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Two Coffins, Two Individuals

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    In ancient Egypt, the afterlife was something that people spent a lifetime preparing for. To the Egyptians, death began the process of judgement on the souls of the fallen. If a positive judgement was passed on your soul, you would receive eternal life. Egyptians had a deep rooted belief in immortality. Therefore, their bodies needed to be preserved for the rebirth after their death through mummification, and storage in a ceremonial casket container known as a sarcophagus. Within the sarcophagus, there were more coffins. Each coffin would fit inside of another, with the innermost coffin being the one which stored the mummified body. Everybody at the time wanted to be mummified and stored in the nicest fashion possible, to get the best start possible in the afterlife, however financial constraints still applied. Coffins in Ancient Egypt were made of materials ranging from stone and ceramics, to gold and silver. While most were made of stone or plaster, the expensive materials were obviously reserved for the rich and powerful being the only ones able to afford them. This meant that pharos, such as the famous King Tutkhamun. would be laid to rest in incredibly elaborate caskets adorned in gold, silver, and jewels. Another famous Egyptian coffin, which held the mummy of a woman named Tenkhonsu, is just as stunning, though very different. Though they served the same general purpose, the innermost coffins of Tenkhonsu and Tutkhamun differ in message, material, and decoration.

    King Tutkhamun, the Boy Pharaoh, only ruled Egypt for ten years. As the son of the powerful Akhenaten, he inherited an Egypt at a time of great social and political revolution. However, because of his very young age, the first years of his reign seem to have been controlled by an elder in the kingdom known as Aye. His father, Akhenaten, had forbidden the worship of other Egyptian gods, preferring to worship only Aten the sun disk. For these actions, he was known as the “heretic king.” While Tutkhamun only ruled Egypt for a short time, he is thought to have restored the traditional Egyptian religious practices with the goal of appeasing the gods for prosperity in Egypt. He is also credited with restoring the relations with neighboring countries which his father had neglected. His death at 19 seems to have been unexpected, because certain aspects of his burial and mummification seem rushed. This is supported by the fractures in his skull. Initially, it was thought that the fractures were the cause of death. Upon later forensic investigation, it was determined that the fractures were inflicted post-mortem. This most likely happened in the hurried mummification process. In addition, the tomb he was laid to rest in was not typical of a king. When the sarcophagus was initially opened, the innermost coffin was covered in a black, tar-like substance determined to be an anointing liquid used on the coffin during the burial ceremony. However, this certainly did not diminish the captivating beauty of his tomb, and specifically, his innermost coffin.

    This coffin was meant to show the king as a god in his divine form, and ancient Egyptians believed that gods had skin of gold, and bones of silver. Crafted from solid gold, silver, precious stones, and colored glass, the innermost coffin of King Tutkhamun emanates divinity and power. Shown in an idealistic manner, the depiction of the king is one of authority, competence, and strength. He is shown holding the crook and flail, the traditional symbols of the king’s right to rule. Below the chest, different Egyptian gods are inlaid and stretch along body. The intricate detail used in these inlays is breathtaking. Each piece needed to be painstakingly sized, cut, polished, and set – by hand. The rest of the golden body is almost completely covered in different engravings, many of which may be protective incantations and spells to help the king in the afterlife. From the material used, to the symbolism of the decoration and hieroglyphics, the coffin of King Tutkhamun shows him in his perfect divine state in the afterlife. This was hugely important in the religion of the time, as it was believed that evil spirits would be attempting to hinder his progress to rebirth in the afterlife.

    Those who were not divine royalty also had similar coffin styles. The inner coffin of Tenkhonsu, from a tomb chamber in Deir el-Bahari, provides some insight on common funerary practices for the upper class. According to Smithsonian, it can be inferred by the name that Tenkhonsu was a woman born to a prominent, Theban family associated with the temples throughout the city. Chances are, she probably married by the age of 14, and went on to manage a household. This was common in Egypt at the time. She was also thought to be a singer. Though not crafted out of solid gold like that of king Tutkhamun, her inner coffin is just as interesting. When first looking at the coffin, it is almost too much to take in at once. The small, detailed pictures require close investigation to interpret. The plentiful use of blue, requiring expensive lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, as well as other bright colors gives the coffin almost a happy nature. Tenkhonsu is depicted in an idealistic fashion, with her arms crossed over her chest. Covering the exterior of the coffin are small pictures creating scenes to provide Tenkhonsu with knowledge and protection for her voyage to rebirth, as well as magic spells for protection. The interior of the coffin contains the scenes of the story of her spiritual passage from death to rebirth. These scenes genuinely fit together to form a sort of narrative which was meant for her to follow in order to avoid the hazards and dangers of the underworld in her quest for eternal life. For example, there are several clear images on the inside left wall of the coffin. These include depictions of the guardians of the sun, the land of the dead, the god of mummification, and a scene showing Tentkhonsu joining Osiris in the afterlife.

    The inner coffins of King Tutkhamun and Tenkhonsu are very different, while still serving the same general purpose. The coffin of the king emanates an extremely powerful, regal aura due to the heavy use gold, precious stones, and divine symbolism. The coffin for Tenkhonsu, on the other hand, while certainly impressive, is markedly less florid. In my opinion, the material used for King Tutkahamun is aesthetically superior. While her coffin still features remarkable detail and intricacy, the allure and beauty of the gold, silver, and all of the precious stones is more aesthetically pleasing. The two coffins are built for the same goal of rebirth after death, by different approaches. Some of the styling differences may also be attributed to the different time periods. King Tutkahamun was the 12th pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, while Tenkhonsu is believed to have lived during the 21st dynasty. Regardless of time period, the two pieces undoubtedly reflect different approaches to the afterlife. The coffin built for King Tutkhamun is made to both reiterate and solidify his presence as a deity in death, and set him up for an easy voyage to rebirth. The one for Tenkonsu, on the other hand, is purposed to help guide and protect her lost soul after death. Egyptian coffins were made to not only be objects which house their mummified bodies, but to be vehicles of resurrection. Both of these pieces appear to be fine vehicles of the time.

    Bibliography

    1. Inner Coffin & Lid Of Tentkhonsu. (n.d.). Retrieved December 09, 2018, from http://collections.si.edu/search/detail/edanmdm:nmnhanthropology_8026581?q=record_ID:nmnhanthropology_8026581&record=1&hlterm=record_ID:nmnhanthropology_8026581
    2. Reeves, N., & Porchester, Henry George Reginald Molyneux Herbert. (2011). The complete Tutankhamun: The king, the tomb, the royal treasure. London: Thames and Hudson
    3. Stromberg, J. (2011, November 29). Egyptian Mummification Rituals Uncovered at Natural History. Retrieved December 09, 2018, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/egyptian-mummification-rituals-uncovered-at-natural-history-1044400/

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