|Detail from the under drawing of "Hwt-Her Mistress of the Sky"|
Love, how I'd love to slip down to the pond,
bathe with you close by on the bank.
Just for you I'd wear my new Memphis swimsuit,
made of sheer linen, fit for a queen-
Come see how it looks in the water!
-An Egyptian love song of the New Kingdom(1)
The New Kingdom (c. 1550-1307 BCE)(2) of ancient Egyptian history provides tantalizing glimpses into the private lives of a people whose elite were apparently fond of lavish drinking parties and dazzling displays of hair and jewelry. It is the private tombs of the nobility, burrowed into the amber cliffs of the Theban mountains, that give the most intimate insights into the minds of a people who were determined to make their physical lives last forever. The ancient Egyptians were believers in the reality of literal resurrection, and their afterlife was an extension of all the pleasures that earthly existence has to offer.
In tombs like that of Rekhmire, Nakht and Ramose(3) we become privy to scenes meant exclusively for the Blessed Dead and their gods. Nubile serving girls- clad in transparent dresses or fully nude- pour out libations and tend to the needs of elegantly attired guests. Hips are tight, buttocks pert and firm, breasts high and round with painted nipples. Vizier and Theban mayor Rekhmire was a man of sophisticated tastes, if not erotic and sensual, if we are to trust the masterful paintings that grace the halls and corridors of his high status tomb(4).
A panoply of lively girls dominates scenes of a drinks party composed solely of women, and these are the elegant, sophisticated and fashionable beauties that surely embodied the ideal of Egypt's finest erotic love poems and songs. Hair is hidden beneath wigs composed of massive plaits and curls, a signal of eroticism to an ancient Egyptian audience. One servant girl, whose dusky face is almost entirely hidden by her elaborately braided tresses, is depicted with her tight little bottom facing the viewer, both cheeks visible through her transparent garment(5). This idea of transparency, of the naked female body peering out from form fitting (or wet) royal linen, was a theme or fantasy of the New Kingdom mind, where a male lover longs to be teased by seeing the body of his beloved visible through her soaking wet dress. Sheer linen is itself a poetic device for eroticism:
For her no bedtime in mere royal linen,
and girl, beware coarse common cloth-
Then grace her in her sheerest tunic,
touch her with your rarest perfumes,
She is prepared(6).
All of these may seem somewhat gratuitous or debauched, all of this flesh and eroticism on so apparent a display, but the Egyptians were lovers of love and the act of love, which not only bestowed pleasure and progeny, but was a manifestation of youthful eternal life, which was the constant goal of the ancient Egyptian universe. Lovely ladies with open and naked thighs (as described in New Kingdom tomb paintings) were the vehicles through which an eternal rebirth could transpire. They embodied the sexual magic of divine becoming, through which the dead man could achieve immortality in the Fields of the Blessed(7). In such scenes, buxom women wearing flowering lotus blossoms upon their huge wigs, or clutching the same to their bosoms, were the progenitors of the deceased man, whose femininity and eroticism guaranteed eternal life.
Why, that girl's better than any prescription,
more to me than the Pharmacopoeia-
My own secret Hathor Home Remedy?-
Her slipping into my room from the road!
(have her examine me, then watch my energy!)(7)
Hwt-Her, Hathor is used in this humorous love poem from the New Kingdom as a divine provider of sexual potency for a frustrated lover, for it is Her influence that can rescue a man from impotence, or coerce a reticent lover to engage in the act of love. At all periods of Egyptian history, the bovine Goddess Hwt-Her oversees sexuality, fertility and childbirth, but just as significant becomes the very embodiment of love paired with feminine beauty(8).
In regards to beauty, it seems that this rather erotically disposed goddess used every faculty possessed by woman in order to keep the operation of the divine world running smoothly. During the disastrously long Contendings of Heru and Seth, where the outcome of a family trial had cosmic significance, the Sun-God Ra is insulted by a disgruntled minor god and withdraws from the proceedings to pout, an act that could spell disaster for any resolution to the violent conflict. This is no problem for Hwt-Her, though, for She knows just how to brighten up the day of any crestfallen god. She lifts up Her dress and flashes Her golden vagina at the sullen Sun-God, Who, forgetting why He was angry in the first place, returns to the trial proceedings(9).
In "Hwt-Her Mistress of the Sky" I present the Goddess of Love in Her erotic form that would be easily recognizable to any New Kingdom Egyptian. The wig of the Goddess is taken from a heavily layered and plaited look representing the height of fashion during the 18th and 19th Dynasties(10). This is not done for arbitrary reasons, but is strictly symbolic, representing Hwt-Her as the Goddess of erotic and sexual pleasures, a goddess who provides sexual joy through the vehicle of cosmetic beauty. During the New Kingdom the Egyptians associated a woman's heavy tresses with sexual allure, which in a funerary context would read magically as the power to conceive and reproduce, that is to say, physical immortality.
Sexually symbolic and emblematic of divine cult images is the proliferation of jewelry placed upon the Goddess. The traditional cuff bracelets and anklets are characteristic of those offered in temples to the cult statues of the Gods as part of the Daily Ritual. Of course, my two-dimensional icon is not a cult statue, but it is a cult image which may magically stand in for a cult statue. In fact, it is being insinuated by the placement of the jewelry that this image represents both the Goddess Herself and a statue of the Goddess, a cult statue adorned with the jewels and regalia bestowed to the Goddess during Her morning toilet in the temple.
|The Goddess Hwt-Her bedecked in amuletic jewelry celebrating the Daily Ritual of the Divine Cult|
Rearing up from the long and braided plaits of the Goddess' wig is the iaret (Greek uraeus), the cobra goddess with flared hood who was known to spit fire and venom at enemies of the Gods and the divine kings of Egypt. Specifically, the inflamed cobra was a form assumed by the Goddess Wadjet, the Eye of the Sun-God Ra with Whom Hwt-Her was often associated. This icon is an image that celebrates the solar identity of the Goddess, Who embodies both the creative and destructive power of Ra as Lord of the Sky.
We find the Wedjat Eye, the Eye of Ra staring out at us from one of the bracelets of Hwt-Her, for in this image She is both Eye and Daughter of Ra, though it is Her creative, not destructive power that is being manifest here. This fact is symbolized by the double papyrus umbel bracelet the Goddess wears on Her other arm, which has the badge of the Sun-God Ra in its center. Constantly this icon strives to bring the viewer back to the central solar theology in which the Goddess Hwt-Her occupies a prime position. She is both Daughter and Consort of the Sun-God, the very hand of His cosmic power, and it is She Who uplifts the Sun and charges the heavens with their beauty, light and regularity. One cannot fail to notice that the disk of the sun is being cradled in the twisted cow horns upon the Goddess' head, and once again we find the rearing cobra standing up as the protectress of cosmic, solar order.
The shoulders and neck of the Goddess are embraced by the falcon wings of Heru, the Goddess' spouse, from Whom She borrows part of Her name. Hwt-Her means "House (or Mansion) of Heru", and to display such closeness I have depicted the wings of the god protecting...one might say hugging the Goddess. He is, in fact, bestowing His power, and at the same time receiving the consecration of the Goddess. As "Mistress of the Sky" and "House of Heru", Hwt-Her is the very embodiment of the celestial vault in which the falcon god makes His home.
Two-dimensional images of the Goddess Hwt-Her commonly depict Her in a very close-fitting sheath dress, and in both private and royal tombs of the New Kingdom this dress is shown as having a specific pattern that in my view must have originated from the nets of brightly glazed faience beads that high status Egyptian women wore over their sheath dresses.
|A faience beaded net and dress from the 4th Dynasty/ Museum of Fine Arts Boston|
This is precisely what I am intending to show in my representation of Hwt-Her's skin-tight sheath dress, which when painted will show as transparent royal linen, calling to mind the poetic fantasy of beholding a woman's naked flesh through wet royal linen. Because of its transparency, the viewer will be able to see the sumptuous gold cowrie shell girdle, emblematic of the female sex organs, which hugs the Goddess' sensuous thighs closely. My icon of Hwt-Her is a sacred image of a goddess who epitomizes, and quite unashamedly so, the powerful sexuality and beauty of all women. (Part 3 to be posted soon).
|Close up of detail showing the beaded net covering the form-fitting dress of the Goddess|
1) Foster, John L. Love Songs of the New Kingdom. Austin, Texas, 1974, pp. 20.
2) Dates are those given by Professor John Baines and Dr. Jaromir Malek in their Atlas of Ancient Egypt.
3) For beautifully illustrated and described essays on these three New Kingdom tombs, see Weeks, Kent R. Valley of the Kings. Vercelli, Italy, 2001, pps. 384-389, pps. 390-397, pps. 408-413. See also the Metropolitan Museum of Art's facsimile of the three musicians from the tomb of the scribe Nakht. Wilkinson, Charles K. Egyptian Wall Paintings: The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Collection of Facsimiles. New York, 1983, pp. 53.
4) Ibid., pps. 384-385.
5) ) Ibid., pp. 385. See also the Metropolitan Museum of Art's facsimile of this scene. Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 96.
6) Foster, Ibid., pp. 61.
7) Wilkinson, Richard H. Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art. London, 1994, pps. 182-183.
8)Redford, Donald B. The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology. New York, 2002, pp. 158.
9)Meekes, Dimitri and Favard-Meeks, Christine. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. London, 1993, pp. 42.
10) My specific reference for this version of the Hwt-Her wig came from a relief of the Goddess in the tomb of Tausert and Setnakht. See Weeks, Kent R. Valley of the Kings. Pp. 227.