenaten (which Aidan Dodson does), and if you believe Ay to be the brother of Tiye. So a justification for being next in line to the throne after Tutankhamun (even if all his linkages are on the female side of the family). There’s some other possible evidence to back up a relationship of this sort with Tutankhamun – an inscription where Ay (as Pharaoh) refers to Tutankhamun as his son. Now this could be rhetoric: the king is always supposed to be son of his predecessor even when he’s not, and inverting the relationship would seem to make sense in this case because the elderly Ay would be unbelievable even metaphorically as a teenager’s son. Or it could be read as referring to a grandfather/grandson relationship between the two.

There is other indirect evidence to link Ay to Nefertiti. Ay’s wife Tey has titles that tell us that she was Nefertiti’s nurse and brought her up. Notably she doesn’t have titles that indicate she was Nefertiti’s mother, and if we compare with Tuya (mother of Tiye) then that is significant. So from here you can go one of two ways – you can posit that Tey was Nefertiti’s wet-nurse or tutor (or both) and thus Ay would’ve been a significant figure in Nefertiti’s early life but not a relation. Or you can take this in combination with the speculation around the God’s Father title and suggest that Nefertiti was Ay’s daughter by an earlier marriage and Tey was her step-mother. Which would make Nakhtmin and Nefertiti brother & sister.

While there is no evidence corroborating a link between Nefertiti and Nakhtmin there is a known sibling of Nefertiti – a woman with the title “Sister of the King’s Great Wife”. She’s younger than Nefertiti, and thus Aidan Dodson suggests that she’s the daughter of Ay and Tey but I think there’s no evidence other than the presumed date of her birth. Her name is either Mutnodjmet or Mutbenret – the difference between the two when written in hieroglyphs is a single sign and it’s not clear which form was originally written. If she was Mutnodjmet then that was potentially very significant – Horemheb marries a woman with that name and if he was the son-in-law of Ay and the uncle (by marriage) of Tutankhamun that would go some way to explaining why he was a possible successor to Ay. We’re quite far up the house of cards here though, and that’s a very shaky assertion.

That’s quite a narrative we’ve constructed for Ay and his family relationships: he’s the brother-in-law of Amenhotep III who has a first marriage to a woman called Iuy which results in two children, Nakhtmin and Nefertiti. Iuy vanishes from the scene (quite likely dying in childbirth) and Ay marries a cousin of his called Tey who brings up the future queen of Egypt. They have a child, Mutnodjmet, who also goes on to be a queen after her marriage to her father’s successor, Horemheb. Very well connected, certainly Somebody, and it neatly explains his prominence in the various courts of the time. But very very very little actual concrete evidence for any of it – a house of cards that might only need a breath of new evidence to knock it over.

So what do I think? Well, first I think I’ve only read secondary literature mostly aimed at a general audience, and what I’ve read is biased towards Dodson-authored or Dodson-influenced works so I’m not sure I have enough of the opposing viewpoints in this summary. Also my educational/academic background is in protein biochemistry, and this is the sort of thing we’d rather dismissively have referred to as “telling Just So stories” – building up a convincing narrative without enough evidence to support it. Rather an unfair thought when Egyptology is a different field, you can’t exactly go out and repeat the experiment another half a dozen times to make sure it comes out the same every time, you have to work with what you have. Which is two long-winded ways of saying I don’t think I know enough to have a valid opinion. I did enjoy the logic puzzle-esque nature of the (re)construction of the family relationships, and it certainly seems plausible that Ay was a well connected member of the elite given that’s how their society worked. But it’s all rather neat & tidy (particularly once you get to tying Horemheb into the network) and I’m suspicious of neat & tidy.

Resources used:

“The Rage of Horemheb: Hurried End of Akhenaten, Aye and Atenism – Part I” Anand Balaji
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Amarna Sunrise” Aidan Dodson
“Amarna Sunset” Aidan Dodson
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson
“The Unknown Tutankhamun” Marianne Eaton-Krauss
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Commoner King Kheperkheperure: Divine Father Aye” Daniel C. Forbes in KMT Vol 30, No. 2, Summer 2019
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“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.

All the Common People Adore the Pharaoh

When you visit an Egyptian temple and look around at the decoration one motif you’ll often see repeated on columns and near the bases of walls is of a bird with its wings twisted behind its back. It also has human arms, raised up towards a star (and often beyond that a cartouche of a Pharaoh) and it sits on what looks like a bowl or nest. This is what the Egyptians called a rekhyt bird, easily recognisable by the distinctive crest on its head – we call it a lapwing, it’s a species of plover called Vanellus vanellus.

Rekhyt Bird Motif

One of the first surviving representations of the rekhyt bird is from around the time of the unification of Egypt into a single country. The Scorpion macehead is a large ceremonial macehead decorated on the surviving part with a scene of a man wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt performing some sort of agricultural ceremony. This is King Scorpion, hence the name of the macehead. The part of the decorative scheme we’re interested in today is the top frame of the scene which consists of a row of poles and from each pole swings a rekhyt bird on a rope, hung by the neck. It’s actually a pretty brutal image for a decorative motif, particularly once you know that these birds are generally thought to represent the peoples of Northern Egypt who were being conquered during the unification of the country. Even John Romer, who tends towards a peaceful interpretation whenever he can, sees this as indicating that “the relationship between the court and the people of the Lower Nile may have been somewhat fraught.”!

The next depiction we have of rekhyt birds is less overtly brutal, but nonetheless indicative of oppression. They show up on the base of a large standing statue of the 3rd Dynasty king Djoser (the builder of the Step Pyramid). As his statue strides forth it is walking directly on a depiction of nine bows, a motif found throughout Pharaonic Egyptian art representing the enemies of Egypt. Once Djoser takes his next step onward from crushing his enemies he will stand on a row of 3 bound rekhyt birds, crushing them in their turn. Here the birds are juxtaposed with the enemies of Egypt, rather than being one of them and it’s generally assumed that they now (or always did?) represent the whole of the common people of Egypt – the king’s subjects, who also needed to be kept in their place under the sandal of the king.

It’s not all oppression and death when it comes to rekhyt birds in the Old Kingdom, though. They are also found depicted as part of the scenes of idealised wildlife that were part of the decorative scheme for the mastaba tombs of the elite. Here the birds are alive, and shown flying or sitting in nests. There’s even a case where a child (or perhaps woman) is shown carrying one by its wings – perhaps a pet bird? In the Middle Kingdom there are very few depictions of rekhyt birds, whether as symbolic people or as representations of living things. But when we get to the New Kingdom and on into the Ptolemaic Period & beyond there is a great renewal of enthusiasm for representations of the bird, as seen on the temple walls that still survive. Most of the books I looked at said that the rekhyt bird was used as a way of indicating to the common people where they could stand in a temple when they were let into the outer areas during festivals – a useful visual cue for the illiterate. Kenneth Griffin disagrees because the motif also appears deep inside the temple where only priests could enter, he thinks it’s more plausible that it’s part of making the temple into a model of the cosmos – if you’re symbolising the whole of the world then you need to represent the common people as well even in areas that they were too profane to actually enter in person.

But that’s not the only way the rekhyt bird was used during these periods of Egyptian history. The motif I described at the beginning of this article is a rebus – a collection of symbols that has a meaning as well as being decorative. The bowl shape that the bird sits on is the neb hieroglyph and it means “all”. The 5-pointed star is the dwa hieroglyph which represents the verb “to adore”, which is backed up by the (human) arms of the bird that are raised in the traditional gesture of worship. In this context the bird itself is most likely to represent the common people of Egypt and so the motif reads “All the common people adore…”. In a temple context there’s often a pair of these motifs facing each other with a cartouche in the middle – so the common people are adoring the Pharaoh named in the cartouche. In a palace it’s thought that the tiles with rekhyt birds on them would face towards doors or thrones, directing their adoration at the actual king.

There is still a strong flavour of subjugation to the relationship between king and the rekhyt-people in this motif. They might adore him, but they still get shown on his footstool (there’s an example from Tutankhamun’s tomb) alongside the enemies he’s placing his feet on. And they’re definitely not shown as free. The pose of the bird, sort of lying down on its legs with its wings crossed over behind its back, doesn’t look terribly comfortable – in fact it’s rather reminiscent of the imagery of a bound captive also found in Egyptian art & writing. You can apparently still find ducks in Egyptian markets in the modern day trussed up like this – it not only stops them flying away but it also stops them from standing up properly so they sit there in the same pose as the rekhyt birds waiting for the cook pot.

A salutary reminder that the Egyptian monarch brought order out of chaos by imposing it from the top down and at the business end of a mace. All the common people adore the king, if they know what’s good for them.

Resources used:

“Images of the Rekhyt from Ancient Egypt” Kenneth Griffin (Ancient Egypt Magazine 7: 2)
“A Reinterpretation of the Use and Function of the Rekhyt Rebus in New Kingdom Temples” Kenneth Griffin, Current Research in Egyptology 2006, 2007
“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” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

Lord of the Fishes and Birds

My bonus article for February is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about the god Hapy: Lord of the Fishes and the Birds.

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

Here Am I!

Ancient Egyptian afterlife beliefs throughout their history are a wide-ranging mix of the esoteric and the pragmatic. The king might travel to the stars, or eat the gods to gain their powers, or accompany the sun on its night journey through the underworld. A normal person might be judged by the gods before he or she can enter the eternal afterlife, with a variety of demons to overcome and gates to pass through on his or her journey to the judgement hall. But kings and commoners also took care to provide themselves with a source of food and the other necessities of life for eternity – whether in the form of preserved items, model manufacturing facilities, or servants to do work on their behalf. Shabtis are one of these provisions – they are small mummiform figurines which have been found in their thousands in Egypt. They are so ubiquitous that every museum that has even a hint of an Egyptian collection will have a shabti, and so numerous (and sometimes so poor quality) that the treasure hunters of the 19th Century & earlier didn’t bother to collect them all up.

Display of Shabtis at Manchester Museum

Shabti is the Egyptian name for the figurines, other variants are shawabti and ushabti (the latter is used later in Egyptian history). The etymology is unclear – shabti may be derived from the word for stick and may refer to the modelling of the first known shabtis which is rather crude. The later term (ushabti) means “answerer” and that ties into the function of these figurines. Part of the Egyptian conception of the afterlife was that the deceased (once judged and found worthy) would spend eternity in the Field of Reeds – life would be the same there as in the living world, except one would be eternally young & healthy and conditions would always be perfect & harvests would never fail. And Ancient Egyptians of all social classes knew how agriculture worked – fields must be tilled, irrigation channels dug and repaired etc. And this is where the shabtis came into the picture. Some of them are inscribed with a text explaining their purpose:

“O shabti allotted to me [owner’s name]! If I be summoned or if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead, … you shall detail yourself for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks, or of conveying sand from east to west: “Here am I”, you shall say.”

So instead of going off to work in the fields in person the deceased sent off the shabti to do the work in his or her place. Almost every book I looked at presents this as an avoidance mechanism. For instance Barry Kemp uses shabtis to get insight into how the Ancient Egyptians felt about the corvée labour system that built their grand monuments and kept their agriculture functioning. And he points out that there’s evidence of people sending substitutes (usually relatives) when summoned for labour, so shabtis are a magical post-death version of something that happened in life. But Jan Assmann has a different take on them – he sees them as a way for the deceased to participate in the work. That instead of magically replacing a servant sent off to work on his master’s behalf they magically replace the deceased so that he or she can be in two places at once, one of which is being a part of the community doing the necessary work to ensure survival. For corroborating evidence he says that there are no spells in the various funerary texts (like the Book of the Dead) for actually avoiding the summons, and surely there would be if that was what the deceased was trying to do. I’m not sure I buy this idea, though – I think it more likely that the Ancient Egyptians saw the work as necessary (i.e. you couldn’t have everyone just avoid it) but not something that they wanted to spend eternity doing personally.

Shabtis first start to show up in tombs in the Middle Kingdom, which is the same time period that ideas about people other than the King having an afterlife were being developed (before that there was more of a feeling that a non-royal deceased would be effectively living in their own tomb for eternity). They develop from model bodies that were intended as a backup in case something happened to the mummy – so that the ka and ba of the deceased person would still have somewhere to go. Over time they become these servants, and I don’t think it’s quite clear where the dividing line is. Wolfram Grajetzki draws a distinction between shabtis (that have the inscription on them) and shabti-like mummiform figures (that do not) and in later periods of Egyptian history it seems clear that the uninscribed ones are the equivalent of the inscribed ones, but it’s not so clear early on. During the Middle Kingdom shabtis are just for the commoners – there are none found in tombs of kings until Ahmose I in the 18th Dynasty (the re-unifier of Egypt at the start of the New Kingdom).

Over time the shabtis become more elaborate. They start as simple mummiform figures (in some cases quite rudimentary indeed), which are sometimes put into a model coffin before being buried with the deceased. In the early New Kingdom they might be provided with model agricultural tools – hoes or baskets for instance. And later on these are carved or moulded directly on the figures. Shabtis can be made out of a variety of materials, blue faience is most common but they are also made of wood, stones of various types, clay, wax, or even glass. They vary in quality too, from the peg-like or clumsily shaped through to exquisitely detailed statuettes.

Initially a burial would just be equipped with one shabti, but they become much more numerous over time – eventually a “full set” could number in the hundreds for those who could afford a lavishly appointed tomb. For instance Tutankhamun was buried with 401: 365 workers (one for each day of the year) and 36 overseers (one for each 10 day week). The overseers were given flails instead of agricultural implements, so they could do their jobs properly. Which gives an interesting insight into how the Egyptians thought a workforce was ideally organised and controlled in the real world.

Because shabtis are so intimately bound into a particular vision of the afterlife I would’ve expected that they would vanish during the Amarna period when Akhenaten did his best to make sweeping changes to the Egyptian religious landscape. But not only do shabtis still show up in non-royal burials of this time but also Akhenaten had some of his own. The inscriptions on the shabtis are different, however, and Grajetzki sees this as representative of the general trend of the period: the physical objects in tombs were much the same but the inscriptions (and thus ideas?) were not. After the New Kingdom and towards the end of the Third Intermediate Period shabtis do fall out of style but both the 25th & 26th Dynasties look back to older periods of Egyptian history to bolster their own legitimacy and shabtis make a return as part of this. The final death knell for these servant figurines is during the Ptolemaic Period and is part of a general moving away from the traditional Egyptian burial goods – by the end of the period they are no longer in use.

There’s something about both the form and function of shabtis that makes them still fascinating even into the modern world. And I can’t leave this subject without mentioning the modern artist Zahed Taj-Eddin. I saw his Nu-Shabtis at an exhibition in 2016 and as well as the Egyptian artifacts and the egyptological exhibition there were also Nu-Shabtis scattered throughout (see my photos on flickr). He has extrapolated the concept of a shabti into the modern day, but not in the obvious way of “wouldn’t it be neat to have a replacement to send to do work for us?”. Instead they were an answer to or exploration of the question of what would shabtis do in the modern world? What if when the tombs were opened and the shabtis discovered that there was no Egyptian afterlife of eternal toil on behalf of their masters they came to life anyway, and took part in our modern world?

Resources used:

“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor” Wolfram Grajetzki
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed. Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“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 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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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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