04 March 2009

In the Suite of the God's Wife of Amun (MultipleUpdates )

This amazing uppity woman is quite dead.
And mummified. And therein lies a tale.

But, before we talk about her mummy, let's first go back to roughly the time she was born -- perhaps 30 years before her lamentably early death (and she died somewhere around the year 800 BCE). That was a tough time to have entered the world, as she did, in the city of Thebes in Egypt.

For, give or take a few years, around 840-835, the crown prince of Egypt -- whose name was Osorkon -- consulted the ram-headed god Herishaf (right) on a potentially catastrophic matter of state.

All Egypt was then under the rule of Libyan kings (the 22nd dynasty, ca. 943-716) -- foreign interlopers, although they were quite Egyptianized by now. These kings descended from the military elite of tribes that had settled in the Nile Delta at the end of the New Kingdom. As the state grew weaker, the Egyptian army recruited ever more Libyan mercenaries until they made up the bulk of the army.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time.

Now, their royal residence was at Tanis in the very north-east of the Nile Delta. From this northern fastness, it is hardly surprising that they had repeated difficulty keeping the whole country under their political control. And especially the southern districts around Thebes, always a potential centre of rebellion, kept testing the limits of royal authority. The great Theban temple of Amun had been transformed into the capital of a state often as strong as that ruled by the presumptive pharaohs in the north. The south had become a kind of theocracy ruled by Amun's high priests who could draw on a prodigious income from the cult, temple, and broad estates of the great god. At times, the high priests had even adopted the trappings of royalty, wearing the pharaoh's double crown and placing their names in royal cartouches.

To prevent that happening again, a son of the Tanite royal family now regularly filled this post.

The Storm Breaks

That's why, around ca. 835 BCE, Prince Osorkon, eldest son of the Tanite pharaoh (the aptly-named Takeloth II) was appointed High Priest [the 1st prophet] of Amun. Or, rather, as he put it, the god chose him:
whom Amun appointed according to his own desire, to the [high priest of] Amun in Thebes.
Although still in his 20s, Osorkon was already Governor of the South and commander of the army. He had earned his spurs beating down enemies in the interior of the land, which had fallen into turmoil in his time. He was young, energetic, perhaps precocious, and probably just a wee bit impatient to get his hands on the temporal riches of Amun. Badly handled, such appointments outside of the Theban nobility could be viewed as infringements of local prerogatives and were often contested. This was such a moment. In naming Osorkon, the pharaoh had brusquely passed over the claims of a previous High Priest's family -- whose eligible grandson didn't even get the job of 2nd prophet. The possessive and independent Thebans promptly rebelled.

We know what happened next because Osorkon carved a long text on a gateway at (what was then) the very front of the temple of Amun.

In Year 11 of his father's reign

Before leaving his headquarters in Middle Egypt, Osorkon checked in with the ram-god, who gave him an oracle:
When Thebes rose [in rebellion] against the protector of the land and the gods who were in it, the great god heard the appeal made to him. The beneficient ram, [Herishaf] came to him in his [sleep?*] as he had wished, so he might suppress wrong-doing. Thus he came forth at the head of his army....

Prince Osorkon sailed south for Thebes, intending to remind both priests and people that the Libyan dynasty still ruled all of Egypt. Sensibly he tried diplomacy first, giving handsome gifts to Amun -- and perhaps lucrative backhanders to discontented Thebans:
his hands bearing a million of things, and offerings consisting of all good things ... good and pure, pleasant and sweet, supplied with ten thousands and thousands without end as a daily offering in excess of what existed before.
This worked a treat (backed up, as it was, by the powerful army he had brought with him). As we are told, all the prophets, priests, and people of Thebes came crawling, bearing flowers, and denouncing the rebels for having wrecked the sacred rites and plundered the temple. Justice was swift. The bound prisoners were brought before Osorkon tied up (in a picturesque phrase) like bundles of pinioned goats, and all of them (except, it seems, the grandson who survived to fight another day) were burned with fire in the place of his crime [at] Thebes. This was a doubly cruel punishment: after a horrible death, the destruction of their bodies also meant that they would not live on in the afterlife. Having crushed the opposition, Osorkon made new appointments to priestly posts, issued decrees dealing with temple administration and, of course, revenues, and sailed back to his headquarters in Middle Egypt.

It was about now that our uppity lady Meresamun ("She Loves Amun") was born, presumably into a loyalist family.

Her early years cannot have been fun. There were just four years of peace.

In Year 15 of his father's reign

Suddenly, "even though the sky did not swallow the moon" (so, without even a lunar eclipse to warn of the oncoming disaster), the whole of Egypt erupted into civil war. The kingdom was shaken to its foundations.
a great convulsion broke out in this land ... the children of rebellion stirred up strife in both South and North. [For his part, Osorkon] did not weary of fighting in their midst ... years passed by, when one could not repel the depredations of one's fellow.
The conflict dragged on for nearly a decade -- into the 24th year of Takeloth II. The Prince admitted to his followers, "I am worn and afflicted." Repression having so obviously failed, it was finally time to try conciliation. Once again loaded with rich gifts for Amun, Osorkon sailed with a vast fleet to the south. After a tumultuous welcome, he made great offerings to Amun and, again, peace seemed assured.

In Year 26 of his father's reign

It was the briefest truce. Within a year, Thebes and the southern provinces again rose in rebellion against the detested northern dynasty -- and, this time, all was lost for Osorkon.
"The grandees within this land [rebelled and] he was there quite alone, such that there was not one friend [with him]
So, the Theban lords finally triumphed. Osorkon lost the high priesthood and probably the rule of the south as well. Rubbing natron into his wounds, the grandson of the former high priest -- he who had been passed over in Year 11 -- replaced Osorkon as 1st prophet. The prince's misfortunes were not yet at an end. At this inconvenient moment, his father died. With Osorkon far away from Tanis, personal enemies at court schemed to deprive him of the succession: the old pharaoh was quickly buried and the prince's much younger brother Shoshenq III came to the throne instead.

Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun

... so we'll leave the poor prince in his misery, shut out of Amun's temple,** and turn to Meresamun, who proclaims her proud title as Singer in the Interior of the Temple on her coffin (left) -- and who may have lived through some or all of these dramatic events.

Women who held the same title are known to have been the sisters or daughters of kings, governors, mayors, and high priests. "In the Interior" meant they had a level of purity that allowed them to enter the most sacred part of the god's complex. They were musician-priestesses chosen from the highest levels of Theban society to sing and make music for Amun. The percussive rhythm of their ritual rattles (sistrums) and beaded necklaces (menats) was meant to calm the god and make him more amenable to protecting and helping mankind.

See her, her hand shaking the rattles to give pleasure to the god, her father Amun. How lovely she moves, her hair bound with ribbon, songstress with perfect features....Pleasure there is in her lip's motions.... her heart is all kindness, her words gentle to those upon earth. One lives just to hear her voice.

Three times a day, a priest ceremonially opened the doors of Amun's inner sanctuary, purified the divine statue, offered it food and drink, and then adorned it with clothing, jewellery and perfumes. While this was going on, grand ladies like Meresamun would make music and sing to the god with a sweet voice.

Meresamun's fragile coffin was never opened and the body never unwrapped because generations of curators at the Oriental Institute of Chicago (where it has been since 1920) couldn't bring themselves to destroy its beautiful decorations. The coffin shows Meresamun wearing the vulture headdress that was worn by priestesses as well as other women of high rank. On the close up image (right), you see the vulture wings sweeping down on either side of her face. Her chest is covered with rows of lavish floral collars: just as flowers bloom, she too would revive in the afterlife. The coffin itself was an expensive one, befitting her rank. This, the inner coffin, was brightly painted with symbols of health and rebirth, and hieroglyphs that are shorthand wishes for life, eternity, and dominion.

Meresamun has a rather pretty face, somewhat idealized of course, so it doesn't tell us much about how she looked in life.

No matter, it's how she looks in death that counts now.

A One-Woman Show

For Meresamun is having her own one-woman show at the Oriental Institute. And in that show her face has been revealed to the world for the first time thanks to an X-ray with a light ten billion times brighter than the sun.

Meresamun is the first ever mummy to be studied with the new Philips Healthcare iCT ("Intelligent CT") 256-channel scanner. This scanner is allowing experts to examine a wrapped mummy in a sealed coffin as never before. Known as Joint Engineering, Environmental and Processing beamline or Jeep, the cutting edge technology uses intense radiation known as synchrotron light to see through solid objects. Watch the story of her being 'virtually unwrapped' on this video.

These scans reveal exceptionally clear and detailed images of the mummy, still wrapped in linen bandages. You can see her remaining organs and even the stone- or pottery-amulets placed over her eyes. Her eyeballs are shrunken but intact.

University of Chicago radiologist Dr Michael Vannier commented: "The pictures of the mummy are breathtaking, we could see subtle things - wear patterns on the teeth, a clear view of the embalming incision, precise indications of her age - that were not apparent before."

She was tall by ancient standards -- approximately 168 cm (5'5") -- and was in her late 20s or early 30s when she died. Her features were regular with wide-spaced eyes (as on her mummy portrait) but she had an overbite (corrected by the painter for the afterlife). Her body showed no signs of childbearing. Although her teeth were badly worn down -- probably due to wind-blown sand in the flour and bread -- she still had them all, including her wisdom teeth, and there is no evidence of tooth decay. In short, she appeared to be a fit and healthy young lady. Dr Vannier concludes: "Meresamun was, until the time of her death at about thirty, a very healthy woman. The lack of arrest lines on her bones indicates good nutrition through her lifetime and her well mineralized bones suggest that she lived an active lifestyle."

A Virtual Treat

"In a virtual way, people will be able to meet this remarkable woman and, through her eyes, learn what it was like to live in Egypt 2,800 years ago," said Dr Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute and the curator of the exhibition. "It’s—it’s like magic; it is so extraordinary to be able to — it’s like X-Ray eyes, you know, just looking beyond."

Watch, as this magic happens.

The Burning Questions

I can hardly contain my curiosity: how did she die? She has been treated with the kind of forensic attentiveness usually reserved for a crime scene investigation. Yet we still don't know the cause of death. Her mummy, however, clearly shows some severe fractures, particularly around the thoracic inlet, with no signs of healing. As Dr Vannier says, "it takes a good deal of force to fracture the spine, collarbone, and upper ribs." Foul play? Imagination runs riot. Did she suffer a violent death in these turbulent times? Or were these fractures caused, perhaps, by a bad tumble (did she fall, or was she pushed?)? Less luridly, they could be post-mortem injuries (possibly from the embalming process). Despite now having studied her with the intensity of a police procedural detective novel, the good doctor wisely brought in an open verdict.

It's maddening not to know how this healthy young woman came to such a premature end.

In any case, she did not die in childbirth (easily the most common cause of death for females of her age). The scan shows that she almost certainly never bore children. Which leads to my second burning question: was Meresamun a virgin? This is not trivial nor meant to be flippant. It's never been decided if priestesses of her rank were understood as married to the god, and thus must have remained earthly virgins.

Let's skip over the next rank -- 'Overseer of the Singers in the Interior of the Temple' -- and go right to the very top of the hierarchy to look at a woman who might have been (partially) contemporary with Meresamun, and who ruled over all the priestesses of the temple. She is Karomama (left) , God's Wife of Amun, the very highest of high-priestesses. She was Amun's earthly spouse and definitely a life-long virgin. Her life was devoted entirely to the god. She held the status of a queen, and is portrayed in this exquisite bronze and gold statue dressed in a robe encircled by vulture wings. A tall crown once fitted into the round headdress adorned with a uraeus. She ruled as a sovereign in her own right and wore the royal insignia; her names were enclosed in cartouches. She was honoured during major festivals, when an effigy was displayed on the model bark alongside a statue of Amun.

Her titles were of the loftiest: 'the God's Wife, Lady of the Two Lands ... Daughter of Re, Lady of Epiphanies,' and also 'Adoratrix of Amun, of pure hands.'

Who was Karomama? She may (or may not) have been a half-sister of Takeloth II. In the Libyan period, every holder of this office was a king's daughter:
I have given to [Amun] my daughter to be a god's wife and have endowed her better than those who were before her. Surely he will be gratified with her worship and protect the land who gave her to him.
Although she held this office before Takeloth II came to the throne, she continued to officiate during his reign -- the two are shown together in a Theban chapel. We have no idea how long she lived. Nor do we know who was her immediate successor.

All we can say is that she was luckier than the luckless Prince Osorkon, to whom she was certainly related by blood.

The exhibition The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt is on view at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum through December 6, 2009.

Update 26 March 2009: The University of Chicago Magazine has the most amazing interactive feature now on-line, Meresamun: A Life in Layers. You can go into the coffin -- layer by layer -- from Decoration to Contour, to Flesh and Skeleton. Click on each layer's pop-up labels to see and hear more. Don't miss Egyptologist Emily Teeter telling you about how the music of the sistrum transformed the snarling lion goddess into a sweet pussy-cat (click on Decoration, Sistrum). And check out what she thinks about Meresamun's celibacy (Skeleton, Childbirth).

Many thanks to Joy Olivia Miller for sending me news of this new peek into the singer's wondrous coffin.

Update 20 April 2009: The I-Miss-My-Music Meresamun Song Contest!

Mummy Meresamun has a Facebook page . We already have five friends in common (that makes six of us with time to waste). Now, for something new: once she accepts you as a friend, you can enter her song contest. The mummy -- who seems to like bad puns -- writes:

I was a singer in the Temple of Amun. I sang some beautiful songs in honor of Amun and Hathor, and I loved playing my sistrum and menat in the temple. But after 2,800 years, I really need some new tunes. Can you help?

Set an old tune to lyrics or create an original song that I might appreciate. I love all types-folk, pop, "wrap", any style.

There are two competitions- Video submission or lyrics only.

The contest closes on May 7, 2009 at 11:59pm (Central Time, I guess, it being Chicago). Meresamun will decide on Friday, May 15, 2009 which song is most creative and send the winning composer their prize. More information at I Miss My Music!

I am grateful to the blog Egyptology News for first alerting me to this exhibition and the remarkable CT scans.

* The 4th century BCE Stela of Somtutefnakht suggests that the ram-god's advice was given as a sleep oracle: "Thereafter I saw you [Heryshaf] in my sleep. Your Majesty saying to me: Hurry to [your native city]. I protect you." Translated text in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature III, 41-44.

** It's entirely possible (though disputed) that Prince Osorkon made a complete comeback. He recovered his position at Thebes in Year 39 of Shoshenq III, and finally may have became pharaoh as Osorkon III (ca. 777-749 BCE). If so, he lived to a very ripe old age. I'd like to believe he deserved it.

I'm much indebted to
Karol Myƛliwiec, The Twilight of Ancient Egypt for a partial translation of 'The Chronicle of Osorkon, 51-54; and to K. A Kitchen, The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100- 650 BC), the standard work on this period.

We're very lucky to have a more living picture of another wealthy young woman from 22nd Dynasty Thebes, a lady by the name of Djed-Khonsu-wes-Ankh ("[the god] Khonsu says she will live"). Possibly, she was a priestess -- at least, her father had priestly titles. On this painted wooden stela, she is pouring an offering of cool water for a god seated behind a table piled high with fruits and flowers. She is dressed to the nines for the occasion. She wears a voluminous pleated gown of the finest transparent linen. Her dress is edged with green and white fringe that echoes the colours of her wide beaded collar.

She's just a little chubby, as was the fashion at this time.

Catalog # 11 (p. 43) in OIMP 29. The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt. Edited by Emily Teeter and Janet H. Johnson. 2009. The Oriental Institute generously allows its catalogues to be downloaded free of charge as well as sold in a paper edition.

Other Illustrations:

Top centre: CT Scan of Meresamun, (Oriental Institute Museum) Suite101.com

right: Heryshaf (also known as Harsaphes, Arsaphes, Herishef, etc.) Louvre 032008 15 (via Wikipedia Commons)

upper left: Reliefs on the walls of the Temple of Amun showing the founder of the Libyan Dynasty, Shoshenq I (via Wikipedia Commons)

middle left: Catalog # 1 (p. 21),Photo by Anna Ressman; as above

right: Catalog # 1 (p. 21) Photo by Anna Ressman; as above

lower left: Statue of Karomama, the Divine Adoratrice of Amun', Louvre N 500 , lost-wax bronze casting, inlays of various copper alloys, gold, and silver.


  1. Wow. I'm curious, too. Also, I love these Egyptian posts!

  2. I'm with Ridger, what an amazing post. Last week, the University of Chicago Magazine launched an interactive feature that allows you to take an virtual peek into Meresamun's coffin.

    You can check it out here: http://magazine.uchicago.edu/mummy/meresamun.shtml

  3. Thanks Joy, that's absolutely brilliant. I'll put this on the post as an update.


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