Rich in Gold, Rich in Meaning

With the centenary coming up in a couple of years, and the exhibition of his burial goods touring (for the last time! or so they tell us), Tutankhamun’s tomb is a rather topical subject. It’s easy when you think about it, and when you visit the exhibition, to concentrate on the bling – everywhere the glint of gold, after all. But these objects aren’t just pieces of treasure, they also tell us about the rich symbolic culture of Ancient Egypt and how the people of that place lived out their lives. So today I’m going to talk about one of my favourite items from his tomb – the fan handle decorated with scenes of Tutankhamun out hunting ostriches – and talk not just about the beauty of the object, but how it fits into the culture it came from.

The Return of the Ostrich Hunt

Tutankhamun was buried within several coffins and shrines that practically filled the room they were in – a veritable Russian doll of an assemblage. There were three nested coffins around the body, which sat within a granite sarcophagus. Surrounding that were four gilded wooden shrines – giant bottomless boxes. Objects had been laid between the layers of this assemblage, and between the third and fourth shrines (counting from the outermost in) there were ceremonial bows and arrows as well as two spectacular fans. The one I’m talking about today (Carter Object 242, Cairo Museum JE62001, or GEM 284) is made of gilded wood, and was found with a mass of insect eaten ostrich feathers which had clearly once been attached to the business end of the fan. Enough remained to see that they had been alternating white & brown feathers, which must’ve been quite a striking look. It was found at the western end of the shrine – the same end as Tutankhamun’s head beneath its many layers. It was in pretty good nick when it was found, other than the feathers – Carter talks on the object card for it about having to clean it with warm water and ammonia, and re-attach some of the sheet gold which was loose but it doesn’t sound like there was any full-on restoration work going on.

This fan has some rather fine decoration on it. At the head end of it, where the feathers were attached are two scenes that, as I mentioned, show Tutankhamun going ostrich hunting. On the front side you see the king in his chariot aiming an arrow at two ostriches running in front of the chariot, with a hunting dog running alongside him and all of them surrounded by desert plants. Behind the king is an ankh carrying a fan just like this one that we are looking at. The inscription over the top of the scene says “the good god, Nebkheperure, given life like Re forever” (Nebkheperure is one of Tutankhamun’s names) and in front of the king’s face is “Lord of Might”.

On the reverse side (pictured) is my favourite of the two scenes, and why I picked out this object to talk about – it’s the aftermath of the hunt. Tutankhamun is returning triumphant, with servants preceding him carrying his defeated quarry and the fantastic detail of the ostrich wing feathers which will be used to make this very fan carried under the king’s arms. I can’t quite articulate why I like it so much – I think it’s the proud teenager returning home to say “Look, I did this!” aspect of it. It has a much longer inscription which tells us all about how wonderful a hunter the king is.

Down the staff there is an inscription as well – it tells us that this is a real event that is being pictured. This commemorates a hunt that Tutankhamun went on in the Eastern Desert at Heliopolis, where he killed the ostriches that provided the feathers that were an integral part of this fan.

Ostriches provided resources for the Ancient Egyptians, so there were eminently practical reasons to hunt them – not just feathers for fans (or other purposes) as seen on this fan handle either. Ostriches are, of course, made of meat and also a single ostrich egg could apparently feed eight people! And after eating the egg the shell could be used to make beads or other decorative pieces. For most of Egyptian history they are probably all wild, as they only appear in art in hunting scenes or as tribute. But they had been domesticated by the Ptolemaic Period.

As well as being useful for practical purposes, ostrich feathers had symbolic resonance. The symbol of maat was a single ostrich feather and this was also the headdress that the god Shu wore (the hieroglyph shaped like a feather was part of spelling his name). And the atef crown that Osiris wears is the white crown of Upper Egypt flanked by ostrich plumes. A very kingly collection of associations for these feathers that Tutankhamun was so proudly bringing home for his fan.

The activity of hunting has two very distinct connotations in modern Western culture – on the one hand there is hunting for food, this is the image conjured up by the term “hunter-gatherers”. By the Pharaonic period this wasn’t a particularly important aspect of Egyptian life and it doesn’t seem to me that this is what Tutankhamun was engaged in! And on the other hand it is “the sport of kings” (one of the uses of that term anyway), this is perhaps the first interpretation to spring to the mind of a modern Brit like me – an image of posh people wearing fancy clothes riding to hunt an animal for fun (probably a fox, with dogs). And this seems much more the sort of activity we are thinking about here – particularly once you add hunting lodges into your mental picture (like a building on the Giza plateau which may be where Tutankhamun stayed when he was hunting near Memphis). Now it’s very much an image of the young aristocrat at play.

Yet as is my theme today – there’s more to this and the other depictions of hunting on Tutankhamun’s burial goods than that. It may be practical (to at least some extent) and a literal depiction of the king at his leisure, but it’s also symbolic – Egyptian art is very rarely, if at all, a straightforward depiction of something from the real world. The first of these symbolic layers is that showing the king engaging in a pursuit like hunting shows him to be a physically strong and capable man – important attributes for a king. And there is a second more fundamental layer of symbolism. These hunting scenes are often mirrored with scenes of warfare – not in the case of this ostrich hunt fan, but for instance on the hunting box (Carter Object 21) one side of the box has the king on his horse trampling wild beasts and on the opposite side the king is on his horse trampling Nubians. And in both warfare and hunting scenes the quarry or enemies are there as avatars of chaos – this is not just a physically strong king being shown at war and at play, this is the king upholding maat and playing his essential part in keeping the universe the way it ought to be.

Moving on now to think about the object itself, the word “fan” has quite probably got all the wrong connotations for you – certainly it does for me. It conjures up simpering 18th Century CE ladies fluttering little hand held fans and hiding behind them or sending messages with how they held them. Whereas this fan is of a quite different type and when Carter found it he had a quite different image conjured up by the object. In the Catholic Church (until Vatican II) and the Orthodox Church even now there are large fans called “flabella” (singular “flabellum”) which are carried in procession behind the Pope or other senior priest of the church in question, or held beside the altar during the Eucharist. These are of a similar type to this fan I’m talking about in this article, and seem to’ve been used in a similar way.

This is not just extrapolation from a similar style – the fans are seen in Egyptian art throughout Ancient Egyptian history (from at least the time of the Scorpion Macehead in the Predynastic Period) being used in just this fashion. Given the climate of Egypt they had a practical use – for shading the king and for generating a cooling breeze, so that he was never troubled by the heat of the sun. and carrying a fan for the king wasn’t necessarily a low status job – the title “Fan Bearer on the Right Side of the King” (tjay-khu her imenty-nisut) was a high status one held by important members of the Egyptian court. Perhaps a bit like “Groom of the Stool” in medieval and early modern England – a rather menial job, but one that gives you unparalleled access to the king, so a prestigious title.

Of course as with hunting scenes the fan seen depicted on the front side of this fan handle is not just literal but is also there for more than one symbolic reason. It is being carried by an ankh hieroglyph and so it symbolises the breath of life being wafted over the king as he hunts the ostriches. Fans were also linked to the idea of “blowing forth” the waters of the Nile in the inundation, so are linked to fertility and fecundity. The fan’s role in providing shade was also symbolic – a fan might represent one of the parts of a person, the shadow, which I find suggestive given where this fan was found, within the shrines surrounding Tutankhamun’s body. And also the concepts of shade and of protection are linked in the Egyptian mind (and both are connotations of the Egyptian word for shadow, shwt) so depicting the king in the shade of a fan means that the king is under protection. So in that one symbol (and indeed in this one object) are bound up notions of protecting the king and giving him life and fertility, as well as symbolising an integral part of his person.

Hopefully this has been a convincing demonstration that the items in Tutankhamun’s tomb are not just pretty faces – bling and toys for the wealthiest man of his time. They were also deeply symbolic for the people of the time, and help us to understand the culture he lived in. And I’m pretty sure I’ve only scratched the surface! This object is also a demonstration of how one should, I think, always approach Egyptian culture looking for the “and” – what else could this mean or be?


Resources used:

Carter, Howard. 1972. The Tomb of Tutankamen. Book Club Associates.
Dodson, Aidan. 2010. “The Monarchy.” In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
Friedman, Renée. 2011. “Hierakonpolis.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press.
Hawass, Zahi. 2018. Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, the Centennial Celebration. IMG Exhibitions.
Hawass, Zahi A. 2005. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. National Geographic Books.
Hawass, Zahi A. 2007. King Tutankhamun: The Treasures of the Tomb. Thames & Hudson.
Hoffman, Michael A. 1991. Egypt Before the Pharaohs: The Prehistoric Foundations of Egyptian Civilization. O’Mara.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
Patch, Diana Craig. 2011. “From Land to Landscape.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press.
Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure. Thames and Hudson.
Romer, John. 2013. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. Penguin.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. British Museum.
“Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation.”
Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.

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The Judgement of the Dead

My bonus article for June is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about the Ancient Egyptian idea of the Judgement of the Dead.

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The Way Things Ought To Be

The Egyptian worldview is full of dualities – Upper & Lower Egypt, the living world and the world of the dead, the cultivated land and the desert, Horus and Seth, and so on and so forth. Probably the most fundamental of these is the duality of maat (order) and isfet (chaos), it’s set up at the moment of creation and underpins everything about the world of the Egyptians.

Translation between languages which are as different as Ancient Egyptian & English is rarely a straightforward matter of replacing one word with another. So although I glossed maat above as “order” we don’t actually have a single word in English that covers the concept in all its nuances (as far as we understand it). In the books I read for this article it was variously translated as: balance, control, connective justice, correctness, decorum, harmony, justice, the norms of society, order, original state of tranquillity at the moment of creation, proper behaviour, righteousness, rightness, the status quo, truth, the way things ought to be. Listing them all out like that (rather than just picking one of them) gives us a flavour of the concept – although I’m pretty sure there’ll be nuances that’ve been missed – but it’s rather unwieldy for referring to the concept, so as everyone else does I’m mostly going to stick to using the Egyptian word rather than a potentially misleading translation.

Maat at the Weighing of the Heart Greeting the Deceased, from the Book of the Dead of Tasnakht

The concept of maat is, as you would expect, personified by a goddess and referred to in mythic terms – this is how the Egyptians conceptualised their world. The goddess Maat is normally represented by a human woman, with no associated animal, wearing a feather as her headdress. She may be standing, but she’s more often seated, and she’s sometimes just represented by her feather. You most often see her being offered to the gods by the king, and sometimes greeting the deceased in the Weighing of the Heart scene. She’s often referred to as the daughter of Re, which gives her a close connection with the Egyptian king who is called Son of Re as one of his titles.

Maat (goddess and concept) comes into being at the very moment of creation – before there was nothing but chaos, and the act of creation brings order (etc.). It is maat that regulates the seasons, the movements of the stars, the inundation of the Nile, the cycle of days and nights. One of the Egyptian conceptions of time (djet) is that the pattern of the universe is fixed and unchanging for eternity – and maat is that pattern. So maat permeates the whole universe, but it’s not something that just “is” it’s something that needs to be maintained and it’s in that context that it affects the lives of humanity.

The primary role of the king – the point of a king, if you like – is to maintain maat and present it to the gods, and if he does that then all will be as it should be in the universe. One of the ways in which he does this is to defeat and control the world outside Egypt and some of the familiar parts of Egyptian iconography represent this. The Egyptian way of life is seen as conforming to maat and all foreign ways of doing things are therefore not in accordance with maat – and so when you see the king smiting foreign enemies on the walls of a temple, that is the king maintaining maat and defeating chaos. When you see the king portrayed with bound captives beneath his feet (or the bows that represent the nine traditional enemies) then once again he’s imposing order and defeating chaos.

Maat also needs to be maintained within Egypt, and this is done via the legal system and administration – maat is the concept that underpins all the bureaucracy. The king is pivotal here as well – with his connection to the gods as the Son of Re he has the duty and necessary knowledge to create laws that uphold maat. But these laws were not handed down as divine in origin – they were essentially practical: behaviour which promoted harmonious and balanced relations between people was maat and should be promoted, behaviour which didn’t was isfet (and thus should be forbidden). It was also not egalitarian in any fashion – all men were not supposed to be equal, but instead were to behave appropriately for their place in society. Jan Assmann quotes Rousseau as saying “Between the weak and the strong freedom is the oppressive and law the liberating principle”* – i.e. the law is what stops the strong from trampling the weak, and this is what maat was in this aspect of Egyptian society.

*that is presumably an English translation of a German translation of the original French

The king also needs to present the maat he has upheld within and without Egypt to the gods. This is frequently depicted on temple walls, with the king shown kneeling and offering up a small figure of the goddess Maat to another god. There is a sense in which this is equated with all the other offerings that are given to the gods in their temples. The food that is offered is maat, the clothing that is offered is maat, the incense that is burnt is maat – all that a god eats, wears, breathes etc is maat. So the king’s upholding of, and offering of, maat maintains the existence of the gods (and their associated concepts and roles) and thus the universe remains as it should be.

And maat is also something that an individual should adhere to in his or her life. There’s a whole genre of Egyptian literature (the wisdom texts) which discusses how to live one’s life in accordance with maat – once again in terms of practical measures rather than as a theoretical concept. Over the course of Egyptian history ideas about how transgressing maat would affect you changed. In the Old Kingdom it was assumed that a failure to act in accordance with maat would lead to failure in this life. From the Middle Kingdom onward the Egyptians expected to be judged in the afterlife, and only those who had done maat in this life would be permitted to become an akh and to reach the Field of Reeds. And later, from the Ramesside Period on, people had more direct relationships with any given god – offending a deity would lead to divine punishment in this world – but that doesn’t mean maat was no longer important, it did still affect one’s afterlife.

There are at least a couple of different antonyms for maat. One of these is fairly narrow – the word gereg means falsehood and is the opposite of maat in its sense of speaking truth. The more commonly found one is isfet and its meaning is much broader in scope. As with maat it’s translated in a variety of ways by the different authors I read, but they generally seem to regard the concept as more straightforward – isfet is chaos, disorder, wrongness. It can also be translated as “sin”, which Boyo G. Ockinga does (writing in “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson), but he cautions that one needs to be wary when reading that translation. The concept of isfet is of actions that are chaotic or wrong, there is not the concept of humanity as being essentially sinful in the way that there is in Christian thought. Theoretically one can maintain maat in all one does, failure is not inevitable.

This is not the only way that the Egyptian duality of maat vs isfet is different to our own cultural duality of right vs wrong or good vs sinful. Another fundamental difference is that “good” is not the same as “ordered”, and this has ramifications that shape the rest of society (and that we should carefully keep in mind when thinking about Ancient Egypt). In our culture it is easy to see that “doing the right thing” can in some cases mean going against the law or transgressing the norms of society – it’s possible for the individual to be good whilst not conforming, and it is possible to see society as needing to be changed in order to become a better society. But in the Ancient Egyptian culture maat has much heavier overtones of keeping in one’s place and this leads to a much more conservative outlook on life. Obviously Egyptian culture did change over time, but it had to be carefully justified as “returning to what had been done before”. Change itself was seen as undermining maat and the proper order of things. Things should be done the way they have always been done, and then the pattern of the universe is maintained in the way that it should be and all will be well in the world.


Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins)
“Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and On Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“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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