Object of the month: canopic jars

28 May 2012

 Limestone, jackal headed canopic jar, Egyptian. Wellcome Images
[object Object]

Limestone, jackal-headed canopic jar, Egyptian. Wellcome Images

What could a jackal-headed jar of organs have to do with a Spartan sailor? William Birnie lifts the lid on how ancient Egyptians preserved the life force of the dead.

Housed in our End of Life display in the Medicine Man gallery are two very beautiful jars, made from limestone, so simple, elegant and beautifully sculpted that they could be mere decorative objects. Their lids reveal their true purpose, as ancient Egyptian canopic jars, and they played a major role in the process and rituals of mummification.

Ancient Egyptian funerary customs were complex, elaborate, and crucial in allowing the deceased to travel through the Underworld, ensuring a smooth transition from earthly existence to immortality. Mummification could last up to 70 days and was designed to preserve, protect, and establish the body as a life-like presence for the afterlife. The process was intricate and rituals took precedence. Initially the body would be dried, cleaned and rubbed with good smelling oils. Embalmers would place amulets, designed to defend the body, between the layers of linen which wrapped it. Priests dressed as Anubis (the Egyptian god associated with the afterlife and mummification) would read spells aloud to ward off evil spirits, while every layer of bandage was painted with a liquid resin in order to glue and strengthen the whole. Once a body had been wrapped, complete with a picture of the god Osiris painted on to its surface, it would be arranged in the tomb; afterlife paraphernalia, to ensure preparation, would also be entrusted including clothing, valuable objects, furniture, food, and drink.

The ancient Egyptians believed each person to be made up of a variety of physical and non-physical elements, which included Ib (heart), Sheut (shadow), Ren (name), Ba (soul) and Ka (life force). Mummification was intended to provide a place to house these parts. The Ka was a life force sustained by the food and drink left at the tomb by living relatives; depictions of food offerings on a tomb wall could also foster this nourishing function. The Ba could leave the body, enabling the dead to participate in the worlds of the living and the dead. Attention was paid to the appearance of the mummy itself so that the Ba would recognise its own body and return safely. A full and happy afterlife could only be enjoyed if the different parts survived.

Canopic jars contained the large human organs or viscera (liver, lungs, stomach, and intestine). Each of Horus’ sons were assigned a different organ to protect, represented in the forms of a hawk, an ape, a man and a jackal, thus allowing us to identify which organs are stored in each jar. Fascinatingly, the jars themselves are also represented in a mummified fashion, all having the same wrapped body. The jars in our collection have lids depicting the human and jackal; Imsety (liver) and Duamutef (stomach), respectively.

The viscera were wrapped individually in linen and once placed inside the jar had resinous consecrated oil poured over them. The jars were then ritually closed and conserved for eternity inside the tomb. They could be placed at the corners of a sarcophagus or in a false wall in its base. Sometimes they were stored together in a canopic chest or box. These boxes started out simply enough but soon became more elaborate. The brain, regarded as unimportant, was pulled out of the skull using a hook inserted through one nostril, then thrown away. The heart was left in place, as it was considered to be the organ that held the spirit, along with the understanding and the senses of an individual. It would be needed on the Day of Judgement in the Underworld, when the God Anubis would weigh it to ensure the worthiness of the deceased to enter the underworld.

Fourth Dynasty Queen Hetepheres is believed to be the first royal Egyptian to have had her organs dried out and preserved. After the Eighteenth Dynasty (c.1550–1292 BC) canopic jar lids were no longer adorned with the face of the deceased. Instead, they were identified with the four different gods who were the sons of Horus. Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, was portrayed with the head of a hawk and the body of a man. He was God of the sky and in one version of his myth, during the battle for control of Egypt, Horus had his left eye gouged out by the god Set. For the ancient Egyptians, Horus’ left eye represented the moon and explained why the moon was so much weaker, dimmer than the sun. Horus retaliated by castrating Set, hence the infertility of the desert. It was understood that his four sons, emerging out of a water lily that rose from the waters of Nun, were given funerary duties by Anubis.

Why are these jars – which can be made from limestone, pottery or gilded wood – called canopic jars? The ancient Egyptians themselves did not refer to them in such a manner, calling them Qebu en wet (jars of embalming). Rather, it was modern Egyptologists that named them canopic. The British Museum states they were  mistakenly linked to Greek mythology as Canopus, the captain of the fleet of ships of Menelaus, King of Sparta, was buried in Egypt after the fall of Troy and worshipped in the form of human-headed jar. Early Egyptologists noticed a connection between this object and the visceral jars in the tombs, hence the name.

During the first millennium BC when the viscera began to be returned to the body due to improved embalming techniques, the practice of storing the viscera in canopic jars gradually declined with dummy unhollow canopic jars placed in the tomb instead. For a short period during the Twenty-First Dynasty  (c. 1069–945 BC), amulets in the form of the four sons were placed alongside the viscera inside the body. Throughout their history, canopic jars were limited to the upper social strata and with cheaper  and more accessible mummification methods during the Ptolemaic period (305–30 BC), there was simply no need for them any longer, with the last royal canopic jar belonging to Apries (reign 589 BC–570 BC).

William Birnie is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can contact him at w.birnie@wellcome.ac.uk.