Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Little Known Egyptian Myths: Seth Steals Osiris' Corpse (Papyrus Jumilhac)

Many know the famous myths surrounding the death of Osiris, and the battle between Seth and Horus for the crown of Egypt, but there are also many lesser known myths that help us to create a "history" of the gods' time as kings on earth. After Osiris' death, for instance, myths recount how Seth tried to steal Osiris' body from the wabet (place of embalming), including two recorded on Papyrus Jumilhac.

The story goes that each evening at twilight, Anubis would take a break from embalming the murdered god and leave Osiris' corpse alone for a short time. Seth, watching from a safe distance, observed Anubis' movements, and one evening, seeing his chance, transformed into the jackal-headed god and slipped past the guards, who failed to recognize him. Unchallenged, Seth stole Osiris' body and fled, sailing off down the river, soon after pursued by Anubis and his entourage, who quickly realized what had transpired. When the two gods met, Seth transformed into a bull to intimidate Anubis, but Anubis caught Seth and tied him by the legs, before severing his phallus and testicles. Anubis then carried Osiris back to the wabet, and imprisoned Seth in a place of torture.

In a similar myth, also recorded in Papyrus Jumilhac, Seth again transformed into Anubis and attempted to steal Osiris' corpse. As before, he was swiftly captured, but this time was sentenced to spend eternity as a chair for Osiris. Seth managed to flee, but was caught and cooked by the gods, and Anubis wore his flayed skin (perhaps as retribution for all the times Seth tried to impersonate him?). 

Monday, 17 March 2014

Who Will Save Yemen's Heritage?

From my latest article for The Art Newspaper...

Yemen is creating an independent council to protect the country’s embattled heritage. The initiative was announced at the end of January during the final session of the National Dialogue Conference, a series of discussions backed by the UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council that aim to bring together Yemen’s rival political and religious groups. The proposed council, which will include heritage specialists, will be financially and administratively independent.

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Sudanese Site Restored with Italy’s Help

From my latest article for The Art Newspaper...

The first phase of a restoration project at Sudan's Temple of Mut, at the foot of the mountain of Gebel Barkal, a Unesco World Heritage Site, has recently been completed by a joint Italian-Sudanese team.
Located about 365km north of Khartoum, Gebel Barkal was regarded as a holy mountain, sacred to the god Amun, from the time of King Tuthmosis III (1479-24BC). A temple complex was built there and expanded over the course of many centuries. The Temple of Mut was built by King Taharka (690-64 BC) at a time when Nubian kings ruled Egypt as the 25th Dynasty. It is dedicated to Amun’s divine wife, Mut, a goddess associated with motherhood and kingship.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Competition to Win "The Egyptian Myths"

Live in the USA? Goodreads is holding a competition to win advance copies of my "The Egyptian Myths". Just 13 hours left to enter, so be quick!

You can also find random Egyptian myth facts by going to #egyptianmythsguide on Twitter.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Egyptian Myths is Out!

Exciting news! Though the official UK release is not until 17th March, The Egyptian Myths, A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends is already being despatched from Amazon UK (for £11.66 - click here). The Kindle edition is still set for release on 17th, however, and will cost £10.36 (click here). My thanks to everyone who buys a copy! I hope you enjoy it!

The Daily Life of the Pharaoh

A headrest from the tomb of Tutankhamun
Sleep was a dangerous time to the ancient Egyptians. Asleep, you awoke in a liminal zone, a place where the living, the dead, and the gods could observe and sometimes interact with one another - and not always in a pleasant way; at the same time your physical self lay vulnerable to malevolent forces that might try to enter your bedroom and attack your unconscious body. The Pharaoh, despite being the embodiment of divine royal authority, was not exempt from such night terrors and required protection. When Amenhotep III awoke each morning, he opened his eyes to the sight of the protective goddess Nekhbet painted on the ceiling above him. Turning to his side, his head supported by a headrest decorated with carved images of Bes, a god who repelled evil forces, he saw further images of Bes painted on the nearby wall, above ankh-signs of life and tyt-knots of protection. In this magically secure space, the Pharaoh could be sure he'd get a good night's rest, free from the anxiety of unprovoked demonic attack; no evil forces could penetrate such a potent force field. He was also shielded from physical forms of violence - throughout the night, his bodyguard stood watch at his doorway, keeping an eye out for any would-be assassins.    

Amenhotep III
Having survived another night without incident, the king rose from his bed to begin his daily activities. At the Palace of the King at Malkata on Luxor's West Bank, Amenhotep III would wander from his bed chamber through to his robing room, its ceiling decorated with images of cow-heads, staring down from between swirling coils, encompassed by rosettes. There he was met by the Chief of Secrets of the House of the Morning, a man charged with ensuring that the king's washing and rising rituals went according to custom. Various staff were then summoned to aid the king: the handlers of royal linen, the handlers of crowns and headdresses, and even the director of royal loincloths; in this confined space at the back of the palace, a vast army assembled to prepare the king for his daily duties.

Unless he was attending a formal or ritual event, the king's daily dress appeared much like that of his high courtiers - simple linen bag tunics, some with the odd tapestry-woven decorative flourish, sandals, and perhaps a sash around the waist. For more formal or ritual occasions, however, the king might wear elaborately woven garments, displaying mythical animals, plants, and cartouches. In place of a hefty crown, for everyday wear, he probably wore a diadem consisting of a simple gold or silver band wrapped around his head, with a uraeus (a rearing cobra) at the front.

Dressed, his eye-makeup applied, and sweet-smelling unguents rubbed onto his skin, the king now set off for his breakfast, taken in a part of the palace called the Mansion of Life. Although each palace had its own bakeries and kitchens, the king's private food - called ankh nesut 'royal victuals' - was produced at a temple close to the palace to the same ritual standards as the food presented before the statues of the gods. Indeed, the king's butlers were referred to as 'pure of hands', emphasizing this need for ritual purity when handling any food or drink to be consumed by the king. Unfortunately, it is not clear what the king ate for breakfast, or even at what time he ate, though we must presume that he rose at dawn with the sun.

Meanwhile, as the king prepared himself, his highest courtiers arrived at the outer gates of the palace, coming for their daily meeting with the pharaoh, during which each would update the other on pressing government business. Passing through the gates, each courtier entered the per-nesu, the palace's administrative and support area, similar to the 'outer palace' of mediaeval European palaces. This is where the vizier and other key members of the state had their offices, as well as where storage magazines and archives were located. Beyond this area lay the per-aa - the 'great house', the residential part of the complex.

Columns from the Palace of Merenptah at Memphis
Within the per-aa, the courtier made his way to 'the place of silence', where he was met by the royal herald, who oversaw palace protocol and etiquette. There, he was made to stand with his colleagues, who were then counted, placed in two rows, and arranged according to rank. When the 'moment of ushering in' came, they silently filed into the throne room, bowing respectfully to the doorkeepers as they passed. The royal throne dais now dominated their view; prostrate foreigners and bound enemies, each formed of faience, stared back at them from its base. The upper surface of the dais was reached via two sets of steps at opposite ends, the entrance to each flanked by rearing lions, frozen in time, sinking their teeth into the heads of helpless foreign victims. A great kiosk stood upon the dais, gilded and painted with the king's cartouches and titles, and surmounted by multiple rows of rearing cobras. The royal throne stood within the kiosk, awaiting the son of Re's appearance.

His courtiers assembled, the king now entered the throne room from his private apartments at the rear of the palace. Passing calmly between the rearing lions, he ascended the steps to his throne dais, his movements symbolic of the rising sun at dawn. Out of respect, the courtiers duly threw themselves on their bellies, kissed the ground, and raised their arms in adoration, before returning upright. The meeting could now begin, with each courtier speaking in turn according to rank; as one spoke the others respectfully remained silent, a custom drilled into all would-be courtiers from a young age. It is difficult to know, however, what was discussed. In Egyptian royal texts, the king is presented as making all laws, while his courtiers only enforced them; few decrees display any sign of personality, leaving it unclear as to whether they were ever brought to the king's attention for ratification, or if they were simply rubber-stamped in his name. Similarly, though all subjects technically had the right to petition the king with their concerns, pleas, and legal complaints, it was the vizier who judged trials and dealt with the public, even in the most high-level cases. The pharaoh was kept informed of events at court, but did not personally attend, though his permission was required to impose the death penalty. The appointment of officials was also discussed during the king's morning meetings, as it was the pharaoh's responsibility to appoint worthy courtiers to the highest offices in the land; sometimes kings appointed officials from Egypt's most noble families, while at other times they appointed their childhood friends.

The Temple of Amun at Karnak
It is possible that after his morning meeting, the king went to perform rituals at a nearby temple - perhaps the Temple of Ptah, if he were staying at Memphis, or the Temple of Amun at Karnak if in Luxor. It is, in fact, quite hard to know how often a pharaoh visited the temples because temple scenes show the king performing every ritual act in all temples simultaneously; though this is obviously impossible, and we know that, in reality, priests deputized for the pharaoh across the land, it is difficult to disentangle ideology from reality. What is clear though is that the king was always on the move, and is often referred to as 'doing the praises' of a particular deity of the city he is visiting; it is thus probable that he visited regional temples whist travelling around the country, taking the opportunity to make offerings to local gods. It is also clear that the pharaoh participated in festivals associated with kingship; the Opet festival at Luxor Temple, in particular, involved the renewal of the royal ka (the divine force of kingship), while the Sed festival, held after thirty years of rule, emphasized the king's continuing right to rule. The annual Sokar and Min festivals were also prominent events in the king's calendar, during which he would have officiated at the ceremonies.

The Great Royal Wife also played an important ritual role, sometimes acting as a female equivalent of the king during proceedings, and so perhaps accompanied him on any visit made to the temples. She lived and travelled with the pharaoh generally, unlike his other, lesser wives, who lived with their staff and ladies-in-waiting in harem palaces dotted around the country. Women were not confined to such institutions, they could come and go as they pleased, but the naturally isolated locations in which these buildings were constructed, no doubt discouraged frequent movement. Unlike his subjects, the Pharaoh was free to marry as many women as he wished, even his half-sisters; this ensured offspring and thus the royal bloodline; infant mortality was high in ancient Egypt, as in all parts of the ancient world, so the more sons born, the greater the chance that at least one of them would survive into adulthood to receive the Double Crown. Often, kings married the daughters of foreign rulers, to cement diplomatic relations between their states.   

Life was not all politics and ritual. As entertainment, kings also enjoyed sporting activities, especially archery. Many pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty boast of their ability to fire arrows with such force that they penetrated copper targets three fingers thick, while Amenhotep II challenged his troops to an archery competition; this is the only time a pharaoh is recorded as having made such a challenge. Hunting was popular in all periods too: both Tuthmosis I and Tuthmosis III hunted elephants in Syria as entertainment during their military campaigns. Some kings, however, preferred quieter pastimes; within his High Tower at Medinet Habu, Ramesses III is depicted playing the board game senet with harem women - a unique image.

The mummy of Amenhotep II
Back in the palace, the pharaohs employed doctors to help them stay healthy. Though in the Old Kingdom there were generic palace doctors - men who looked after all the courtiers - by the New Kingdom the king had amassed his own private group of specialists. The oculist of the palace examined the health of the royal eyes, there was a chief of palace dentists, and a physician who cared for the king's belly, among others. To cure patients, these doctors combined practical methods with magic, to drive out the demons that were believed to be the cause of all sickness. Due to the survival of the New Kingdom royal mummies, on the whole, we can see that the pharaohs' doctors did a good job; very few seem to have suffered from any of the serious diseases of their time, and none display growth arrest lines (also called Harris lines) in their bones, which could indicate malnutrition and illness in youth. Of the more interesting cases: Ahmose I appears to have been quite weak, which is perhaps why he wasn't circumcised; Amenhotep II had ankylosing spondylitis, which leads to rigidity of the spine; while Amenhotep III was overweight and suffered from abscesses in the teeth. Recently, it has been argued that Tutankhamun suffered from malaria. Even more unfortunately, Ramesses V seems to have suffered from small pox, an inguinal hernia, and perhaps even bubonic plague.   

In the evening, his daily political and religious business dealt with, some time spent with the queen, perhaps a health checkup, and maybe even a few sports or games enjoyed, the king typically attended a royal banquet, surrounded by honored guests and members of the royal family, while being entertained by musicians and dancers. Single men and women sat separately, while couples sat side by side together. All enjoyed copious amounts of wine and fine food delivered by servants; some food was even molded into animal and spiral shapes for the amusement of the guests. As in the morning, the king ate food supplied by the temple, and could honor specific guests by offering them ritually charged delicacies from his own plate. As everyone tucked in, music played and stories of past kings were recited. At the end of his meal, the king left his guests and returned to his bedroom at the rear of the palace, safe in the knowledge that his guards and magic would protect him from any malevolent forces as he slept.

In the morning Re would rise again, and with him, his royal son.

First published in Al Rawi: Egypt's Heritage Review, issue 5 (2013)

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Egyptian Princess Sculpture Unearthed in Luxor

From my latest article for The Art Newspaper...

Archaeologists working at Luxor, Egypt, have uncovered a statue of an Egyptian princess named Iset, the daughter of King Amenhotep III, who ruled around 1388BC-1348BC, and Queen Tiye. Though the face of the calcite statue has been eroded and the feet remain to be discovered, the princess’s round wig can be clearly seen and she holds a menat-necklace, an item associated with the goddess Hathor.

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