Monday, September 29, 2014

Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt

Robert A. Armour
The American University in Cairo Press
Fourth Printing 1989
Cairo, Egypt
ISBN 977 424 113 4
Dar el Kutub no. 4130/85

Though my readers will understand that the subject matter is not really my cup of tea, I have been fortunate to find this book recently in my favorite thrift and as it appears to come from a fine press I cannot help resist reading it at once. The book opens with the symbolism of the lotus flower and its appearance at dawn and retreat under the water at dusk.

The Great Ennead and the creation myths are explored beginning with the story of Ra of Heliopolis and his children, Shu and his sister Tefnut, who in turn beget their children Geb and Nut, who in turn beget Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. From within this incestuous clan, the earth and all things are created including man through the tears of a god.

The book is amply filled with rather crude black and white line drawings which accompany the various descriptions of these principle characters. Professor Armour's interest in the subject is clearly reflected in the detail provided to the reader in language suitable to a teen and at times providing thought new to this reader.

     "At one point a black pig (an animal often associated with Seth) was brutally cut into pieces upon a sand altar built on the river bank. At another time a model of a serpent was hacked to pieces. At another festival, recently captured birds and fish representing the god were trampled underfoot, to the chant: "You shall be cut to pieces, and your members shall be hacked asunder, and each of you shall consume the other: thus Ra triumphs ..."

The author tells the tales of the elderly supreme God Ra from his daily journey across the heavens and nightly through the underworld in his bark accompanied by various lesser deities who fight the evil manifestations of the underworld who seek to harm Ra. To the treachery employed by his great granddaughter Isis who covets Ra's powers.

To gain it she seeks to find out Ra's secret name, so that when the elderly Ra drools on the ground Isis takes possession of the earth and with this clay Isis creates a poisonous snake which bites Ra causing the god excruciating pain. Isis continues to torture Ra to gain his secret name which through the pain he eventually gives.

Ra growing old retires from his position as supreme deity though he retains his power it is Isis' son Horus who becomes the supreme god. The legends of Osiris and Isis are explored with great fluency on a subject most often too simply recounted without its contradictory stories.

Osiris is a beloved king who teaches civilization to his people including agriculture and dam building while Isis is a protective mother with terrifying possession of great magic. Isis' magic causes two of a friend's sons, on separate occasions, to die of terror from the sight of Isis weaving her spells, these sons were not intended victims of the goddess but just happen to observe her magic, while in another case Isis offers to save a queen's incurable son.

     "Every day the child seemed stronger, but no one knew what Isis did to help him. Finally, the queen hid herself in the nursery to uncovers Isis' secret, and what she saw shocked her. Isis first locked the door and then built a high scorching flame behind them. Putting the child to the flames, she turned herself into a swallow which flew around and around the pillar making the most mournful twitterings."

The great ages to which Osiris and Isis have passed has left a large body of literature through the Old Kingdom pyramid texts with rising prominence in the Middle Kingdom and the worship at Osiris' tomb at Abydos. As Egypt became provincial the Romans loved Isis creating a body of work of her deeds and as the last of Egypt's gods, she perhaps evolved the most of the gods as her powers became suited from one epoch to another to Roman ideals though Isis remains well known, even today.

It is Horus who dominated the Egyptian religion taking his father Osiris place as King of Egypt after winning the epic battle of the religion against his uncle Seth. Most of Egypt's kings ruled as "The living Horus" though a multiplicity of gods bear the name of Horus such as Horus the Elder, Horus the younger. Horus the child a Graeco-Roman period god displayed as a child with his finger at his lips and a side lock of youth was often depicted on bronze plaques known as the cippi of Horus.

The triad of Memphis consisted of the creator God Ptah, his fierce sister wife Sekhmet and their rather benign son Nefertem. The Apis bull lived its life within its enclosure at the great temple of Ptah in the center of the capital and was seen as a representation of Ptah.

It was believed that Ptah and Sekhmet were the parents of the deified architect of King Djoser's pyramid, Imhotep who became a god in the Late Period being represented on numerous surviving bronzes. The triad of Thebes is next explored with the sacred family being Amun, his consort Mut, and their offspring Khons.

Amun being known as " the hidden one" was a relatively minor god until the Middle Kingdom when the Theban King Mentuhotep II brought the local Amun to prominence. Amun's priests assimilated Ra of Heliopolis' powers and divinity with Amun to create Amun-Ra.

Professor Armour lays down the common biographies usually put forward for the central cast, yet the reader is also presented with the material such as gods who are not part of a triad, with father, mother, child components. The books characters are a pretty standard group but the author has created biographies which take the often two-dimensional figures and mould them into much more complex individuals.

Nowhere is this true more than the depictions of Isis in this book, which is usually limited to her picking up Osiris' pieces and hiding out in a marsh protecting Horus. It is here however within Mr. Armour's fine book that entirely different and sometimes unsettling entities emerge from the Abyss of volumes on the subject making "Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt" well worth a read.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Death in Ancient Egypt

A.J. Spencer
Penguin Books
Great Britain
ISBN-10: 0140136894

"Bodies were also set on fire after robberies, perhaps with the intention of avoiding any evil influence,". "In one case at Thebes, however, the reason was more prosaic, mummies of children having been ignited for the purpose of illuminating the chamber while the robbers carried out their work."

This 256-page paperback has within its numerous schematics to demonstrate the authors words as well as a nice section of black and white pictures, many of unusual note. Mr. Spencer opens with a standard rundown of ancient Egyptian history, periods, dynasties and rulers of note.

The author moves forward on the subject of mummification beginning with the desiccated corpses of the ancestors lying in simple shallow desert burials exposed by the desert winds. The desire of protecting the ancestors caused elaborate developments which encased the burial in tombs and boxes, this causing a rapid and unintended destruction of the body.

The author points out examples of important mummified bodies found, including the arm decorated with bracelets discovered in the First Dynasty tomb of King Djer which was thrown out at the museum along with its delicate linen wrappings, minus the bracelets, one of which was damaged deliberately by the museum director for better display. While the extremely rare and important Fourth Dynasty mummy of Ranefer found at Meydum was destroyed during the bombing of London in World War II.

Mr. Spencer moves on in chapter 3 to the provisions of the dead from simple food pot's, blades, combs and makeup palettes to tombs filled with every luxury a noble could afford not to leave to his or her greedy heirs.This stock of dusty valuables would have been well known to the mortuary officials who did not rob the poor tombs within the individual cemeteries but only the rich burials, knowledge of which could only have been gleaned by those who buried the dead in the first place.

This problem made even the most clever tomb builder to ultimately fail at the protection of the grave from false corridors plugged with blocks of stone to sand devices that continuously bring more debris on the robbers as they dug. The unfortunate of many such devices intended to stop robbers is many were never put in place or closed after the burial perhaps with the intention for the return of the burial party to access it later.

     "Some details of the robbing of certain sarcophagi reveal once more that the robbers had accurate knowledge of the layout of the chamber; in one tomb at Dendera the sarcophagus stood tightly up against one wall, and it had been rifled by someone tunneling through that wall and the side of the sarcophagus in a single operation, without even entering the chamber."

The author delves into the various techniques of embalming including the basic three forms mentioned by Herotodus. The development of the art of mummification up to Herotodus' time has left little evidence of early dynastic embalming though the presence of resins and wrappings on corpses is known of, as are the various canopic boxes and canopic emplacements within tombs of the IV'th Dynasty nobles including the burial of King Khufu's mother.

The following two thousand years the embalmers perfected the preservation of the corpse achieving the best consistent results in the XXII'nd Dynasty with the art of mummification degenerating down to Herotodus' time and on into the Graeco-Roman era. The aforementioned section of pictures presents here the reader with excavation images including a fascinating funerary feast left in a 2nd Dynasty tomb and another picture of Ptolemaic mummies as left by robbers.

The ultimate goal  of a goodly eternity brought on a system of evolving fetishes as individual or group devices, such as servant statuettes or kingly devices like "magic bricks" inscribed with spells to keep harm at bay while placating the necessary gods. Mr. Spencer delves into coffins and sarcophagi of various periods including construction and development from a contracted coffin to anthropomorphic coffins in nests with vaulted lidded sarcophagi.

Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters is on the various animal cemeteries and cults practiced through animal sacrifices and burials from the elaborate Apis bull catacomb at Saqqara to lesser vaults containing millions of feathered occupants. We are told of the burial of the mothers of the Apis bulls,

     "The layout of the place is similar to the Late Period galleries of the Apis bulls, although on a much smaller scale and far more ruined. The axial passage is flanked on either side by sunk emplacements for sarcophagi, which had been deliberately smashed to fragments by Coptic intruders."

The presentation brought forward fine details not found in many books on Egyptian funerary constructs and beliefs resulting in substantial ground works for the reader to base future studies in the interest of students young and old on "Death in Ancient Egypt".

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Women in Ancient Egypt

Barbara Watterson
Wrens Park Publishing
ISBN 0 905 778 235

Barbara Watterson opens this book with a list of resources that she used in writing her book but also points out that certain types of documents such as temple and wisdom literature are of little help. Worst yet some of the so called texts of wisdom can depict women as no good gossiping harlots who could not be trusted with a man's business, except mom of course.

The "chauvinist pig" was, unfortunately, present within their society as were the ideals of beauty which always depicted women as slender and in a supporting role of the men. While the man may be depicted as ugly and obese, the wife and the man's aged mother were both depicted as slender youthful figures indifferent of aging.

The social and legal standings of Egyptian women though still in the role of homemaker could own property separate from her husband, which she could sell or manage, including making loans and representing herself in lawsuits. Egyptian women had much more freedoms than her Greek counterpart who were kept out of site and confined to quarters at the back of the house.

The author attributes this to the role played in government by queens who often sat as regents to their husbands and their young sons, or as "Gods wives". Outside of the confines of raising a family and keeping house Egyptian women executed roles as priestesses of gods in temple celebrations or as mortuary priests responsible for the replenishing of offerings to the dead.

    "there is evidence from titles held by women in the Middle Kingdom that, in this period at least, some women in the private sector held positions of trust such as treasurer and major-doma. There are several recorded instances of women holding supervisory positions such as superintendent of the dinning-hall; overseer of the wig shop; overseer of the singers; overseer of amusements; mistress of the royal harem; and overseer of the house of weavers."

Ms. Watterson is next onto love and marriage though there was no religious ceremony but if the couple were affluent enough to hire a scribe a marriage contract was not uncommon. These marriages were frequently arranged with the idea that the marriage would benefit the family and with time love would grow, though falling in love and moving into the man's house was also traditional.

Fascinating material on medicine and in particular women's health and childbirth with a review of the great known ancient medical papyri. These papyri include the oldest, The Kahun Papyrus found by Sir Flinders Petrie and dated to ca. 1880 B.C., the Ebers Papyrus, The Edwin Smith Papyrus, Carlsberg VIII, The Chester Beatty Papyrus, The Ramesseum Papyri, and The Berlin Papyrus which is concerned mainly with contraception, childbirth, and care.

These papyri deal with aspects from detecting pregnancy or repulsing it ensuring a healthy term birth including keeping the pregnant woman's focus on beautiful things so that her child would be born beautiful. A high priority was placed on the determination of the sex of the baby which a number of the above papyri deal with.

The papyri often enlist observations, magic spells as well as repugnant medications to gain the wanted effect.  The Eber papyrus records on a new-born baby's chance of survival: ' If a child's first cry is ny, it will live; if mb', it will die.'

The author is next on to fashion and dress of the Egyptians from animal skins to the development of simple linen and woolen garments with gradients of quality to expense with the pleated splendor of New Kingdom nobles in all grandeur. The simple white linen garment was enhanced by the additions of jewelry which included the beaded broad collars, first in vogue during the Old Kingdom, as well as bracelets and other accessories in metal, stone, faience and even wood.

The practicality and beauty of wigs added expression to the Egyptians style for both men and women while keeping their heads shaved for cleanliness and ritual purpose. We again find makeup and perfumes serving also a practical purpose with eyeliners and shadows shielding the eyes from infection while accentuating the eye line of the wearer.

Ms. Watterson is on to domestic life with the wife's job to keep a clean house raise the kids and prepare the family meals which would include baking and to make beer for her family or in the case of the royal ladies of Mentuhotep II who ate their breakfasts while attendants made the royal ladies up for the day. The author lays the diet of the populace from the mostly vegetarian peasantry to the rich diet of the ruling classes.

The book closes with the women of note who became kings and held power on only a few occasions usually signifying a period of hardship to follow as dynasties disintegrated. The exception was the XVIIIth Dynasty King Hatschepsut, whom herself came to be regent to a young Thutmosis III. The succession to kingship was made easier by the fact she and her court were successors to a number of powerful ruling warrior queens Teteshiri, Ahottep, and Hatschepsut's grandmother Ahmes Nofretari whom herself went on to be deified and worshiped for half a millennium at the royal tomb builders village at Deir el Medina.

Ms. Watterson includes the five gods wives of Amun who reigned at Thebes during the Third Intermediate Period and onto the Ptolemy's closing with the famous Cleopatra upon who's death Pharaonic Egypt came to provincialism. I enjoyed this book very much and found it suitable for ages 10 and up, though the book has limited pictures its interest was well researched and presented on historic personages highly under-represented in the literature both ancient and modern.