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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Egypt Centre, Swansea: Gruesome rites? Book of the Dead Fragment.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Gruesome rites? Book of the Dead Fragment.

I thought in this blog I would concentrate on what is going on in the illustrations to this piece of the Book of the Dead. And, if anyone has any comments please feel free to let us know. Part of the reason for my doing this blog is so I can learn (as well as letting you know about our collection).

First some background. This particular piece is Late Dynastic-Ptolemaic. It was sold to Henry Wellcome in Sotheby's sale of 1932 and is now catalogued in the Egypt Centre as W867. It is a papyrus sheet from the Book of the Dead. This particular piece depicts the hymn to the rising sun, Chapter 15 of the Book of the Dead. The scroll belonged to Ankh-Hapi, son of Pa-Khered-en-Min and Ta-di-Aset. Other pieces of the book are in the British Museum (EA9946) and two other pieces are known from elsewhere (Hurst 1997, 14-16). It has been published by Kate Bosse-Griffiths in ZAS 123 (1996) p97-102.

And now to the illustration along the top.

It shows a funeral ceremony in front of the tomb, a vignette which usually illustrates Chapter 1 in the New Kingdom but which by the Late Dynastic and Ptolemaic Period can be used to illustrate chapters 1-15. Anubis (or a priest wearing an Anubis mask) appears on this scene, together with the sacrifice of a bull, the implements used in the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, and an adze being used in the ceremony, etc. Anubis/priest with Anubis mask is shown propping up the coffin of the deceased in front of a lamenting woman and a priest who is purifying.

The mummy would be propped up in front of a stela in the courtyard of the tomb and exposed to the rays of the sun. It has been suggested that the setting up of the mummy 'before Re' took place at midday (Assmann 2005, 318; Taylor 2010, 88), though as this illustrates a hymn to the rising sun, perhaps the ceremony took place in the morning. The courtyard of the tomb would have been symbolically in the east. The practice of setting up the mummy in the courtyard to receive the rays of the sun, in front of stelae, probably with solar hymns thereon, gained popularity from the New Kingdom (Assmann 2005, 320). Re can be seen enthroned on the far left. The presentation of the mummy before Re mirrored the mythical judgement before the enthroned god which is shown, for example, on the coffin of Iwesemhesetmut in the Egypt Centre (in fact on this coffin it is shown twice, as a judgement by Osiris, and a judgement by Re). The pointed roof of the tomb which is shown in front of Re and his offering table actually went out of favour during the Ramesside Period, though would have been understood in later times as a tomb.

The figure holding up the mummy may be either mythically understood as Anubis, or as an actual priest in an Anubis mask. Anubis masks have been found, making the latter interpretation seem more likely. One is now held in Harrogate Museum (HARGM10686 02). Another is in the Roemer Pelizaeus- Museum, Hildesheim (1585). Additionally, at Dendera is a depiction of a procession of priests. One is shown wearing a mask (that it is a mask seems to be the case from the way it is shown as transparent, see Mariette IV, pl. 31).

The rite of placing the mummy in the sun, purifying it and performing the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, is described in TT23 (Assmann 2005, 323–324). The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony ensured that the deceased was able to act after death.

To the right of the priest forming the opening of the mouth ritual is a priest wearing a headdress of two ostrich feathers. He is the lector priest. From the Third Intermediate Period the lector priest was sometimes shown with such a headdress and was thus sometimes called a 'wing-wearer' (Greek-pterophorus). Lector priests were responsible for chanting or reading from sacred texts and sometimes acted as oracles for the people.

To the far right is a dreadful scene, an essential part of the Opening of the Mouth ritual. A foreleg of a still living calf is chopped off, witnessed by its mourning mother. The leg is presented to the deceased while still warm (Assmann 2005, 324-329). Both the leg and the mourning cow were important in ensuring that the deceased was reborn. In some texts, it is suggested that the calf represents the god Seth who must be punished so that eternal life is possible.


Assmann, J. 2005. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Translated from the German by David Lorton. Ithica and London: Cornell University Press.

Hurst, N. A Passion for the past. Historic Collections from Egypt and the Levant. Cambridge (Mass,).

Mariette, A. 1871. Dendérah: description générale du grand temple de cette ville (Vol. 4): Plates, Paris.

Müller-Roth, M. and Weber, F. 2012. Pretty Good Privacy. In Lucarelli, R., Müller-Roth, M. and Wüthrich, A. Herausgehen am Tage. Gesammelte Schriften zum altägyptischen Totenbuch, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitx,  113-134.

Taylor, J.H. 2010 (ed.) Journey through the afterlife. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. British Museum Press.

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