On the Saturday I caught a municipal bus, in the unenthusiastic winter rain, down Banbury Road into Oxford Town; thence to the Ashmolean Museum. That great Victorian pile, much renovated, was built in the middle of the nineteenth century; but the collection is much older, based upon a cabinet of curiosities, and some rare books and manuscripts, donated by one Elias Ashmole to the University in 1677. Ashmole—royalist, soldier, freemason, lawyer, alchemist, astrologer, antiquarian—obtained many of his items from the estate of John Tradescant the Younger, naturalist, gardener, collector and traveller; and the inheritor of the hoard of his like-minded father, John Tradescant the Elder.
Some say John the Younger’s Ark was swindled out of him by Ashmole. It may have been so. The curiosities included, among much else, coins, weapons, clothes, taxidermed birds and animals. Both Tradescants visited the Americas; the younger brought back seeds of the aster, the cypress and the magnolia; and the ceremonial cloak of Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas. There are a number of other strange and wonderful items in the Ashmolean, including Oliver Cromwell’s death mask and the lantern Guy Fawkes is said to have carried on the night of the Gunpowder Plot.
There are also the recently (2011) refurbished Egyptian and Nubian rooms. When you enter the first of them, three figures greet you—two statues of the god Min, with his erect phallus in his left hand and a flail in his upraised right; and between them a crouching animal, a ceramic, usually described as a lion. It looked more Chinese than Egyptian: a hairy dragon, perhaps, with bared teeth. The statues of Min were dug up at Qift, north of Luxor, by Flinders Petrie in the 1890s and transported by him back to England. They are pre-Dynastic. That is, older than the records.
These massive slabs of yellow-grey limestone have reliefs carved upon them: sea shells, antelope heads, catfish, cows and something resembling a lightning bolt; which may represent ejaculate. One lacks a head, the other has its detached cranium suspended above the torso in the place where it would once have been. Their penises, arm-sized cylinders of stone, were inserted into apertures drilled into the body of the sculptures and projecting some distance out in front. The statue with the floating head still has the stump of its erection plugging the hole made for it; the other has an empty socket. Each hand seems to be turning compulsively back around to grasp its respective appendage. In some Egyptian origin myths, people are said to have been born from the sperm of a masturbating god.
Min, Lord of Processions, God of High Plumes, Maker of Gods and Men. The cos lettuce was one of his sacred plants because the white latex which oozes from a broken leaf or stem was thought to resemble semen. Lettuce was accounted an aphrodisiac then. Min was sometimes depicted standing on a pile of them. Lettuce. In amongst their magnificence and their strangeness, there is the homeliness of the Egyptians. When a Pharaoh manifested as Min, he processed to a wheat field on the banks of the Nile, harvested a sheaf of ripe grain, gave it to a bull or a sacred cow to eat; then ejaculated into the water to prove his fertility and to re-fecundate the river. There is a sub-genre, not well known, of images of masturbating Pharaohs.
Before Min was the chaos of the waters. When the sky had not yet come into being, when the earth had not yet come into being. Before the advent of the Imperishable Stars of the North, before the beginning of the Unwearying Stars of the South. The names of two of the original progenitors, Nun and Naunet, were written as an N, a wave. For the Egyptians, as for the Sumerians, the world existed within an ocean that was only kept from engulfing the earth by our atmosphere. The back of the sky was the meniscus of this ocean; where air met water. When Min or Atum or Osiris or Ptah (they all did it) masturbated, it wasn’t seed falling upon stony ground; but a deposit made into the great ocean.
This belief, like most of the core beliefs of the Egyptians, was rehearsed as ritual over thousands of years while the thought behind it remained essentially unchanged. The lightning stroke inscribed on Min’s thigh might signify ejaculate; but they also sometimes said we are born from an egg that came from Ocean; and preserved the placenta of an important person throughout their life as evidence of that. Were they wrong? Are we not both egg and sperm? Remember the spate in space where comets containing organic compounds hurtle. Remember the air all around the earth, a kind of albumen, without which we cannot live. The salt immensities of blood.
At the rear of the first room at the Ashmolean is a facsimile of a plaster mural found on the wall of Painted Tomb 100, excavated, some say inexpertly, by Frederick Green at Nekhen, south of Luxor, in 1899. Green left his other work, in a hurry, when he heard that grave robbers had been detained while looting the tomb. The plaster was removed and taken to the Cairo Museum, where its ruin may still be seen; most of the burial goods are in the Ashmolean. The tomb, now lost beneath cultivations, is dated 3400 BCE; about a hundred years before the statues of Min were made. The only version of the mural we have is the water colour copy painted, not inexpertly, by Green; in shades of red, yellow, white and black.
It shows hieratic figures on a floating background, as on a cave wall or the side of a rock shelter; the space is unbounded yet divided into registers. Horizon; earth and sky; a possible narrative movement from east to west. There is a man flanked by rampant lions; a king smiting his enemies with a pear-shaped mace; a trussed ox; a priest in a leopard skin cloak. Six boats—five white and one, more elaborate, with a higher prow, black—carry figures seated under canopies on thrones within them. The mural seems to merge the animals of Palaeolithic art with the forms of the humans who made them.
It is sometimes suggested that the animal-headed gods of the Egyptians originated in clan names like those found amongst the Aborigine of Australia; and in other societies which practice totemism. There were baboon people, ibis people, cat people, cow people and so on. One version of the gods, the Ogdoad, has four pairs, a frog-headed man, a snake-headed woman, emerging out of the mud. Nun and Naunet were the first of these. The other three pairs embody infinity, darkness and invisibility. In this pantheon the jackal, who digs up bodies buried in the earth, devouring their flesh then gnawing upon their bones, becomes Anubis, our escort into the dead lands.
At Nekhen there is a burial ground in which the bodies of humans are mingled with those of animals. A veritable zoo of the gods. Baboons, leopards, elephants; cats and dogs; crocodile and hippopotamus; gazelles, ibex and sheep; hyenas, foxes, turtles. Some had been embalmed; others eaten. One of the elephants, a young male, was interred whole, with grave goods: local and imported pottery; red ochre and green malachite; a stone mace head; alabaster jars; a slate palette, an amethyst bead and an ivory bracelet. He may have been a sacrifice made after the death of his owner.
Amongst these burials were graves encircled by the bodies of dogs: people guarded in death as they had been in life. The human bones so honoured probably belonged to chieftains ancestral to the first kings. Early leaders, like the Scorpion King or the Catfish King, took the names of powerful animals. They seem to have held court at the lost city of Thinis (sometimes ‘This’) but were usually buried nearby in Abydos (‘great land’). Ritual maces carried by these kings, inscribed with hieroglyphs representing them, were found in a cache buried at Nekhen. Cosmetic palettes too.
Palettes first appear in Neolithic burials as small objects used to grind up pigments to make face or body paint. They are shaped like animals; or birds. Or fish. There’s one that is grey, plain, rhomboidal, with a scorpion carved in relief near the apex of the superior triangle; it looks like a pair of lovers embracing. In time the palettes lost their utilitarian function, grew in size, and became ceremonial objects with emblematic devices inscribed upon them. They had holes bored in them so that they could be worn around the neck. Or carried by hand, like shields, in front of the chest.
Imperial palettes were made from siltstone quarried in Wadi Hammamat, a stream bed which runs from Qift on the Nile to the port of Al-Qusayr on the Red Sea. Qift, which the Greeks called Coptos, stands at the eastern extremity of the great bend the river takes here. Al-Qusayr was Egypt’s eastern port. Some think that early contacts with the civilizations of Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia and India came through Al-Qusayr and then along the Wadi; along with the lapis lazuli from Bactria in what is now Afghanistan.
What was ground upon them? Ochres dug from mines deep in the Sahara. Kohl, which for the Egyptians had a therapeutic value: it shielded their eyes from the sun and protected them from infection. It was made from stibnite, sulphide of antimony; or galena, a dark grey ore, sulphide of lead. Two lead chlorides—laurionite and phosgenite—found in kohl do in fact increase the amount of nitric oxide in the human skin and thereby strengthen the immune system. Green malachite, copper carbonate: eyes were painted black above, green below. Egyptian blue was made from silica, lime, copper and natron; the salt later used in mummification.
The Two Dog Palette, in the Ashmolean, had the heads of canines (one is missing) raised up on either side of the top of the oval. Twin serpopards nuzzle the body of a gazelle; pigments were ground in the area enclosed by their encircling necks. On the reverse, wild animals attack herds of herbivores. A pair of lions, another serpopard, a leopard, a hyena, and a griffin with comb-like feathered wings. At bottom is a long-tailed human-headed bipedal dog playing a flute. Some think this figure shows a Mesopotamian, perhaps Edamite, influence.
Nekhen was the place of Horus, the Distant One; Hierakonpolis, the Greek name, means Hawk City. It was here the unification of the twin kingdoms of Egypt is said to have been consecrated. Neither a conquest nor a feat of arms, perhaps, but a recognition of an existing state of affairs: the same pottery was already being used from the First Cataract north to the delta of the Nile and on into Sinai and the Levant; its maker’s or trader’s name stamped upon the vessels as seals; or recorded on accompanying ivory plaques. Bread and beer were standardised too; along with the ornaments, the cosmetics and the perfumes. The turquoise and the copper artefacts. The gold.
The Narmer palette, in the Cairo Museum, has on one side Narmer, the Catfish King, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt; on the other, he is wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt. It is the first depiction of what would in time come to be known as Pharaoh (‘great house’) and already exhibits the conventions of classic Egyptian art. It also has inscribed upon it early versions of the marks the Greeks would call hieroglyphs. They represent sounds by means of images; and, perforce, represent the images as well. The cache at Nekhen, in which this palette was found, seems to have been buried after a ceremony meant to remember, and at the same time dismiss, the past.
An epochal transition had taken place, one which determined the course of the next three thousand years. Metamorphosis from mortal to divinity was accomplished. People learned to live forever. They did so by figuring out how to become their own ancestors. In fealty to this breakthrough, the Souls of Nekhen, so-called, were honoured guests at the coronation, and the burial, of every subsequent Pharaoh. Later, in a complex switch of allegiances, they would be joined by the Souls of Pe. Pharaohs were depicted with an oval hieroglyph, cross-hatched and sieve-like, a representation of their placenta, attached to their name. This twin accompanied them throughout their lives; and was buried with them after death.
There’s much here that resists interpretation. However long you look at these things—the statues of Min, the painting and the artefacts from Tomb 100, the Narmer and the Two Dog palettes, the Scorpion and Catfish maces—coming to an understanding of the thought that made them is hard to do. By the same token, the realism of the art of the Egyptians, even at this early period, has such clarity it seems prophetic: a fragment of a plaster foot carries within it the whole secret of who we are. Likewise, a decayed wooden face weathered back to the grain. Ducks swimming amongst reeds along the river, where the Egyptians located paradise. The geese of Meidum.
I returned to the Ashmolean again the next day, Sunday, and saw, in the Greek rooms, a Cycladic carving of Aphrodite, contemporary with the Min monoliths, made of pale yellow stone, sparse and angular as a Modigliani. When, I wondered, did the mirror and the comb became the accoutrements of the goddess of love? Neolithic ivory combs found in the Nile valley have animal heads carved along their tops. Egyptian mirrors were made out of polished copper discs; or from stone bowls with black glazes in which, once they were filled with water, you saw yourself reflected.
I went back to the Egyptian rooms. On the Narmer Palette, the Catfish King is shown exulting over rows of dead bodies which have had their heads severed and put between their legs; upon these severed heads, their severed genitalia are placed. This must have been something that really was done; as it was in other places. The savagery of these early kings cannot be exaggerated: they were buried surrounded, not just by animal sacrifices, but by slaughtered retainers too—perhaps the very people who made their grave goods. A Pyramid Text from the Fifth Dynasty records a king feasting upon both gods and men: It is Shesmu who carves them up for Unas, / Cooks meals of them for him in his dinner pots. // Unas eats their magic, swallows their spirits.
This may be a memory rather than a contemporary account of cannibalism. Nevertheless, evisceration was not uncommon; like their Palaeolithic ancestors, Egyptians were expert at the butchery of animals. Some of the dead in the people’s necropolis at Nekhen had their heads removed then replaced above their necks; their organs taken out, preserved and restored to the body cavity. Some had been scalped, perhaps while still alive. Some had their heads stoved in by a blow from a mace, evidently while their assassin held them by their hair with his other hand. The classic depiction of Pharaoh smiting his enemies may have originated, not as a celebration of conquest or of war, but in ritual practice; for instance, in the recently excavated Oval Court at Nekhen.
Here wild and domesticated animals were slaughtered and butchered; here human sacrifices were made. Egyptians called themselves the cattle of the gods—people as a surplus of the harvest. There are representations of men and women being stabbed by a figure who holds out a dish to catch the blood that wells from their hearts. Courts like the one at Nekhen existed at other places up and down the Nile; to which the king processed in order to receive tithes and offerings. They were theatres which were also abattoirs: with a drain hole in the centre where the spilled blood flowed away. Clustered along the court’s margins were the workshops where the votive goods, the ceramics and the jewellery, the costumes and the flint knives, were made.
If the scalped and maced and stabbed figures were sacrifices, they were still given a respectful burial. They may have anticipated resurrection: as the king progressed towards immortality, his loyal followers, caught up in the train of reincarnation, could hope to do so too. Their bodies would be arrayed around his tomb in a manner which mimicked the order of the living court. It was believed that, if the ceremonies continued to be performed correctly, each person would wake again into life for the hour of the night when the sun, on its way to being reborn, passed through their station in the Duat. Eternity was in their lips and eyes. The insomniac dead.
There was a burial in the people’s cemetery at Nekhen of a woman with a mohawk haircut accompanied by pots containing herbs and pigments and unguents; a shawoman perhaps. Perfumes, like cosmetics, were alchemical; they could change the mortal into the divine. The longed-for becoming, from animal to human to immortal, was a consequence of a creation held together by spells. Death was a preparation for re-birth: fine mats, ten at a time, woven for the grave, would cover the body lying curled up on its left side, facing the west; or foetal on its right, awaiting the rising sun.
And then there were the animals. A German dictionary records, out of a total of 777 hieroglyphs, 176 animal or bird or fish or insect-derived symbols; more than one in five; not counting the motifs abstracted from the human body. You might say the Egyptians thought with animals. A hymn to Amun proposes: Thou art the only one, creator of all that is. From whose eye men came forth. From whose mouth the gods originated. Who creates the herbs the cattle live upon. And the corn for people. Who creates that which the fish in the river live upon. Who gives breath to the chicken in the egg. Who maintains the young of the snake. Who creates the nourishment of the gnat. And also of the worm and the fleas. Who cares for the mice in the hole and keeps alive the insects in every tree.
Funerary texts recording charitable acts do not always distinguish between human and animal recipients: I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked. I have also given food to the ibis, the falcon, the cat and the jackal. It is creation before the sin of the knowledge of good and evil. All living things, united in fealty to death, learn to overcome it. Those ibis- or falcon- or jackal- or cat-headed gods are intermediaries, showing us the way to embark upon the boat of millions of years, how to sail over the dark waters, through the Duat with its lakes of fire, its walls of iron and its turquoise trees; and on into the rising of the sun. The way to immortality is not through personal salvation; but by means of repetition of the song of generation.
And yet: most of what we think we know about the early Egyptian dynasties is conjectural. We don’t really know if a king called Narmer united the two lands or even if there were two lands to be united. Perhaps the state was a fait accompli after the already standardised trade networks were taken over by the largest, most aggressive or most efficient operator. Pottery, grain and beer. Precious metals. Stone. Cattle, counted at two yearly intervals throughout the reign of every Pharoah. We don’t even know if Narmer is distinct from his successor, the beguilingly named Hor-Aha; or if either of them is the Menes said by Herodotus to have been the one who united Egypt. Pharaohs had many names.
Even the animal-headed gods came later, like memories of totems reified into divinities by those who had already lost them. Gods in human form, with or without animal heads, are not represented until the Second Dynasty. Possibly they were a result of the formalization of the forty-two Nomes into which the Two Lands were divided: a bureaucratic innovation. Among the first to manifest was Seshat, the goddess who measures, calculates and writes. She is shown teaching a Second Dynasty king, Khasekhemwui, how to lay out a temple. She is using marks made by ropes laid in sand: the same enclosure which will henceforth bind every Pharaoh’s name within its cartouche.
Seshat instructing Khasekhemwui was inscribed at Abydos at the end of the Second Dynasty; about which little is known apart from the names of the kings, a few crumbling tombs―and the first full sentence in hieroglyphic script. It is a summary of an equerry’s titles and accomplishments. It may also be understood as the account of an action. An investiture perhaps. Thus, the invention of subject and predicate. Of grammar. Signs, hitherto denominating precise things, could now be re-combined in such a way as to extend both the minds of those who wrote and those who read them. Even if they were the same person; more likely the scribe and the one whose tomb was to be inscribed: who would by these signs be immortalised.
That first sentence was written during the reign of a Second Dynasty king called Peribsen who, unusually, took a Seth instead of a Horus name. At the same time Horus, the distant one, was re-located to the city of Pe, in the delta; whose emblem became the sedge. The south’s was the honey bee, pollinating the desert from which Seth’s exemplar, the dog, had come. Hawk and hound, reconciled. Insect and plant. Henceforth the hawk-headed Souls of Pe, along with the dog-headed Souls of Nekhen, attended upon every Pharaoh’s birth, proclamation and death. So too did a third iteration of the dynastic pair, called the two ladies: Nekhbet and Wadjet, the vulture and the snake.
Khasekhemui, the last king of the Second Dynasty, was buried at Abydos with his name written under the double sign of Horus and Seth. A structure in his burial complex is precursory to the step pyramid built for Djoser, the first king of the Third Dynasty, at Saqqara on the other side of the river from Memphis; in one version, Djoser is Khasekhemui’s son. Pyramid building necessitated a change from mud brick to cut stone as the primary material of construction; and under Djoser’s pyramid, as if in commemoration of that, forty thousand stone vessels, from reigns as far back as Narmer’s, four hundred years before, were interred. Many of them had been smashed.
Some think the makers of these vessels were of the caste which now began to carve the stone from which the pyramids are made; and this their farewell to their former craft. If so, it was an act of cognisance of historical time like that which led to the burying of the Narmer palette and associated goods. Nevertheless the relationship between this new understanding of time and the use of subject and predicate in sentences is difficult to grasp: to interrogate these first forays into written language is to feel yourself tremble above a gulf of discovery that is also a shrouded abyss; a disquieting ignorance which all our knowledge does not yet allow us to see into.
After the Second Dynasty there were no more human sacrifices upon the death of a Pharaoh. That practice never resumed. A popular uprising (tombs were burned) may have caused this change; more likely it was the shift in thinking that led to the writing of sentences; and the serial re-inauguration of historical time; which began again with the accession of each new Pharaoh. Instead of the bones of slaughtered retainers Ushabti, mummiform clay figures representing workers, begin to appear in graves. They labour for the dead in the next world; working throughout eternity in the service of their masters and mistresses: to plough the fields, to fill the channels with water, to carry sand from the east to the west. They were called Answerers; their name means Here I am.
At the same time, actual grave offerings begin to be replaced by metaphorical ones. A picture of a stalk of wheat substitutes for a sheaf of the grain; a drawing of a loaf for real bread; paintings of jars of wine and dishes of figs. This does not seem to have been about the saving of the waste of gifts of food and drink to those who, because they were dead, could not consume them. A conceptual shift had happened: an image could stand for a thing. That image becomes a sign and then the sign can be combined, with others, to write something which has not been written before. It must have opened up vast spaces for the mind’s contemplation. People, too, became their representations.
This may be what gives the portraits of the pyramid builders—as depicted in the reserve heads of the Fourth Dynasty—if that’s what they are—their rapt ecstatic look: they gaze into the future as if cognisant of the knowledge of their power; and the power of their knowledge; along with the illimitable power that will be theirs in time to come. The inaugural literary forms follow upon this revelation of the way to eternity; they are the obituary and the prayer. The first, in retrospective narrative form, remembers the dead. The second is about the hope for a future life. They are, respectively, the ancestors of our prose and our verse.
I don’t believe a popular uprising ended human sacrifice in Ancient Egypt; I think it was the conceptual shift. Even if there was unrest amongst the people, the solution was not repression; it was to make the oppressed love their oppression. For the change of mind also anticipated, and enshrined, an image of the state as a gigantic funerary monument which everyone laboured to accomplish. The enormous power of death sanctified the authority which would, at the same time, overcome it. As in our own death-worshipping polities, the people must have been complicit in this bargain; that is why they called themselves the cattle of the gods. Driven by their divinities into a death that was called eternal life.
However, despite the majesty of death, and the vast piles of wealth, both literal and metaphorical, piled up in fealty to it, not everyone was convinced. No matter how obscure or protected or remote a grave might be, if people could find it, they would; and then they would loot it. The same artisans who engineered the pyramids, perhaps, infiltrated them not long afterward to rob them of their contents. Grave robbers are not as poignant as ushabti; but emblematic nevertheless: the wealth the great dead bury with them, they thought, we will plunder to keep ourselves and our families alive in the present.
What about those curses and spells that appear alongside the obituaries and prayers in the graves? Didn’t they inspire fear? Wouldn’t tomb raiders have looked up in awe at the representation of night as the naked form of Nut arched above them, a field of silver stars upon the deep blue ground of her belly skin; and made obeisance to her before escaping with their booty? Or were they indifferent, focussed only upon getting the loot and getting away? Superstitious awe or avaricious ignorance? Or something else entirely?
It is impossible to know; but perhaps they did pause in their exertions long enough to wonder at the resplendent images above their heads; and crowding the narrow walls around about them. Comprehendingly or not. And afterwards went on their way, burdened by treasure, yes, but unburdened by the language of the incessant demand that we prolong our lives by means of exhortations to the forgetful gods. Back to the quotidian: hearth and home, bread and beer, figs and wine; the glad cries of children and the embrace of the beloved.