So many thanks to Liz Cummings who gave the lecture tonight and gave me her notes and even some pictures so I could just relax and enjoy the lecture. Much appreciated Liz
The Bed in New Kingdom Egyptian Art - Elizabeth Cummings
Tonight I would like to share with you my current research for my dissertation on beds in new kingdom egyptian art. This research is in its early stages but I have already found many insightful images which tell us about the Egyptians concepts of sex, sleep, and death. Today, we view our beds with respect to these concepts as well, even using the word “bed” to indicate an action related to sex, sleep, or death such as (He is very tired—he needs to go to bed or two people going to bed together to indicate sexual activity, and even a person’s deathbed
However, our cultures comprehend these concepts within very different conceptual frameworks, even though both perceive the bed as a locus for transitional states. In this study, I propose to examine both actual beds and images of beds in order to explore in depth the significance of the represented bed. I will focus my study on the the New Kingdom (1540-1070 B.C.). due to its wealth of different resources. Currently, I’m collecting relevant material from temples, tombs, and settlement sites, which will divide into two parts: actual beds, and two- and three-dimensional images of beds. I also plan to collect New Kingdom textual references to beds, since these will provide another approach to comprehending the significance of beds in Egyptian thought.
The concepts of sex, sleep, and death were intertwined within the Egyptian consciousness as sleep and death were often compared as liminal states and sexual activity in the Egyptians' view led not only to birth in this life but also the next. Therefore, the bed signaled to the viewer that the occupant was in a transitional state, with the bed becoming a vehicle in which to successfully transfer its occupant into the next realm or protect the individual on the uncertain thresholds of sleep or conception. I propose the bed makes its own transformation as well, when it becomes the lion-headed funerary bier, indicating the nature and significance it holds in its funerary functions.
The Bed as Object
First I will look at the bed as an object, which is defined in this study as an item of furniture where a person may lie and sleep, typically with a horizontal frame and vertical footrest. The use of the bed as an object will inform the use of the bed as an image, so it is crucial to examine the bed where it appears in the archaeological record. All existing examples from ancient Egypt are what modern viewers would probably term “single beds” or beds designed for accommodating only one person, and most have been discovered within tombs or the New Kingdom settlement site of Deir el Medina. While the majority of beds found are very simple in design, I will examine the decoration of these beds in the context of the conceptual framework established in my introductory chapter.
Some of the finest examples of actual beds found in the 18th dynasty belonged to Yuya and Tjuyu, the parents of queen tiye, wife of amenhotep III. The discovery of the tomb in 1905 yielded three beds all similar in design.
Slide two (Bed with Bes and Taweret)
They have carved wooden legs, which represent the fore and hind legs of a lion that face toward the head of the bed. The side rails of the bed are rectangular and have a distinctive dip from the front to the back.
(detail) Slide 3 The footboard of this bed contains images of the deities Bes and Taweret. Both sides are decorated and are divided into three panels. On the inner panel which would face the occupant of the bed, the two outside panels show two inward facing images of the goddess Taweret with a frontal image of the god Bes in the center. The central inside panel also contains two inward facing images of Taweret but the center figure is yet another image of Taweret facing to the left.
The outward facing panel of the footboard also holds images of Bes and Taweret with the center panel depicting Bes holding the hieroglyphic symbols of the was-scepter,and the sa and ankh symbols indicating all (nb)life, protection, and dominion. The outside left panel has an image of Bes with a tambourine with Taweret facing him with her paw on the sa symbol and holding a knife. This image is the same on the right side but with an image of Bes replacing Taweret. The sa symbol also appears quite frequently on the inside panel of the footboard.
The composition of the footboard is very similar on an ebony bed discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Slide 4 (ebony bed) The footboard is in a cut out design in three panels with the center figure of each panel representing a forward facing image of Bes. Two lions face inward, their paws resting on the sa symbol. You can see how similar in design it is to those of Yuya and Tjuyu.
Bes and Taweret are deities commonly associated with the households of the living and both provide protection for the family. They are also connected to women and childbirth and are therefore further related to sexuality. Not all beds hold images of these gods but if deities are shown on the footboards of beds, the iconography generally revolves around one, if not both.
I will also examine the role personal status played in association with the bed. Not everyone in the household would have been privileged enough to sleep on a bed and many might have slept on the roof of the household in order to stay cool in Egypt’s heat. Sleeping in a bed was therefore a status symbol, where the owner of the bed would have been elevated from the ground, just as his/her position in society was elevated. I plan to examine the household inventories of Deir el Medina in order to compare the number of occupants of a household to the number of beds present and explore the possibilities of a designated space within domestic architecture for the permanent location of the bed.
Throughout ancient Egyptian history, beds were often part of the funerary equipment included with a tomb owner’s burial. In New Kingdom tombs, the bed appears in many depictions of funerary processions and I will explore the bed’s use as a symbol of conspicuous consumption. Slide 5 Here is a very famous scene of the funerary procession in the tomb of Ramose with a quite beautiful bed. While the objects placed in the burial chamber were not seen by anyone after burial they would have been viewed by those who witnessed the funeral procession going into the tomb and it was important to show one’s status with the wealth of objects provided. Tutankhamen’s tomb contained as many as five beds, (not counting the three large funerary beds) apparently for the use of only one person. A specific example is the ingeniously constructed folding bed found within the tomb, which was designed for ease of transportation. Slide 6 This bed would have allowed the king to have a bed at all times wherever he traveled indicating his supreme status in society.
The Bed as Image
The main focus of my dissertation will be the bed as it appears as a represented image in the New Kingdom. For the Egyptians, the two-dimensional representation of a bed is usually viewed from the side with the legs and frame of the bed in profile. The legs of the bed may have the shape of bull hooves or lion paws and a footboard is also shown in profile. (Slide 7 a scene from TT 217 where although it doesn’t have lion feet it does have the footboard and the headrest in position.) Occationally a mattress will rest on the flat surface of the bed. Also included in my category of the represented bed are literary references and three-dimensional models of the bed, whether made separately or with attached fertility figurines. And I will devote a chapter of my dissertation to address each of the concepts related to the bed—sex, sleep, and death—and their place within the conceptual framework.
One section of my dissertation will focus on the bed as a place for sexual activity and procreation. In ancient Egyptian art, sex was rarely depicted explicitly in formal contexts but rather referenced indirectly through other methods. In the eighteenth dynasty, there are various examples of a relief cycle referred to by Egyptologists as divine birth imagery where the myth of the birth of the king is related. In the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, Amen-Re and Hatshepsut’s mother are shown seated on a flat surface facing each other, which is raised up by two goddesses, Neith and Selket, who are seated on a bed (Slide 8). Amen-Re holds the ankh, or symbol of life, to the nose of the queen and the accompanying hieroglyphs leave little doubt as to the meaning of the scene: this is the moment of conception and the bed is a visual indicator of the unseen sexual element of the moment. These same scenes appear in other reigns, which attest to the effectiveness of this cycle that appears as late as the Ptolemaic and Roman period. (Slide 9) Medinet Habu
Beds also occur in less formal contexts relating to sex. Certain types of fertility figurines of the New Kingdom often depict a nude woman lying on a bed with or without a child by her side or nursing at her breast (Slide 10). Geraldine Pinch discusses these figurines in Votive Offerings to Hathor and argues that they can be associated with the dangerous state of childbirth and the uncertain period of survival shortly thereafter. Since women did not give birth on beds but by squatting on birth bricks, the bed rather symbolizes the place of consummation and fertility and these positive associations (since fertility was successful with the birth of the depicted infant) may have protected the mother and child in this unpredictable and, possibly perilous, phase.
While rare, graphic images of sex do emerge from the material record and often use the bed as an element of the setting. Decorum kept many of these images from appearing on the walls of tombs and temples, but they are found on ostraca, papyri and grafitti. In the Turin Erotic Papyrus from the nineteenth dynasty, a series of 12 vignettes depicts an older man (or men) with a young attractive female (or females) in various sexual positions and settings (Slide 11). In the center, a woman lies horizontally on a bed while she leans out to gesture towards a man who has fallen or lies on the ground. The nudity of the female (shown wearing only a hip girdle) implies her relationship to fertility figurines and the highly sexualized nature of their function, while the large phallus of the male accentuates his potency. The artistic technique of the work is skillful and the papyrus was probably made for a member of the elite. I will investigate the presence of the bed in these images, as well as in other papyri and ostraca where it might appear, such as the Satirical Payprus in the British Museum.
The literary record from the nineteenth dynasty preserves a genre unknown to earlier Egyptian literature. Love poetry, which probably derived from an oral tradition, expresses an ideal love between a man and woman and includes highly evocative sexual imagery. In these poems, the bed is a locus for sexual union. (Slide 12) In one example, an anonymous man and woman have a dialogue concerning their love and how a river and crocodile separate the two lovers. The young man crosses the river because of their love and orders someone to make up a bed for the consummation of their relationship. (Slide 13) And in the following poem, a youth waits outside the door of a girl and longs to enter to see his beloved.
While notably idealized, this poetry produces an insight into the very private sexual uses of the bed where the visual and material records remain silent.
I will also explore the function of the bed for its sleeping inhabitant. The state of sleep was often likened to the condition of death—the sleeper was unable to move and function as in death. Also, awakening and resurrection were used as interchangeable phrases where the awaking individual was compared to a reborn or resurrected being. Dreams were considered as occurring outside of the individual and one’s enemy could impose nightmares onto the dreamer. While sleeping, a person was connected to the duat, a realm inhabited by the Egyptian dead, and a place where dreams were thought to originate. This liminal state, therefore, was considered dangerous and unpredictable, and the decorative program of actual beds were designed to protect the sleeper from unseen forces. And here we are reminded of the gods Bes and Taweret in their protective roles on the footboards of beds.
The legs of the represented bed are often depicted as lion legs, linking the bed to the lion. Lions lived in the desert on the edges of the Egyptian world, and were symbolically shown as the guardians of the eastern and western horizons (Slide 14). The occupant of the bed could therefore be seen as being protected by these guardians of the sunrise and sunset—linking the sleep cycle, when the occupant would go to sleep at night and awake in the morning, to the cycle of the sun and its rebirth.
Bart Hellinckx discusses the solar iconography associated with the headrest, which is frequently shown with beds in tomb paintings. In his discussion of the shape of the headrest, Hellinckx relates it to the horizon symbol, or akhet sign, which shows the sun rising between two mountains. The curve of the headrest cradles the head in the same way as the mountains of the horizon cradle the rising and setting sun. Hellinckx argues that this analogy would have been evident to the Egyptians. The sleeper would place his head in the headrest at approximately the same time as the sun would set and then the sleeper’s head would rise just as the sun rose the next morning. (Slide 15) A headrest from the tomb of Tutankhamen shows the lions on either side of the god Shu who holds the head of the individual above the bed. The iconography of the bed contributes seamlessly to this argument by completing the image of the horizon. The lion legs of the bed, present on each side of the bed’s occupant, would have guaranteed the sleeper a safe passage through the night with the presence of these lion guardians. I will examine the frequency with which lions appear as a design element of the bed both as image and object in order to explore their link to the bed’s occupant.
And finally, I will consider the bed in a funerary context. Beds appear in tomb reliefs such as funerary processions and scenes with Anubis attending the mummy. In the tomb of Sennefer (Theban tomb 96B), the image of the bed occurs at the very entrance into the antechamber (Slide 16). A funerary procession moves around the edge of the wall towards a large image of Sennefer where other funerary objects such as the mummy mask, shawabtis, chests, and necklaces are all shown as objects carried by the bearers. (Slide 17) The procession where the bed occurs is indicative of a movement from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. The bed is now not just a place of transition for the occupant but is itself in a transitional state—the bed is in transition from an object of the living world into an object in the afterlife. (Slide 17) In the burial chamber, Sennefer’s mummy appears on the lion bed where the transformation of both the bed and the tomb owner into the next world is complete.
In one very common scene in New Kingdom art, Anubis attends the mummy who rests on a lion bed often with Isis and Nephthys flanking each side-here is a famous image from the tomb of Sennedjem without them(Slide 19). (Slide 20) And in this image hails from the tomb of Nefertari showing Isis and Nepthys flanking the mummy in the form of two kites. Appearing first in the eighteenth dynasty and more frequently in the nineteenth dynasty, these images often show the bed in a much more complete state—not only does the bed have the legs of the lion but also the tail and the head, depicted above the leg at the head of the bed. I contend the bed has completed its transition from the world of the living into the realm of the dead. It now holds the transfigured dead who are presented in the divine form of Osiris. The bed, which functioned in the world of the living as a place of transformation through sexual union, conception, and the daily cycle of sleep, has now made its own transformation, and can facilitate transformations in the next realm.
This newly transfigured bed became the locus for new unions in the afterlife. In Egyptian mythology, the union of Isis and Osiris after the latter’s dismemberment and subsequent regeneration produced their son Horus. The event is depicted in reliefs where Isis is shown as a bird alighting on the mummy of Osiris who is often shown as ithyphallic. (The scenes from the temple of Seti I at Abydos are excellent examples of these scenes but I haven’t been able to take photos of these images yet.) The funerary bed becomes the location of this union, mirroring the sexual function of the bed in the world of the living.
In an image from the Book of the Dead, the ba bird joins together with the mummy in a nightly union (Slide 21). Visually, this resembles the union of Isis with Osiris and the mummified figure can be interpreted not only as Osiris but also as any member of the transfigured dead. The transfigured individual is now able to sexually reproduce, an important function for the afterlife. The bed serves as a place for two transitional events: the changing of the deceased into the transfigured dead and the bestowal of sexual potency for the afterlife.
I would also like to show a few more images of a bed from the tomb of Tutankhamen. (Slide 22) This photo is taken from the Carter archives and shows a bed that looks a little different than the others—this is because it was actually underneath all of the coffins of Tutankhamen. It amazes me how well it is preserved especially holding all that weight for thousands of years. Carter even mentions how he is astounded—this bed was inside the sarcophagus under the coffins.
Slide 23—yes, this is an image from the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and while a bit inaccurate it gives the idea of how these coffins would have rested on the bed. Now was this bed actually necessary in order for the coffins to go into the sarcophagus? Probably not, but the important thing is that the presence of the bed itself is necessary for the successful transition of the deceased into the afterlife.
I hope with this study to bring the bed into the Egyptological discourse concerning sex, sleep, and death, pushing the boundaries of previous scholarship and to demonstrate the significance of the bed within the ancient Egyptian world view.