Beauty and Entrails

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

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

Parts of a Person

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

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

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

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

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

The Ba Reuniting with the Body

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used:

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

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She Who Must Be Obeyed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life and Death for Rich and Poor” Wolfram Grajetzki
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Egypt: How a Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered” Joyce Tyldesley
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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

I Gave Bread to the Hungry

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

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

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

Exterior of the Tomb of Ankhtifi at Mo’alla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used:

“The Mind of Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins)
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“Egypt’s So-Called First Intermediate Period and the Tomb of Ankhtifi” Glenn Godenho (talk given to the Essex Egyptology group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol. I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms” Miriam Lichtheim
“A History of Ancient Egypt Vol. 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw
“Decrees, Papyri and Biographies in the Age of the Pyramids” Nigel Strudwick (talk given to the Essex Egyptology group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Lives of Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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

Creation By Heart and Word

My bonus article for November is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Hem-Netjer & Khery-Hebet tiers and is about the Memphite Theology: Creation by Heart and Word.

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

How Everything Became

Come! Listen! I will tell you a tale of before. Before now and before the time of our fathers. Before Pharaoh and before the Two Lands. Before the inundation and before the Nile. Before the gods and before time itself.


Had there been eye to see there would have been nothing to see. All that was were the still, dark waters stretching far, far around. The waters were Nun and Naunet. And in their infinity the waters were Huh and Hauhet. In their darkness the waters were Kuk and Kauket. And in their hiddenness the waters were Amun and Amaunet. There was no time and no change, no life and no motion, that which was was that which had been, and that to come was that which was.

Listen now to how everything became!

The hidden one, Amun, stirred within the vast limitless waters pregnant with possibility. He spoke words into the silence. He cried out while all around was in stillness! And the seed of order concealed with the vast and limitless chaos was hidden no more. The egg inside which was the spark of life was revealed to him. He looked upon it and with the creative energy of Ptah he caused the egg to crack open and life to burst forth.

Now there was change where once there was stillness!

The first land rose in a great mound, separating itself from the vast deep waters. Land rose up out of Nun like the land after the inundation. Rich, black, fertile land and on that land a lotus bud solitary in its perfection. As it emerged from the waters the bud opened, and on that perfect flower sat Atum who shone upon the land as the sun shines upon us.

Solitary Atum was, upon the new land that Amun had caused to be. Although there was change there was not yet time, yet nonetheless Atum grew lonely and desired companionship. And so he took himself in hand and spilled his seed upon the land. From that divine first seed were born the twins Shu and Tefnut. Tefnut of moisture, of order, of eternity. Shu of the air and of the cycles of time. And so the one of Atum became three, and time began.

With the passage of time Shu and Tefnut grew and became close, and they knew each other as husband and wife. From their union was born Geb, he of the fertile earth, and Nut, she of the sky. And in the manner of their parents brother loved sister and sister loved brother. Their children were manifold and clustered around Nut shining as the stars in the sky. Yet this joyous state was not to last, for Nut turned upon her children as a sow will sometimes turn upon her piglets, and she swallowed them down. The fury of Geb, her brother, their father, was like the rumbling of an earthquake and Nut fled before it stretching herself across the upper limits of the world to escape. Their father Shu saw what had happened and put himself between them, he of the air kept them apart from one another. And thus was born the world as we live in it with the sky above, the air between and the land beneath it all. Each night Nut swallows the sun and gives birth to her children, and each morning she turns on her children and gives birth once more to the sun. Thus is the cycle of our days.

And the days rolled on, one after another, every one new and yet every one the same. As time passed Geb and Nut became reconciled, and they conceived more children. These were not stars for Nut to swallow, they were gods who would walk amongst men and rule over them. But their story, my friends, is a tale for another 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

The creation myth of the Ancient Egyptians comes in many variants around some common themes, and isn’t written down as a coherent story in the sources. I’ve taken bits and pieces of the imagery that Shaw & Tyldesley discuss and stitched them into a narrative that follows the basic scheme, telling the story in my own words.

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


Who gets remembered from history and what they are remembered for doesn’t always have a lot to do with what that person or their peers would expect. Look at Tutankhamun, now the most famous Pharaoh but relatively minor in his own time and altogether missed out of later king lists because he was too contaminated by Akhenaten’s religious changes. Or how about Taharqo? Who isn’t really a household name any more, but in the Victorian era he was interesting and exciting because he is mentioned in the Bible. And if you could go and tell Taharqo this I imagine he’d be rather startled and perhaps a bit annoyed – the incident in question is relatively minor albeit full of foreshadowing, happened before he was Pharaoh, and didn’t go well for him (or Judah). Probably he’d be even more nonplussed by the idea that his importance to modern Egyptology is that his accession to the throne is the earliest definite date in Egyptian history!

So who actually was Taharqo? He was the fourth Pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty, who are either the last rulers of the Third Intermediate Period or the first rulers of the Late Period depending on where you like to draw your boundaries. His family line originated in Nubia to the south of Egypt, and their history follows a pattern common to (re-)unifiers of Egypt – first they consolidate power in their local area before sweeping north to conquer the whole of Egypt. There are two significant differences to the pattern, however – firstly they weren’t Egyptian, they were Nubian, and thus outsiders conquering the country rather than insiders unifying it. This might not’ve mattered in the long run as they were very keen to assimilate and be more Egyptian than the Egyptians. Perhaps more critically they also did not really impose a centralised government across Egypt. In particular their control of Lower Egypt was more in the nature of an overlord to whom the local rulers deferred rather than a directly ruling king.

Taharqo Sheltered by the God Amun in the Form of a Ram

Taharqo’s relationship to his predecessors and their relationships to each other are a bit murky, and there’s even some controversy over the order of the kings. It’s pretty clear that Piye was the first of the dynasty to claim Egypt as well as Nubia, although it was his successor who finished off the job of conquering Lower Egypt. Inheritance of the throne does not appear to’ve followed a straightforward patrilineal scheme, and there are some indications that matrilineal descent may’ve been important in deciding who ruled (but that’s neither clear nor generally accepted amongst Egyptologists). Between Piye and Taharqo were two other Pharaohs – Shabaqo and Shabitqo. Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton reconstruct the family as follows: Shabaqo is the brother and son-in-law of Piye, Shabitqo might be the son of Shabaqo and is the son-in-law of Piye, Taharqo is the son of Piye, and Taharqo’s successor Tanutamani is the son of Shabaqo. Clear as mud, right? And other schemes are available! For a long time the accepted order of succession was Piye, then Shabaqo, then Shabitqo, then Taharqo and finally Tanutamani. But an inscription discovered relatively recently has thrown the ordering of Shabaqo & Shabitqo into doubt – although I went to a talk by Robert Morkot and he was pretty scathing about the idea that one might want to re-write anything on the basis of one inscription. Particularly as the names of the two kings are so similar (especially when written in cuneiform as this inscription is) that it could just be the carver’s version of a typo.

The books I looked at don’t talk much about Taharqo’s life before he took the throne, but one incident does come up because it’s the one that’s mentioned in the Bible. The two great powers facing off across the Levant at this point were Egypt and Assyria – both on the rise again after a period of decline. At first contact between the two was relatively cordial, but as Assyria’s might continued to grow relations soured and Egypt felt her interests were best served by propping up Levantine polities as Assyria flexed her muscles in the region. So when Hezekiah of Judah asked for Egyptian aid against Assyria the 20 year old Prince Taharqo was dispatched with an army to help. It didn’t work out well, and Taharqo was soundly defeated (sadly for him, not for the last time!). Taharqo’s aid to Judah is memorialised in 2 Kings 19:8-13 and Isaiah 37, and as I said above I suspect Taharqo would rather they’d not written that little piece of humiliation down.

Taharqo took the throne in 690 BCE at the age of 32. This date is the first fixed point in Egyptian history which is pretty late considering how far back that history extends. The Egyptians themselves dated events to regnal years for each monarch, and the vagaries of survival of records & inscriptions means that we often only have a lower limit for the length of a king’s reign and errors quite quickly build up. I don’t know the details of how the date of Taharqo’s accession was worked out, but the essence is that it’s from working backwards from Greek & Roman dates and sideways from other cultures (like the Assyrians, I assume).

Despite the ominously unsuccessful little skirmish with the Assyrians some ten years earlier Taharqo’s reign was the peak of the 25th Dynasty. And it is for the first 20 or so years that I think Taharqo would prefer to be remembered. He built widely across his country, both in Egypt and in Nubia – in fact I was a little disingenuous with my opening paragraph, as these building works are also part of what we remember about Taharqo. If you’ve been to the Karnak temple complex you will’ve seen some – the First Pylon was built by Taharqo, as well as other structures within the complex (not all of which survive). Taharqo was the first to adorn the pinnacle of the sacred mountain at Gebel Barkal (thought by the Nubians to be the birthplace of the god Amun) – he had an inscription carved high up on the cliff face and covered with gold so that it would gleam in the sun. The art style during Taharqo’s reign (and that of the rest of the 25th Dynasty) was strongly influenced by earlier art, in particular that of the Old Kingdom. But this wasn’t slavish copying, features from different eras of Egyptian art and from Nubian art were combined to generate a new aesthetic. Taharqo’s tomb at Nuri (in Nubia) illustrates this quite well. As with other members of his Dynasty he was buried beneath a pyramid, but this pyramid was proportioned differently to those of the Old & Middle Kingdoms – a smaller base & steeper sides for the Nubian ones. The burial chamber was underground, and based on the Osireion at Abydos, a New Kingdom structure. There was also a chapel decorated in an Egyptian style for Egyptian rituals. However, despite the Egyptian styling details of the layout of structures also hark back to the tummuli tombs of his ancestors before they started building pyramids.

Sadly this new golden age of Egypt was shortly to unravel, as I’ve been foreshadowing throughout the article. The Assyrians continued to expand, and to look westward. Under their king Esarhaddon an invasion of Egypt was launched in 674 BCE, and Taharqo managed to fight off this initial force. He hadn’t been resting on his laurels during the first part of his reign – military prowess was a key feature of 25th Dynasty ideas of kingship, and Taharqo did not neglect this aspect. There is a stela that records a training exercise for his army involving running from Memphis to the Faiyum and back – a round trip of about 60 miles, which they apparently covered in 9 hours plus a 2 hour break in the middle. Which sounds … not implausible? Still likely to be an exaggeration but I know people who could run that sort of distance in that sort of time (though perhaps not in the heat of the desert wearing army gear, even overnight, but you never know). The stela even says that Taharqo joined them for an hour of running. I imagine this was some sort of unusual exercise, because it was worth recording on a stela. Nonetheless it shows that Taharqo regarded the army and the fitness of his army as important concerns.

Military training and readiness didn’t help Taharqo much. The Assyrians came back only 3 years later, this time with Esarhaddon leading them in person. This time they got as far as Memphis, sacking the city – forcing Taharqo to flee, leaving his wife & son (and heir) to be captured and taken back to Assyria as booty. There’s a fair amount of back & forth and Taharqo and then Tanutamani do manage to regain control of Egypt at various points. But in the end Esarhaddon’s successor Ashurbanipal definitively crushes the Egyptians and drives the 25th Dynasty rulers out of Egypt and back to their Nubian homeland. Taharqo didn’t live to see the coup de grace, but as he died during one of the upswings for the Assyrians it must’ve been clear to him that the writing was on the wall. Taharqo died in 664 BCE in Nubia, and was buried under his pyramid at Nuri having ruled the Egyptian and Nubian kingdoms for 26 years.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile” ed. Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Kings from Kush: Egypt’s 25th Dynasty” Robert Morkot (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“The Rise & Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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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

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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

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