Statue of Harbes Holding a Figure of Osiris

This statue depicts a man called Harbes holding onto a statue of Osiris (you can tell it’s a statue of the god because it’s standing on a pedestal on top of the pedestal Harbes is standing on). It dates to the 26th Dynasty, around 2600 years ago.

There are inscriptions on the sides & back that tell us about Harbes: he is the Chief Scribe of the Great Prison who lived in the time of Psamtik II. He also used the name Psamtiknefer (Psamtik is good), which was a common piece of sycophancy used by officials at this time.

The inscriptions also make offerings to Osiris and to Amun-Re, the god he is holding and the god in whose temple the statue was set up. It was eventually found in the cache of statues hidden beneath the floor of Karnak temple and had once been on view in the temple itself.

Statue of Harbes Holding a Figure of Osiris. From Cachette, Temple of Amun, Karnak, Thebes. Late Period, Dynasty 26, reign of Psamtik II, c.595-589 BCE. Acc. No.: 19.2.2

It is now in the Met Museum, acc. no. 19.2.2

See it on my photo site:

Jigsaw Puzzles:

Stela of Pakeshi

This stela was set up by a man called Pakeshi, who held the title God’s Father of Amun, as did his father Nespautitawi. Pakeshi stands before Osiris and the Four Sons of Horus, and the text below is a fairly standard offering formula. It’s not known where it was found.

It dates to the 25th or 26th Dynasties, somewhere around 750-525 BCE. It’s made of wood with gesso over it and painted in this pastel style that’s typical of the time period (so says the Met Museum, and I assume it’s on this basis that they date it to this period).

Despite looking nicely made it’s got one feature that looks like the artisans who made it dropped the ball – you can see in front of the face of each figure there’s a neatly outlined space where the name should go, but no-one’s come back and written the text in!

Stela of Pakeshi. Provenance unknown. Third Intermediate Period – Late Period, Dynasty 25-26, c. 750-525 BCE. Acc. No.: 90.6.30

It’s now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 90.6.30

See it on my photo site:

Jigsaw Puzzles:

Detail of the Innermost Coffin of Kharushere

This is a close up of the innermost coffin of a man called Kharushere, who was the Doorkeeper of the House of Amun sometime in the 22nd Dynasty (c.800 BCE). His father Bes had the same title, and his mother Tanetheretib was a Chantress of Amun as well as Mistress of the House.

This vignette is on his chest, and shows the man himself being presented to Osiris (seated) by Thoth. Behind Osiris is Isis, and to the right is another goddess (she might be Sopdet but I’m not sure as I can’t find the hieroglyphs for her name in the text).

It’s rather nicely drawn – I particularly like the detail on Kharushere’s fine transparent linen clothing. It’s a shame tho that the person who has painted the blue colour seems to’ve gone for quantity over quality, and so has gone outside the lines in all the hieroglyphs!

Detail of the Innermost Coffin of Kharushere. Kharushere was the son of Bes, Doorkeeper of the House of Amun and Tanetheretib, Mistress of the House and Chantress of Amun. From Sheikh Abd el Gurna, Thebes. Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 22, c.825-715 BCE. Acc. No.: 86.1.33

It was found at Sheikh Abd el-Qurna by Maspero, and is now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 86.1.33.

See it on my photo site: and there’s another detail from this coffin one photo to the right.

Jigsaw Puzzles:

Field of Reeds

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

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

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

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

Field of Reeds

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

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

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

Resources used:

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

Pyramid Texts

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

Pyramid Texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used:

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

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!