The Charms of Ancient Egypt

Les Portes du Ciel: Visions du monde dans l’Égypte ancienne

an exhibition at the Louvre, Paris, March 6–June 29, 2009.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Marc Étienne.
Paris: Somogy/Musée du Louvre Éditions, 383 pp., $39.00 (paper)

L’Égypte ancienne entre mémoire et sciences

by Jan Assmann
Paris: Hazan/Musée du Louvre Éditions, 344 pp., $25.00
rowland_1-070209.jpg
Louvre, Paris
Funerary stela of Lady Taperet, Third Intermediate Period, circa 850–690 BCE. Lady Taperet is praying to Atum, god of the setting sun, in the hope of eternally accompanying him on his daily journey. The hieroglyphs above her exhort the god to grant her everything she will need in the afterlife. The sky is represented by the blue body of the goddess Nut, who swallows the sun every night and gives birth to it every morning.

With its splendid new exhibition “The Gates of Heaven” (“Les Portes du Ciel”), the Louvre promises a view of ancient Egypt through ancient Egyptian eyes, and it delivers on that promise with captivating style. Originally the museum had planned to mount a show dedicated to its excavations at Saqqara, but curator Marc Étienne eventually proposed a completely different idea: a broad thematic exploration of the Egyptians’ beliefs about life and death, focusing on the entire culture rather than on one specific place or period. As Étienne notes, scholarly understanding of Egypt has changed considerably in recent years; as further proof, in addition to the catalog, the Louvre has also published a lecture series delivered in connection with the exhibition by the Egyptologist Jan Assmann, whose work in the field has been particularly wide-ranging and insightful. Assmann’s lectures (the first in a new series called the Chaire du Louvre) are as exciting as the show itself; they begin by comparing Egyptian religion with the book of Exodus and with Christian theology, and end in a penetrating analysis of Verdi’s Aida.

The whole undertaking—show, lectures, publications—aims high, assuming a public mature enough to grasp subtle arguments and enterprising enough to think flexibly about subjects like magic, monarchy, and fertility. Early in the show’s itinerary, the label on a case containing a sistrum (a bronze rattle), some statuettes, and what looks like an ivory back-scratcher reveals that these instruments were used to relive the moment of cosmic creation, when the primeval god begot the celestial deities Shu and Tefnut by an act of masturbation. The object that looks like a back-scratcher turns out to be one of a pair of clappers carved from a hippopotamus tooth, decorated with a bas-relief head of Hathor, the cow-eared “mistress of pleasure,” and ending in a hand. (There are other such clappers upstairs in the permanent collection; the hand is an indispensable feature to make the clapper clap in a literal sense.)

Suddenly the jingle and slap of these percussive instruments become the music of the spheres—as ecstatic as the tiny bells on Indian bangles or a flamenco dancer’s castanets. One tiny elderly lady, elegant in a Chanel jacket, stood before the museum case for some time with a faraway look, contemplating the primal mystery—the seemingly ideal viewer for a show that charms brain, eye, and spirit.

Other cases and other labels tie the members of Egypt’s extensive pantheon to the habits of the animals that represent them: the flight …

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