Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Thursday, April 12, 2012
Everyone knows that the Egyptians were preoccupied with the afterlife, but they took it even more seriously than many imagined.
Humans, they say, are the only creatures that must live life with the knowledge that one day they’re going to die and our culture was the world of distraction we create around ourselves to shield us from this knowledge. But the Egyptians’ culture did not serve as a mere distraction to the pitiless cruelty of death. Instead their culture came to grips with death in an attempt to overcome its tyranny.
The glowing underworlds of the tombs, the Books of Coming Forth By Day, or the Book of the Dead as they called these religious texts - were the results of government-funded research into the ‘first mystery’- death and the afterlife. The early pyramids were like nationally financed space-shots designed to launch the god-king pharaoh into the hereafter. The Egyptians even had maps showing the routes to the underworld painted on the bases of coffins.
Saturday, April 7, 2012
Carved colossi like these of Rameses II at Abu Simbel were also loci for survival, another hope for life after death, transmuting materiality into spirit. Likenesses provided alternative houses for the soul.
Unlike say the images of American Presidents depicted in giant scale at Mt Rushmore, these statues are not decorative or even memorial. Through magic, the Egyptians attempted to transmute matter into spirit. Statues like this were vehicles through which the dead pharaoh could take material shape. In front of these lips, priests performed the most important ritual in Egyptian religion, the ceremonial opening of the mouth. Using either an adze or two little fingers of meteoric iron they would touch the lips four times, re-enacting the clearing of a baby’s mouth at birth, and this would be accompanied by the sacrifice of a bull and the presentation of a foreleg and heart. A similar ceremony opened the king’s eyes. Statues were imbued with life, which explains why they called the Egyptian sculptor: 'he who makes to live’.
There was no art for art’s sake. Nothing was fashioned for its sheer aesthetics. Everything was fashioned for a magical purpose and charged with the purpose for which it was made. That’s why their work defies reproduction. And that’s why their art holds such a fascination. It is imbued with heka, magical force, the animistic, motive power of the universe. Jewellery was not just jewellery, but prophylactic charms, statues were never vanity portraits, but houses for the soul, tombs were not painted to brighten the darkness of the underworld but to harness the power of heka. Death, ultimately, was the inspiration of all Egyptian art, or at least eternal life after death, about embodying eternity to create a home in which the soul of the dead could survive. In place of flesh they built themselves bodies in paint, wood and stone.
And here, gazing down on us in monumental stone, is Egypt’s confidence, writ large, in the existence of the afterlife.