The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead
For the ancient Egyptians, death was both an end point and a beginning. Although burial signified the end of life on earth, the tomb was also the space from which souls could be reborn into the eternal land of the dead, or duat, as long as the proper rites were followed during burial—and as long as the dead were adequately prepared for their journey to the afterlife. It was this latter necessity, of equipping souls for their posthumous journey, that gave rise to the fascinating body of Egyptian literature known as “funerary texts.” In contrast to the spells recited by priests at the time of burial, funerary texts were intended to be spoken by the soul itself after death. (For this reason, funerary text prayers are written in the first person.) Moreover, since funerary texts were buried with mummies—written on small papyrus scrolls placed over mummies’ mouths, carved into tomb walls, and/or painted on the linens in which mummies were wrapped—they have frequently been unearthed during archaeological excavations of burial sites, and numerous examples exist for study in the present day.
The earliest known funerary texts were carved into an interior wall of the Pyramid of Unis around 2250 bce; in reference to these carvings, all funerary texts from the Old Kingdom (c. 2700–c. 2200 bce) are grouped under the general title “Pyramid Texts.” The funerary texts from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2200–c. 1550 bce) are known as “Coffin Texts,” while the funerary texts dating to the New Kingdom and after (c. 1550 bce–c. 100 ce) are known as the Book of the Dead, a name bestowed on them by 19th-century Egyptologists. Philip Glass and Shalom Goldman drew extensively on funerary texts while crafting the libretto for Akhnaten: The text of the prologue comes from the Pyramid Texts, while the chorus from Amenhotep III’s funeral is drawn from the Book of the Dead.
Below you will see an image from a copy of the Book of the Dead now in the collection of the British Museum. Prepared for the royal scribe Ani around 100 years after Akhnaten’s death, this papyrus scroll is famous for its exquisite illustrations. The panel reproduced here depicts an event featured in the opening scene of Akhnaten: the weighing of the heart. In the lower-left corner stand Ani, clad in white, approaching a giant scale. Ani’s heart sits in the left pan of the scale, while the right-hand pan holds a feather, representing maat, or “divine truth and order.” The jackal-headed god Anubis (kneeling under the left arm of the scale) steadies the scale before the weighing begins. Along the top of the panel, gods and goddesses wait to deliver judgment on whether or not Ani will be allowed to travel on to the land of the dead. The ibis-headed god Thoth stands to the right of the scales, ready to notate the results of the judgment. If the scale is balanced, Ani’s soul will be allowed to continue on to the afterlife. Otherwise, Ani’s heart will be devoured by the creature sitting under the scale, a terrifying monster with the head of a crocodile, the shoulders of a large cat, and the haunches of a hippopotamus.
Compare the images on this page. They all represent ancient Egyptian pharaohs. They were all produced in the 14th century bce. And yet, within these three portraits, we see two strikingly different aesthetic styles. The statue [on the left/above/wherever it is] depicts Akhnaten’s father, Amenhotep III, and is a classic example of Egyptian portraiture. The lines are straight and strong. The body is muscular. The elbows, hips, and knees form right angles. Amenhotep’s neck is obscured by the false beard worn by Egyptian pharaohs, while a heavy headdress surrounds his face. His appearance is chiseled but generic; there are no features that truly distinguish him from the other Egyptian rulers of this dynasty.
Now look at the other two images on this page. Both depict Akhnaten. In one relief, Akhnaten (on the left) sits with his wife, Nefertiti. They both look up toward the Aten, the rays of which can be seen streaming down in bold diagonal strokes. The other relief also depicts Akhnaten, although this time we see only his head. In contrast to the rectilinear statue of Amenhotep, these images are defined by curves. Akhnaten’s hips and thighs are voluptuous. His lips are thick, and his face is fleshy. Commentators have observed that Akhnaten seems to have not only male physical attributes but female attributes as well; indeed, in some portraits Akhnaten even seems to have breasts or a pregnant belly.
So what should modern viewers make of these images of Akhnaten? One possible explanation is that Akhnaten was a hermaphrodite or had a rare medical condition. Archaeologists and medical historians have identified diseases that may have caused these unusual physical features, but without a mummy that can definitely be identified as Akhnaten’s, such hypotheses remain conjecture. Other scholars, meanwhile, have suggested that these portraits are not meant to be seen as realistic images of the pharaoh. Instead, they argue, Akhnaten chose to be represented with both male and female attributes because fertility was a central component of his new religion. By straddling the boundary between male and female, Akhnaten could become a singular source of human life. In this, he was akin to the Aten, which nourished and enabled all life on earth with the warmth of its rays.
However we choose to interpret Akhnaten’s portraits, it is important to remember that images always tell a story. Today, we curate our own images through how we dress, through the use of photographic filters, or through the selection of a particular artist who will paint, sculpt, or photograph us. As your students look at these images of Akhnaten, invite them to consider: If people 3,000 years from now were going to see an image of me, what would I want it to look like?
Archaeological Insights from the Dustbin of History
From a modern perspective, it’s easy to view Akhnaten as a bold thinker ahead of his time. For his contemporaries, however, Akhnaten’s reforms were infuriatingly sacrilegious. As soon as Akhnaten was dead, his successors reestablished Egypt’s traditional religion and set about destroying all traces of his reign. Faces were picked out of reliefs depicting Akhnaten and his family. The buildings at Akhetaten were systematically dismantled. References to the Aten were even removed from royal names: Akhnaten’s close relative Tutankhaten, for instance, was renamed Tutankhamun, a reference to the traditional Egyptian sun god Amun-Ra. Yet this story of overthrow and destruction, so central to the opera Akhnaten’s final scenes, raises an obvious question: If the material markers of Akhnaten’s reign were destroyed, how do we know anything about him?
The fact that Akhetaten’s building blocks had been detached and desecrated didn’t mean they weren’t still useful. Egyptian pharaohs, who liked to build large commemorative temples and tombs, were always in need of raw building materials. The carved stones from Akhetaten couldn’t be used in a way that would render their imagery visible, of course, but there was another way that Egyptian builders could repurpose these stone blocks: as stuffing materials inside monumental walls. In particular, the pylons (large trapezoidal gates) at temple entryways required a good deal of filler stone, and in the century following Akhnaten’s death, the stone blocks from his capital city were used to fill pylons at the temples of Karnak and Hermopolis Magna. Some three thousand years later, when archaeologists began studying these temples, they discovered the stones from Akhetaten as well.
Studying history through ancient detritus may at first seem strange, but vital historical artifacts have often survived precisely because they were once identified as trash. Medieval book binders, for instance, used scraps from old manuscripts to help bind new books; today, these scraps offer the only existing trace of books that are otherwise lost forever. National Geographic and other scientific publications often report on archaeological and anthropological discoveries enabled by studying prehistoric garbage piles. In other words, the old adage that “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure” is nothing short of a fundamental tenet of archaeology.
The Long Sleep
The ancient Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III dies. His son Amenhotep IV is crowned Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt.
c. 1347 BCE
Amenhotep IV abolishes the traditional Egyptian religion and establishes a new religion dedicated to the sun disc, or “Aten.” He changes his name from Amenhotep (“Amun Is Satisfied”) to Akhnaten (“Spirit of Aten”) and founds the city of Akhetaten (“Horizon of Aten”).
Akhnaten is overthrown. The pharaohs who succeed him reinstate Egypt’s traditional religion and attempt to destroy all traces of Akhnaten’s reign.
A collection of nearly 400 clay tablets and fragments is discovered at the ruins of Akhetaten, near the modern town of Tell el-Amarna. Mostly consisting of diplomatic correspondence sent to Akhnaten’s court, the “Amarna letters” (as the collection comes to be known) spark archaeological interest in Akhnaten’s reign.
The British archaeologist Flanders Petrie conducts the first formal excavations of Akhetaten.
The pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb is discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. A close relative of Akhnaten, Tutankhamun (whose birth name was actually Tutankhaten, “Living Image of the Aten”) was a short-lived pharaoh who played a relatively minor role in Egyptian history. Yet his tomb, untouched by grave robbers for more than 3,000 years, is full of treasures, and its discovery—one of the most famous archaeological finds of all time—sparks a worldwide craze for all things ancient Egyptian.