Visual Arts

Death becomes them (Death Magic review Nicholson Museum, Sydney)

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The gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt were busier than our modern lot — less bloodthirsty too. History has shown us that gods mutate according to human desires. For the Egyptians, ensuring the fertility of crops was a necessity which the Nile River assisted by the gods, attended to. But making it through to the next world — the afterlife — was an even more pressing matter. Ensuring a safe passage to it accompanied by worldly goods was the job of a complex pantheon of gods and goddesses who evolved to administer the necessary rites and rituals.

As Michael Turner, the curator of the exhibition Death Magic in the redesigned ‘Egyptian’ room of the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney puts it: “Death in Ancient Egypt was a magical experience. There were gods to judge and guide you, amulets and spells to protect you, mummification to preserve you, even shabtis to do your work for you in an idyllic afterlife” . The exhibition is an exhilarating window on these beliefs.

Faience Shabtis

Egypt was a carefully regulated society of  30 dynasties which began in 3100 BC and ended around 332 BC when its independence was brought to an end by the Macedonian, Alexander the Great. Egyptian culture, focussed on continuity and permanence, believed that although a man’s soul left his body when he died, the soul still went on needing that body whose physical remains had to be preserved in good order in case the soul came visiting — not unlike a hotel guest, who returns to his room to find the cleaner has been in, the bed made and the towels replaced.

Enormous ritual and creative endeavour was attached to body preservation, although it mostly applied to the more elevated members of the community. This is borne out by the astonishing troves of amulets, jewellery, statuettes and items of toiletry discovered in unlooted — or inexpertly looted — tombs, the Egyptians’ own records carved in stone, and the 5th century BC writings of historians like Herodotus.

Egyptians believed that their rulers, the pharaohs, were descended from, or where the representatives of gods. Further, certain animals also had god-like qualities and thus their likenesses could be used to represent gods in hybrid form. The notion that many of these powerful beings inhabited the sky gave special significance to the falcon, the hawk and the eagle. Thus the falcon symbol is frequently used in Egyptian motifs as a manifestation of the sky god, and he is often blue. The scarab beetle may have emerged from a hole in the ground but its habit of rolling a little ball of dung across it came to symbolise the daily resurrection and setting of the sun. His shape was one of the most popular amulets to grace the folds ofthe cloth wrapped around a mummy before burial.

We have only to cast an eye over the splendidly preserved mummy coffin of Padiashaikhet, a priest who died in Thebes around 700 BC to see a virtual painted encyclopaedia of protective and restorative symbols — a virtual roll call of gods. There is Anubis (with a jackal’s head), Bes (a lion’s head on a human dwarf’s body), Hathor (identified by the sun disc and cow horns), Sekhmet (with the head of a lioness), and Tawaret (with a crocodile or hippopotamus head) a goddess of childbirth and fertility. Thoth, who was thought to have bestowed the gift of hieroglyphic writing, appears with the head of an ibis or a baboon, and Nekhbet, guardian of mothers and their children, is represented with the head of a vulture. There is also the barque which will transport Padiashaikhet to the afterlife.

Mummy coffin of Padiashaikhet

Newly designed glass showcases with mirrors are populated with tiny amulets intended to protect their owner and which were originally slipped between the wrappings of the Egyptian mummy, and shabtis — small figurines who would perform the drudge jobs in the afterlife. These are in hardstones like lapis lazuli, rock crystal, carnelian, jasper, haematite and faience. The last was an Egyptian invention, a pasty mixture of ground up quartz or sand, to which a colouring agent was added. It was pressed into mould and heated till it fused. It was self-glazing and as such, a forerunner of glass. Being a bright blue was often used to imitate turquoise.

These amulets represented various gods in miniature, and other tiny carvings which possessed magical powers. The heart amulet was popular. The Egyptians believed it was the seat of intelligence and emotion, and indeed this survives in the western vernacular today, ‘from the heart’, ‘heartfelt’, ‘heartless’, ‘straight to the heart’, ‘heartbroken’, ‘heart in the right place’, ‘heartburn’, and so forth.

The wedjat eye amulet, which meant ‘to be complete’ guaranteed eternal wholeness. For example, after the embalmer made an incision in the body to gain access to the abdominal cavity in order to draw out the internal organs, a wadjet eye plaque was used seal this incision and the body’s integrity was restored. It was also a means of warding off the evil eye.


Wadjet eye amulet, carnelian

The ankh amulet, which was a symbol of eternal life, was based on a looped sandal strap. The djed pillar (a column of trimmed papyrus stalks — often blue or green) was an emblem of Osiris and a potent symbol of regeneration. The wadj amulet, in the form of a single papyrus stalk, represented youth and vigour. The tyet amulet, based on a girdle tie, (usually made of a red stone like jasper or carnelian) was symbolic of the blood of Isis, which could restore life. Other amulets represented fish, flies, cobras, double feathers, carpenters’ squares, headrests and cowrie shells — all arranged in difference combinations and on different parts of the body.

The exhibition has several examples of embalmed mummies — human, animals and birds. Cats and ibises in particular, seemed to be prized subjects for embalming as they were considered ideal offerings to the gods. Another ideal offering was the bull, preferably a perfect specimen. The Nicholson Museum has borrowed a splendid bull’s head from the Faculty of Vetinary Sciences, which carries an echo of the contemporary international art world — Damien Hirst’s shark preserved in formaldehyde.

Bull’s head preserved

The exhibition pays special attention to four historically enduring Egyptian entities, Ra the sun god, Hathor a much loved goddess of motherhood, music and miners, Osiris, god of the afterlife and the underworld and and his wife Isis, goddess of health, marriage and wisdom. Isis had an exceptionally successful run in the ancient world, being adopted by the Phrygians as Cybele, by the Phoenicians as Astarte, and also as a prominent deity throughout the Graeco-Roman world. The image with her son Horus on her lap suckling was a pre-Christian forerunner of the Virgin Mary and Child. But this is digressing.

Statue of Isis, diorite.

A society like ours, which finds the sun and the heavens slightly less mysterious than our ancient cousins, can scarcely conceive the magical associations made by ancient man between the unexplained: the sun, water, sky, blood, vegetation — and the objects they created from metal and stone which embodied their colours: yellow, blue, red and green. Gold suggested the enduring nature of the flesh of the gods and the eternal brilliance of the sun and blue represented the heavens and the celestial beings who resided there. The dazzling colours of the mummy coffins of Padiashaikhet and Meruah, who lived around 1000 BC are as vibrant today as they were then, and they remind us of the miracle of restoration techniques today which keep our remarkable past before us.

[box]Main image: Mummy coffin on Padiashaikhet (detail). Death Magic is a permanent exhibition at the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney. The museum is open Monday to Friday 10am -4.30pm and the first Saturday of the month from noon-4pm [/box]

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