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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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