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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used:

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

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The Naming of Kings

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

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

Or in English:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used:

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

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Peace, Calm and a War God

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

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Changing Over Time

A fragment of limestone depicting the god Montu.

Sometimes you hear Ancient Egyptian culture treated as if it was a static thing, staying the same over the whole course of its history – someone (often in a documentary voiceover!) making statements about how “the Ancient Egyptians” did things as if all of them did the same from the time of Narmer through to the fall of Cleopatra some 3000 years later. This is, of course, nonsense – over the course of three thousand years a lot changes, even in a culture that made such a point of (talking about) doing things the way they had always been done. Their religion was no exception – the importance of different gods in their pantheon waxed and waned as the importance of different regions and priesthoods waxed and waned. Your mind might go to Akhenaten and his failed attempt to move from an Amun-centred pantheon to worship of the Aten, but I think that’s a bit different as he also changed the way worship happened and the architecture of temples – an attempt at a more seismic shift in the religious culture. The changes I have in mind are those that seem more organic (at least as far as one can tell), more like reshuffling of priorities than disruptive alterations – things like the rise and (relative) fall of the god Montu in the early Middle Kingdom.

Montu is the ancient principle deity of Thebes and the surrounding area. He’s most often represented in art as a falcon-headed man or as a falcon, but he may also be depicted as a bull or bull-headed man (particularly in the Late Period and after). He wears a headdress of a sun-disk and uraeus with two feathered plumes, and these plumes serve to differentiate him from depictions of Re or Horus or other falcon-headed deities. He may also carry a curved sword called a khepesh, emphasising his martial nature. He is referenced in the Pyramid Texts and there is also archaeological evidence of him in the Old Kingdom period. At this point he is primarily important on a local scale but this changes with the 11th Dynasty. They have a particular veneration for Montu – three of the rulers from this dynasty (and an ancestor) are named Montuhotep, which means “Montu is satisfied”. An appropriately warlike choice for a family who used force of arms to reunify the fractured land that was the Egypt of the First Intermediate Period!

With the 11th Dynasty’s rise to power so comes Montu’s rise to national importance as one of the key state gods. But he was not to remain preeminent for long. The 12th Dynasty began with the reign of Amenemhat I, and again the name gives a clue – during the time of “Amun is at the forefront” and his successors the cult of Amun begins its rise to centre stage. Montu doesn’t completely fade back to being a purely local god, however. Instead he becomes the deity who represents the aggressive side of kingship. During the New Kingdom the more martial rulers use epithets that reference Montu, for instance Thutmose III fights “like Montu in his might”. As well as this his cult remains important in the Theban region right through into the Roman period.

Fragment of a limestone relief showing the god Montu.
Relief Fragment Depicting Montu. Photo by John Patterson.

There are four main sites near Thebes where there are temples to Montu – Armant, el Tod, Karnak and Medamud. Karnak surprised me when I read about it, as I associate that temple complex so strongly with Amun (and his consort Mut & their child Khonsu) that I wasn’t expecting Montu to show up there as well. This is an artifact both of the dominance of the New Kingdom buildings on the site and of which bits of the complex I’ve actually visited. The precinct of Montu is to the north of what I think of as “Karnak temple” (the New Kingdom precinct of Amun-Re), and is dwarfed by it.

The temple at Armant was the main cult centre for Montu, and it was here that his sacred bull was buried. In much the same way that the god Ptah had the Apis Bull at Saqqara as an avatar, so too Montu had the Buchis Bull. There was only one Buchis bull at any one time, and when it died it was mummified and buried with full honours in a catacomb at Armant called the Bucheion or Bucheum. The bull’s mother was also buried in a catacomb nearby, called the Baqqariyah. The next bull was chosen on the basis of its markings – a white hide and a black face, according to one ancient author but this doesn’t always seem to’ve been the case. It was particularly renowned for its ferocity, and was depicted in bull fighting scenes in Old Kingdom Upper Egyptian tombs.

As with most Egyptian gods Montu had a consort – or rather he had different ones in different times and places, another iteration of the idea I started this article with. At a Middle Kingdom era temple in Tod the god was shown with the goddess Tjenenet. There’s a double sided relief dating to the reign of Montuhotep III which is now in the Louvre which has Montu on one side and Tjenenet on the other, both receiving offerings from the king. This is part of a wall that used to divide two of the chapels in the temple – one dedicated to each deity. But by the time of the late New Kingdom (and afterwards) the consort of Montu depicted in reliefs is Raet (also sometimes called Raettawy). She began as a female counterpart for the sun-god Re and is known from the 5th Dynasty. She doesn’t really show up much in mythology though, the roles that you might expect the counterpart of Re to fulfil in a story are more often taken by Hathor. Even later in Ancient Egyptian history Montu and Raet complete their triad with a child (in the temple at Medamud at least). This child is the deity known to the Greeks as Harpocrates – Horus the Child. Who is more often, in (most) other times and places, identified as the son of Isis and Osiris conceived after Osiris’s death …

So altogether the rise and fall, and the relationships, of Montu are a good illustration of the fluidity of Ancient Egyptian religious culture over time. There’s a core of Montu-ness around which are a variety of attributes and relationships which reflect what place Montu has in that specific place at that specific moment.

Resources used:

“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Conceptions of God in Egypt: The One and the Many” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed. Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, Kei Yamamoto
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyledesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson

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From a God to a Man

My bonus article for July is available on Patreon for my subscribers at all tiers and is about Imhotep: From a God to a Man.

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The Four Legged Bird

Many years ago I went to a talk about the birds of Ancient Egypt and about identifying their species from hieroglyphs & art. Sadly I can’t remember the name of the speaker for sure but I think it must’ve been John Wyatt. What I do remember is that he showed us a picture of a Predynastic object decorated with rows of animals, each row a different type of animal. And he pointed out the row with the long-legged long-necked birds, and told us that in every example of this motif the second from the front is the “four legged bird”! So now when I see a comb or knife handle with rows of animals I make a point of looking for the four legged bird – and I’ve always found one.

The four legged bird is, of course, a giraffe. Which doesn’t, at first blush, make it seem less of an oddity to find in Predynastic Egyptian art. Giraffes in the modern era are found in sub-Saharan Africa, not in the Nile Valley. But the Sahara has not always been so arid, and once supported vegetation and animals that we now associate with more southerly regions of Africa including giraffes. As the climate changed and the desert became inhospitable both animals & people were pushed towards the south and towards the Nile Valley. It’s this concentration of people in the valley and the shift from nomadic pastoral life to settled agriculture that kickstarted Egyptian civilisation. During the period from c. 5000 BCE through to c. 3250 BCE the Prehistoric Egyptians would still have had giraffes living alongside them, perhaps even large herds of them. But the giraffes disappeared during the Early Dynastic Period and were gone from Egypt by the early Old Kingdom at the latest. Partly this is down to the continuing aridification of the climate pushing the giraffes’ range south. And partly because of increasing competition with domestic animals as the Egyptian civilisation flourished. Interestingly their disappearance doesn’t seem to’ve involved over-hunting, which is my normal assumption when mega-fauna vanishes from a region in correlation with increased human presence! Giraffe bones are not often found in the Nile Valley, and certainly not in the sort of quantity that would imply hunting them was a significant part of the economy.

So perhaps not surprising after all that giraffes feature in Prehistoric and Predynastic Egyptian art. Giraffes are seen in lot of rock art throughout the period but in terms of more portable objects there seem to be two phases. During the Naqada I period (c. 3900-3650 BCE) giraffes are seen incised on pots and cosmetic palettes. There are also finds of long-toothed combs with the handles sculpted into giraffes. Then during the Naqada II period (c.3650-3300 BCE) depictions of giraffes become less common – a find at Hierakonpolis in 1998 of a pot with a giraffe incised on it is a rare example. And then there is a resurgence in giraffe imagery during the Naqada III period (3300-3150 BCE), including in the motif of rows of animals that I opened this article with. The rows of sorted animals might represent an imposition of order onto chaos, a frequent Egyptian theme, and an assertion of control over these animals by grouping them into types (with the mix of giraffes and birds being “things with long necks and long legs”). Giraffes are also depicted facing palm trees, often a pair of giraffes flanking a palm tree. There’s an example of this on the back of the Battlefield Palette (now in the British Museum) and one on the back of the Four Dog Palette (now in the Louvre). The meaning of this motif is unclear.

A Predynastic ornamental comb carved with rows of animals, including a row of long legged birds which includes a giraffe.
Ornamental Comb Carved with Rows of Animals, the Four Legged Bird is on Row 2, 2nd from the Right

Art representing giraffes does not really outlive the presence of giraffes in the Nile Valley – they are rare in Pharaonic art, mostly showing up on seals. They don’t become associated with any of the mythological underpinnings of Egyptian culture – no god is personified as a giraffe. During the New Kingdom there are more representations, but most of these (like the rather fine example in TT100, the tomb of Rekhmire) are in contexts where they are exotic animals brought as tribute to Pharaoh by African vassals.

But giraffes do live on in Egyptian writing – there is a giraffe hieroglyph (sign E27 in Gardiner’s Sign List). This can be used for the word for giraffe (as a single sign or ideogram for the word) and is otherwise used in only two words. In both of those cases it is used as a determinative (which is a symbol that doesn’t represent a sound but instead indicates what sort of word is being spelt out). These two words are sr (which means “foretell”) and mmj (which means “giraffe”). Neither book I looked at had any speculation on why a giraffe might be used in the word “foretell”, but I like the idea that it’s because the long necked giraffe can see further ahead.

There seems to be tantalisingly little known about giraffes in early Egyptian culture, looking through my book collection I found very few that even mention giraffes. As they show up in well defined motifs on elite objects like large ceremonial palettes it’s definitely tempting to assume that they meant something to the people of the time, rather than just being decorative. But what that is is unknown and I suspect is always going to be an unanswered question – except for the intriguing hint of an association with foretelling the future.

Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs” Alan Gardiner
“Giraffes in Ancient Egypt” Dirk Huyge (In Nekhen News Vol. 10 1998)
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” Diana Craig Patch

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And She Blew Through the Towns Like the Hot Desert Wind

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale from days long ago, so long ago that not only was it before your mother was born, but also before the birth of her mother and her mother’s mother too.

And in those days the gods lived amongst men, and there was not the separation that there is now. Re ruled over the towns of mankind and the greatest of men was to Re as the meanest peasant is to our own Pharaoh. For many long years there was peace & plenty: the flood waters rose, the harvests ripened and the people grew fat off the land. But even Re himself is not immune to the passage of time and the god became old, his bones turned to silver, his flesh to gold and his hair to the bluest of lapis lazuli. The ageing of a god is not like that of mortal man, yet still the people murmured amongst themselves. “He is too old to rule!” “He is surely weak and cannot protect us!” and other such lies & calumnies.

So it came to pass that mortal men plotted and schemed amongst themselves and rose up against Re, pursuing rebellion even at the the gates of his palace walls. And fearsome was his wrath and the people fled before him, fleeing into the desert. Yet Re was not satisfied with this terror and fearing that the people would rise up again he took secret council amongst the oldest of gods. Nun, the chief amongst them, advised his king that there would be no peace until the rebellious ones were destroyed. So Re called his daughter, his Eye, to attend him: “Hathor, come! I have a task for you”. On hearing the insult done to her father, Hathor too became full of rage and gladly accepted his commandment. In her rage she took on her most terrible aspect, Sekhmet, She Who Is Powerful, the lioness of the desert. And she armed herself with plague and with pestilence and took up her bow. First to the desert she went, and there she slew those who had fled. But her wrath was not yet sated; she turned towards the river.

And she blew through the towns like the hot desert wind.

Statue of the goddess Sekhmet

Where she looked, men sickened. Where she walked, men were injured. The arrows she shot met their marks, and the people died of wounds, and of sickness. Death stalked through the land in her wake and the bodies lay thick on the ground. The river ran red with blood, and as the day drew to a close Sekhmet returned to Re. Her muzzle red with the blood of mortal men she proclaimed to Re “I have begun my task, and I find it pleases me! The mortals shall trouble you no further for tomorrow I shall bring all to an end”.

As Sekhmet rested to gather her strength, Re found that he was troubled. Not all men had rebelled, and those wrongdoers were long since dead. His anger had faded, his thirst for vengeance satisfied, and he was moved to protect what remained of his creation for those men still alive had done him no wrong. But he knew Sekhmet would not be so easily turned aside now that she had tasted blood. So Re ordered his servants to fetch him many barrels of beer, and he ordered his servants to bring vast quantities of red ochre. And they mixed the ochre into the beer until it was the colour of blood, and poured it out on the fields by the river where Sekhmet would pass by in the morning.

And when she went forth she saw this pool, this glistening pool, this deep red blood-coloured pool, and she could not resist drinking for she had a taste for the blood of men. The goddess drank, she drank deep, and she drank until the fields were dry.

And when she had finished, the beer had done its work and cat-like she curled up where she was and she slept the sleep of the drunk. In her sleep a change took place and she rose as Hathor once more, her thirst quenched and the fire of her fury diminished. And she returned to the side of her father.

But Re was no longer content to remain amongst men, for he feared that this cycle would return again and again as he grew older and men grew more restless. And so he resolved to leave this world behind him. He designated a Pharaoh, a Son of Re to rule in his place and he ascended to the heavens on the back of Nut, she of the sky.

And that, my friends, is why the gods no longer walk among us as they once did.

Resources used:

“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods & Legends” Garry Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

I took the plot of the legend from “The Destruction of Mankind” which is part of the New Kingdom royal funerary text “The Book of the Cow of Heaven”, as described in both Tyldesley & Shaw’s books. I have then retold it in my own style combining Egyptian imagery (in particular that associated with Sekhmet) with my own cultural references.

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Building for Eternity

It’s not often you get to stand in a place where something was done first, but that’s exactly what you’re doing if you stand in the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara. This vast structure, which includes the Step Pyramid itself as well as enclosure walls and dummy building facades, is the first ever monumental dressed stone building in the world. It’s difficult to fully grasp how awe-inspiringly new this would’ve looked to the people of the time. I grew up in Oxford and so went about my early life surrounded by the great stone buildings of the university. There are large stone buildings for the government, large stone buildings for religious structures, large stone buildings for education, large stone buildings everywhere you look. Even the village my husband grew up in which only has a dozen houses is less than 3 miles from a large stone parish church (and closer yet to a manor house). Before the modern age of steel and glass, monumental stone structures were how you demonstrated power and wealth. But everything starts somewhere, and Saqqara is the place where one day nearly 5 thousand years ago somebody looked around and said “you know, if we built it out of stone it would last forever”.

Of course in the way of all things archaeological there are caveats that need to be applied – most importantly that our knowledge of the past is shaped by what has survived, so it’s “the first that we know of”. It is backed up, however, by later Egyptians crediting king Djoser and his chancellor Imhotep with inventing building with dressed stone. It was also not the first time that stone had been used in monumental structures: individual elements in earlier structures like paving slabs and doorjambs had been made from stone. This is however the first completely stone built structure.

A photograph of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.
The Step Pyramid at Saqqara

Another first is that we have an individual to credit with its design – Imhotep. Again there are caveats – no contemporary sources outright say that the chancellor Imhotep was the architect of the Step Pyramid, but he is both the man with the appropriate titles (job description if you will) in the contemporary sources and the man who is later credited with the achievement. I’ve seen him referred to as “the Leonardo da Vinci of Ancient Egypt”, the polymath of his era – although I think this makes more serious Egyptologists wince! And unlike Imhotep, Leonardo has not been deified or even canonised but it did take Imhotep a couple of thousand years so perhaps there’s time yet for da Vinci.

The Step Pyramid enclosure is the tomb and funerary complex for the King Djoser who reigned in the middle of the 27th Century BCE. Following the much later historian Manetho modern Egyptologists designate him as the first ruler of the 3rd Dynasty (which is the beginning of the Old Kingdom period of Ancient Egyptian history). It’s not clear that Djoser himself would’ve seen his reign as the start of something new – it seems plausible that he was the son of the last king of the 2nd Dynasty so there was continuity of leadership. And despite the new material of his building project many of the design elements look back to earlier architecture. Looking around the enclosure one sees several courts lined with dummy facades of buildings. These solid structures are faced with limestone carved to give the impression of buildings made from wood and rush, the forms of which resemble shrines built by earlier rulers from those materials. Even the Step Pyramid itself started out as a recreation in stone of the mastaba tombs which 1st and 2nd Dynasty kings had been buried in, the final form of 6 steps to make a pyramid appears to have been thought of after construction was underway – perhaps to make it stand out in the increasingly crowded necropolis at Saqqara.

One of the questions that springs to mind as you stand there in the Step Pyramid enclosure is how come, if it was first, it seems so well done? Part of the answer to this is that it wasn’t the first time that the Egyptians had been working with stone. As well as the stone architectural elements I mentioned above there was also a very long tradition in Egypt of working with stone to make sculpture and to make items such as stone vases. So Djoser and Imhotep had a pool of highly skilled craftsmen who could be put to work making stone facades rather than vases – a change of form but using existing technology and skills. And as I also mentioned above, the design itself is a mimicking of existing forms in a new material even down to the details. If you stand in the entrance corridor to the enclosure and look up you can see that the ceiling is made to look like a log ceiling – there are even traces of paint to show how it was once painted to look like wood. In the subterranean corridors many faience tiles were found which had lined the walls. They weren’t just stuck on the wall like a modern tile would be, instead they were strung on cords and hung on the walls to look like the reed mats that hung on contemporary palace walls.

A place of firsts, built to provide Djoser with an appropriate setting for his afterlife and the beginning of an Egyptian tradition of building for eternity and not just for “now”.

Resources Used:

“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“Inside the Step Pyramid” Vincent Oeters (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“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

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