A canopic jar is a ritual vessel, usually a jug with a lid in the shape of a human or animal head. The ancient Egyptians stored organs extracted from the bodies of the dead during mummification. After extraction, the organs were washed and then immersed in vessels with balm from Kanoba. Most often, they were made of ceramics or limestone. The number was always constant and was equal to four.
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The Egyptians were convinced that the deceased’s soul went to the afterlife, and they were responsible for this transition. Rituals such as mummification and the “opening of the mouth” ritual were almost always accompanied by various amulets, inscriptions, and, among other things, canopic jars (Perez 64). It will be fair to say that these amulets and canopic jars are the first sources of implicit symbolism in art, a direction that appeared much later than the civilization of Ancient Egypt.
During the 13th century BC, canopies were most often made from alabaster. According to the ancient Egyptians, each of the four canopies contained specific organs, which were to be helpful in the afterlife. Each canopic jar was personified by a particular deity, responsible for preserving a specific organ (Malykh 60).
For example, the god Duamutef was called to protect the stomach. In turn, Duamutef was guarded by the goddess of space and fate, Neith, according to legend, who created the universe. In the wars of that time, a wound to the stomach was a common cause of death. Consequently, the fateful battles in which the warriors died connected with the goddess Neith, also known as the goddess of war and the hunt.
The Kebehsenuef deity guarded the intestines, which often fell prey to poison. This deity was protected by Serket, the goddess of fertility, nature, and animals, to heal from poisonous bites. The image of Kebehsenuef was often presented in the form of a falcon’s head. The ancient Egyptians associated the falcon with a vigilant animal. The goddess Serket was often identified with the goddess Isis, who is also the protector of one canopic jar.
On the canopic jars, where the lungs and liver were placed, the goddesses Nephthys and Isis were often depicted helping the deceased in the afterlife. The liver was considered the focus of human emotions, so the funeral deity Inset took on a human form. The ancient Egyptians revered emotions above intelligence.
It is indicated that the brain was removed from the body of the deceased without preserving it in the canopic jar. Therefore, Inset was under the protection of Isis, one of the most powerful goddesses in Egyptian mythology. She personified maternal love, the sky, capable of giving water to the earth and, as a result, promoting the growth of plants.
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Nephthys goes hand in hand with Isis in the mythology of ancient Egypt. She personifies mourning and darkness, like the daughter of the goddess Nut, who gives birth to stars every night. The lament of Nephthys and Isis accompanies all funeral rites because the underworld’s demons trembled from their magical powers. Therefore, it is no coincidence that Nephthys was chosen as the patroness of Hapi, a deity who protected the lungs. The lungs gave a person breath, and breath was a symbol of life.
The shapes, colors, and material from which they are made can tell about the symbolism of canopic jars. First of all, it is worth mentioning the influence of canopic jars on the emergence of portraiture in sculpture. In addition to the images of the deities mentioned above, the lids of these jars were often depicted in the form of a portrait of the pharaoh with whom they were buried. Amulets containing images of Isis, Nephthys, and Serket were often made from malachite (Pérez 69).
Such images took on a green and blue hue, which personified the color of plants and fertility. It is no coincidence that the oasis was a symbol of hope in connection with the Egyptian climate because it was the hope that the deceased would find peace and be reborn in the afterlife that accompanied all funeral rites.
Shades of white and yellow, representing the sun, clarity, and holiness, are found most frequently among canopic jars. Since during the period considered in this work (1300 BC), most of the canopic jars were made of alabaster, and these colors are the most important for consideration. Often, the goddess Neith was depicted in such colors, as she is called with the epithets “the heavenly cow” and the goddess of the sky, thus confirming her connection with the god Ra (Strong 177).
White is also a representation of the sacred animal of the white cow, which was highly revered in the mythology of Ancient Egypt. The sun also personified red, the color of blood, and the material was obtained from iron oxide and ocher (Pérez 70). Furthermore, red symbolized the heart, which, unlike other organs, was not folded into canopic jars but kept in the buried body. It was believed that the heart is the basis of life.
Thus, the study of canopic jars helps to learn more about the traditions of the ancient Egyptians’ funeral rituals and to understand their beliefs, beliefs, and mythology better. The symbolism inherent in the images of the gods, their associations with human organs, and their purpose in the afterlife represents a large field for research.
An integrated approach, covering not only sculpture but also literature and architecture, will help to get closer to answers to many questions about the religion and beliefs of the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. Egyptian culture has had a significant impact on other religions, so this line of research looks very promising.
Malykh, Svetlana E. “Ancient Egyptian Burial Rites of the Vth and VIth Dynasties: The Problem of Rationality and Symbolism.” Chronique d’Egypte, vol. 93, no. 10, 2018, pp. 58-76.
Pérez, Carmen Muñoz. “All that glitters is not gold: the symbolism and materiality of Egyptian funerary amulets.” About Access Archaeology, vol. 64, 2018, pp. 64-73.
Strong, Meghan E. “Do you see what I see? Aspects of color choice and perception in ancient Egyptian painting.” Open Archaeology, vol. 4, no. 1, 2018, pp. 173-184.