The tomb of Tutankhamun lay undisturbed in Upper Egypt's Valley of the Kings through many centuries, from the end of the 18th Dynasty (BCE 1572-1315) to the twentieth century, when it was uncovered by the British excavator Howard Carter, under the patronage of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon. When the Earl died unexpectedly within weeks after the discovery, stories spread quickly that an ancient curse had been unleashed as a consequence of disturbing the royal burial. The rumors grew extravagantly as time passed and more than twenty key persons connected to the discovery or its excavation died under untimely circumstances. The alleged curse, purportedly written near the entry to the tomb, that "death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh" was never documented, but it has persisted to this day. Ironically, belief in the existence and power of this mythical curse underscores a pervasive acknowledgment of Egypt's magical legacy.
In the decade of following its discovery, artifacts gradually emerged from Carter's painstaking survey of the tomb. From furniture and chariots to jewelry and foodstuffs, every imaginable item from ancient life came to light. They evoked a worldwide amazement at their beauty and craftsmanship, and today they continue to epitomize the grandeur of ancient Egyptian art. But what is often overlooked is their purpose. For above all, every object placed in the tomb of the young king possessed mystical significance. In the Egyptian afterlife, these objects could reflect powers to their owner that would ensure an elevated existence that would ultimately confer divinity. At the same time, they guaranteed the continuity of order in the earthly realm, where those following the king would be empowered to represent and honor the gods in a continuous cycle of human and divine participation.
For the third time since its discovery in 1922, selected artifacts from the ancient Egyptian tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun are touring the United States. During the course of exhibits in four American cities throughout 2005 and 2006, most visitors to the museums sponsoring the event will experience the visual and written art of an era that universally resonates to our wonderment of things enigmatic and arcane. We are all, to some degree, Egyptophilia ("lovers of things Egyptian"). An unprecedented public relations program accompanies the tour, a phenomenon that at times seems to overreach the aesthetic value of the artifacts and for many who honor pharaonic Egypt's metaphysical legacy, obscures its profound meaning. It is this elusive quest that initially attracts many to the study of Egypt, and further toward its religious and philosophical tenets, then ultimately to its sacred science—a subject some in the modern world erroneously refer to as "magic."
Magic in Ancient Egypt
He made heka for them, to use as a weapon for warding off occurrences.
There was no distinction between "good" and "bad" magical power, or whether it embodied the qualities of "black" or "white." In the polytheistic universe of ancient Egypt, such dualities were easily resolved by divine beings and forces that possessed both constructive and destructive aspects. Differences in their effects were determined by intent alone, and this could include protection, propitiation, execration, or devotion.
The key to activating this power lay foremost in the use of Iru ("fabrications, ritual acts") and Medu Neter, "divine words." Magical spells and visualizations were believed to have been given to the human race by the gods themselves, by the divine magician Djehuti who brought forth the word of creation, and the artisan of the universe Ptah, who generated the power to fashion and infuse objects with life. From their legends of magical happenings among gods and human beings that took place in timeless time, the ancient Egyptians understood that the world of possibilities, transcending life and death, was accessible to one in possession of the words and acts of creation.
Equally powerful to words and acts in Egyptian magic are names. The possession of names gives power over the named, and at the same time conveys the powers of the named. In this way, acquisition of divine names at birth, initiation, and investiture, granted powers that could bring one the protections and mentorship of divine beings.
Altogether, five names or divine roles were attributed to monarchs by the Middle Kingdom, each defining a sacred function that was overseen by the gods. In the tomb of Tutankhamun, the name of the king in his role as Horus is given as Heru: Ka Nakht, Tut Mesut ("Horus: Strong bull, of perfect birth"). In addition to his Horus name, the young king was known as Nebty: Nefer Hepu Segereh Taui ("He of the Good Laws, Who Pacifies the Two Lands"). This name was under the guardianship of Nekhebet and Wadjet, the two goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively. He also possessed a Golden Horus name, one that identified his kinship to the gods, as their son on earth. In this role he was known as Heru Nebu: Wetches Khau Sehotep Neteru ("He who Wears the Crowns and Satisfies the Gods"). As ruler of the two regions of Egypt, he also possesses a throne name, the Nesu Bity ("king of upper and lower Egypt") and this is Nebkheperura ("all the transformations of Ra"). And lastly, we know him by his birth name, the Sa Ra ("son of the Sun"), Tutankhamun ("the living image of Amun").
Death and Divinity
Of all the gods in the vast pantheon of Egyptian religious belief, Osiris stands as preeminent among those who embody the powers and vulnerabilities of mortal life. In legend, he was known as the first ruler of Egypt, a benevolent king who instituted agriculture and law throughout the Two Lands. Together with his wife Isis, this first king brought about a prosperous civilization that inspired adherence to the laws of nature and the divine world. The tragedy of the legend is the murder of Osiris at the hand of his jealous sibling Set, followed by a period of anarchy and the wandering of Isis to find her dead husband's remains. The story attained many permutations throughout the ages, but it also taught the ascendancy of justice over wrongdoing in the end. Horus, the son of Osiris, grew to avenge his father's death and reestablished the royal house of Egypt. From Horus, every subsequent ruler of Egypt was descended, in spirit and in name.
Every death and funeral in ancient Egypt was viewed as a reprise of this Osirian mythos. The death of the monarch was a retelling of the tragedy with the anticipation of the return of order and the reestablishment of rule. Here, dead ruler would ascend to the region of the gods and his or her descendant would ascend to the Royal House. The continuity of life would thus be assured, from life to death and life once more. And all of this could be accomplished and maintained through magic. In the tomb of Tutankhamun, fabulous examples of the funerary magical repertoire are furnished in abundance. Of the thousands of artifacts uncovered, precious few are personal to the king, the majority owe their presence to the profound belief in a divine afterlife, the last inheritance of a divine king. While much press has been given in recent times to the mummy of Tutankhamun, his speculated appearance and cause of death, his place of repose and the forces around it are metaphysical interest. They reflect the afterlife journey of the royal person, from the metaphorical condition of the dead Osiris to his renewal and fusion with the Solar principle.
In the burial chamber of Tutankhamun a quartzite sarcophagus is inscribed with the images of four goddesses who offer protection at the four corners of the tomb. They guard the contents of the sarcophagus with outstretched wings in their traditional roles of Isis (west), Selqit (east), Nepthys (south) and Neit (north).
Four shrines, nested around the sarcophagus represent the royal soul's passage through the four worlds of creation—anu (Water), Aakhut (Fire), Rostau (Earth), and Ament (Air). Each shrine, constructed of gilded oak, is magnificently inscribed with scenes and literary passages from the sacred books that disclose the spells to enter these worlds and acquire the powers resident there. And while the shrines embody the cosmological dimension of the tomb, they also symbolize the regional traditions of Egyptian territory in their architectural features.
The first shrine (the smallest and first to enclose the stone sarcophagus) is modeled after the prehistoric shrine of the North, with a barrel-vaulted roof between two vertical walls. The design evokes the archaic history of Egypt and the long line of Tutankhamun's predecessors, all of whom lived in the king just as the legacy of Osiris lived in his son Horus, the prototypal ruler of the Two Lands. Inscribed on the walls of this shrine is Chapter 17 of The Book of Going Forth by Day, the mystical text of hymns and spells found in various versions and lengths at both temple and tomb.
This chapter discloses the philosophy of transformation as the Egyptians viewed it, in an instructional form of dialogue between the Sun god and the reciter of the text. It takes the recipient on a symbolic journey, from earth to sky, from mortal to immortal existence.
Numerous deities populate the scenes inscribed on Shrine 1, each of whom declares a covenant granting protection to the deceased. Each of them also addresses the king as "Osiris Tutankhamun" or "Osiris Nebkheperura," designating him now as the apotheosis of the god of renewal. Death has bestowed this appellation to the king, but as he progresses through these subtle worlds, he acquires new identities and fuses with the divine powers he encounters. The gods speak in unison, "Are are united in protecting the coffin of Osiris, the king of the Two Lands, Nebkheperura, so that he will make transformations like Ra, so that he will appear whenever his name is called, to receive offerings each day."
In the second shrine the design of the archaic shrine of the South is emulated, with sloped roof and rows of vultures inscribed on the gold surface, evoking Nekhebet, goddess of the southern kingdom. The vignettes in this shrine speak of the king's ascent to from earth to sky, where he greets the goddess Nut as his mother. He is also assured by Isis and Nepthys that he will possess the renewing powers of the Sun:
"You make transformations like Ra, you are born in the morning like him."
Following this, Tutankhamun proceeds on the Solar journey through the sky, from darkness to light, the symbolic journey from death to life, from earthly to celestial existence. The journey is articulated in the enigmatic texts of the Shat am Duat, ("Book of What Is in the Shadow World") inscribed on the second shrine.
In the third shrine, a spell from the ancient Pyramid Texts is inscribed, along with chapters of the Pert em Hru ("Book of Going Forth by Day"). Here he is presented to the gods in their many forms, and acquires their protections and powers:
"You shall be as a god, living as one of the noble spirits at the eternal horizon in the fields of peace."
In the fourth (outermost) shrine, the divination of Tutankhamun is completed. Modeled after the Heb Sed shrine that represents the union of the Two Lands under kingship, texts from the Book of the Divine Cow are inscribed. This is a work that discloses a spell within a legend, a literary device often used in sacred writings. The spell grants the ultimate powers—to repulse the forces of darkness and pass through the northern region of the sky. Here, one becomes "a flame in the sky," a star, an everlasting being.
Accompanying the text is an instruction and a clue to the living:
"If one who is accomplished knows these sacred words, he will ascend and descend the interior of heaven... his bad deeds done in earth will not be reckoned against him... he will not pay obeisance to the judgment council but will enter as a head of spirits."
This is the real treasure of Tutankhamun's tomb and the true legacy of ancient Egypt. We are promised renewal, transformation, and empowerment through words and imagination, acts that we are told we can perform in this world and the next.
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs is on a four-city, three-year tour of the United States. It is scheduled for Los Angeles Jun. 16-Nov.15, 2005; Fort Lauderdale Dec. 15-May 2006; Chicago May-Dec. 2006; and Philadelphia Jan.-Sep. 2007. Further information is available at www.KingTut.org
Description of Art for "The Magic of Tutankamun"