Illustrating the subject of religion in Ancient Egypt with exhibition objects is a difficult task. What kind of information can Ancient Egyptian original artefacts impart? Theological concepts need long explanatory texts - but reliefs or statues of gods can at least give an idea of the multitude of forms in which the divine could appear, and illustrate a few of the basic principles governing the Egyptian pantheon.
The Egyptian understanding of what a god actually is was never dogmatised, but instead found itself in a constant state of flux and expansion. The many different physical aspects combined under the name of a single god were expressions of the complexity of the divine experience, which could not be explained with a single aspect. In the end, all of the different names and forms were considered manifestations of the Divine Principle.
Our tablet-based Media Guide offers information on some 250 objects, as classical-style audio modules (often paired with a reading of Ancient Egyptian texts) but also as visual modules with reconstructions, excavation photographs and explanatory videos. Additionally, guided tours are available on the tablet covering various subjects such as “Highlights of the Museum” (also available in English and in a children’s version). There is also a guided tour for the visually-impaired and one for the hearing impaired.
A starlit sky appears on the media station’s four screens, individually labelled as “Form”, “Locality”, “Function” and “Name”. Where were the gods worshipped? What was their purview? What shapes and aspects could they take? A click on one of the stars reveals the many, often overwhelming possibilities.
From the Late Period onwards (1st millennium BC), the worship of animals as aspects of a certain god gained in popularity, especially in popular religion. More and more animals were buried in special necropolises; in the Graeco-Roman Period, this number rose to tens of thousands of burials at the main cultic centres of the corresponding deities. The animals were mummified, wrapped in bandages and then deposited into pots or small coffins of wood or bronze topped with a statuette of the animal in question. Others were decked out in stucco masks or covered in painted cartonnage.
Terms such as “funerary beliefs” or “funerary cult” do not do justice to the complexity of the Ancient Egyptians’ ideology surrounding the overcoming of death, resurrection and a continued existence in the Afterlife. The funerary texts – written and illustrated on the inside of coffins, tomb walls or papyri – centre around the sun as a symbol of the eternal circle of life. On their journey to eternal life, once exonerated by the Afterlife court, the deceased would cross the Underworld, illuminated by the night sun, and would be born anew with each dawn. What awaited them was not a gloomy, shadowy pit, but rather the sun-kissed Fields of Iaru.
The team of the Munich museum uncovered about 3,500 burials from an ancient necropolis near Minshat Abu Omar, a village in the Nile Delta. 3,100 graves dated to the Roman Period, 400 from the late Predynastic Period. In the latter era, graves might be simple depressions in the sand or else square holes shored up with mats or Nile mud, as well as true chamber tombs lined with mudbricks.
Within the tombs of the Old Kingdom, the cult focused around the false-door stela – a kind of model door executed in relief, an expression of the idea that the tomb was a house for the deceased. It served as an interface between this world and the next, for the false-door stela was considered to be the portal through which the spirit of the deceased could enter and leave the tomb. This is why the offering basins used for food offerings and libations to the deceased were placed directly in front of the false-door stela.
In the past, it was possible for museums to acquire objects perfectly legally, through the practice of the division of the finds from the excavations they funded with the Antiquities Service – this is how the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Egyptian Museum in Berlin obtained much of their collections. Munich did not join the ranks of excavators until 1978; for ten years thereafter, I directed a dig in Minshat Abu Omar in the Nile Delta. Munich received about 600 objects from the numerous artefacts found there, spread out over two divisions of finds – they were the last to leave Egypt, for in 1985 a new antiquities law ended the practice of the division of finds.
The Romans living in Egypt – often members of the military – equipped their mummies with two-dimensional portraits painted on wood, fastened in place by the outer mummy wrappings. They have a portrait-like quality and depict the deceased with the current fashion in hair, beard and jewellery.
The vision of a happy eternity is the story of conquering grief by replacing it with the certitude of life in Paradise. Hieroglyphic texts and images of gods on the painted wooden coffins depict life in the immortal community. The coffin faces, the lifelike stucco heads and mummy portraits all show content people looking forward to a cheerful future: this positive view of the Afterlife, filled with joyful anticipation, is what embues the art of Ancient Egypt (which mostly comes from tombs) with its characteristic serenity.
The central piece of tomb equipment was the coffin, designed to protect the body of the deceased. The shape and decoration of the coffins vary over time and reflects the changes in concepts of the Afterlife from one period to the next. The anthropomorphic coffin – appearing in the 2nd Intermediate Period – became the exclusive coffin type for a long time. Its feather pattern decoration symbolised the sky goddess Nut who was thought to wrap her feathered arms protectively around the deceased.
Towards the end of the New Kingdom, coffins and papyri replace the tomb walls as the place for depictions, increasing the importance of painting as an artistic medium. However, the images no longer depict the daily life of artisans and farmers or the festivals of high-ranking Egyptians, but activities in the Afterlife instead. They are frequently scenes from Afterlife guides such as the Book of the Dead or the Amduat or show the deceased offering and praying to the gods.
Our treatment of mummies should be based on the attitude of the Ancient Egyptians in regards to their dead. The only naked corpses they ever showed were those of people to whom eternal life had been denied: sinners who had not passed the Judgement of the Dead as well as political and magical enemies of Egypt. In this context, the exhibition of the unwrapped bodies Ancient Egyptians equals their damnation. It should therefore be self-evident that museums should respect the Egyptians’ aversion to unwrapped corpses.
The upper half of this media station depicts activities here on Earth and addresses several aspects of the burial process: the procession to the tomb, the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth that takes place before it, the architecture and decoration of the tomb through various time periods and the remembrance rites for the dead. Mummification was imperative for a continued existence in the Afterlife. And just like the actual act of dying, mummification was the subject to various taboos and rarely described or shown. In contrast, the journey to the Afterlife and the Judgement of the Dead take up a lot of space as essential preludes to entering Paradise or the Halls of Punishment.