Posts Tagged With: Religion

Rabbit’s Feet, Four Leaf Clovers…Dung Beetles? The History of the Egyptian Scarab

Of all the ancient Egyptian “treasures” I have in my collection, the one that is most precious to me is a scarab necklace given to me by my parents. It has become my good luck charm, worn to almost every interview, class presentation, and stressful event I can remember; but is this how the ancient Egyptians would have used the scarab amulet? Am I completely off-base?

Scarabs are one of the most revered zoomorphic symbols in the ancient Egyptian religion, although it is highly unlikely that you would uncover a horde of scarabs in a tomb like our friends in The Mummy:

courtesy of universal studios

courtesy of universal studios

The scarab served as the ancient Egyptian version of the Christian Cross; a symbol of protection and the journey of rebirth.  It is often associated with the sun god, Re, but this association arose from the Egyptians’ misunderstanding of the scarab’s life cycle. As described by the Met Museum,

An adult beetle lays its eggs inside a ball of dung, which is then buried underground. When the young beetles hatch, the only portion of this process easily visible to an observer is the beetle emerging fully developed from a dung ball, a seemingly magical event. Thus, the Egyptian word for scarab translates as “to come into being.”  The scarab forms food balls out of fresh dung using its back legs to push the oversized spheres along the ground toward its burrow. The Egyptians equated this process with the sun’s daily cycle across the sky, believing that a giant scarab moved the sun from the eastern horizon to the west each day, making the amulet a potent symbol of rebirth.*

*unmentioned in the article, the Egyptian word for scarab is hprr, which inspires the name of the god Khepri, the god of creation. The ‘Khepri name’ is also one of the titles of the pharaoh (but more on that later!).

This association with rebirth is illustrated through the collection of scarab iconography found during various excavations.  In one iteration, scarabs are a cheap and common charm, which ancient Egyptians could easily afford and would often wear each day, possibly strung on a cord as a necklace. This form of the scarab provided protective powers that warded off evil and brought blessings to the wearer. A second iteration of the scarab is the seal; these seals bore the name of the pharaoh, royal officials, or religious figures and functioned much like a Christian medal or scapular of a saint or holy prayer or image, providing protection and guidance through this world and potentially the next. The most important iteration of the scarab in the funerary tradition, where scarabs were wrapped between the layers of the mummy cloth and specifically set over the heart to help provide safe journey and offer guidance as the soul of the deceased traveled into the next life.

Knowing the ancient Egyptians’ obsession with death and the afterlife, it is clear that the scarab held immense symbolic power for all Egyptians, and was a necessary entity to their success in both this life and the next.  Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got to find my necklace before I start my Masters Thesis…

necklace

Works Cited:

http://wcma.williams.edu/blog/amulets/

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/10.130.910_27.3.206

http://museum.unl.edu/research/entomology/Egyptian_Sacred_Scarab/egs-text.htm

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/e/egyptian_scarabs.aspx

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House of Card-Pyramids: The Presidents of the Ancient World

In honor of President’s day this month, I thought it best to investigate our ancient Egyptian Presidents: the Pharaohs. We’ll run through how they “come to office”, what exactly their job entails, what symbols are associated with the Pharaohs, and the ‘President’s Day’ of the Egyptian calendar to see how these ancient leaders compare to our leaders of the modern world!

In order to become the pharaoh of Egypt, you had to, essentially, win the genealogical lottery. The leadership of ancient Egypt passed from father to son due to the belief in a divine connection between the pharaoh and the gods of the ancient Egyptian religion. Since the pharaoh was understood to be a living god, his offspring were the only individuals with a right to the throne. Unlike many other historical royal lineages (England, Spain, France, etc.), ancient Egypt did not automatically designate the oldest child as the heir to the throne; high death rates of children before the age of 3 prevented heirs from being named until later in life. If the sons of a pharaoh passed away, or his Great Wife was unable to produce a son, they would look to the lesser wives for a legitimate heir that would be declared the next pharaoh. If an heir was still not found, a series of marriages to the royal daughters or female aristocrats would occur to establish a ‘decided heir’ as soon as possible. Appointments were definitely not democratic, with many men reaching pharaonic glory through the use of poison or other murderous actions. Yet if any link to the pharaonic bloodline was alive, he would be proclaimed the heir to the throne; some boys becoming pharaoh before they were 10 years old!**

Statue of Pepi II who became pharaoh at age 6, and his mother, queen Ankhesenpepi II who served as regent. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Statue of Pepi II who became pharaoh at age 6, and his mother, queen Ankhesenpepi II who served as regent.
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

**If the heir had not yet reached adulthood (around 14 in ancient Egypt), a regent would be selected to rule the country and help teach the pharaoh until he was old enough to rule on his own.  Mothers were often selected as regent (Queens traditionally served as regent when the pharaoh was at war, and therefore would have the knowledge to lead), or as co-regent along with a male official.

The pharaoh of ancient Egypt had two major titles and two major roles: “Lord of the Two Lands’ and “High Priest of All Temples’.  As ‘Lord of the Two Lands’, the pharaoh’s main objective was to maintain Ma’at, the embodiment of truth and justice, within Upper and Lower Egypt.  A kind of “Commander in Chief,” he established and enforced laws, owned all land, collected taxes,  and lead his country to war when absolutely necessary. The pharaoh’s second title, ‘High Priest of All Temples’, was almost more important in that it implied the pharaoh’s direct connection to the divine. The pharaoh officiated most important religious ceremonies, chose the sites of new temples/monuments to the gods, and decreed what work would need to be done. Being only one man, the pharaoh would have been unable to perform every ritual at every temple throughout Egypt every day; therefore, the pharaoh would select high priests to perform the rituals with his blessing. This title also proclaimed him as the head builder of Egypt, responsible for immortalizing ancient Egypt’s victories, her religion, and the achievements of the pharaohs for centuries to come.

Much like the Eagle and Presidential seal have come to signify the POTUS, a pharaoh of ancient Egypt had specific symbols that signified his position. Pharaohs were frequently represented through images of a hawk, aligning themselves with the god Horus. Often referred to as the first pharaoh and the divine successor of Osiris, Horus was one of the most powerful gods in the ancient Egyptian religion. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt were referred to as the “Living Horus” a title signifying their knowledge, power, and access to the divine. Another symbol of the pharaoh is the nemes headdress. Symbolizing the ruler’s status, the nemes headdress is often interpreted as a lions mane, an animal regarded with great power and status. The nemes headdress is frequently accompanied by a uraeus, or an attachment shaped as a cobra, showing that the pharaoh held great authority and was “ready to strike” at any moment.

courtesy ryot.org

courtesy ryot.org

A final set of the most common pharaonic symbols contains the crook and flail. Seen in various tomb reliefs and funerary objects (and often seen in the crossed hands of the pharaoh depicted on sarcophagi) , the crook and flail are thought to represent the two duties of the king; the crook stands for the shepherd, guardian of the people, while the flail is seen as the punishments deemed necessary to sustain society.

One of the main differences between the pharaohs of Egypt and the presidents of the United States is the celebration of their ‘reigns’. While we have a day each year to give our thanks to all presidents past and present, the ancient Egyptians had a different approach; their equivalent is found in the Heb-Sed festival, which you can read all about a recent post discussing Egyptian Festivals!

Whether we are discussing Presidents or Pharaohs, one thing holds true—with great power comes great responsibility. We remember their accomplishments and sacrifices as we celebrate. Happy (belated) Presidents Day!

-M

Works Cited:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/uk_tours_and_loans/pharaoh_king_of_egypt/exhibition_themes.aspx

http://www.penn.museum/documents/education/pennmuseum_egypt_previsit_combined.pdf

http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/pharaoh/home.html

http://www.ancient.eu/pharaoh/

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The Dawning of the Rest of their Lives- Ancient Egyptian Holidays

As we finish out the ‘holiday slump month’ more affectionately known as January, it is critical to our sanity to look forward to the coming warmth of spring and summer weekends and holidays filled with outdoor activities. If the chill in your toes keeps your imagination from stretching that far, try to remember that virtually every day of the calendar year is a holiday of some sorts; today {January 28th} happens to be National Blueberry Pancake Day, National ‘Fun At Work’ Day, and National Kazoo Day! You might be surprised to learn that the ancient Egyptians shared this love of holidays and had special celebrations for practically every occasion. But their celebrations held a higher purpose than, say, National Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19). The ancient Egyptians celebrated with a very clear goal: to maintain and improve their relations with the gods in order to maintain peace and supply a bountiful harvest. Because of their reliance on farming, many of the Ancient Egyptian holidays tied in with the changing of the seasons (much like our equinoxes) that marked the harvest, the flooding of the Nile, etc. However, additional festivals were held throughout the year to more specifically worship the gods that ruled over every aspect of ancient Egyptian life.

One of the biggest festivals of the year was Wepet Renpet, or “Opening of the Year.” This Ancient Egyptian New Year’s festival was unique in that it did not fall on a particular date, but instead usually corresponded with the annual inundation of the Nile that ensured farmlands remained fertile for the coming year.  Works authored by the Roman writer Censorinus describe how the festival was held when the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, first became visible after a 70-day absence. This phenomenon, which modern day scientists would refer to as heliacal rising, stood as a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation, and was celebrated with large feasts and specific religious rites to honor the Nile and the Gods who controlled it.

Ghetty Image

Ghetty Image

Festivals were also a means of celebrating the Earthly god that the ancient Egyptians saw in the person of their Pharaoh. In the 30th year of each pharaoh’s reign (and reoccurring every three years after this point), the pharaoh held the Heb-Sed Festival as symbol of the renewal of his power and an affirmation that he maintained the sound mind and body necessary to rule over his land. *It is important to note that if a pharaoh experienced failing health or had other extenuating circumstances, he may shorten this period between festivals in order to keep the faith of the ancient Egyptian people.* The ritual of the festival varied throughout the years, but most often seemed to consist of a symbolic offering to the gods, a ceremonial crowning as king of upper and lower Egypt, and a race around the Heb-Sed court, making laps as the king of Lower Egypt and then separately as the king of Upper Egypt. Only after this celebration was complete would the pharaoh successfully reinstate his power and his claim to rule over all of Egypt.

Even the most frivolous of celebrations, the Festival of Drunkenness, had a strong religious tie. As strange as it may seem, the point of this festival was to get so drunk that those participating would fall asleep in the temple forecourt. After passing out, the ritual would continue with the drinkers being awakened by the sound of drums and music so they could commune and worship with the goddess Hathor. Then there was dancing, more drinking, and excessive celebration, all in hopes of receiving a message from the goddess. Researchers have questioned whether or not the text describing the festival is intending the phrase “traveling through the marshes” to provide a sexual element to the festival but Hathor’s status as the goddess of love seems to support this claim. Either way, it is clear that the excessive frivolity was utilized as a way to connect the common Egyptian to the goddess, if only for a day.

courtesy of thekeep.org

courtesy of thekeep.org

Our investigation into ancient Egyptians’ holidays and festivals has emphasized something that we, of course, already know; the Egyptians held their religion extremely close, and tied their relationships with the gods to the prosperity and peace of their land. By celebrating the gods and changing of the seasons, ancient Egyptians showed their love and appreciation for these greater powers while ensuring that they themselves (whether pharaoh or farmer) would be renewed and maintain power over their land. Modern religions still possess this idea to the extent, worshipping their god(s) and celebrating feast days in order to honor the spirit of their religion, and while our main calendar may never include festivals that match those of the ancient Egyptians, I’m going to celebrate January 28 by kicking back and eating blueberry pancakes while playing the kazoo.

~M

Works Cited:

http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/egypt_alcohol.html#.VMHAM0fF8nd

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/f/festivals_of_ancient_egypt.aspx

http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/5-ancient-new-years-celebrations

http://arabworldbooks.com/egyptomania/sameh_arab_sed_heb.htm

http://www.themuseum.ca/blog/unwrapping-secrets-ancient-egypt-ancient-festivals-and-holidays

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Canines or Felines? A Centuries Old Debate

Few philosophical debates have endured throughout history. But the most important of these arguments, vital to our being, existing from the times of the ancients to the lifetimes of modern humankind, turning friends and families against each other, is this simple question:

Dogs or cats?

When we investigate the existence of this debate in ancient Egypt, we find a true head-to-head battle of the animals, a twist that may surprise anyone with ancient Egyptian knowledge.

Let’s start with the clear front runner: Cats. It’s generally accepted that cats were most likely domesticated around 2000 BC, and most of the cats we see today are descendents of these ancient felines. After about 500 years of domestication, the importance of cats reached a new level, and cats began to appear in tomb paintings depicting family life.

courtesy of www.ancient-egypt.co.uk. A typical tomb hunting scene depicting a cat trained to catch fowl and fish

courtesy of http://www.ancient-egypt.co.uk. A typical tomb hunting scene depicting a cat trained to catch fowl and fish

Cats played a variety of important roles in ancient Egyptian religion, the most famous cat goddesses being Bastet and the lion-headed Sekhmet.

Bastet was typically depicted having the body of a woman and the head of a domestic cat. She was known as a protector of women, children, households, and other cats. She was also the goddess of surprise, music, dance, pleasure, family, fertility, and birth. Most importantly, she was associated with the Eye of Ra, and acted within the sun god’s power. This direct connection to the almighty Ra gave Bastet a prominent presence in Egyptian religion. In 3200 BC, Bastet even had her own city (Budbastis), and was given a grand festival each October 31st in Budvastis and other cities, including Memphis.

courtesy of the British Museum

courtesy of the British Museum

Sekhmet is best referred to as Bastet’s evil twin. She is known as the goddess of war and pestilence, who is controlled by Ra (who, by the way, had to get her drunk to calm her down) and she becomes a great protector of humans. By having both a good and evil side in these two figures, the Egyptian religion is not only supporting the concept of duality that it is famous for, but also the subjugation of chaos; the most vital balance of the forces of nature.

One ancient Egyptian word described both wild and domesticated felines–‘miu’ or ‘mii’, which translates to “he or she who mews”. Creative, right? Curiously, there is little to no documented evidence of ancient cat names similar to those we use today. Two names that have been identified are ‘Nedjem’ and ‘Tai Miuwette’– the latter being the companion of the crown prince Thutmose, brother of Akhenaten. In a strange cultural twist, many Egyptian parents actually named their children after cats, using names like Mit/Miut for their daughters.

It is clear that felines were treasured by ancient Egyptians, even in the afterlife. Around 1000 BC cat cemeteries were formed, and, at one point, the penalty for killing a cat–even accidentally–was death. It was even illegal to export cats to neighboring countries, a law which sparked a thriving trade in smuggled cats! Court records confirm that armies were dispatched to bring these kidnapped kitties back to Egypt!

As might be expected, canines appear to be the literal underDOGS when it comes to the favorite pets of ancient Egyptians. Dogs do, however get one major point on the cats versus dogs scoreboard, since dogs were domesticated in ancient Egypt much earlier than cats. One ancient Egyptian word for dog is ‘iwiw’, an onomatopoeic reference to a dog’s bark. Surprisingly, dogs had numerous functions in society. They were trained for hunting purposes, used as police/guard dogs, in military actions, and also as household pets. In ancient Egyptian culture, dogs were among the ranks of the animal god-forms. Most commonly identified as a jackal, Anubis was a god of the underworld; a guide to the afterlife (much like another jackal deity called Wepwawet ‘The Opener of Ways’) and overseer of the mummification process.

courtesy of  ancient-egypt.org

courtesy of ancient-egypt.org

It is possible that the jackal was chosen as the anamorphic figure for Anubis because of the attentive nature of the God to the spirit in the afterlife, much like a canine today is attentive to its owner. This could also explain the inclusion of hunting dogs in the tomb paintings of Rameses the Great, with the dogs being allowed to provide companionship for their master in life and the afterlife. In addition to appearing in relief paintings within tombs, domesticated dogs were buried and mummified, sometimes with their own coffin, and most often in the tombs of their owners. Some dogs were buried with great care in the temple of Anubis in Saqqara in order to help ease their passing in to the afterlife.

Even in Ancient Egypt, dogs were given collars inscribed with their names. Many of these collars survive today. From these collars, as well as from stelae and reliefs, historians have discovered that dogs were given names such as ‘Brave One’, ‘Reliable’, ‘Good Herdsman’, and even ‘Useless’. Other names seem to have been chosen based on the dog’s color and some were simply just a number. But it seems that many of the names for these dogs were selected to represent endearment, abilities, or capabilities.

dog2

courtesy of pet-product-news.com

Ultimately, it appears that ancient Egyptians were split down the middle regarding their preference for cats or dogs. In addition to their varied religious, domestic, and military significance, it is evident that both cats and dogs held enough of their ancient Egyptian families’ affection to receive intricate funerary rites.

So…sometimes dogs were truly an ancient Egyptian’s best friend…and sometimes “cats ruled and dogs drooled”…once again proving that the ancient Egyptians were real people…just like us.

 

Resources:

http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/foodproduction/dog.html

http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/dogs.htm

http://www.ancient.eu/article/184/

http://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/cat

http://www.catmuseumsf.org/egyptcats.html

http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/divine_felines/

http://www.ancient.eu/article/466/

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