To Live Forever: Art and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt
- Dates: February 12, 2010 through May 2, 2010
- Collections: Egyptian, Classical, Ancient Near Eastern Art
To Live Forever Art and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt
All ancient Egyptians desired to live after death. To Live Forever: Art and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt illustrates Egyptian funerary beliefs and customs observed over nearly four thousand years by both the rich and the poor. The exhibition answers questions often asked about the afterlife, mummies, funerals, and tombs as it illustrates the variety of strategies used to evade death and, ultimately, to live forever.
After surveying Egyptian beliefs through papyri and works of art, the exhibition addresses many of the practical considerations an ancient Egyptian faced when preparing for burial. Not everyone had access to the elaborate funeral equipment made for a king. The exhibition therefore illustrates how middle-class artisans and some poorer people made use of cheaper materials and secondhand items in providing for their tombs. In place of vast wealth, they substituted their own creativity to reach the afterlife. Objects belonging to the middle and poorer classes are shown here near the luxurious goods used by the rich to guarantee their eternal lives, often in side-by-side comparisons.
Osiris and Rebirth
Ancient Egyptian understanding of the afterlife is reflected in the story of the god Osiris. The story also explains why certain objects were desired in an Egyptian tomb.
Osiris and his wife Isis were Egypt’s beloved first rulers. Osiris’s jealous brother, Seth, invited the king to a party only to trap him in a special human-form box—like a coffin—exactly in Osiris’s dimensions. Seth and his co-conspirators threw the box into the Nile, and Osiris drowned. Seth claimed the throne. Isis retrieved Osiris’s body and magically revived him long enough so that they could conceive a child. She also built temples for him where he could receive food offerings after death, establishing the precursor of the tomb.
Osiris became king of the afterlife while Isis raised their son Horus. Horus later defeated his uncle Seth and became king of Egypt. But all Egyptians wanted to imitate his father, Osiris, at their death by being reborn into the afterlife. Many of the objects in an Egyptian tomb helped the deceased achieve this goal.
The Voyage of the God Re
Egyptians believed that the sun god Re traveled in a boat across the sky from east to west in the world of the living. Reaching the west, he entered the afterlife and then traveled across the sky of the underworld going eastward. Each hour that the god traveled in the underworld he was attacked by Apophis, a dragon-like demon. Only during the fifth hour of his journey was Re safe in the realm of Osiris. At the end of the twelfth hour of his underworld journey, Re was reborn into the eastern horizon of our world. Many of the decorations in royal tombs and on papyrus reveal that Egyptians also desired to travel with Re in his boat after death.
The stories about Re and about Osiris, plus a series of magic spells that protected the deceased from danger, provided the knowledge an ancient Egyptian needed to enter, and thrive in, the afterlife.
The Non-Royal Elite
The non-royal elite included people who were literate and worked as high officials in the government bureaucracy or in the temples as priests. This group could afford tombs and all their contents rather than simpler burials in graves dug into the desert sand—the fate of poorer Egyptians. The elite either built stone tombs as small, freestanding buildings or excavated tombs in the side of a mountain. But even within this group, there were degrees of wealth. When they commissioned statues for their tombs, they often had to make choices between more or less expensive materials in order to make the most of their resources. Limestone is soft and easier to carve than black granite or granodiorite. Limestone is also relatively plentiful in Egypt while black granite and granodiorite are more rare and thus more expensive. The statues in this section demonstrate some of the choices wealthier Egyptians made in statuary.
Substitute, Imitate, Combine, Reuse
Furnishing a tomb was the biggest expense in an ancient Egyptian’s life. The coffin alone could cost more than one year’s salary for an artisan. At least four strategies were available to those planning to furnish a tomb on a budget: they could substitute, imitate, combine, or reuse. Often evidence of more than one of these strategies is visible in the same object.
Substitution involved choosing a cheaper material where the elite owner would use a precious one. One might use faience, made mostly from sand, in place of gold or a hard, rare stone.
Imitation meant decorating one material as if it were something more expensive. For instance, a terracotta mummy mask could be painted yellow to imitate costly gold.
Combining involved bringing together in one object two or more elements that would have been separate in an elite tomb. This was especially common in the case of coffin sets.
Finally, reuse included removing the name of a previous owner and reinscribing an object for a new user. A government program of recycling tomb objects is known from the end of the New Kingdom, around 1070 b.c.e.
These methods of economizing reveal tremendous creativity among those who did not have the means to furnish a tomb according to elite standards.