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Volume 18, Number 4July/August 1967

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For A Bright Eternity

Photographed by Werner Forman

Of all the races of man, none has fought harder against death than the ancient Egyptians, nor with such conviction that they could ultimately conquer it. They reluctantly conceded that death invariably took the first battle, but believed that with the proper rituals and, above all, the preservation of the body, they could win the war and emerge into a day everlasting.

The Egyptians were extremely practical people. They developed art forms of considerable complexity and beauty, worked with great proficiency in wood, faience, stone, copper, glass, brick, ivory, paints and gold, and even gave birth to abstract art. Much of it, unfortunately, was consigned forever to the darkness of underground tombs to serve the timeless needs of the dead rather than the transient pleasures of the living. And in that sense art, a foundation stone of esthetics to modern man, was to the ancient Egyptians a strictly utilitarian device on a par with our washing machines and filing cabinets.

In Egypt, art and religion grew up side by side, entwined, and were inseparable. Both were designed for the single purpose of assisting the mortal remains of man through the difficult and dangerous period of death, to the bright eternity which awaited the lucky and the farsighted beyond the grave. The Egyptians knew, of course, that the collection of perceptions, potentialities for action and qualities of characterthat part of the individual we call the soul or spirit—existed after death as long as the body remained intact in the tomb. That crucial proviso was the greatest single stimulus to the creation of the Egyptian artistic tradition.

Embalming was an obvious first step to insure that the body would not disintegrate. In very early times the Egyptians began to mummify bodies, eventually developing a 70-day process that leaves little scope for improvetnent. But since the body might be destroyed somehow, additional measures were taken. Statues and relief carvings portraying the deceased were invested, by means of magical ritual, with his identity and attributes. Thus, should the mortal remains disappear, the dead's supernumerary, whether wood or stone, would serve to maintain his personal identity forever. Nothing horrified the Egyptians so much as the thought that the personality of the individual would be destroyed. That was true death.

The concept of personificationof treating the symbol as the object it representsis still very much with us. Caribbean voodoo magicians use it every day, girls kiss pictures of their beloved, men burn books and libraries thinking to destroy the ideas residing there, and other men die defending colored cloth they call flags. Ancient Egypt was full of such fetishes and symbols, each serving some human purpose. A temple was constructed to save Egypt from disaster by intercession of the gods who dwelt in its very stones; a bracelet charm carved of cornelian was the abode of a god who protected its wearer; the mere action of writing (for was not hieroglyphic writing itself a pictorial representation, and therefore magic?) could provide protection against calamity, and was therefore the province of priest-scribes.

Art thus served to sustain the stateit must be remembered that the state and religious institutions were oneand the artists were faceless bureaucrats. Considered as a duty to the state, that is, to religion, art was obsessed with the conservatism, the pat formula, the endless repetitions of any bureaucracy. In representing the human form, for example, the idea was not ' to make an exact reproduction of a particular personalthough artists were by then quite capable of doing sobut a person in the abstract, shorn of non-essential individual traits and embodying those godlike qualities the dead would want to possess in the afterlife.

The tradition-steeped Egyptian was a true reactionary. He sometimes added, but never threw anything away, and the best models were thought to be the most ancient. Except briefly during the Amarna period, art was the slave of conventions and canons laid down in the early centuries of historic times. A man's representation was ideally abstracted from several viewpoints: on a relief figure the head was traditionally drawn in profile, the eye from the front, the shoulder also full-face, giving the torso a twist to the three-quarter profile of the hips, the legs in full profile, and the feet often both left feet. It was not a lack of technical ability, as is often thought, that forced early Egyptian art into these rigid patterns, but a deliberate attempt by the artist to abstract the essential and discard the rest.

In creating a funerary art of great if stylized beauty, the artist of dynastic Egypt was careful to cast it into as nearly a natural setting as possible. The dead on reawakening wanted to have familiar objectsslaves, musical instruments, food and drink, fine clothingat hand to resume his life as he was accustomed to live it, and it was up to the artist to provide. He did so with such a wealth of detail that we know far more of the daily life and thoughts of the ancient Egyptians than we do of such more recent civilizations as the Indo-Aryans, the Assyrians, even the British of Roman times. And thanks to the painstaking work of Egyptologists for a century or more, we have today an amazingly faithful picture of life in ancient Egypt. Thus, in a way they never anticipated, the Egyptians achieved a measure of immortality after all, for through the art of their monuments to the dead they are vibrantly alive today.

Mortuary Prayers—Extensive preparations were taken to assure that the spirit of the deceased would continue to exist after death. Mummification, elaborate tombs and mortuary equipment and endless funerary texts provided the spirit with life insurance for the hereafter. The tomb walls and objects were covered with mortuary prayers, as on this statue of a High Priest of Amon who lived in the 11th century B.C. Such prayers called for divine gifts of food and drink and for the blessings of various deities. They also frequently call out to "All ye who pass by this tomb" to make some small offering—even a hastily-murmured prayer would do—on behalf of the dead. Such exhortations promise the blessings of the gods in return. Piety was reciprocal with the dead and the living helping each other to find security in this life and in the next as well.

False doors—Private tombs of the Old kingdom grouped around the royal pyramid usually had two independent parts, the burial chamber and the chapel. The living had access to the chapel to perform funerary rites on appointment days to honor the dead and in the chapel false doors served as a magic entrance through which the dweller in the next world received from his mourners the ritual nourishment indispensable to his being. This wooden false door from the tomb of the scribe Hesyra at Sakkara dates to the 28th Century B.C., and shows him with the scepter of authority in his right hand and a staff and writing tools in his left.

The Uraeus—Although snakes were normally considered harmful, the deadly cobra,—uraeus—early came to be the symbol par excellence of divine protection for the king. It was placed on royal crowns and diadems, as on this statue of King Ramses II of the 13th century B.C., in the belief that it would be directed against any enemy—human or supernatural—who was potentially dangerous to the king's person. In origin, the uraeus was a symbol of the sun-god Re. Its poison was thought to be the fire which could effectively destroy any opposition to the power of Re. The word uraeus is the Greek form of the original Egyptian, meaning "the one that winds and rears up," truly a graphic picture of a cobra ready to strike.

The Lotus—In the tomb of Eika, a false door bears a carved representation of his wife smelling a lotus flower, while to the left is Eika's daughter. According to legend then current, (26th Century B.C.) the creator himself was a "beautiful child sprung from the heart of a lotus flower," whose everlasting renewal of life was suggested by the closing of the lotus flower at night and opening at the sun's first rays. To Egyptians the lotus was the most perfect and sacred of flowers, and the fragrance of the blue lotus was to them the perfume of divine life.

Dancing—The dance was born of religious ritual, but was also a secular amusement. In ancient Egypt dancing was practiced at festivals of joy and pageants of sorrow, such as the funeral dance illustrated by this stone relief showing girls beating skin drums while two dancers accompany themselves on wooden castanets. The use of percussion instruments, originally designed to frighten away evil spirits, was supplemented in time to embrace string and woodwind instruments whose rhythms and melodies were enjoyed for their own sake. The dance, too, became organized into recognizable patterns and Swiss Egyptologist Henri Wild has catalogued the movements portrayed on Egyptian friezes. They include running, leaping with body erect or bent, splits, arabesques, back-bends, pirouettes, stamping of feet, acrobatic somersaults, cartwheels—in short, all the movements described in the waltz, the fox-trot, the fish, the Watutsi...

Realism in Art—While Egyptian art maintained a dogged adherence to a set style, there were times when certain canons of this style were broken in favor of realism which was truly symbolic of a given period of history. The Amarna Age of the 14th century B.C. is the best known for such a rebellion against traditional art forms. However, royal sculpture of the Middle Kingdom also broke with tradition, as illustrated by this head of King Amenemhat III of the 19th century B.C. Kings and commoners alike were normally shown as stylized human beings, portraiture being more rare. The kings of the Middle Kingdom, on the other hand, were shown with expressions of an intensely serious nature. This is a stark contrast to royal portraits of a later age. The realism of the Middle Kingdom symbolizes an age of hard-working rulers, struggling with a feudal nobility and the many problems of holding a powerful state together. Such realism faithfully portrays the reality of an age when the kings of Egypt were not absolute monarchs but maintained their authority by the dominance of their personalities.

The Isis-knot—Some symbols were associated with individual deities. One was this peculiar knotted symbol worn on a narrow band below the waist, here shown on the statue of an unknown king. This symbol was associated with Isis and its wearer thus endowed his life with the protection of this important goddess. Small amulets of red carnelian in the shape of the Isis-knot were often placed at the throat of a mummy. The reason for this practice is stated in the Book of the Dead: "The Isis-knot amulet is the magical protection of Isis, restraining whoever would do harm." While the origin and exact meaning of the symbol are obscure, it signifies something like "safety," and its use was applicable to living and dead alike. Since Isis was Queen of the Dead, she was in a particularly appropriate position to bestow safety on deceased spirits as they faced the innumerable dangers on the journey to the Netherworld.

Egyptians literally surrounded themselves with good luck charms in both life and death. The living carried amulets for protection against demons and spirits. In death, amulets were enfolded in the mummy-wrappings to continue this protection for eternity. Certain stones, especially camelian, were thought to have magical properties. This prince of the 8th century B.C. wears the "ankh" symbol on a chain necklace. This is the hieroglyph for "life" and was undoubtedly the most commonly used amulet in Egypt. In origin, this symbol was a sandal-strap with the loop fitting around the ankle. By the principle of the "rebus" which underlies Egyptian writing, it was used to represent the word for "life" which was pronounced much like the word for "sandal-strap."

Cartouches—As might be deduced from his rolls of fat, Amenhotep, Son of Hapu, led a soft and sedentary life as a senior court official of King Amenhotep III. Seated in the scribe's folded-leg position, Amenhotep has his scribe's palette with black and red colors slung over his left shoulder, while on his right are two cartouches. The cartouche (so named because its shape recalled the French rifle cartridge), is actually a stylized loop of rope with a knot at the base, symbolizing the universe—"That which the sun encircles." To indicate the. pharaoh's ownership of the universe, his name was written within the loop, elongated to accommodate it. The cartouche was used only for the last two of the five royal names, the penultimate one preceded by "King of Upper and Lower Egypt," and that following "Son of Re." The frequent occurrence of cartouches in the hieroglyphic text, corresponding to the repetition of royal titles in the accompanying Greek text, was the key that young Champollion used to unlock the secret of the Rosetta Stone, thus founding the science of Egyptology.

Crowns—This sunken relief shows Ramses II, a pharaoh of the 13th Century B.C., holding a bunch of lotus flowers, above which are two cartouches and a falcon, a bird which, as a symbol of Horus, enjoyed divine status. King Ramses here wears a blue warrior's crown—the "Khepresh". Variations of crowns were innumerable and each had its meaning: the double crown signified the rule of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Red Crown was worn by divinities of Lower Egypt, while Osiris, god of the underworld, wore the White Crown flanked by two ostrich feathers. Gods generally wore crowns suggestive of their attributes—the double upright plume was worn by sky gods and falcons, lyriform cow's horns were worn by the goddesses Hathor and Isis, and ram's horn crowns by the gods Khnum and Amun.

The Name—This somber-looking individual is the Prince of Thebes, Governor of Southern Egypt, Mentuemhat, one of the highest government officials of the 8th century B.C. Mentuemhat would be pleased that we still know his name, for one of the chief goals of the funerary cult was the perpetuation of the name of the deceased. Others are less fortunate, such as the Middle Kingdom lady on page 18 whose haunting face will remain forever unidentified. A person's name had special significance in that it symbolized his whole personality, indeed his very existence. To destroy a man's name was literally to destroy his memory, hence his eternal life. The name of the deceased was repeated time and again in the tomb and on objects belonging to his tomb equipment One of the ways to take complete vengeance on an enemy was to obliterate his name wherever it appeared. This actually happened to Queen Hatshepsut of the 15th century B.C. whose son-in-law tried to wipe out her memory by hacking her name and picture from all her monuments. King Akhnaton of the Amarna Age even attempted to do the same to Amon, the chief god of Egypt, during his short-lived revolt against religious traditionalism. But many like Mentuemhat have been luckier because their names have been revived by modern Egyptology and their names, the keynote of their hopes in eternity, are spoken once more.

The Eyes—It was as true in ancient Egypt as it is today that the emotions and personality of a person are best shown in his face, especially his eyes. Therefore the Egyptians gave particular attention to the eyes in art. In wooden statues such as this female head of the 19th century B.C., the eyes were originally of inlaid stone, quartz for the white and darker stones for the pupil. A compiicated symbolism about eyes was created and expressed in many forms. The sun and moon were equated with the eyes of the god Horus. the moon being his left eye blinded in his mythological struggle against evil. This eye, having been healed and restored, became "the good eye," a widely used symbol for "good health" and "well-being." Small eyes were worn as amulets or in a variety of other ways; for example as decoration on the bracelet of the royal statue shown on page 13, bottom left. The "good eye" of Horus, having died by blindness and been restored to sound condition, became a logical symbol of eternal health and is shown regularly on coffins.

This article appeared on pages 10-19 of the July/August 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1967 images.