Cultures & Traditions

Egypt: Royalty and the Afterlife

The following essay is from a 1996 publication that highlights prominent Egyptian art objects from the DMA's collection.

Possessing one of the most naturally fertile areas around the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt had a settled and agriculturally prosperous society along the Nile River valley from the fifth millennium BCE onward. Whether the union of Upper and Lower Egypt really occurred under the king called Menes, or Narmer, as described in Egyptian texts, the crystallization of the Egyptian monarchy around 3100 BCE created social forms and artistic imagery that would endure through the Greco-Roman period. The dominance of a divine king at an early stage of Egyptian society was clearly related to the defining elements of life in Egypt, which revolved around the annual Nile flood. The king was believed to have a magical and religious relationship with the gods of nature, who brought the fertilizing silt to Egyptian fields along the narrow river valley of Upper Egypt and the broad Delta of Lower Egypt each summer. This relationship was symbolized by the king's identity with the celestial god Horus, often depicted as a falcon or hawk.

As in early China, the divine king played a critical role in the development of society. The Egyptian king, imagined to be Horakhte (Horus of the Horizons), was the embodiment of the land's power and renewal, the guarantor of life and mediator between the gods and mankind. "How great is the lord of his city: he is a canal that restrains the river's flood water. How great is the lord of his city: he is a cool room that lets a man sleep till dawn" (A Cycle of Hymns to King Sesostris II [trans. Lichtheim], p. 199). The actual social hierarchy from king to royal family, nobles and priests, tax collectors and stewards, soldiers, artisans, and farmers was paralleled by the symbolic hierarchy of Egyptian belief, in which the king was a son of the gods whose power spread outward from a magic center. Lesser and local deities played the same role in myth that the lower classes of Egyptian society played in the mundane world.

Just as the earliest stages of this royal symbolism appear on the First Dynasty Narmer palette in the Cairo Museum, where the king defeats enemies in battle and embodies natural powers, so the earliest example of Egyptian monumental architecture, the Third Dynasty Step Pyramid complex of King Djoser, symbolizes the idea of the king's eternal life. Djoser's Heb-Sed courtyard was designed for a ritual emphasizing the regenerative powers of the king as a force of nature and as a divine ruler, ever young and victorious. After his death, the king's funerary complex became a visible paradigm of immortality as the Egyptians imagined it.

The great pyramids at Giza represent this immutable power of Egyptian kings, who could command an enormous workforce to build an image of eternity. Surrounding these tremendous monuments to the divine nature of royal power were many lesser tombs of the royal family, nobles, priests, and officials, forming a kind of suburb of the dead. Excavations at Giza have unearthed the cemetery of the artisans and workers who built the Great Pyramid, undeniable proof that the belief in immortality had spread to the far reaches of Egyptian society. Relatives and associates of the king, as well as more humble people, could also hope to acheive eternal life through tomb magic and the divine immortality of their monarchs. Their portraits, mummified bodies, inscribed names, artifacts, and the verbal or visual charms buried with them would ensure a fortunate life in the afterworld, much like earthly life but on a richer scale. Artistic representations in tombs showed the dead person supplied by servants with all the necessary food, drink, flowers, and emblems of immortality that one might wish for in eternity. Such a scene appears on the Dallas Museum of Art's late Fifth-Sixth Dynasty relief showing a procession of offering bearers (1965.28.M).

The basic formulations of Egyptian style established by the Old Kingdom were to survive, though with many breaks and innovations, for three thousand years. The concept of permanence, indelibly imprinted on the Egyptian psyche through the natural forces of their environment (e.g., the daily passage of the sun, the annual flooding of the Nile, and the arid climate, which promoted preservation), contributed immensely to their regimented notions of visual imagery. The lasting strength of Egyptian art was its hieroglyphic purity of design, fusing written symbols and pictorial form. Originating in carved stone, Egyptian art had an adamantine clarity. Whether in painted line, relief, or three-dimensional sculpture, Egyptian figural form reads as a verbal, as well as a visual charm. Inherent in this blend of verbal and visual image was the magical ability to evoke eternity. This marvelous capacity to model human features as tense with energy as nature itself still speaks to us from artworks that in their own time were primarily intended to achieve magical ends. The combination of pure line and sensuous warmth of modeling occurs in all media, from small wooden statuettes to colossal royal sculptures. Person and ideogram become one.

The human form played a vital role in Egyptian art, and the most prominent person was the pharaoh. The royal image was not only instilled with the elements of power and permanence but also communicated to its audience the essence of divine being. The DMA bust of the great 19th Dynasty king Seti I (1984.50) has this sculptural embodiment of ultimate power. The king in his royal nemes headdress and false beard, the back of his head supported by his cartouche, seems to pulse with supernal energy. His perennially vibrant features convey a sense of serene majesty, one clearly capable of ordering the recurrent life of plants in nature, a cycle celebrated in the royal Heb-Sed ceremony. The pharaoh was a living symbol of the renewal of life and the return of crops every year, and so his human strength was emphasized and linked with divinity in the idealization of art. The black granite chosen for this statue symbolically represents the dark alluvial soil brought by the Nile flood to replenish the land and restore its vital force.

Seti I lived to an advanced age (his mummy still survives in the Cairo Museum), but the essence of this artistic representation has little to do with the course of human life or Seti's very successful career as a militant ruler who campaigned in the near East and established his family dynasty. His image is that of a god-king, firmly and benignly presiding over Egypt, ensuring its prosperity. Although New Kingdom pharaohs had abandoned the practice of pyramid building so notable in the Old Kingdom, Seti's rock-cut tomb is one of the largest and most richly decorated in the valley of the Kings, testifying to his power and preeminence as well as to the refined sense of artistic taste of his age, traits that are duly reflected in his royal portrait.

A late representation of the fertility of the Nile River, which supported Egyptian life, occurs on the DMA's two slate reliefs from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (1991.114, 1979.1) both probably from a shrine or the base of a throne supporting a seated figure. The elegant sunk reliefs demonstrate how nature served as a central component in Egyptian art and design. The image of the Nile god Hapi is represented as a pair of corpulent, androgynous figures with heavy breasts who tie together the lotus and papyrus, respective symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is the Nile, represented by Hapi, that unifies the broad Delta of Lower Egypt with the long narrow valley cut through the mountains of Upper Egypt. The curving stemlike line of the valley blossoms into the flaring bulblike form of the Delta to create the unifying floral design. Like the sacred lotus flower of Buddhism farther east in Asia, the symbolic plants of Egypt spring, pure and powerful, from the Nile mud. The annual flood sent by Hapi inundates and submerges the land, but also carries the life-giving forces of water and fertile soil, which invigorate the land and the people who work it. This duality explains the androgynous image of Hapi, personifying the masculine aspects of the turbulent water and the feminine characteristics of the nourishing soil.

The other relief, showing Thoth, god of wisdom, learning, science, and medicine, who also recorded the judgment on the dead in the afterworld, is an even more concise symbolic blend of the human and the natural. As a patron of art and scribes, and archivist for the gods, Thoth represented both the beauty of visual imagery and the divine word. The god is human from the neck down, with the grapically drawn head of a sacred ibis. Thoth's role as a scribe in the judgment of the dead made him a common figure in funerary art, but no matter how conventional the image, the sense of a powerful and beautiful water bird occurs in the god's piercing head with his curving beak. Much of the power of Egyptian art lies in its physicality. Flowers, flesh, birds, food, clothing, farms and gardens, and elegant equipment: the Egyptians liked the good things of life and immortalized them.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 15-16.

Web Resources

  • Khan Academy
    See the earliest stages of Egyptian royal symbolism on the Palette of Narmer.