PART III: Lapis in Ancient Egypt
Lapis Lazuli statuette (3300-3000 BC). Presented by Harold Jones, 1906. The body and the head are fashioned from two separate pieces of lapis lazuli; that in the head have a higher concentration of lazurite. It is suspected that the body of the statue may have originated in a locality outside of Egypt. The two pieces are held together by wood. Housed at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Lapis in Predynastic Egypt
Lapis plays an important role in Egyptian history, from the beads of the late Gerzean period (36500 and 3300 BC), to the powdered lapis eyeshadow Cleopatra wore as Egypt fell to the Romans in 30BC. Due to the vast distance that the lapis had to travel to reach Egypt, it was considered one of ancient Egypt’s highly-prized materials. Upon first arriving in Egypt, the possession of lapis was a sign of high social status, and was commonly used to make objects such as beads and inlays. In predynastic Egypt and into the very early period of the first dynasty, lapis, along with other precious minerals, appeared only in the most prestigious of graves. The material exchange of lapis in Egypt was also deeply entangled with the material culture of Mesopotamia, which is exemplified by the fact that lapis beads would be imported in tandem with Mesopotamian lapis cylinder seals, illustrating the high rate of lapis-related cultural exchange between these two countries.
One of the most prominent pieces of lapis lazuli from this early period of Egyptian history was found in the excavation of Hierakonpolis, an ancient civilization near Edfu along the banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt. This statuette (pictured to the left) was found in two pieces, the head and the body, which are held together by a shaft of wood. It is thought that the figurine was meant to hold the handle of a spoon. The piece of lapis comprising the body is flecked with calcite and pyrite, while the head is composed of a more ‘pure’ piece of lapis. This may have been by design, but this feature has also been used as evidence by scholars that the body may have been crafted outside of Egypt. Either way, the place of origin of the stone symbolizes the global element of the trade of lapis, and the subsequent exchange of the ideas attached to the stone. It is unclear whether in predynastic Egypt, lapis held any mythic or mystic charge, although evidence of the magical and medicinal aspects of lapis abound in the later dynasties.
Necklace of the Rising Sun, picturing the scarab-faced god Khepri, rendered in lapis, rolling out the rising sun at the break of day. It was believed that burying Egyptian royalty among lapis lazuli allowed them a place among the gods in the afterlife. Housed at the Grand Egyptian Museum, Giza, Egypt.
Lapis in Early to Mid-Dynastic Egypt
By the end of the first Egyptian dynasty, and through the first three dynasties, the use of lapis seems to have virtually disappeared from ancient Egypt, a pattern which paralleled the archaeological record in ancient Mesopotamia. But by the fourth dynastic period, lapis returns to the archaeological record, and with its arrival seems to come a kind of magical attachment to the stone. In Egypt’s Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BC), in which the royal ideologies were established, the Sun God Ra, the son of whom was the king, was thought to be made of lapis lazuli and gold. On a papyrus written during the Middle Kingdom, mention is made that a necklace composed of lapis lazuli was hung on the neck of a newborn, along with incantations that would protect the baby from illness. A number of incantations also appear on the papyrus, which seem to imply that a seal made of a certain mineral was charged with a metaphysical quality: “This seal is… for your protection” (Winter 1999). These mystical and medicinal properties which infused lapis did not appear in a void: it was intentionally, or perhaps inadvertently, transplanted from the cultures of Mesopotamia.
So, too, was borrowed from the Mesopotamians, appearances of lapis in a kind of liminal space: at the interface of conception/birth and day/night; of death/afterlife and night/day. It was, too, the interface between the mortal and the divine. As Aufère writes,
“To whom belong minerals and metals is in the same time in the possession of a power over the gods, or at least a strong power of divine suggestion of which one makes the best possible use in astrology, born during the late periods of Egypt. Because of divine essence, they represent a bit of the gods themselves, at least from the point of view of the metaphor, elaborated to the point of representing the gods in precious materials. Gold, silver, minerals such as lapis lazuli… form guarantees of immortality, because they guarantee the similarity between the deity and man who finds himself invested by them… extracted from quarries and mines as if the purpose was to take them out from the divine body from which they emanate, they are the object of a thought process slowly leading to alchemy… Thus, alchemy depends on the wish to accelerate the divine time—the one of the geological stages—in order that man can be the holder of the most refined elements of nature, guarantees of light and eternity: the philosopher’s stone of the old alchemists”
In dynastic Egypt, lapis was commonly carved into the form of scarab beetles, which were representative of the scarab-faced god Khepri who represents the rising sun. This sun-god was known as the lesser god to Ra (or Re), who was symbolized by the noon-day sun. A necklace belonging to King Tutankammun entitled Necklace of the Rising Sun (pictured above) depicts two baboons as the deity Thoth (Djehuty), both of whom are wearing lunar crowns. The lapis lazuli beetle, in the center of the necklace, is seen rolling the sun out onto the horizon. Scholars believe that the two baboons are depicted in the necklace due to the fact that they have a habit of facing the east at dawn, and are known to call to the rising sun when it first appears on the horizon. Because of this, Egyptians thought the baboon to be the embodiment of Thoth, god of the moon and wisdom, and adviser to Ra, god of the sun. Additionally, the god Khepri, illustrated by the scarab beetle, isn’t just representative of the rising sun; by extension, the scarab, and thus the lapis from which it is made, is representative of the creation and renewal of life. Because of this, ancient Egyptians believed that burying kings among a lapis-lazuli-fashioned scarab beetle ensured the kings a place among divinity in the afterlife.
King Tut’s funeral mask, perhaps one of the most potent and important symbols of ancient Egyptian culture, is likewise inlaid with lapis. Although much of the mask is composed of the dark blue color, the stripes around the “hair” of the mask are in fact blue-tinted glass, and not true lapis. The pure lapis specimens are reserved for the most important parts of the mask -- the eyes and the eyebrows. The mask itself bears the form of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife, and is known today as one of the most prominent artifacts in world history. A protective spell is inlaid on the back of the mask, bearing the following text:
Thy right eye is the night bark (of the sun-god), thy left eye is the day-bark, thy eyebrows are (those of) the Ennead of the Gods, thy forehead is (that of) Anubis, the nape of thy neck is (that of) Horus, thy locks of hair are (those of) Ptah-Sokar. (Thou art) in front of the Osiris (Tutankhamun). He sees thanks to thee, thou guidest him to the goodly ways, thou smitest for him the confederates of Seth so that he may overthrow thine enemies before the Ennead of the Gods in the great Castle of the Prince, which is in Heliopolis … the Osiris, the King of Upper Egypt Nebkheperure [Tutankhamun's throne-name], deceased, given life by Re.
Thus, it may be concluded that lapis lazuli, which makes up the eyes and eyebrows, were especially associated with the Sun-God Ra (the right eye). The “day-bark,” symbolized by the left eye, is representative of the sun-chariot which Ra rode in order to bring the run over the horizon. In Egyptian belief, kings, as they crossed over into death, were reanimated as the sun-god Re. Death, in this sense, may be seen as both the dusk of an old life, but also as the literal dawn of a new life. And the body of this sun-god, the light after the darkness-- the life after death, was made of lapis lazuli. Lapis, therefore, is the literal catalyst for and embodiment of passage from life to the afterlife.
Funeral Mask of 18th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Gold, Lapis lazuli, carnelian, obsidian, turquoise, and glass paste. Discovered 28 October 1925. Housed at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Maat Amulet, dated to between 664 and 332 B.C (Dynasties 26-30). Housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Lapis in the Late Period
The association between lapis and the themes of dawn, birth and rebirth appear not just in the most gilded tombs, but also in smaller, possibly more commonplace objects. One such amulet, dated to between 664 and 332 B.C. and housed at the Metropolitan museum of art, depicts Maat, the daughter to the Sun-God Re, and the personification of truth, justice, and cosmic order. At the ceremony of the judgment of the dead, it was said that Maat would weigh the heart of the deceased on a scale, as a way of testing the deceased’s conformity to proper values. This divine order was reestablished at the accession of each new king of Egypt. These concepts endured until the end of ancient Egyptian history, which could be said to have ended by 30 BC, when the Egyptian dynasty, under Cleopatra, fell to the Roman Empire.
By establishing order in the place of disorder, the king was seen to be the son of the sun god Ra. Maat stood at the head of the sun god’s solar chariot (the bark, represented by King Tut's left eye) as it traveled through the sky and the underworld. At night, Maat and Ra, and one could say, lapis, inhabited the underworld; at dawn, Ra, the bark, Maat, and the lapis entangled with these figures, emerged in the east, bestowing light upon the world below.
Selected Works Cited
Aufère, Sydney. “L'Univers minéral Dans La pensée égyptienne.” Archéo-Nil, vol. 7, Oct. 1997.
Dominy, Nathaniel J. “Mysteries of Ancient Egypt's Sacred Baboons Revealed.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 Nov. 2021, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mysteries-of-ancient-egypts-sacred-baboons-revealed/.
James, T.G.H. Tutankhamun. Metro Books/White Star, 2000.
McNamara, Liam. “Ashmolean Object in Focus: The Lapis Lazuli Lady.” Nekhen News, vol. 28, 2016, pp. 18–18.
Payne, Joan Crowfoot. “Lapis Lazuli in Early Egypt.” Iraq, vol. 30, no. 1, 1968, p. 58., https://doi.org/10.2307/4199837.
Winter, I. J. (1999). The Aesthetic Value of Lapis Lazuli in Mesopotamia. Cornaline et pierres précieuses: La Méditerranée de l' Antiquité à l' Islam. A. Caubet (ed.). Paris, Musée du Louvre: 43-58.