Pictures of the Dead: Egypt

Pictures of the Dead: Egypt
The cave pictures tell us a good deal about life in the Stone Age, and also about the way our imagination works. We say our imagination, because the minds of the cavemen were not really so very different from our own, otherwise we would not understand their pictures as well as we do. The difference between us and the cavemen is not in the kind of minds we have. It is in the things we think about and feel about. Perhaps pictures will also help us to understand how men managed to leave the life of the Stone Age behind and how, over many thousands of years, they gradually changed into the kind of people we are today.
When we speak of these changes we call them history. There are many ways of looking at history. Perhaps the simplest is to ask ourselves about the main differences between us and the men of the Stone Age. Even though the cavemen had far greater physical strength than we do, their life was very much more dangerous than ours—and much less interesting. The big animals they hunted were really their masters, because the people depended on them so completely. When the animals moved away, they had to move, too, so they never built housed for themselves, only rough shelters. And if they could find no animals to hunt, they starved. In the Stone Age, men worked together only in hunting (and the painters helped, too, with their magic) but today we cooperate in a thousand complicated ways; we depend on each other much more than the cavemen did.
Now, this modern way of living could come about only because we are very much more orderly than the people of the Stone Age. We think ahead. We plan things, while the lives of the cavemen were just as disorderly as their painting s. How did people discover the need for order? Just as soon as they found out that there were ways of controlling their supply of food instead of letting the food supply control them. First they learned how to tame and keep some of the animals they had hunted before. They became herdsmen who moved about with their sheep, or goats, or cattle, or camels, always looking for grazing lands.
Other people found a different and even better way to control their food supply. They tamed not only animals but plants, too, collecting the seeds and growing their own crops.  In order to do this, they needed a warm climate and a good source of water. That is why the first farmer settled along the banks of the big rivers, such as the river Nile, in Egypt. And we shall now take a better look at the ancient Egyptians, because the history of Europe and America really begins with them. When they started planting their grain, they also planted the seeds of a way of life which has grown into our own way of life today.
Figure 5 shows you a part of the oldest painting in Egypt. It was made on the wall of a temple or tomb in a place called Hieraconpolis, on the banks of the Nile, almost 6,000 years ago. There are some lively animals in it, and people fighting with them and with each other. The big white shapes are boats. At this time, then, the Egyptians still did a lot of hunting, but they no longer depended on it as the cavemen had. They knew how to make and use all sorts of tools, for they built solid buildings of brick and stone, with smooth walls, and boats for sailing up and down the river. There must have been many separate tribes or states along the valley that made war on each other. Notice the two men in the lower right-hand corner: the one with the white, dotted body is beating the one with the black body, who belongs to another tribe. If we compare this picture with cave painting , we shall find that the figures in it are not nearly so real-looking. There is no shading; they seem flat, as if they were glued to the wall, and the artist has left out many details. He uses a kind of shorthand, they way some modern comic strips do, so that a circle with a dot stands for a face, a crooked line for an arm, and so on.
As a matter of fact, the Hieraconpolis painting was probable meant to tell a story, somewhat like a comic strip. At the time is was made, the Egyptians had just invented the earliest kind of writing, which was done with pictures and is called hieroglyphics. The painter now was also a wirter. When he had to tell a story he did it with these simple figures, which were ‘letters’ or ‘signs’ that stood for things or words. Because the figures were used over and over again, they came to look less and less real as time went on. We say they became ‘conventional’ or ‘stylized’—and at last they turned into the letters of our own alphabet, which are no longer pictures at all.
There is something else we notice about the Hieraconpolis painting . We cannot tell whether or not the figures in it are supposed to be connected in some way, because there is no ‘setting’ no indication of landscape or even of the ground they stand on. But there is no messy overlapping, either, and the figures are spread evenly over the whole surface. These animals, then, were not made to be ‘killed’ for hunting magic. But the Egyptian painting is connected with another, more complicated kind of magic; and in order to understand that we must know something of Egyptian ideas about religion, and especially about life and death.
When the Egyptians settled down to farming, order and planning became much more important to them than ever before. They had to know when to plant and harvest their crops. So they began to observe the regular movement of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and invented a calendar almost as good as our own. They also kept written records. But the Egyptians found that their harvest depended on a great many things besides the times of year. If the weather was bad, they would not have enough food for the winter.
It was hard for them to understand why this sometimes happened, while at other times everything turned out just right. The only explanation they could think of was that the sun, the moon, the clouds, the water, the animals, the plants, and even the earth itself, were all inhabited by powerful spirits that could be either helpful or harmful, depending on whether they liked you or not. The more important among these ‘nature spirits’ came to be worshiped as gods. The Egyptians thought of them as great rulers like their own kings, except that they were wiser and lived forever.
‘Forever’ was a very important idea with the Egyptians, They believed that men, too, had a vital spirit, or soul, inside them, and that when a person died his soul would leave his body and keep on living separately. But they also thought that in this ‘afterlife’ the soul still needed a body to come back to. Because of this, they went to great trouble to preserve the bodies of the dead—they made mummies of them by drying them and wrapping them up, and then put them in strong tombs made of stone, so nobody would disturb them.  Their kings, the Pharaohs, and other important and wealthy people even had statues of themselves placed in their tombs, as ‘replacements’ if something should happen to the real body.
They also believed that the spirit of the dead needed the same material things as a living person, so they furnished their tombs like a regular household, expect that everything was made to last forever. Of course, even the richest man could not take all the things he owned with him into the tomb, such as his land, his animals, and his servants, Instead, he had pictures of them made on the walls, where his spirit would find them.
Figure 6 shows you such a wall painting , or ‘mural,’ from a tomb in Thebes, done about 2,000 years after the one from Hieraconpolis. It was painted almost exactly 1,400 years before the birth of Christ, during a period of Egyptian history known as the Empire, when the power of  the Pharaohs reached far beyond the Nile valley proper into the neighboring regions to the East and South. At the top of mural, the dead man’s servants are measuring a wheatfield with a rope.  At the bottom, they are cutting the wheat with sickles, while the dead man himself sits under a canopy which protects him from the sun. In the center, there are his chariot and some servants measuring a pile of grain. This harvest scene strikes us as very orderly and carefully drawn. The figures no longer look as if they were floating—they have their feet firmly on the ground, even if the ground is only a thin, straight line. We can also tell right away what they are doing.
Still, the picture is not very lifelike. For one thing, the figures are put together in a strange way; their heads, arms, and legs are shown from the side, while the bodies and the eyes are seen from in front. Now, the artist must have know that we don’t see people that way in real life, where we never get a very good view of anything in one glance, because most things are round rather than flat, and we can see only one side of them at a time. We don’t really mind this, for it we want to know what is round the corner, we  just walk up to it and then take another look; or if we see somebody’s back and want to know what his face is like, we wait until he turns round. So the Egyptian painter made for this by inventing a special kind of human figure where all the important parts of the body show up equally well in one view. He also knew that in real life a harvest is a complicated business, with many people doing different things one after the other. We would have to watch them for quite some time if we wanted to understand what they are doing. How could the same story be told in a picture, where there is no space and no movement?
The Egyptian artist realized that a lifelike painting , of the kind the cavemen had done, was not what he wanted, because it would let him show the harvest only the way it looked at one particular moment, and not the whole story of the harvest. And since he was working to please the spirit of a dead man, the story had to be complete; otherwise the spirit might miss something. So our painter has made everything much clearer and more orderly than it ever is in real life. His figures are spread out on the wall, and they overlap only when several of them are doing the same thing; some are extra large, to show that they are more important than the rest. And if he wants to tell us that something is far away, such as the trees in the top strip, he puts it above, not behind, the foreground figures.
Our painter, then, does not show us what he actually sees, but what he knows. He follows a strict set of rules, which we call the Egyptian ‘style’—the Egyptian painter’s way of doing things. These rules may strike us as a bit peculiar at first, but after a while we come to feel that they are really very wise and well thought out. Sometimes, too, the rules could be broken. Look at the horse in our picture: its dappled color, its prancing movement, make it seem much gayer and livelier than the rest. Now, horses were unknown in Egypt when the rules for painting were set up, so our painter did not apply his rules as strictly as usual in this case. And that is why the horse looks so much less ‘frozen’ than the other figures.

Published in: on March 9, 2010 at 10:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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