The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt, one of the first blockbuster shows at the Frist Center, opened in 2006. Quest featured huge stone sculptures of royalty and deities, and a full-scale reproduction of a pharaonic tomb. If the Frist's new show were a similar display, we'd be complaining that it was too soon after Quest. But despite its similar-sounding title, To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures From the Brooklyn Museum is very different — a focused, more intimate look at the lives (and afterlives) of regular Egyptians. And the new exhibition's death-and-money themes make this display of the distant past surprisingly timely.
Live Forever includes 109 works from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. The Frist's executive director and CEO Susan Edwards describes the show as "heart-stoppingly beautiful." Including coffins, jewels, statuary and mummies, the items on display aren't as important as the story they come together to tell. It's a tale about securing one's place in the afterlife. It's also a documentation of the day-to-day cost of putting a down payment on eternity.
The Egyptian understanding of the afterlife is tied up with the myth of Osiris and Isis. Osiris was the god of the underworld, but was first credited with creating civilization and its laws. His wife Isis was the goddess of nature and magicians. Osiris was killed when his brother Seth trapped him in a human-shaped coffin and threw him into the Nile. Worried that Isis would find the corpse, Seth dismembered the god and scattered his body parts. However, Isis prevailed, reconstituting Osiris and reviving him long enough to conceive their son Horus, who went on to seek revenge against Seth. Isis had created the first mummy. She also created an understanding of the afterlife that included all the basics for Egyptian funerary rites: human-shaped coffins, the belief in life after death, and the need for living generations to honor and follow in the footsteps of their ancestors.
These beliefs about life and life beyond the grave lead to a multifaceted understanding of the role of the human soul in a person's transition to the afterlife. The preserved mummy acted as a home for the soul in the physical world. The ba was the spiritual aspect of an individual personality. After death, the ba would survive to gather offerings at temples where the dead were also represented by small statues. Temples served as food distribution points for living Egyptians, but they were also the places where offerings were made to the deceased. The ba gathered up the energies from the offerings, bringing them back to the mummy where the ka accepted the gifts. The ka was a spiritual double that crossed into the underworld to share the offerings with the akh — the effective spirit of the deceased that existed as a tangible being on the other side of death.
All this postmortem activity made a sturdy mummy an important and costly priority for every Egyptian. The Greek historian Herodotus documented three strata of mummy-preservation procedures that ranged from expensive and effective to cheap and unreliable. During a recent tour of the exhibit, Edward Bleiberg, curator of Egyptian, classical and ancient Middle Eastern art at the Brooklyn Museum, described the mummification of wealthy Egyptians as the "Nordstrom" treatment. This process involved the removal of the organs, which were then covered in salt and packed in jars. The heart — which was to be judged by Osiris — was left intact and in place. Reaching up through the nose, a specialized hook removed the brain. The corpse was washed with a palm wine disinfectant before being packed in salt for 70 days, a treatment that pulled any remaining water out of the body. "You're actually turning the body into leather," Bleiberg explained.
Less expensive and less thorough versions of the process resulted in less stable mummies. Referring to these as "Walmart" techniques, Bleiberg explained that instead of organ removal and storage, an abdominal injection of cedar resin could dissolve the internal organs, allowing them to sluice out of the rectum before the corpse was salt-packed. Another version was accomplished through the salt-packing of the corpse alone. Almost no examples of these mummies have been found intact.
Whether ancient Egyptians died young or not, they all wanted to leave behind a good-looking corpse. Beyond concerns about preservation, they were also faced with an array of choices — and price points — regarding the more decorative aspects of their shrouds and coffins. A mummy of a 59-year-old Greek Egyptian citizen named Demetrios is the highlight of the exhibit. Clearly Demetrios was a wealthy man — his mummy's linen shroud is painted with red pigments that contain lead imported from Spain. His face is covered with his portrait rendered in encaustic wax and pigment. Gold leaf adorns his shroud with divine symbols as well as his name and age. However, Demetrios' finely arrayed afterlife was the exception, not the rule.
For most Egyptians, the path to the hereafter was fraught with cash-strapped shortcuts. By substituting, imitating, combining and reusing materials and objects, a working-class Egyptian also had a shot at living forever. In some cases, cheap, similar-looking materials were employed in place of pure gold. For instance, a gold mask could be imitated using a terra-cotta replica painted yellow. Expensive coffins included lids as well as boards that covered the mummy and were elaborately painted to resemble the person in their everyday life. To save a buck, these were often combined — the decoration being painted on the lid itself. In extreme cases, an ancestor's coffin could be reused — the names and decorations repainted to suit the new tenant.
These examples of the creative ingenuity of everyday ancient Egyptians give the show its unique proletarian spin. The exhibition is gorgeous, but some of the implications are a gross-out. It deals with the holy, but at times it's also hilarious. In other words, it reminds us of the anxious, messy, valiant and vulgar lives we're still living today. And it speaks to the endurance of our frailty, our fortitude, our foolishness and our faith that this, here, now, is not all that there is. Is there life after death? How much is it worth to ya?
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