Did the Ancient Egyptians Create Art as a Way to Manifest Reality?
Among the extravagantly decorated tombs and temples that made Egyptian art immortal, there is something obscure. It could even be considered supernatural or otherworldly. Telling the stories of what life may have been like for the ancient Egyptians, art was an expression of how they understood life and death through various mediums. Yet, art was a concept unfamiliar to the ancients; there is no known record of such a word being used. It is only through modern conceptualizations of the past that the art of ancient Egypt can be defined and interpreted.
Conversation about ancient Egyptian art often focuses on the ideal human form, seen in abundance throughout Egypt. Far from naturalistic and purposeful in its perspective, it had gone relatively unchanged in technique for thousands of years. However, there is far more to Egyptian art than the idealized form, which while impressive, represented far more than a symbol of established wealth and social hierarchy.
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Egyptian art also served as a conduit to reality; used for protection, guidance in the afterlife, servitude, offering, and the divine. Much like the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, first Emperor of China, Egyptian art can be seen in a similar light. The mass grave of thousands of uniquely sculpted soldiers did not simply represent an army. They were the army. As such, the Egyptians created art in quite a literal sense; to create something was to bring it into existence, manifesting reality through representation.
Troop of funerary servant figures, Ushabtis, in the name of Neferibreheb, currently housed at the Louvre-Lens museum in Lens, France. Ushabtis were included amongst the grave goods within ancient Egyptian tombs. They were, in effect, the minions of the dead, an example of how ancient Egyptians manifested reality through art. (Pierre André / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Artisan and the Scribe in Ancient Egyptian Art
Conventionally, there were no “artists” in ancient Egypt. Although it’s possible to find a few pieces here and there of independent doodling, for the most part, those who created the works of art seen in tombs and temples were commissioned artisans. Rarely, if ever, would one see a signature attached to a piece, indicative of an artist. Artisans were a group of skilled individuals who worked together, whether it be on site or in a workshop, to fulfill the wishes and instruction of those who had hired them.
As masters of their craft, they learned from those who had worked before them and taught them techniques that had been handed down for generations. Each had their specialty and trade; some painted, drafted, carved, or crafted. Nonetheless, it was an effort brought forth with a very specific purpose in mind which had to be executed with the upmost perfection.
Any mistakes could affect the outcome, which was considered detrimental to the recipient and disruptive to the cosmos. In a similar fashion, scribes also provided vital contributions; hieroglyphic offerings, names, prayers, guidance, and stories complemented and enhanced the ultimate power of creation through art.
A personified Eye of Horus offers incense to the enthroned god Osiris in a painting from the 13th century BC tomb of Pashedu at Deir el-Medina on the West Bank of Luxor. (kairoinfo4u / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Tomb Art, Coffins, and Guidance in the Afterlife
Many Egyptian works were created to ensure a successful afterlife for those who had passed on to the realm of the dead. The tomb (“house of eternity”) was a place for the body to rest, the Ba to travel to the heavens and return again nightly to the body, and the Ka or “life force” to receive nourishment through offerings.
It was a gateway of sorts between the living and the dead. The walls of the tomb, decorated with depictions of the afterlife, funerary rituals, offerings, astronomy, and the gods were essential in the continued existence of the deceased. Precision in design was absolutely essential; the priests, tomb owners, pharaohs, or other prominent people were the ones who decided exactly how a tomb would be configured.
A scene often depicted on tomb walls would have been the weighing of the heart ceremony in which Anubis, guide and protector of the dead, would weigh one’s heart against Ma’at (order) represented as a feather to determine if one was good of heart. The heart always stayed in the body, and in death a heart amulet was placed to ensure survival in this judgment process. For if one did not survive or was not good of heart, the afterlife would be a torturous one, existing among the damned forever torn apart or spit on by giant snakes.
The sarcophagus, or coffin, was a place for the body to rest eternally. It was designed with the purpose of preventing the body from any destructive influence and to assist in the process of rebirth. The coffin needed to be hidden away in a burial chamber within the tomb, away from potential thieves and out of the view of those who came to visit.
Eyes were placed on the coffin so that the dead could continue to see the world from within. In addition to the eyes of the coffin, a wedjat eye amulet was placed with the body. A powerful symbol related to the cosmic bodies of the Sun and Moon and the god Horus, it was used for protection, and acted as another way for the deceased to see the world around them.
The exterior and interior would have inscriptions and scenes meant to show interactions between the gods, protections, various offerings, and guidance. Most notably, and one of the more well-known attributes, was the Book of the Dead. This book was a collection of independent texts used as maps and instructions for the deceased to make their way through the Duat, the underworld. In early Egyptian history, the texts were reserved only for the kings and nobility; however, during the Middle Kingdom, they were used by everyday people as well.
The Duat could be very confusing to journey through and there were many perils to encounter, deadly snakes, crocodiles, demonic servants of Osiris. This made the texts crucial. If any dangerous creatures were to be shown in hieroglyphs near the deceased, it was necessary to bifurcate them, cutting them in two, so that they could not come into existence and harm the tomb owner. This ensured safety from these potential threats in the afterlife. Every aspect of the self had to be cared for and protected.
A faience Ushabti from circa 1090 to 900 BC. According to the MET, “Ushabti were buried in large numbers in Egyptian graves believed to ensure the resurrection of the body with which they were placed.” (Public domain)
Art for Offerings, Servitude, and Functionality for the Dead
Near the front of the tomb would be the offering cult, a place in which people were able to visit and present offerings to the Ka. Since the Ka remained in the tomb, it needed consistent nourishment. Sometimes, a Ka statue would be put in place to give the Ka something to inhabit. More than a simple representation, it was a home, a way for the Ka to manifest itself in the realm of the living and an object for people to interact with when they visit.
Near the statue or offering cult, and repeated throughout the tomb, a person’s name(s) would be inscribed. The name was of great importance even after death. The belief was that if one erased the name, they erased the soul. Further, if someone wanted to present an offering, the name would be included.
Offerings could take the literal form, as with food, drink, or various other things. However, oferings could also take an equally appropriate yet alternative form, that being a voice or text offering. An inscribed or voice offering nourished the Ka all the same. Whether illustrated, spoken or written, it was just as real as presenting those items physically. By creating and believing in their validity, they were automatically manifested into the supernatural realm. Offerings of any sort, even for the divine, carried this same meaning.
The tomb owner, along with the different aspects of self, were not the only entities to live within the tomb. Figurines commonly referred to as Shabtis or Ushabtis were created to act as servants in the afterlife. In earlier times, these figures were relatively simple, some made of wood, wax, terracotta, or stone.
Wax Shabtis from the 11th Dynasty, early Middle Kingdom, were formed in a simple standing position. In the later part of the Middle Kingdom, they took on the form and shape that defined their existence. Although Shabtis varied depending on the dynasty, from this point on they were generally crafted as small, mummified statuettes with text inscriptions.
Kings and pharaohs could have many servants in the afterlife, while others may have had only a few. During the New Kingdom, Shabtis became more elaborate, often holding agricultural tools, sacred symbols, or amulets. They were workers, taking the place of the mummy to fulfill different duties. Some may have been created for a more specific task, as an overseer to the workers, or to represent family members.
As the use of Shabtis became more readily available and demand increased, a new material was used to create them. Faience was produced by mixing ground quartz or quartz sand with lime, natron, water, and metal salts. It resulted in a hard substance with a vivid blue glossy finish. Similar to modern day plastic and easy to work with, this material produced a bounty of tomb servants.
Additionally, objects of use would be placed within the tomb. This could range from things the dead enjoyed while living, such as games or furniture, to things specifically created to be used after death. Wooden models of agricultural processes, such as a servant grinding corn to provide food for the Ka could be of use.
A prominent example would be a wooden model of a boat with the tomb owner on board along with mourners and sailors. Most of the models were made from wood and were relatively small in size. It was understood that in the realm of the dead, the models would manifest into full size, completely functional things. Therefore, the boat model would become a fully operational ship used for transportation to the afterlife. A perfect example of Egyptian art manifesting reality through representation.
Game of Hounds and Jackals, from circa 1814 to 1805 BC, discovered in pit tomb CC 25 in Thebes. (Public domain)
Temple Art for Worshipping the Divine Gods
The otherworldly function of art could also be found in connection to the divine. The term Netjer was used to describe the divine in ancient Egypt from the Early Dynastic Period up until Roman occupation. Although it was often represented as a “wrapped” object, similar to a flag in some cases, it was more of an idea than a specific thing.
Netjer was something that took many forms. For example, landscapes, animals, statues, scents, the sun, and so on, could have been seen as having Netjer. In connection to this concept, the term Netjerew was used to refer to the gods.
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Art created in this respect would have often been found within temples, most of which had what is called an inner sanctum, a shrine for the image of the divine. This image may have been a statue (idol) made from the finest of materials and ritualistically maintained. Much like the Ka statue, the idol was a very literal place for Netjerew to inhabit; a god could live inside and it was treated as such.
Everyday it would be cleaned and dressed, and on occasion it would even be marched through the streets to be worshipped. At times, the idol was even treated like an oracle, whereby people asked their questions and waited for the subtlest of responses. In the evenings, the idol would be placed back in its shrine and the god would rest again in its stone home.
An example of how ancient Egyptians manifested reality through art is the inclusion of representations of the enemies of King Tut on the insole of his sandals. (Leo Wehrli / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Art of Manifestation: Past and Present
For the ancient Egyptians, order and the afterlife were of greatest importance. There was only order and stability in the form of Ma’at and chaos in the form of Isfet. Accordingly, order had to be kept in life and in death. Everything the Egyptians did, they did for order. To think of art as a form of manifesting or creating reality may seem strange, but it was part of their belief system and religion. The creation of temples, tombs, art, religion, and magic were not separate, but interconnected.
Artistic representations for the purpose of manifestation are evident in many aspects of Egyptian life. The sandals of King Tut depicting his enemies on the sole were there so that every time he took a step, he was very literally stepping on his enemies. Representation was a direct link between other worlds and outcomes, whereby belief and perception equated to reality. Without this form of artistic creation, the world for the ancients would have been a profoundly different one.
Although it is rare to find a modern society that embodies this practice as fully as the Egyptians and other ancient societies did, it is still meaningful. The art of manifestation is something that continues to fascinate people all over the world. Many social and spiritual communities embrace the idea that if a certain type of reality is desired, it can come into existence.
Through the creation of images and objects, and through thoughts, practices, and beliefs, the ability to inevitably create a specific reality in this realm or another is perceived possible. Maybe it comes from a place of control; the ingrained belief that advanced beings were also spiritually sophisticated. Regardless, it seems the continuation of these social and spiritual ideas, from distant past to present, exemplifies that humans are innately curious and desire to extend their power not just in the realms of reality, but also in the afterlife.
Top image: The Weighing of the Heart ritual, shown in the Book of the Dead of Sesostris. Source: Manfred Werner - Tsui / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Jessica Nadeau
David, R. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
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Van Bommel, D. No date. Ushatis.com. Available at: https://www.ushabtis.com/