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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s most popular posts of all time was a short essay on the kingly crowns of ancient Egypt: the hedjet, the ancient white (vulture) crown of upper Egypt; the deshret, the red (bumblebee) crown of fertile lower Egypt; and the khepresh, the blue battle crown worn by the pharaoh when he mounted his war chariot to smite the kingdom’s enemies in person!  Immediately below are some little refresher pictures to show these three crowns (plus, if you want to know more about them, you could always read the original article).

This is already a lot of crowns, especially considering that the three were combined in various ways (and mixed with various other royal regalia) for sundry ceremonial purposes–and yet there were other crowns in ancient Egypt worn by beings even more important than the pharaoh.  Today’s post concerns a prime example–the “atef”, the ostrich crown of Osiris.  In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Osiris played a central role as the first pharaoh, the king of the underworld and the lord of death, rebirth, agriculture, and mummification.   His all-important story (death at the hands of his wicked brother and reincarnation thanks to his loving wife) was the central myth of ancient Egypt, which informed people about the afterlife.  As a pharaoh and the eternal ruler of the underworld, Osiris wore a kingly crown, but the underworld is neither upper nor lower Egypt (nor is it a battle as such) and so the atef crown of Osiris is a whole different crown–a knobbed version of the white hedjet of upper Egypt with symbolic rainbow ostrich feathers rising around it.  There is a schematic digital representation of the atef at the top of the post, and here is a 3300 year old painting of it:

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Osiris portrayed on a wall frieze from the tomb of Nefertari (c. 1295-1255 B.C.)

The two ostrich feathers respectively symbolized truth and justice (the nearly identical feather of Maat is one of the most important religious symbols of Egypt–with a nearly identical meaning).  The bulbous central crown was sometimes pictured as a classic white hedjet (as in the image from Nefertari’s tomb above) and sometimes portrayed as a rainbow hedjet surmounted by an astrological-looking cardioid of gold and midnight blue (as in the crown Osiris wears below).

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“Wow” you are probably thinking.  “There were so many crowns in ancient Egypt! Were there still more?”  Of course there were!  However the answers start getting murkier as we move to other rulers (and other crowns).  Come back to Ferrebeekeeper to find out more (or, you know, Google it, and find out all you can bear to know.

 

 

 

 

Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

The Assyrians were one of the great palace civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia. As one of the first known civilizations, their culture came of age along the upper Tigris River in tandem with Sumer, Ur, and Babylon (Semitic kingdom states which blossomed along the pattern of ancient Eridu).  The old Assyrian empire was an early Bronze Age empire which lasted from 2025 BC-1393 BC.  The Middle Assyrians were united under a series of politically powerful king priests and flourished until the great Bronze Age Collapse—a century of chaos and horror which lasted from 1055–936 BC.  After this cataclysm, the shattered remnants of Assyrian society rebuilt along the same lines—but now they had a technological breakthrough—iron.  With strong political leadership they were well-positioned to utilize this innovation, and the Iron Age Neo-Assyrians were charioteers and conquerors.  Their armies set about building the greatest empire the world had ever known based around iron, axels, horses, and ruthless political hegemony.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Into this picture came Ashurnasirpal II, who ascended the Assyrian throne in 883 BC. Ashurnasirpal II was a great builder, thinker, and a reformer.  He moved the capital of the empire from Assur to Nimrud and erected a series of new walled cities.  He collected zoological and botanical specimens from all around the known world in hopes of furthering agriculture and fostering a deeper understanding of living things (presumably).  Alas, he was also a political theorist and he realized he could utilize horrifying violence as a political tool.  He reasoned that if he tortured and killed the entire population of one rebel city, other cities would not rebel (a theory which pretty much worked after the first vivid demonstration). History remembers him as a ghastly butcher, but he was also famed in his day as a mighty conqueror and an innovator.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Anyway, the Neo Assyrians in general, and Ashurnasirpal II in particular feature in this week’s blog because they wanted their violence to be as gruesome as possible.  Threats and executions worked best if people were truly & utterly terrified.  Far beyond merely killing their enemies, the Neo-Assyrians needed to kill them slowly, painfully, and with real flair.  Their favorite methods for accomplishing this were spitting and burning (which is how they are remembered in the Bible). However their most hated enemies were flayed alive—which we know because we have pictorial evidence in the form of horrible bas reliefs.  Not only that, we have a direct quote from Ashurnasirpal II, who ponderously (but chillingly) said:

I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins. The captives I have killed by the sword and flung on the dung heap, the little boys and girls were burnt.

It is not exactly an idealistic political statement, but it has a real visceral power. And it did have real power: the Neo-Assyrians conquered the rest of Mesopotamia, and then the Near-East, and then Egypt itself.  They kept on moving using fast chariots to sweep away armies and terror to keep control. However, like so many conquerors they were trapped by their lifestyle.  The Assyrian kingpriest’s power came from building great temples to the Assyrian gods, he accomplished this with booty from conquest. When the conquest stopped the whole nightmarish system came tumbling down, and the enemies of Neo-Assyria quickly learned ways to defeat chariot armies. By the 7th century the victories began to dry up, and the empire collapsed in 627 BC. Today the Neo-Assyrians are remembered, not as cutting edge innovators, but as monsters—the first masters of the blitzkrieg and of mass terror sponsored by the state.

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Today’s goose post features shocking questions about the truthfulness of a respected and beloved blog—Ferrebeekeeper!  That’s right; this very site, an esteemed font of knowledge which you regularly tell all your friends to read (right?), has been caught in the midst of a scandal which spans the centuries…the millennia even! This mysterious controversy encompasses the greatest family of pharaohs ever, an enigmatic nineteenth-century archaeologist, and the fundamental meaning of art and objects.  At the center of the swirling allegations lies the enigma behind the identity of a pair of geese.

"Meidum Geese" (Age and artist unclear)

“Meidum Geese” (Age and artist unclear)

It all began with this post about an ancient Egyptian masterpiece, the famous goose frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (Nefermaat being a nobleman of Egypt’s renowned Fourth dynasty).  The geese in that ancient picture are gorgeous, they look like real birds which might hop down from the forty-six-hundred year old artwork and open up their beaks begging for corn (a fact appreciated by aesthetes among Ferrebeekeeper readers—as you can see in the original comments). However after I posted the article, cracks also began to appear in the story.  Sharp-eyed readers wrote in with questions about my ornithology. There are three pairs of geese in the painting: a pair to the left, a pair to the right, and a split pair grazing, like bookends, on each side.  With unwarranted ambiguity, I identified the birds as Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus), based on the bird identification in an essay I had read concerning the paintings (and also based on the fact I wanted to write about a certain breed of domesticated geese).  I was wrong to be so blithesome, for it is extremely clear that the two center pairs are very different species.  The split pair may or may not be the same species as the pair on the left.

 Juvenile Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus).  Note the complete dissimilarity to the painting above.

Juvenile Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus). Note the complete dissimilarity to the painting above.

Ferrebeekeeper readers vigorously noted the problems with both my essay and with the supposedly ancient painting.  Dave Dunford wrote:

The birds are not Egyptian Geese, which are distinctive birds. The central pair facing left appear to be White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons), and the central pair facing right are indisputably Red-breasted Geese (Brant ruficollis). Interestingly, the latter is a rare vagrant in modern-day Egypt. The outer birds are somewhat trickier – they could also be White-fronted (which don’t always have the white face markings) but they could be Greylag Geese (Anser anser, also not found regularly in modern Egypt).

It turns out my readers were not the only people to notice and question this discrepancy. The painting (which is more popularly known as “Meidum Geese” since it was allegedly discovered in 1871 in a tomb beside the Meidum Pyramid), is one of the most famous in the Cairo museum—a masterpiece of the ancient world–but now, in 2015, experts are questioning its validity.  This post from livescience.com by Owen Jarus describes how the painting is probably a fake, or, at least a doctored original.  These charges are being leveled by Francesco Tiradritti, a professor at the Kore University of Enna and director of the Italian archaeological mission to Egypt.  Tiradritti came up with yet another species designation for the left-facing geese as bean geese (Anser fabalis) a tundra goose, which certainly don’t belong in Egypt (even if the ancient climate were somewhat different).

Bean Goose (Anser fabalis).  I'm not entirely convinced--I think Dave Dunford still has the best explanation

Bean Goose (Anser fabalis). I’m not entirely convinced–I think Dave Dunford still has the best explanation

Now sometimes when I draw or paint (particularly when my subject is self-willed, like geese) I replace or invent some of the details with the magic of art (i.e. I make stuff up). Egyptian artists seemingly did the same thing—unless there were a lot of personified deities with animal heads actually roaming the Nile Valley. However the question of what sort of goddamn geese these really are caused Tiradritti to reexamine the whole painting with a fresh eye, and suddenly innumerable problems sprang to light.

Snefru's Meidum Pyramid in Egypt near the Fayoum

Snefru’s Meidum Pyramid in Egypt near the Fayoum

The naturalistic perspective/size of the geese in the painting is unusual for Egyptian art (although common in modern western painting). Also the colors are off. To quote Francesco Tiradritti, “Some of the hues (especially beige and marc) are unique in the Egyptian art. Even the shades of more common colors, like orange and red, are not even comparable with the same colors used in other fragments of painting coming from Atet’s chapel.”  Perhaps most damningly, the fresco does not have the sort of cracks one would expect from a 4.5 thousand year old painting cut from a wall.

This painting was discovered in 1871 by a colorful Italian archaeologist named Luigi Vassalli.  Vasalli’s history is fascinating in its own right: he spent his youth as a revolutionary and as a portrait painter before being captured and sentenced to death for his attempts to unify Italy.  His sentence was commuted to exile, and he traveled Europe before finding his way to Egypt where he became an Egyptologist.  He rose to be Egypt’s interim Director of Antiquities, but he ultimately died by his own hand.

I think this is a portrait of Luigi Vassalli (1812 - 1887)

I think this is a portrait of Luigi Vassalli (1812 – 1887)

Vasalli was a great self-promoter and he exhaustively wrote/bragged about everything he found and did. Yet somehow he never wrote about (or apparently talked about) how he discovered “Meidum Geese”. Tiradetti reasonably posits that Vasalli painted “Meidum Gees” himself.  Whether he did so as a joke, or for glory, or to restore a botched excavation is anyone’s guess.

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The allegations spawn sinister questions regarding the fundamental nature of art.  If the geese were painted by Luigi Vassalli—who apparently also defaced an actual work to do so–we take away the designation “masterpiece” and instead label the work as a forgery.  It is fair and right to strip it the painting of its accolades and to erase all the effusive words of praise written for it (of course I mean this figuratively: I am leaving up my old blog post so that you can see what I am talking about—but how empty my words ring, now).  Yet what happened? The painting still looks the same.  Does the fact that it was painted by a nineteenth century artist/revolutionary/con-man/scholar instead of an Old Kingdom artisan take all of its meaning and beauty away?  Do the geese no longer look like they might hop out of the frieze? Do they now look oddly flat and childlike?  Was the provenance all that made this work worthwhile?  We live in an age when the appearance of authenticity means everything—in our art, our leaders, even ourselves.  But what is left when the illusion of authenticity is taken away?

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

January 14th was a fanciful medieval holiday known as the “Feast of the Ass.” The feast commemorates the flight into Egypt, a biblical episode from Christ’s (very) early career. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea heard a prophecy that a greater king than himself had just been born in Palestine. The king launched a murderous anti-infant pogrom to rid himself of competition before his rival could reach adulthood (an ugly spate of newborn killing known in Christianity as “the Massacre of the innocents”). Mary and Joseph fled Palestine with the baby Jesus. The little family traveled down into Roman Egypt with the exhausted post-partum Mary and her baby traveling on an ass (you can read about this directly in the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-23)). It was not the only episode in the Bible to portray Jesus on donkey back. On Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem (and to his ultimate death) he was mounted on a white ass. The medieval feast gently celebrated the donkey’s importance to Christianity with banqueting, sermons about the biblical events, and pageantry. A beautiful girl bearing a child would ride a donkey through town to the church. Thereafter the donkey stood beside the altar during the sermon. The congregation participated in the fun by answering the priest’s questions and observances by shouting “hee haw” (or whatever donkeys say in France–where the celebration was most often observed).

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1530s, oil on panel)

In our age of internet and celebrity worship, every day is the feast of the ass, but I wanted to write about the medieval celebration (which fell out of favor and vanished in the fifteenth century) so I could share these three beautiful paintings of the flight into Egypt. I also wanted this episode to be an introduction to tomorrow’s post about the donkey—for the poor animals are terribly underappreciated—being so disparagingly associated with human posteriors and loutish individuals. Additionally the donkey’s place in the world has been taken over by modern engines, and fancy patrician folk have not held on to them as a status symbol (as happened to the horse). It’s worth taking a moment and remembering that donkeys are very sacred in Christianity and have a better scriptural claim to being the animal of Christ than any other creature other than perhaps the sheep. More about asses tomorrow!

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

 

 

il_340x270.521166662_98j8The roots of our third most popular topic go back 5500 years to pre-dynastic Ancient Egypt! In those times, the upper kingdom of Egypt (which spread along the Nile banks in the arid highlands to the south) was an entirely separate civilization from the fertile lower kingdom in the north. Sometime around 3100 the kingdoms were united under one ruler—the first pharaoh. The extremely silly yet very beautiful white crown of Upper Egypt—which looked like a narrow white flower bulb–was combined with the even sillier and even more beautiful red crown of Lower Egypt which looked like a flared cylinder with a spiral bee proboscis sticking out of it. The white crown was (and is?) the sacred emblem of the white vulture goddess Hedjet whereas the red crown was connected with Wadjet the pretty cobra goddess. Together these crowns became the emblem of the god king pharaoh for 3000 years.

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

You can read all about the crowns and their symbolism in the original post, but perhaps you are asking why I write so much about crowns anyway (my mom, a stalwart free American citizen always wonders about it). I find it fascinating that humans endow so much status and power in individuals. The crowns of emperors, pharaohs, kings, princes, and sundry other royal conquerors/hucksters are the absolute embodiment of this tendency to invest mythical potency and authority in other people. Crowns are ancient storied jeweled symbols of the fact that we think other people are better than us. The sacred headdresses accumulate astonishing histories:  yet, in and of themselves, they are also remarkably absurd.  It boggles the mind that people will do anything just because someone is wearing a cylinder of metal with squiggles or shiny stones upon their head.

Yeah, this makes sense.

Yeah, this makes sense.

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

It is thirsty work being a deity of the underworld (what with all of the legions of the dead, the dark serpent gods, and whatnot)!  That is why today we are celebrating the Ancient Egyptian brewer for the gods of the afterworld.  The eminently respectable Mr. Khonso Im-Heb who lived (and died) during the Ramesside period of Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1,292–1,069 BC) was the head of granaries and chief of brewing for the vulture goddess Mut.   We know all of this because a team of Japanese archaeologists working in the Thebes necropolis (in the Egyptian city of Luxor) just discovered the beautifully preserved tomb of Khonso Im-Heb as they were working on the tomb of an 18th-dynasty royal official.

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offeings from their son

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offerings from their son

An article on CNN described the excitement the tomb’s discovery has engendered among archaeologists and officials:

Egypt’s antiquities minister Mohamed Ibrahim described Khonso Em Heb as the chief “maker of beer for gods of the dead” adding that the tomb’s chambers contain “fabulous designs and colors, reflecting details of daily life… along with their religious rituals.”

The antiquities ministry has put tight security on the tomb (political tumult in Egypt has proven dangerous for the country’s cultural heritage) so archaeologists are looking forward to carefully and methodically studying the beautifully preserved site and discovering more about the life and times of Khonso Im-Heb.  So far, only photographs of the tomb’s painted walls have been released to the public, but the vibrant paintings of daily life are astonishing.

The Goddess Mut

The Goddess Mut

It should be mentioned that in Ancient Egypt, beer was immensely popular with all classes of people, but it was not exactly the crisp tasty concoction of today.  Ancient Egyptian beer was a crude barley or millet-based fermented beverage which was drunk with a long straw (in order to bypass the dense scum which floated to the top of the beverage).  Presumably the vulture goddess liked it that way!  It seems like Khonso Em Heb died as a very successful man.

 

Ancient Egyptian bee Hieroglyph

In prehistoric times there was no sugar.  Sweetness was only to be found in fruits and berries–with one gleaming exception. Pre-agricultural humans were obsessed with hunting honey (in fact there are rock paintings from 15,000 years ago showing humans robbing honey from wild bees).  The golden food made by bees from pollen and nectar of flowers was not merely delectable: honey is antiseptic and was used as a medicine or preservative.  The wax was also valued for numerous artistic, magical, medicinal, sealing, and manufacturing purposes.

But wild bees were hard to find and capable of protecting themselves with their fearsome stinging abilities.  One of the most useful early forms of agriculture was therefore beekeeping.  The first records we have of domesticated bees come from ancient Egypt.  An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb.  The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC.  Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.

Honey was treasured in the (sugar-free) world of ancient Egypt.  It was given as a fancy gift and used as an ointment for wounds. Although honey was too expensive for the lowest orders of society to afford, ancient texts have come down to us concerning thieving servants “seduced by sweetness.” Wax was also precious.  Wax tablets were used for writing.  Wax was an ingredient in cosmetics, an adhesive, a medicine, and a waterproofing agent.  Wigs were shaped with wax. It served as the binding agent for paints.  Mummification required wax for all sorts of unpleasant mortuary functions.  Perhaps most seriously (to the ancient Egyptian mind at least) wax was necessary for magic casting.  By crafting a replica of a person, place, or thing, Egyptians believed they could affect the real world version.

According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the golden tears of Ra, the sun god, fell to earth.  Bees are even a part of the foundation of the Egyptian state—one of the pharaoh’s titles was “king bee” (although Egyptians might have grasped rudimentary beekeeping skills they missed many of the important nuances of hive life and they thought the queen was a king).  The symbol of fertile Lower Egypt was the honey bee and the Deshret–the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is believed to be a stylized representation of a bee’s sting and its proboscis.

The Red Crown of Lower Egypt

Wadi Al-Hitan, Egypt

In the desolate desert 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo there is a fearsome arid valley (wadi) of cliffs, carved buttes, and sandblasted erratic boulders.  The bleached landscape has an otherworldly emptiness as though it were located on a lifeless alien planet, though if you look closely, the desert is filled with austere furtive life like dorcas gazelles, tiny sand colored lizards, cobras, scorpions, and fennec foxes. The name of the place is even more otherworldly—“Wadi Al-Hitan” which is Arabic for “valley of the whales” and although the great smooth rocks buckling out of the sand might momentarily be taken for the backs of huge whales, the utter absence of the ocean (or of water of any kind) makes the name seem fanciful. The nearby Mount Garet Gohannam (which means mountain of hell because of the way it glows like flames at sunset) seems to be more aptly named.

Whale fossil at Wadi Al-Hitan

However the name of Wadi Al-Hitan is remarkably literal–for the valley contains the remains of hundreds of huge ancient cetaceans which died in the Eocene and were fossilized in the yellowish sandstone.  Forty million years ago the valley was a marine lagoon.  Although the remains of numerous sirenians, sawfish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, and even swamp dwelling moeritheriums have been discovered in the wadi, the valley takes its name from the most spectacular and numerous fossils which belong to four different species of primitive whales.  The most commonly discovered fossils belong to Dorudon, which was 3-5 meters long (9-15 feet) and fed on fish and mollusks, and to Basilosaurus, which was 15-22 meter (50-72 foot) and fed on everything else in the ocean.

Basilosaurus was first discovered in Louisiana in the early 19th century.  Its immense size and serpentine form initially convinced naturalists that it was a marine reptile and they misnamed the creature Basilosaurus (which means “king lizard”).  The mistake soon became obvious and Basilosaurus was classified among the Archaeoceti, a paraphyletic suborder of the cetaceans, however the giant kept its dinosaur name.  Different species of Basilosaurus flourished in oceans worldwide during the wet, tropical Eocene and, even though they were obviously very adept at ocean living (indeed rising to the top of the food chain) the creatures betray vestiges of terrestrial living which modern whales have entirely dispensed with. Not only do Basilosaurus fossils have teeth and jaws which retain reatures from their artiodactyl ancestors, they also have tiny vestigial back legs a mere half meter in length (which would scarely help a 22 meter animal get around).  Additionally Basilosaurus was different from modern whales in that it probably moved with eel-like horizontal thrashing of its long tail (modern whales move their flukes vertically).  Basilosaurus probably did not dive very deeply, but moved about near the surface of the oceans hunting for smaller marine animals.

Basilosaurus from “Life in the Ancient Seas Exhibit” at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Although Wadi Al-Hitan was discovered by Europeans in 1902-1903, some archaeologists and anthropologists have speculated that it was known long before that and have been irresistibly drawn towards comparing basilosaurus with the giant crocodiles and earth spanning serpent gods which populate ancient Egyptian cosmology.

Detail from painting (Life in the Ancient Seas Exhibit: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History)

Egyptian Blue faience ushabtis at the Louvre

In ancient Egypt the sky was a gleaming blue, the sacred lotuses had blue petals, the pharaoh’s battle crown was blue, beautiful women wore chokers made of blue stone, and, above all, the life-giving Nile was blue.  The ancient Egyptians needed azure pigment to portray these essential elements of life within their sacred art, but the only natural blue pigments were from turquoise and lapis lazuli—semi-precious stones which were rare and expensive.  To provide a sufficient supply of blue pigment for painting, jewelry, and sculpture, the Egyptians therefore invented the first synthetic pigment which today is appropriately known as “Egyptian blue” (well, it is also appropriately known as calcium copper silicate–CaCuSi4O10 or CaO·CuO·4SiO2—but I’m going to keep calling it Egyptian blue).

Egyptian Blue Faience Votive Cup with Cartouche of Amenhotep III, c. 1391 – 1350 B.C.

Egyptian blue was synthesized in the 4th Dynasty (c.2575-2467 BC) when the newly created pigment was first used to color limestone sculptures, beads, and cylinder seals.  Its use became more prevalent in the Middle Kingdom, and then increased again during the New Kingdom when blue was used for the production of numerous everyday objects.  Throughout the Hellenic and Roman age, Egyptian blue was a mainstay of the nascent chemical industry, and it found its way into all sorts of art, jewelry, crafts, and artisan wares.  Then, in the fourth century the secret of its manufacture was lost.  Only in the beginning of the nineteenth century did interest revive as the English and French pioneers of the chemical trade rushed to synthesize useful compounds.  As one might surmise from the fact that the manufacturing process was lost for a millennium and a half, the method to make Egyptian blue is surprisingly involved.  Citing a British Museum publication, Wikipedia describes it thus:

Several experiments have been carried out by scientists and archaeologists interested in analyzing the composition of Egyptian blue and the techniques used to manufacture it. It is now generally regarded as a multi-phase material that was produced by heating together quartz sand, a copper compound, calcium carbonate, and a small amount of an alkali (plantash or natron) at temperatures ranging between 800–1000 °C (depending on the amount of alkali used) for several hours. The result is cuprorivaite or Egyptian blue, carbon dioxide and water vapor…

The Egyptians were clearly people who took their pigments seriously, and thankfully so–the blue tints they crafted have lasted for thousands of years (and helped us find our way to synthesized pigments).   It is strange to think of the subtle ways that the Nile still flows through our lives.

The mummy wrappings of Ankh Hor (21st or 22nd Dynasty, 1069-715 BC)

Welcome to Egypt week at Ferrebeekeeper! All of this week’s posts will share an Egyptian theme.  To start out Egypt week, we cast our gaze deep into the underworld beneath the Nile and the burning desert.  The dark river passages beneath the world are said to be the home of the principle ancient Egyptian god of chaos, the great serpent Apep (AKA Apopis or Apophis).

According to myth, the sun god Ra carried the sun across the heavens on a mystical solar boat every day.  Then every evening Ra returned from west to east via an unseen river path through the underworld.  As night covered the world and the sun god struggled to return to the farthest point in the east in time for sunrise, the great serpent would appear from the dark waters to attack the boat.

Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of battle and pleasure, helps to subdue Apep

Apep would try with all of his might to devour the sun in the manner than a serpent eats an egg. Some myths maintain that Apep was the sun god before Ra and wanted the sun back out of dynastic bitterness.  In other sources the great demon is not ascribed with a back story and is only a huge snake who wants to eat the sun.  Sources agree that Apep was not so much worshiped as “worshiped against.”   Many prayers and liturgies from ancient Egypt are magical incantations to help the gods stave off attacks by the huge poisonous snake.

Ra was assisted in fighting off the nightly attack by an unlikely figure, the powerful god Set–a fratricidal maniac with the head of an unknown animal (who doubles as the god of evil and the desert).  Whatever Set’s other faults might be, lack of vigilance against giant chaos serpents was not among them.  In several passages from ancient literature, Set is heard to boast about his prowess and bravery in making sure the sun gets past the serpent in order to rise on time.  The spirits of the devout who had passed to the next life could also help out by rowing the beautiful boat.  In later Egyptian myth, the battle goddess Bastet would also assist Ra and Set in fighting the demon.

Of course despite the best intentions of the gods, Apep would occasionally get the upper hand and temporarily run off with the sun.  Such (rare) days were marked by storm and overcast skies.  Additionally the wily snake demon would sometimes leave the underworld and try to devour the sun as it gloriously made its way across the heavens.  According to Egyptian superstition, these occasional daytime attacks were responsible for solar eclipses. Fortunately Ra and the other protectors of the sun could always rely on a reservoir of spiritual energy to drive back the snake (helping the gods defeat Apep was one of the purposes of worship in ancient Eypt).  Because of the power of prayer, Apep, dreadful demon snake of the underworld, never did succeed in devouring the sun.

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