When I was a small child I became fascinated with ancient Egypt. Mostly, I must admit, due to a certain little movie called The Ten Commandments (1956), although it was a number of years before I saw the end of the movie, since as soon as Moses left Egypt I would promptly go to sleep. Who cared about a prince who would leave the glory of Egypt behind to become a goat-herder? Well, not me. Since then I have walked the desert, thirsty for knowledge of this beautiful place and time, but seeking it in the popular media has been akin to chasing an oasis, only to find it a mirage. Ever shrouded in mystery and misinformation, unwrapping the true Egypt is like unwrapping a mummy. Layer by layer more information is coming to light. And more often than not, by happenstance.
Until the discovery, in 1799, of the Rosetta Stone -- a stone bearing a decree of the Egyptian Priesthood, from 199 B.C.E., carved in ancient Greek, ancient Egyptian Demotic, and ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics -- the language of the ancient Egyptians was lost. Before this discovery, there were a number of theories concerning the translation of the beautiful hieroglyphs that adorned the temples and tombs, centered mostly around the idea of a pictographic language.
After years of scrutiny by many scholars, the writing on the Rosetta Stone was deciphered in 1822 by a young frenchman named Jean François Champollion. He showed that the language was a combination of ideographic (characters symbolizing ideas) and phonetic signs. All modern Egyptology is based upon his accomplishment.
Despite the discoveries of modern Egyptologists, many long-held misconceptions regarding ancient Egypt still dominate the popular media. This is part of a long tradition of outside observers misinterpreting ancient Egypt. Until the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, we saw ancient Egypt only through the eyes of those who visited her, such as the Greek historian Herodotus and other ancient tourists, and we spoke of it in their words. We called her cities and temples and gods by names in a foreign language. Even the very name we use -- "Egypt" -- is a foreign name, from the ancient Greek "Ægyptos."
Through modern translations of the hieroglyphic records that exist to this day, we know that the ancient Egyptians called their own land "KMT". Hieroglyphs do not record all vowels, so today Egyptologists add an "e" between consonants when no other vowel is present. Comparisons to Coptic, a related language with its roots in ancient Egypt, help define what the spoken language sounded like. Thus, in English the ancient Egyptians' name for their land becomes "Kemet," which means the "black land," referring to the rich, fertile soil left by yearly flooding of the Nile.
The names of great cities, kings, and gods were in most cases handed down to us in the Greek versions, although many place names were changed to Arabic after the Muslim conquests of the ninth century. The Greeks even took some of the Kemetic gods home with them; Aset, a Kemetic goddess representing the throne, became known to the Greeks as Isis, and in the Greco-Roman period (332 B.C.E. to 395 C.E.) was worshiped in Greece as well as in Kemet. Neo-Pagans still worship her today as the "Goddess of Ten Thousand Names."
In 1922, when Howard Carter made front-page news with the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb, the world, and Hollywood, went Egypt-crazy. There are over fifty movies with the word "mummy" in their title. Such fascination with the mysteries of ancient Egypt has fueled the Egyptologists, as well. With the Kemetic language deciphered, many books were written containing translated text and scholarly explanations of their life and times, such as the works of Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. However, as the art of translating hieroglyphs has been refined, much of Budge's work has been supplanted. For instance, R. O. Faulkner's translation of The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, known to the Kemetic people as "The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day," gives a more complete reading of this funerary text that can be traced back to the earliest Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom (2575 B.C.E. - 2134 B.C.E.). A wealth of other translated writings, including fables and religious stories, court administrative records, medical papyri, and personal letters, help to complete the picture of life in Kemet. Yet although a better and more complete understanding of life in ancient Egypt is now available to us today, oftentimes the popular media overlooks that and misinterpretation and misnaming continues to this day.
Hollywood is great at telling stories, but not so great at telling the facts. Stargate (1994) started promisingly, by focusing on an Egyptologist. But before long, the old "the pyramids were built by aliens because the ancient Egyptians couldn't have done that kind of engineering" myth came up. Stargate is a wonderful popcorn movie, and has a compelling story. But the pyramids really weren't built as docking pylons for giant alien spacecraft. They are "Houses of Eternity," tombs built as a labor of love by the people for their king, who was "The Living Heru" -- a semi-divine mortal.
In The Ten Commandments, one of the most memorable scenes shows the royal family looking out over monuments and temples in various stages of construction. The style of construction depicted was mostly plausible for the level of technology, as has been verified by modern Egyptologists, who have recreated ancient construction techniques using only the tools available at that time. Raising an obelisk, for example, can be done by building a platform of sand, carrying the obelisk to the top and levering it into its foundation on the base of the platform with ropes from the ground-level side, proving that ancient Egyptians could, and did, raise such monuments without the help of giant alien spacecraft.
Although the technological feasibility has been shown, it is not the only evidence for the pyramids' earthly construction; the pyramids had an important place in the economy and culture of the time. In Kemetic creation mythology, the world was created when the Ben-Ben mountain rose out of the Nun, the sea of chaos. Pyramids and the mastabas (flat-topped step pyramids) before them were tombs created to mimic the Ben-Ben mountain of creation.
For several months out of the year, the Nile valley was flooded, completely precluding farming. Herodotus wrote that during the inundation, ". . .all of Egypt becomes a sea, and only the towns remain above water, looking rather like islands of the Ægean." During these periods, farmers came in to work on the pyramids and temples (whether any of these peasants were in fact slaves is a matter of heated debate among professional historians, but that's outside the scope of my discussion). By working on these monuments to a semi-divine king, the people were earning the favor of the gods, and that of the king, who might need their services in the afterlife. About 2900 B.C.E., King Djer had burial pits dug surrounding his mastaba. 580 members of his court, from wives to servants to court dwarves, were buried in proximity of the king, ensuring them a place in his court in the afterlife.
This was also a great boon to the economy. The peasants couldn't farm during the flood, but they were paid in goods for working on the monuments (Kemet did not use money until very late in its history). They received their daily rations of several loaves of bread and a jug or two of beer, supplemented by fruits and vegetables. They might also receive payment in the form of cloth or pottery, items that could be bartered for other goods. This kept weavers and potters and other workers busy as the farmers still had an income.
The book Ancient Lives: Daily Life in Egypt of the Pharaohs by John Romer is a history of one well-documented Kemetic community: the "City of the Artisans" at Deir el-Medina outside the Valley of the Kings at modern-day Luxor. It gives us a glimpse of the lives of the families of one village across several centuries, from the New Kingdom (1540 - 1070 B.C.E.) to the Late Period (1070-332 B.C.E.). Though based on archaeological research, Romer's non-scholarly style is engaging and he helps us see these people as they worked and played and lived their lives.
Why did the ancient Egyptians pay all this attention to monuments that would be occupied by the deceased king? Because they were very much in love with life, so much so that they built and stocked their tombs and preserved their bodies in order to spend eternity doing the very same things that they had enjoyed when they were alive. Paintings on the tomb walls, besides depicting religious subjects, showed the deceased's favorite activities: pictures of family, parties, playing music, hunting, and so forth. The paintings also showed the fields and the beasts and good things to eat and drink, thus enabling the deceased to partake of all these things in the afterlife.
The families of the deceased would hire priests to make offerings of food and drink at the tomb, and the families made offerings themselves. An accompanying prayer stated ". . . A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of alabaster and oil and linen; a thousand of meat and fowl and all things good and pure which heaven gives . . . ." They loved life, and celebrated it, even in death.
They were even buried with small figurines, called ushabtis, made from wood or clay, or occasionally stone or ivory. Often the ushabtis were depicted with tools, or in some act of work. This way, if the deceased were called to work in the afterlife, the ushabti would take the deceased's place performing the task. Duat, or Heaven, was not a place where the Egyptians wanted the work-a-day world of mortal life, so magic could be used to avoid work.
Despite the work of Egyptologists, and easy access to their discoveries, popular understanding of the elaborate Kemetic funeral rites and religious practices is also distorted. For example, early in the movie The Egyptian (1954), starring Edmund Purdom, Jean Simmons, and Victor Mature, there is a scene in which the "hero" wants to have his now-deceased parents buried. His problem is that he has no money, and apparently sold his parents' intended tomb years before. So he brings their corpses to the "House of Death," where the embalmers work, and asks for employment so that he can earn enough to have them properly buried. He is told that he must be mad to offer himself to work because "only criminals or the accursed of the gods work in the House of Death."
Well, not so. Priests, often younger noble-born sons, prepared the deceased for the journey to the afterlife. Certain priests kept the temples, or ministered to the people, while other priests were embalmers, depending upon which god the priest served and the priest's talents and desires. With a pantheon of over two thousand gods, several creation stories, and various "State Gods" -- depending on the cultural climate of the times -- interpretation of the Kemetic religion is a difficult task. Some historians consider it polytheistic (many gods) and others, monolatrous (one god, many faces). And while some aspects of their religious beliefs are well recorded -- in Pyramid and Coffin Texts, for instance -- others are lost to modern observers. But it seems that in either case, the Netjeru (gods), the creative force, existed in all things, permeating both the physical and the spiritual worlds; every act of every day was performed in the presence of the Netjeru. The gods were revered and worshipped, so the idea of criminals preparing the faithful for the afterlife with the gods would have been abhorrent to the Kemetics.
Even though I thoroughly enjoyed The Mummy (1999), I couldn't help but notice some inaccuracies. When the priest Im-Ho-Tep was performing the ritual to resurrect Princess Anck-su-namun, five canopic jars (holding her embalmed internal organs) lined the side of the table. I wondered why there were five, as the Kemetic people were entombed with only four canopic jars: one for the liver, one for the lungs, one for the intestines, and one for the stomach. Each jar was topped with the sculpted image of the head of one of the four sons of Heru (Horus), who protected the organ inside. In the movie, the fifth jar contained Anck-su-namun's heart.
This scene stuck out to me since the Kemetic people believed that the heart was the seat of all thought and emotion; they ascribed to the heart the things that today we ascribe to the brain. The heart was always left in place inside the body, and the otherwise empty cavity (all organs other than the four mentioned above and the heart were discarded) was stuffed with natron (a natural, granular combination of sea salt and baking soda that was used as an embalming agent) as part of the process of desiccation.
The brain, not recognized as having any importance, was removed as well. If left in place it would putrefy, causing the head and face to decay, rendering the deceased unrecognizable, even to its own spirit, the ka, which needed an intact body to continue in the afterlife. In The Mummy, when Evie gives the graphic description of shoving a "red-hot poker" up the nose to remove the brain, I cringed. Not because it sounded so bad, but because it wasn't accurate. Using a red-hot poker might sound dramatic, but it wasn't the method used. Actually, a hook on a long slender handle was inserted, given a sharp jab to break the bone behind the nose, then swished around to liquefy the brain. After the brain was removed, a resin was poured through the nose into the skull to keep it from collapsing.
After being thoroughly dried in natron, the deceased was wrapped in yards of linen strips. The amount and quality of the linen depended on the station of the person, and wealth of their family, but even the very poor could afford some type of burial. During the wrapping, priests wearing masks of Yinepu (Anubis), the jackal-headed god of embalming, would recite special prayers and insert amulets for the protection of the deceased. Once the rites were over, and the deceased was taken to their tomb, a ritual called "the Opening of the Mouth" was performed. This ceremony allowed the person to hear and see and talk and eat again, at least in their spiritual form!
Perhaps one of the most bittersweet movies I have ever seen about Ancient Egypt is Cleopatra (1963), as this movie showed the great glory of Kemet, and showed its fall. Seeing this movie drove home the likelihood that Hollywood will probably never make a movie that portrays Kemet accurately. Kemet was a beautiful place full of proud and vital people, with caring rulers and a history longer than most of us can imagine. And for all the strange imaginings that people want to attribute to it, Kemet has many wonderful realities. It isn't always easy to find the real Kemet behind the Hollywood hype, but it's there.
Currently a graduate student at the University of Head-Against-a-Brick-Wall, Carol S. Paton already sports a LIBM (learned it by myself) degree from the School of Hard Knocks. Between classes, she enjoys eating, sleeping, reading, writing, photography, making monsters, interfacing with her computer, and whining. On occasion she even goes outdoors.
Links and suggestions for further reading:
The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Probably the best school for Egyptology anywhere.
ancientsites.com. An online community of history buffs. Contains a large section devoted to Ancient Egypt with many good webpages for information.
A site for the Kemetic Orthodox Church, a group that practices the religion of Ancient Egypt. Lots of great information on the gods and beliefs. And a terrific booklist!
Created by Egyptologist Jacques Kinnaer, this Ancient Egypt site has a little of everything. A terrific place to browse!
Faulkner, R. O., trans. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead
Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many
Lesko, Leonard H. Pharaoh's Workers: The Villagers of Deir el Medina
Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature (3 vol.)
Nunn, John F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine
Quirke, Stephen. Ancient Egyptian Religion
Romer, John. Ancient Lives: Daily Life in Egypt of the Pharaohs
Time/Life Books. What Life was like on the Banks of the Nile
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