At the core of the Ancient Egyptian philosophy lay the concepts of duality and unification. Ma’at (mAat[1]), was the embodiment of these ideological concepts, representing the moral and ethical principles all Egyptians were judged by in the halls of the dead. It was the epitome of order, justice, truth, balance and harmony. Jan Assmann, in his discussion of the concept (1989) focuses on the ethical and socially connective aspects of this principle, alongside the fostering of the concept of the mutual dependence of the living and the deceased. Egypt’s quasi-historical political narrative of the unification of the lands along the Nile Delta (Lower Egypt), and the the region between modern day Cairo and Sudan (Upper Egypt) by the first Pharaoh, Menes, cemented and institutionalized this unifying dualism. The Pharaoh, the divine ruler of the land, believed to be the son (or in some cases, daughter) of the gods, became Nesu Bity (nswt-bjtj, The Lord of the Two Lands). Whilst this was a geographically referential title, it also garnered a more ritualistic, and religious significance. Pharaoh, as the maintainer of Ma’at, united the two lands of Egypt, Heaven and Earth, the gods and the people, the living and the dead. The entire cosmological balance hung on the effective rule of Pharaoh. The Pharaoh, as both person and concept, therefore needed to attain a certain level of immortal omnipotence. This was partially achieved through the distinctive art of the period.

The definition of Egyptian material culture as “art” as understood in the canon of western art historical context is problematic. Objects, here with reference almost exclusively to both royal and non-royal statuary, resided not as items of decoration, portraiture or portrayal, but as vessels and receptacles of worship, veneration, and aspects of the soul of the deceased. Whilst created to glorify the commissioning corpus, they were not wholly intended to celebrate worldly or material gains or achievements. Statues served as conceptual vessels for the distributed (or deceased) self, as referenced in Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency (1998). Gell describes this distribution of elements of the corpus as being “not confined to particular spatio-temporal coordinates, but consists of a (…) dispersed category of material objects, tracings and leavings” (1998, pg. 222). It is through this dispersal that the statue-object acquires an existence, agency, or “life” and is thus made a catalyst for interaction. Indeed, some cult colossal statuary, such as those commissioned by Pharaohs Amenhotep III (c. 1386-1353 BCE), and Ramesses II (c. 1279-1213 BCE) (fig. 1) acquired such agency in and of themselves as to receive individual ‘names’ (Price, 2011). One common name featured among several of these colossi is “One who hears the petition of mankind”, further emphasising the role of Pharaoh (dispersed) as intermediary between mankind and the divine. Ritualistic practices gave agency to the statues, enabling them to become ‘animated’, or activated, by a spirit (in this case the royal spirit) and become object-beings which could be actively petitioned.

The dissemination of the corpus is a key element of the ancient Egyptian conceptions of self, and the constitution of the soul. To the Egyptian, the self consisted of several distinct, yet equal facets. According to Rosalie David of the Manchester Museum:

“The Egyptians believed that the human personality had many facets - a concept that was probably developed early in the Old Kingdom. In life, the person was a complete entity, but if he had led a virtuous life, he could also have access to a multiplicity of forms that could be used in the next world. In some instances, these forms could be employed to help those whom the deceased wished to support or, alternately, to take revenge on his enemies.” (David, 2003 pg. 116)

So it was that the Egyptian concept of death consisted not of merely the cessation of biological functions (i.e. the physical death of the body), but in the separation of these distinct parts of the corpus (fig. 2). The main aspects relevant to this discussion are the ka (kA), inhabited object-representations of the deceased, and the ba (bA), a mutable concept evolving over time, but most akin to modern conceptions of a soul (Zabkar, 1968). The journey of the deceased in the afterlife was an attempt to reunite and ensure the security and continued existence of these elements. This belief was an attempt to achieve immortality through a disseminated self. One poetic, if academically suspect[2], translation of the chapter of “Not Dying a Second Time” in the Book of the Dead (a religious funerary text designed to aid the deceased in the passage through the underworld to a bountiful afterlife) reads “I have hidden myself amongst you, O imperishable stars!” (Budge, 1895)
The ba was in essence all that made a person unique, its personality. Inanimate objects could also have a ba, a unique character, a key example of this being the pyramids of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BCE) being referred to as the ba of their owner. Unlike the Greek (and contemporary) understandings of the soul, Egyptologist Louis Zabkar argues that the ba was the person himself, not merely a part of the person (1968). A concept of a purely immaterial existence was so far removed from the Ancient Egyptian mind-set that on the advent of Christianity in Egypt, the Greek word Psyche was adopted to describe such an existence, rather than the term ba. In representation within the canons of Egyptian Art[3], the ba was depicted as the form of a bird, with the head of a human. The ka was considered a ‘double’, a second image of the self. It was the vital essence of being, the spark distinguishing life and death. It, along with the ba was the spirit that inhabited the deceased, mummified body, and also these colossal statues, alongside other royal and non-royal statuary, existing as receptacle for the deceased’s essence to inhabit, as well as for the divine essence of the king during his lifetime.
A third part of the Egyptian concept of self, the physical body, acted as the locus point for the unification of the soul (ka/ba). Statues were merely an additional ‘home’ for the spirit to rest, the body must remain intact for the soul to have a seat for intelligence and in order to be judged by the gods guarding the underworld. The preservation of the body thus became a matter of divine importance, giving rise to arguably one of the most commonly recognized symbols of Ancient Egypt today; the mummy.
            Historically rising out of pre-dynastic burial customs of the region wherein the dead were buried in shallow pits in the Egyptian desert, and so naturally preserved due to the heat and desiccation of the sand. The art of embalming became a highly refined and complex process. Deliberate preservation of the body became an integral part of death rituals as early as c. 2800 BCE. While the exact process of mummification is both unknown to modern scholars, and was subject to changes over the long span of the civilization, along with the financial means of the deceased’s families, the key elements remained, more or less, the same. Upon death the body was taken and washed, and the process lasting between 40-70 days was begun. Internal organs such as the lungs, liver, stomach & Intestines were removed via a small incision in the abdomen, each individually preserved and placed in four separate canopic jars. Each jar bore the likeness of one of the four sons of Osiris, the king of the dead, and the first mummy according to religious belief. The heart, considered the seat of all intelligence and emotion was similarly removed, preserved and wrapped, but then placed back into the chest cavity. The brain was liquefied and shredded via a hooked needle inserted through the nostril and then drained from the skull through the same aperture. After all this had been completed, the body was dried in a vat of natron salt. Upon removal, it was anointed with oils, resins, and wrapped in strips of linen bandage, with amulets and spells interspersed among the wrappings. This was then coated in resin to keep moisture away from the body. (Riggs, 2014)
            The body, khat (xt), was then ritually awoken through a series of funerary rights intended to reanimate their remains in the afterlife. The opening of the mouth ceremony was the most depicted of these on tomb walls and papyri. (fig 3.)
The Egyptians’ mortuary theology was based on the idea that all those who had lived a just and morally commendable life (according to Ma’at), would be reborn in the afterlife, contingent to the survival of all aspects of the corpus. Thus an afterlife was secured not so much on wealth or social standing (although access to some of the more refined methods of mummification would certainly have been dependant on one’s financial abilities), but by one’s conduct. In the tomb of Petosiris (c. 3rd century BCE), the deceased extols:

“The west (afterlife) is the abode of him who is faultless, praise god for the man who has reached it! No man will attains it, unless his heart is exact in doing right (…) the poor is not distinguished there from the rich, only he who is found free of fault by scale and weight before eternity’s lord.” (Teeter, 2011, pg. 121)

Death, as a concept was also linked to ideas of social inclusion and cohesion. According to the concept of Ma’at, just as the principle of connectivity and being morally just breathed life into the body, binding the individual limbs into a body, so it breathed life into an individual as a person by integrating him into the constellations of society. They existed in their form as complete persons only with respect to one another. The Egyptian religious, and social order of life are reflected in each other, stressing the functions, roles, and ties that bind the constituent members of a society. What the Egyptians viewed as the worst evils were the concepts of isolation, loneliness, and perhaps more disconcerting to a modern reader: self-sufficiency, and independence. From their point of view, these were the symptoms of death, dissolution, and destruction.
To this conception of the isolating features of death, there is the mirrored image of the deceased as being welcomed into the social structures of the afterlife. Thus, in the Egyptian texts, the afterlife is not a reality-based landscape, conceived in space and time, but rather a social sphere that seeks to integrate the deceased into itself as much as the living. A recurring theme in the Book of the Dead, along with many other funerary texts, is relief from the isolation the deceased has entered following their death. According to Assmann:

“All these texts conjure up images of social connectivity, with the aim of reintegrating the deceased into a community that will take in the one who has been torn from the land of the living.” (2005, pg. 63)

Death, in its schisming of the corpus was an affront to the very basis of the Egyptian belief system, threatening personal, social and political upheaval. The death of the Pharaoh even more so.

Figurative statues of the elite were commissioned to prevent this, and also to serve the myriad functional roles required by the living and the dead. They acted as alternate vessels for the spirit of the deceased to engage with the living, thus unifying the two. They served a commemorative function wherein, with hints of ancestor worship, they acted as shrines and places of offering to the deceased; within temple complexes such as Karnak and Luxor[4], statues were washed, clothed, and anointed daily by the priests of the temples. Offerings of flowers, foods, and other items were placed to provide them with sustenance for the afterlife. The body was removed and placed in sealed, and often inaccessible, tombs thus removing it from interaction and veneration, so these statues acted as proxies. For royal sculpture in particular they also served a political purpose. The colossal statues placed outside temples and at the borders of the Empire, acted as reminders to both Egyptians and non-Egyptians of the magnificent and divine power of Pharaoh. His right to rule was established through inscriptions and symbols emphasizing his direct communication with the gods. With the living spirit of Pharaoh inhabiting these monuments, his presence inhabited the land, serving as a reminder of the importance of Ma’at, of order, and of unity.

[1] All words, excluding names, taken from the language of the Ancient Egyptians are presented in their most frequent English translations, with transliteration of the original Hieroglyph following in brackets, as set forth in Alan H. Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar, 1957.
[2] E. A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934) was a British Egyptologist and Philologist, and assistant keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. His work in translating Ancient Egyptian funerary texts was, though ground-breaking at the time, nonetheless coloured by a Christian and colonial attitude. As such, his translations (which are still widely available), have become academically obsolete due to improved accuracies and understanding of the Egyptian language, and culture.
[3] John Baines’ Visual & Written Culture in Ancient Egypt (2007) describes in detail the strict forms and functions of representation with Egyptian visual culture that artisans were bound to, in terms of religious and societal norms. This in turn gave rise to the seemingly immutable and fixed modes of Egyptian ‘art’ spanning the c. 3300 years of its existence.
[4] It should be noted that statues, and the ability to produce them, remained exclusively the preserve of the elite in Egyptian society. Non-royal statues were limited to those whom the Pharaoh favoured. Due to his supreme control over quarrying and material sites, alongside direct influence over the production yards, many statues bear the inscription “Given as a gift of the king” (Price, 2011) emphasizing the honour bestowed upon the recipient. The grace of having your statue placed within the temple complex was again a rare political favour.
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