Breathing life into cult of the dead

Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt - Akhenaten - Cleopatra of Egypt
November 23, 2001

Sex, religion and death. Ancient Egypt has long tantalised the western imagination with various combinations of all three, and in this respect these offerings do not disappoint as they tackle some of the most popular concerns of Egyptology: the allure of Cleopatra, in Susan Walker and Peter Higgs's Cleopatra : From History to Myth (the catalogue of the recent British Museum exhibition); the mystery of the Amarna age, in Nicholas Reeves's Akhenaten : Egypt's False Prophet ; and the fascination of funerary practices, in John Taylor's Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt .

Like many exhibition catalogues, Cleopatra is in the tricky position of wishing to present academic scholarship while still appealing to a museum's broader public; it is difficult to please both at once. The book aims to present Cleopatra as a ruler in a specific historical context and, to a lesser extent, to acknowledge the myth-making that has surrounded Cleopatra since her death.

The historical woman was Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt from 51 to 30BC and a key figure in political machinations of the period, especially through her alliances with Julius Caesar and then with Mark Antony, the leading opponent of Caesar's heir, Octavian. The circumstances of her reign can be established from sources such as the coinage that she and Antony issued, her Egyptian monuments and inscriptions, and the accounts of Roman historians, some contemporary but most written years after her death. In Cleopatra , informative essays by Andrew Meadows and J. H. C. Williams and an engaging contribution by Christopher Pelling reconstruct a narrative of her reign, while John Ray pays elegant homage to the history and myth of Alexandria, Cleopatra's capital.

In their search for the historical Cleopatra, Walker and Higgs would like us to see the queen face-to-face as well. The difficulty is that the only certainly identified images of Cleopatra are coins issued in her name, on which she appears in profile with her hair in a bun and wearing a royal diadem. Largely on the evidence of these coins, most art historians accept two marble heads as contemporary portraits of Cleopatra VII, and both are in the catalogue.

A thornier question of identification is presented by Egyptian images of the queen considered in an essay and catalogue entries by Sally-Ann Ashton. She identifies six statues of Ptolemaic queens as Cleopatra VII, based on iconographic indicators that are less clear cut than the catalogue suggests. Ashton argues that only Cleopatra VII was depicted with three royal cobras ( uraei ) on her brow, but the primary evidence for this is a 1.3cm-long glass gem carved with a portrait that might be the queen's and a headdress that might be three uraei , but more closely resembles one of several well-attested Egyptian crowns. Another controversial identification of Cleopatra's presence is a tax ordinance of 33BC written on papyrus and subscribed at the bottom, in a separate hand, with the Greek command "make it happen". One editor of the papyrus suggests that this command is a royal warrant written by the queen herself.

Seeing Cleopatra has also, in the western tradition, meant seeing sex. In Cleopatra , Nilotic scenes with the erotic elements typical of that genre are linked to the Ptolemaic queen: thus a marble relief with a couple having sex might be a "savage caricature" of Antony and Cleopatra; while a Roman lamp on which a woman straddles a phallus while standing on a crocodile (no small feat) is a "crude pornographic cartoon" that "may be an obscene caricature of Cleopatra VII". These supposed images of Cleopatra are a reminder that the queen's sexual history and her eroticised death have shaped the numerous retellings of her story in European literature and art. In the final essay, Mary Hamer's survey of post-Renaissance receptions of Cleopatra provides an apt conclusion to this search for an image of the queen, historical or mythical.

Another powerful and evocative personality from ancient Egypt is the king Akhenaten, who ascended the throne as Amunhotep IV in about 1350BC but changed his name to reflect his allegiance to the god Aten, embodied in the solar disk, over the traditional god of his ancestors, Amun. Married to the iconic beauty Nefertiti, and likely father of the "boy-king" Tutankhamun, Akhenaten founded a capital at the modern site of Amarna and encouraged changes in artistic style and iconography to convey the power of the king and the perfection of Aten.

In Akhenaten , Reeves leads the reader adeptly through archaeological finds and the latest research on the Amarna period, and presents his interpretation of its complex and controversial developments. The book is well illustrated and written in a lively style, and Reeves is unstinting with primary evidence such as monumental inscriptions in which Akhenaten recounts his accomplishments on behalf of his "father" Aten. Elsewhere, the author's conjectures push the boundaries of what most Egyptologists consider demonstrable about the king - the theory that Akhenaten suffered from the genetic disorder Marfan's syndrome, for instance, rests on an assumption that the conceptualised appearance of Egyptian art can or should be correlated to the actual physical appearance of its human subjects. Similarly, it is too simple to assert that Akhenaten had an "almost pathological lack of interest" in the political affairs of Egypt and its vassal states in Palestine.

Akhenaten is also characterised as "a king with a strong sexual appetite", which more than overstates the historical record. The assertion that he fathered children by his daughters is also far from certain. Although the practice is attested for some Egyptian kings, evidence from Akhenaten's reign is ambiguous, and if the king and his daughter did have a relationship, an "unhealthy sexual interest in his children" is an unsatisfactory motive. Like his sub-heading on incest, Reeves's speculations about a royal harem that was "constantly replenished" with females "skilled in a variety of sexual arts" smack of Orientalism and odalisques . Such aspects detract from what is otherwise an entertaining and, for the general reader, informative volume.

Sex, religion and death are more effectively combined in Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt , Taylor's masterly look at funerary beliefs and practices. Designed in conjunction with the Roxie Walker Galleries of Egyptian Funerary Archaeology, at the British Museum, the book offers a comprehensive, thoughtful and readable discussion of the Egyptian way of death. Lavishly illustrated with well-captioned colour photographs, many never published before, the book suits a wide readership.

In the 5,000 years covered by Taylor's text, attitudes and responses to death underwent many changes, but a consistent desire to achieve rejuvenation in the afterlife united the rituals and mythologies surrounding the disposal of the dead. Mummification was just one thread in a web of magic, ceremony and commemoration that would enable the individual to live forever, cyclically reborn like the sun god. Sex had a role as well, for sexual potency and regenerative ability were guarantors of immortality. A sound body also allowed the deceased to move without hindrance and provided a base for the parts of the soul-the ba and ka - that could travel forth from the corpse and tomb.

In discussing Egyptian beliefs about death and resurrection, Taylor refers to a variety of ancient texts and lets the Egyptians speak for themselves:

"I shall have power to do whatever I desire; my ba and my corpse shall not be restrained at the portals of the west when I go in or out in peace" - the west, where the sun sets, being the entrance to the netherworld. Religious formulae and magic spells described the challenges or threats that followed death but that, once overcome, would transform the dead into glorified spirits. In a written plea to his dead wife, whose spirit he hopes will heal him, one man promises, "I shall lay down offerings for you when the sun's light has risen". In contrast, more cynical views of death were expressed, and a poet warned that "no one can take his things with him" to the afterlife and "no one who has gone there returns again".

The artefacts, tombs and mummies in the pages of Death and the Afterlife belie such a sense of fatality, however. The many individuals that Taylor brings to the page seem more real, and more appealing, than historical figures such as Cleopatra or Akhenaten in their respective treatments. When it comes to breathing new life into the past, the ancient cult of the dead succeeds where the modern cult of personality falters.

Christina Riggs is junior research fellow in Egyptology, Queen's College, Oxford

Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

Author - John H. Taylor
ISBN - 0 7141 1917 2
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £14.99
Pages - 2

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