In the Egyptian view, this image of a woman has a male face and hands because they are colored red, the “male” color. This use of color magically transformed her into a male being. A red face and hands also identified the deceased with the sun-god, Re, who traveled in a boat across the sky by day and into the land of the dead at night. This woman’s “male” red skin gave her access to transportation to the next life in the god’s boat.
A shabty performed work assigned to the deceased in the next world. This shabty was made by a rare and expensive process using multiple colors of faience. It was likely a product of a royal workshop.
Color played a key role in gender transformation in the tomb. The representation of this woman on her coffin with red skin, a characteristic considered to be male, was a magical intervention that transformed her gender. This coffin’s red face, hands, and feet invested her with the male power to create a fetus for her own rebirth.
The yellow cartonnage mask, in direct contact with the mummy, altered her gender role once again. Yellow skin represented the skin of a goddess made from gold. Now, returned to her original female state, she incubated the male-created fetus, gave birth in the tomb, and lived forever in the next world as a woman.
The Egyptians associated mirrors with female sexuality and rebirth. Women needed mirrors to apply cosmetics and style their hair. Mirrors were thereby intimately connected with the eroticism that led to rebirth.
Mirrors were also a symbol of cosmic creation. The disc of the mirror on a papyrus-plant handle symbolized the moment when the creator-god emerged from the primordial swamp in the form of the sun. Creation then subdued the chaos of the deserts, here represented by the two ibex heads. This symbolic depiction of the original creation served as an aid to the self’s re-creation in the tomb.
A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt
Egyptian Galleries, 3rd Floor
The ancient Egyptians believed that to make rebirth possible for a deceased woman, she briefly had to turn into a man. Guided by new research inspired in part by feminist scholarship, the exhibition A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt tells this remarkable story of gender transformation in the ancient world, exploring the differences between male and female access to the afterlife.
Egyptian medicine taught that a woman, once in her tomb, faced a biological barrier to rebirth. Because the ancient Egyptians believed that in human reproduction it was the man who created the fetus, transferring it to the woman during intercourse, rebirth was impossible for a woman alone. To overcome this perceived problem, a priest magically transformed a woman’s mummy into a man long enough to create a fetus. This required representing a woman with red skin on her coffin—the color normally assigned to a man—and reciting spells that addressed the woman with masculine pronouns, spells also recorded graphically on the coffin. A woman later returned to her original female state and incubated herself for rebirth into the afterlife as a woman.
This exhibition showcases 27 objects from our renowned collection of ancient Egyptian art. It includes the painted coffin box and mask of Weretwahset, which represents a deceased woman with red skin, the magical intervention that gave her the male power to create a fetus for her own rebirth. There is also a small, finely carved statuette of a woman; her elaborate wig and close-fitting dress indicate that she has returned to the female state after recreating herself for rebirth.
A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt is organized by Edward Bleiberg, Curator of Egyptian Art, Brooklyn Museum.
A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt is part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a yearlong series of exhibitions celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.