Video: Finding Gender in Egyptian Mortuary Ritual: Agency, Individuality, and Choice

March 29, 2021
Ankhnesneferibre receives life from Isis. Chapel of Ankhnesneferibre at Karnak.
Ankhnesneferibre receives life from Isis. Chapel of Ankhnesneferibre at Karnak./ Photo: Mariam Ayad

A conversation between Mariam Ayad (The American University in Cairo), Visiting Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Near Eastern Religions, and Jacquelyn Williamson (WSRP 2013-14), Associate Professor of Ancient Art and Archaeology, specializing in Ancient Egypt and Gender at George Mason University.

Full Transcript: 


ANN BRAUDE: Welcome to today's Women's Studies and Religion work in progress presentation on the new research that is coming out of our program. And we're so thrilled today to be hearing about the work in progress from Professor Mariam Ayad. And I'm going to introduce Mariam and her interlocutor, Jacquelyn Williamson, very briefly today. And then Mariam will make a PowerPoint presentation introducing her research, and then we'll have a chance to have these two experts in Egyptology and Feminist Studies discussing the data that Mariam has presented.

Thank you all for joining us. It looks like a wonderful international audience on our Zoom today. And so we greet you wherever you are coming on from. And I do want to reassure you that as we reopen and head back for in-person events next fall, that we endeavor to keep our international audience connected to our events. And we hope to find ways that we'll be able to continue to keep you connected.

So let me introduce Professor Mariam Ayad. Do you want to come on the video, Mariam? Mariam did her doctorate at Brown University, here in the United States. Greetings, Mariam.

And she then taught in the art history department at the University of Memphis for 10 years, where she became an associate professor. She then made a very interesting decision to return to Egypt to bring attention to Women's Studies in the study of ancient Egypt, on the ground, in Egypt. And she has had a very distinguished career there, as well as in the United States, with more than a dozen refereed articles in print, as well as her monograph on God's wife.

She has also distinguished herself as an intellectual leader, convening six international conferences in her field. And the most recent of those is the one that really drew the attention of the Harvard faculty, when we invited her to come here as a Women's Studies research associate. And that was the very first international conference on women in ancient Egypt, which she convened at the American University in Cairo, where she teaches.

Another one of the participants in that conference was another past research associate-- well, a past research associate-- Mariam is still current with us. And that is Jacquelyn Williamson. We're so pleased to welcome Jackie back to the WSRP. And what we are going to do today is to invite you into the process of what we do in the Women's Studies and Religion Program, where what's really thrilling about the program is that scholars discuss each other's work in progress while the research is going on. And so they have input into the intellectual process of developing the development of the new research ideas.

And so what you're going to see today is the only two Egyptologists who have been in the Women's Studies and Religion Program, discussing this new work and bringing the lens of Women's Studies, which is very rarely applied in a field that is so data driven, where the primary work of the field is to uncover the data. And the ability to apply a theoretical lens, like the lens of gender, to that data is very-- there's very rarely the opportunity for what you're going to see today, which is two of the premier scholars in the field thinking about how to do that.

So without further ado, I am going to give the podium to Mariam. One suggestion I have for you is that while Mariam is speaking, you use the Speaker View for your Zoom view. And then when she has concluded her PowerPoint and we move to the panel discussion, that you move from a Speaker View to the--


ANN BRAUDE: I forget what it's called, but you know what I mean, where you see everybody on the screen. And you'll see all of us present, so you can hear the discussion. So Mariam, the floor is yours.

MARIAM AYAD: Hi, Ann. Hi, everybody. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to present my work in progress. And I see in the chat that a lot of friends from Cairo and in the field have joined in. So this was a rather tricky presentation to put together, because I knew I would have a mixed audience.

So the questions are there for you to ask. I will also have a slide up at the end, with my email. If you have any follow up questions, feel free to email me directly.

OK, so the title that you see here is actually my research project. I'm trying to look, this year, at whether we can reach a gender understanding of how the Egyptians composed and perceived of their funerary manuscripts. And as a first step toward doing that is trying to define issues of agency, individuality, and choice. If they did, indeed, adopt gender pathways to the afterlife, and it is still a very big if, then who got to do the choosing?

Is it the artist? The tomb owner? These are questions that Jackie and I will discuss at the end. But perhaps the most iconic image of ancient Egypt is the Great Pyramids, perceived as giant tombs, although the ancient Egyptians themselves may have conceived of them as stairways to the heaven, as we find out from the pyramid texts from a few dynasties later, the sixth dynasty. And in terms of finding gender in funerary art, we have a lot of women, usually represented as mourners, as we see here and here, or here, where one female mourner is looking on at the ritual slaughter of an ox, which is an integral part of the Opening of the Mouth Ritual.

We often also find women associated with the male official in his funerary text, as we see here in the Papyrus of Ani. We have many females that are represented in tombs of their husbands, of their fathers, of their sons, and that's not really what I am looking for this year. What I am interested in is those women, queens, elite women, who could afford a good burial, [INAUDIBLE] actually [INAUDIBLE] texts that aided them to reach the afterlife.

So the Great Pyramids of Giza are well known, but they are not inscribed. Although we do have queens that were buried in smaller pyramids at Giza. It's not until we get to the sixth dynasty, in Saqqara, where queens start to have their own pyramid texts and their own pathway to the afterlife.

Very fast forward to the end of the 19th dynasty, where we find that some of the best funerary assemblages in museums today, at the British Museum and the Louvre, belong to women who were not royal, as far as we can tell, who often have the title of Chantress to the god Amun-Re, in the temple. So these are elite women, and yeah, they could afford a funerary set that's composed of numerous sarcophagi, as we see here, for the Henutmehyt collection, some of which would be partially or fully gold gilded. So a layer-- a very thin layer, of gold applied to the wood underneath.

And then the wood itself, and even the gold, would be inscribed with texts that would presumably help her achieve an afterlife. And this is the other magnificent example, from the Louvre. Again, [INAUDIBLE]. And you have to wonder, how could they afford this?

We do have a very good book out, The Cost of Death by Kara Cooney, in which she actually tried to put in perspective how much these magnificent objects cost. So these women had multiple coffins, each with its own sets of inscriptions. And by the time we get to the 21st dynasty, we find a preponderance of manuscripts of the Book of the Dead, where the women are the main protagonists or the main worshipper.

And, [? Aniq, ?] I know you're here. So I'm happy that you're here, because I'm going to refer to your work, about how these women often chose specific titles to identify them in these manuscripts. And [? Aniq ?] has just submitted a very good paper for the-- coming out of the conference that Ann mentioned that looks at how these women presented in these funerary documents from the 21st dynasty.

So they're magnificent pieces. They're really nicely illustrated, but they also show considerable variation. So you can just say that all women have the same set of spells in the Book of the Dead, just like you cannot say that all men have the same spells. Although there's a corpus to choose from, often, individuals would pick and choose. And there's been some work on this process of production of the funerary texts, whether they were mass produced with the name left vacant for someone to buy a manuscript and put their name in, or whether they were custom made. And we're not going to get into that debate today, but this is something that's been discussed in my field.

One of the really nice manuscripts published by Rita Lucarelli, The Book of the Dead of Gatseshen, who was also a chantress in the temple. But what's interesting about her documents is that she usurped an earlier document and superimposed her titles in [? heiratic, ?] in the vignette there. So again, the idea of reuse, how would that impact her perception of the afterlife and how she needed to get there, is a big question.

As I said, these manuscripts show variation. And I've included a few slides here to show you just how these variations manifest. So here, the funerary papyrus of Maatkare, she's represented twice. In both cases, she's wearing the vulture headdress, a queen insignia, even though we're not quite sure whether she was [AUDIO OUT] or not. And she's shown seated at the offering table, and then her life-size mummy is shown behind her as well. And that's the bigger composition, to give you an idea of what she was looking at.

Note the Leopard skin clad priest right there. He's performing a summary of the Opening of the Mouth Ritual by burning incense and pouring [INAUDIBLE] water before her offering table. Another Chantress of Amun, Lady Tiye, whose manuscript is now in the Metropolitan Museum. Again, has a very interesting collection of spells. In fact, she has two manuscripts, a Book of the Dead and the Book of the Amduat. And both were rolled up and placed in the same box and discovered together. You can see from the accession numbers that they were cataloged at the same time as well.

So here we see her worshipping the god Amun-- the god Osiris, excuse me, who is seated on his throne, wearing the white crown, the Atef crown and holding the crook and the flail. And then we get to a point where, again, in the 21st dynasty, a woman could take an element of the king's coronation and place it in her funerary documents, like we here see in the papyrus of Heriweben.

So this idea of purification by the goddess-- by the gods Horus and Thoth is often associated with coronation scenes and has been labeled by Gardiner as the "baptism of pharaoh," again, using terms from a different culture to the concept in Egyptian that may not quite be the same. But basically, it's [INAUDIBLE] water that's being poured over her head. And if you notice, instead of a squiggly line for water, what she has is signs for life, the Ankh, and for dominion, the Was. So they're showering her with life and dominion.

One of my former professors, Leonard Lesko, published an article in '94, in which he compared two Book of the Dead manuscripts belonging to two priests who have the same name, Pinedjem I and Pinedjem II, one in the Cairo museum and the other in the British Museum. And in his paper, he argued that even though they were a grandfather and grandson, they had different religious beliefs according to their funerary documents, whereas one was [? solar ?] and the other was more Osirian.

Now we do have a manuscript that belongs to the daughter of Pinedjem II, and I wonder whether we should not look at her manuscript through that lens as well. What kind of religious beliefs did she have? Did she adhered to her father's, to her great grandfathers, or did she come up with her own? As far as I know, I'm not aware of any studies on her text.

Now, we come, fast forward, to my area of speciality, the 25th Dynasty, the Nubian dynasty. And when the Nubians came through Egypt, they did so under the pretext of restoring order to a much fragmented country. As you can see from the slides here, the arrow shows the [INAUDIBLE] march by the Nubians under the leadership of Piankhi, or Piye, as they attempted to conquer Egypt and succeeded.

So under their rule, they utilized an office known from the preceding dynasty and even earlier, from the 18th dynasty, known as the God's Wife of Amun. And they gave that position to Piye's sister, Aminerdis, whose alabaster statue you see here on the screen. It's currently in Cairo. And Amenirdis had a very interesting chapel built in the vicinity of the funerary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. You see here the [INAUDIBLE] facade of her chapel.

The chapel was probably built by her successor in office, Shepenwepet II, the daughter of Piye, who is essentially her niece. And we know that because in fact, Shepenwepet is represented in the court, laying the foundation of that temple in association with the goddess Seshat, or Sefkhet-Abwy. You can see here the two figures holding poles as if they're fishing rods, but actually it's a ritual called the Stretching of the Cord. And the ritual summed up the entire process of building a temple.

And we see also Shepenwepet performing all the funerary rights in that chapel for, here, the Osirian triad, but also for Amenirdis, who replaces Isis as the third member of the triad. So she replaces the feminine component of the divine triad. Why would Shepenwepet do that? Possibly because she saw the demolition of an earlier chapel belonging to another God's Wife in antiquity, that of Shepenwepet I. So she decided to build this monument for eternity, in stone, for her predecessor and her mother.

And we do indeed have that inscription, that dedication, on the jambs leading into the doorway to the chapel itself, where she declares that it's Shepenwepet who built this monument for eternity for her predecessor, for her mother-- adoptive mother and aunt, Amenirdis I.

Now, the design of the chapel is unique. I published a paper examining where they may have gotten the idea of placing two shrines, called tent shrines, a very old architectural form that dates back to the Third Dynasty. Just to give you a perspective on the time lapse, that's about over 2000 years, 2,200 years between when that form was developed and seen first in the Saqqara Complex of Djoser and when it was used here again.

So when the two shrines are placed one inside the other, each is roofed. A corridor is created between the two structures. You can see the yellow arrows, and that's where all the interesting stuff is inscribed. And we know this is funerary texts, probably selected by Shepenwepet-- but that's a discussion for me and Jackie later-- decided to inscribe her chapel with texts. The Pyramid Texts, borrowed very heavily from those queen's pyramids from Saqqara, from 2,500 years earlier. She also decided on solar hymns that are part of the Book of the Dead, chapter 15. And she included one of the most extensive selections of the Opening the Mouth Ritual on the upper register of all four walls.

And the text are color coded here, on the plan. So the Opening of the Mouth is in green, surrounding all the four walls of the corridor. The pyramid texts are in orange, and the solar hymns are in yellow. Just to give you an idea of the layout of the texts.

For the longest time, the only images that were available to us were those taken by [INAUDIBLE] in the 1930s. And they still remain the best in terms of the technology used, because this corridor is very narrow. It's no more than maybe 90 centimeters in width, and the walls are very high, about 4 meters. Sometimes, it's very hard to get an entire section of the wall in one photograph. The hieroglyphs are too big for a regular camera, and there's no space [AUDIO OUT] into five columns, inscribed under a vignette. Sometimes, the texts complement what the vignette shows. Other times, they reiterate what is literally depicted.

So traditionally, you know, each vignette with associated text is given a number. Egyptologists are fond of numbers, so altogether, 75 have been identified in her chapel. So these scenes vary in content. They may include offerings of incense, as we see here, or the ritual slaughter, as we saw earlier in the presentation. My work on the Opening of the Mouth of Amenirdis points to a directional greeting that allows the priests to walk into the chapel as they read the texts, thereby bringing about the animation of her mummy or statue.

The texts are read in retrograde, which means you don't read into the hieroglyphs, you read into the backs of their heads, which is typical of Opening of the Mouth texts anyway. And I've also published elsewhere the fact that the texts on either side of a virtual central axis near each other, they share the direction of reading, and exhibit thematic continuity along each side of the chapel.

So the priests walk in, they perform that, and once they achieve the Opening of her Mouth, Amenirdis is finally shown animated for the first time, extending a hand to an offering table placed before her as some priest consecrated the offerings for her. And then she descends to the lower register, where she starts her journey out of the chapel by an act of worship. He or she is shown presenting incense to two different forms of the solar god; Ra-Horakhty on the east, because he is the god of the rising sun; and Ra-Atum on the west, because he's the god of the setting sun.

As she then proceeds to read the pyramid texts that are inscribed on the lower register in the order in which they are encountered. Her spirit is doing the reading so that eventually, the texts, the pyramid texts, lead her toward the northern sky, where she would become one of the imperishable stars. So that's an older imagination or an idea, an old idea, of the afterlife. The imperishable stars or the circumpolar stars, they never set. So by joining them in the North sky, she becomes imperishable herself.

Now, Amenirdis was a God's Wife of Amun, she had a very vast estate and she did not supervise that estate for herself. Instead, she had a vast staff. The cemetery with a lot of other [INAUDIBLE] and plenty of dynasty tombs, most of which belonging to officials associated with the God's Wife. But not only a central location in the Necropolis. And this part of the Necropolis suggests that it may be one of the earliest constructed there. It's also a time when all these monuments, they're underground monuments, but they are called, in German [GERMAN] because they are as big as a palace, and yet they are funerary.

So in the Tomb of Harwa, he also had pyramid texts. He also had solar hymns, and he also had Opening of the Mouth Ritual scenes, but his selection is drastically different from Amenirdis' in terms of selection, in terms of layout. My work there has focused on the text of the second pillared hall, where he has a very vast, extensive selection of the Opening of the Mouth scenes, shown here in--

Yeah. So essentially, what I proceeded to do is after I did find the Texts of Harwa, I proceeded to color code them and compare them to Amenirdis in terms of layout, because I'm a very visual person. And for example, spells that have to do with water or cool water or incense are shaded in blue, in both monuments. And that kind of helped me see how the layout is different. You may notice that with the plan of Harwa, there's two lines of two different colors because his texts are both on the upper register and the lower register. So it's a very busy wall.

The texts are very clearly different. Their selections from the pyramid texts are hugely different. His is most similar to what you find in the [? Hatshepsut ?] southern [INAUDIBLE] mainly in the 200 range for my Egyptologist friends who are listening. Whereas Amenirdis is from the 400s to the 600s. And also, she has a much more concise selection. So she only has eight spells in which she's resurrected, given food, and incense, and everything that she needs to survive in the afterlife. His selection is very extensive.

The same kind of difference we also see in the selections of the Opening of the Mouth. Whereas hers are very neatly laid out, it's very easy to make a case for [INAUDIBLE] reading and thematic continuity along the walls, his is more complex. I don't want to say jumbled. But they're very different. So they select things from the same genres, but the selections themselves are different, and the way they're used in each monument is very different.

Also some elements in her chapel are summarized iconographically, but are stated in great detail in his monuments. And sometimes, concision is good, more is not always better.

So my project this year is to take a step back. I know how the texts are different. The question now is, why are they different? And I would like to invite Jackie to join me as we ponder these questions. Why are these two individuals adopting different pathways to the afterlife? Is the difference gendered, or is it a class-based difference? Quack, in '05, published a paper which he suggested the Opening of the Mouth just is the random collection of prayers as the pretext for each deceased to include whatever they wanted or cared about. I'm not quite sure I'm sold on that idea, but it's out there. And then that raises the question also of who made the selection?

Is it the College of Cardinals? Priests? The artists? A combination of both? The tomb owner? How can we know? And that leads to questions of agency and individuality. And I think I need to stop sharing now so that Jackie can join us.

ANN BRAUDE: Thank you so much, Mariam. I'm going to interject for just a minute to give both you and Jackie a chance to get on screen, and to give our audience a chance to switch over to the gallery views so that they can see both of you for our conversation.

And so it's really my enormous pleasure right now to introduce Professor Jacquelyn Williamson, who is an associate professor of Art and Archaeology, focusing on ancient Egypt, at George Mason University. She is a past research associate, as I mentioned, and she is well known as an expert on the Amarna Period of art. And we know her for her wonderful manuscript on her 2016 book on Nefertiti's sun temple, which we had the chance to see it progress while she was here at WSRP. And it's just one of her many, many publications on Amarna and ancient Egypt.

So it's such a pleasure to ask the two of you now to let us in on your conversation.

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: Thanks so much, Ann. And it's just so exciting to be back, and I'm so thrilled to see so many of our friends and colleagues in our participant area. And hi, everyone. And so, again, Mariam's work is so exciting and so interesting. And it does, it brings up these big picture questions, I think, that very often we, in Egyptology, shy away from a little bit due to the fact that we don't have that time machine.

We can't go back in time. We can't interview these people and say, what's going on here? We're a little bit reluctant to go into questions of why and identity and stuff like that, because we feel like we don't have the smoking gun. This is something that Egyptology is always looking for. What's the smoking gun? How can we prove it without the shadow of a doubt?

And I think that, again, we're a very positivist field, which, in many ways, is a good thing. And in many ways, it's a bad thing. And so one of the opportunities, I think, that WSRP really gives for people like Mariam and I is that we are asking these other kinds of questions, and it gives us an opportunity to bounce ideas off of people who are not Egyptologists, who have a totally different perspective. And it was one of the most growing and surprising years for me. And I'm so grateful for it, and I know that I grew so much as scholar. And Miriam and I have had many conversations, over the years, exactly on these sorts of topics.

So this gives us a great opportunity to really be able to pull in the brain trust of other scholars that Egyptology is very often unwilling to talk to, for a variety of reasons. Some of it's logical. Our field is really, really, really far in the past. And we have to be conversant with almost 3,000 years of culture, history, religion, et cetera.

MARIAM AYAD: Language.

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: And language, exactly. Everybody loves a good dead language. If you're an Egyptologist, you love a dead language. But one of the problems, of course, that brings us that much of modern theory predicates upon a modern Judeo-Christian sort of basis that, again, is based on the ideas of the Enlightenment, et cetera. And these are concepts that are just simply not applicable.

And so very often to use theory productively and successfully, you have to dismantle that theory and figure out what can we keep and what can we throw out? And that's hard to do. And theory is not a plug and play. You can't just take it like a math equation and stick it in and expect for results to come out. And so I think that one of the things that Mariam is doing very successfully is combining both the data driven concepts and ideas of our field and trying to combine it with these other bigger picture questions and trying to ask if this data, then what can we take from it?

And it's very exciting, I think. So that's just my little five-second sort of blathering away. But yeah, it's very exciting though, I do think. And so Mariam, what are your thoughts about where-- one of the things that we wanted to talk about, I think, is this idea of is this difference that we see in these manifestations of the pyramid text, are they indeed gendered? And what do we mean by that?

Do we mean gendered as in gendered according to the person who selected the text, or do we mean gendered in terms of the idea of-- sometimes we get this idea of "the Osiris." You know, after you die, you become the Osiris. Women can become the Osiris. And Osiris is a man, but yet sometimes is gendered as female.

So in and of itself, it's this very squishy-- and this is something that Egyptian religion does that I think moderns hate. Ancient Egyptian religion is squishy. It doesn't have these hard and fast divisions. So yeah.

MARIAM AYAD: Yeah. Well, you know, Heather McCarthy has done some wonderful work on the tombs of Tawosret and Nefertari, where it's very clear that those queens have to bend their gender in order to achieve an afterlife. They had to become an Osiris. And I think, if I'm not mistaken, they had amulets in the shape of penises attached so they become fully male.

Now, that's what was so intriguing about the Text of Amenirdis, is that she avoids those [INAUDIBLE] that forced her to alter her gender. Her texts are fully feminized, grammatically speaking. We joked a bit about the parts as well, and why not bring it up? So here it comes, everything is feminized. So the feminine T, it's always there, sometimes in the form of the flat T, the "tchu." So it's a more pronounced sound, even.

Not once is she ever referred to with a male pronoun. All the text throughout, whether it's Opening of the Mouth, solar hymns, or pyramid texts, they're completely modified grammatically to suit her gender. And that's what we see also, in the iconography, whether her or Shepenwepet, her successor, they take on royal rituals that even when Hatshepsut had to take them, on she had to assume male costume and regalia, whereas these God's Wives, they appear completely feminine.

In fact, they sometimes appear extra voluptuous, as if to emphasize their curves. So that was my initial interest in their texts, in addition to the value in looking at why would someone use a text that was, at that point, 2,000 years old for their own benefit. My work on her texts showed that-- you know, the pyramid texts, she had over 800 spells to choose from, 700-plus. And she only picked the eight. And those eight were very precisely selected and very deliberately placed along the walls of her chapel, that their placement complemented the content.

So it was very intelligent design-- if I may borrow a phrase-- in terms of selecting the architectural form, in terms of deciding on the layout. And of course, and then I got so wrapped up in the idea of the [INAUDIBLE] reading of the Opening of the Mouth Ritual. And I spent some years looking at that. So my involvement with Harwa was essentially not to look at gender issues, but rather to strictly look at whether I can make a case for the [INAUDIBLE] reading for the Opening of the Mouth there. And of course, I'm still working on this because it's a mess on many levels.

But what came out of that is that they so clearly have such very different texts, even though on the outside, if you just list them, OK, versions of Book of the Dead, chapter 15 for solar hymns, pyramid texts, Opening of the Mouth, you would be tempted to think they are similar. But they could not be more different. And in fact, his selections, at least from the pyramid texts, are more in line with what you find in that whole cemetery. So the Amenirdis texts are unique.

So it's not just that they're different from his, but they're also different from other contemporaries. There are two big tombs from slightly later point in time, the Tomb of [INAUDIBLE] and the Tomb of [? Irtieru, ?] both from the very late 25th Dynasty or the 26th. And again, they don't have what she has, even though they're women.

So at the moment, I'm involved with [INAUDIBLE] project with Elena Pischikova so we can have access to [? Irtieru, ?] who's a female scribe, by the way, incidentally--


MARIAM AYAD: --in the service of another God's Wife, Nitocris. So unfortunately, Elena couldn't make it here today. But again, this selection needs to be studied, not just in terms of intertextuality, transmission, but why did the women choose what they chose? And I think in our field, in general, the questions of why are always the hardest to answer.



JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: I think that we actually stepped on what you were trying to say.

ANN BRAUDE: I just was-- thank you, Jackie. You know, we could be flies on the wall and listen to you talk for hours, but I also want to invite our audience to type their questions into the Q&A so that we can add them to the discussion with these two scholars. So that's all I wanted to say.


JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: It's an interesting point that you bring up, that in each of these examples that you've reviewed, I think that very often, when people look at things from ancient Egypt, that due to the fact that it's so different from modern Western art and modern Western religion, that due to the religious precepts and ideas and concepts of ancient Egypt, to a modern, it looks repetitive. It looks identical. It's only when you really start to gain that insider view, so to speak, that you see the differences stand out dramatically.

And I think that, possibly, this illusion of similarity is perhaps what has led us down the garden path of assuming that this diversity of belief, diversity of action, diversity of opinion, and things like this can perhaps be elided over. And I think that one of the things that you're bringing up, very successfully, is that this demonstrates that identity can be found in the actual selection of these texts. So this may be able to give us a view into who these people were, on that deep level, of what did they believe? What did they think? What did they value?

And not only that, what did they value so much that they wanted to be sure that it was placed in this public monument that is a monument not only to them and their success and everything else, but also that will, indeed, influence their identity in the afterlife as well? And I think that, again, it's something that some people don't realize, is that in ancient Egypt, your soul could inhabit your text after you died. And so you don't just-- so it's not just there on your tombstone, like it is today, to talk to somebody who is visiting your tomb.

Instead, it's about you, yourself, can actually then go into a text and your soul can actually be embodied on this living realm if it contains your name. And so this speaks to an enormous amount of identity and questions of self. And so I think that the questions of evidence, how can we get at the evidence of identity or individual belief? I think the Egyptians are showing us exactly what they thought and what they felt, it's just that we're not listening to them in a way.

MARIAM AYAD: And also not only are we not listening, I encountered, while working on the Opening of the Mouth, this attitude that these texts don't deserve any analysis. They are often treated by scholars as if they're wallpaper. And you have to wonder, why would they select them if they were not relevant?


MARIAM AYAD: And there's a question here about whether-- you comment on fluidity, which would make it easier for us to study the religion. I'll let you answer that. I have my own thoughts, but you go first, and--

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: So I want to make sure that I actually read it. So yeah, it's a really great question. So the thing is that-- "to interpret without feeling that they're reading of meaning is--" Yeah, so in that case, so Egyptologists are--

ANN BRAUDE: Jackie, I think we should reiterate the question.


ANN BRAUDE: And perhaps I can help with that, to give you just a minute to think.

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: Go for it. Do it. Do it.

ANN BRAUDE: So we have a wonderful question from Professor Rami Ali, who's joining us from the American University in Cairo, where she is a professor in the anthropology department. And so she's bringing the anthropological perspective, which I love.

And she asks that, "if Egyptian religion was very fluid, as Professor Williamson suggests, shouldn't that suggest that the ritual was subject to interpretation? And shouldn't that make it easier for Egyptologists to interpret without feeling that they're reading of meaning fixes or curtails other interpretations? Speaking as an anthropologist, we encounter these problems of representation all the time, but we try and contextualize and illustrate why particular readings are reasonable while always being partial."

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: And I think that this is a great point. And this is exactly the sort of thing that I think that we need to start bringing more of into our field. Again, one of the things that we have in Egyptology is that our field is a relatively young one. And so we actually really only understood ancient Egyptian language in a sophisticated way. I want to emphasize that, sophisticated way, since maybe 1920s, 1930s.

And the Egyptians had 3,000 years to tell us a lot of stuff in their text. As a result, we're still paddling like crazy ducks against a stream, trying to gather together all of this basic data. So one of the problems that we have, as a field, is that we have this deep sense that we know we can't put our fingers around all the data because we don't have it yet. This is the difference between sort of like-- and I'm not-- I agree with you completely. I want to emphasize that.

I agree with you completely, that one of the problems, I think, that we have is that we want to encompass stuff. And it's very difficult to do. First off, for 3,000 years, and then also we know that we don't have the data. And the data that we do have is fragmentary and problematic. And so this leads to this sort of excessive caution.

And Egyptology being, again, at its very basis, is very old fashioned, almost Germanic field of extreme positivism. We want to point at something and say, see, that's the answer, because it's a little bit easier, I think. And I think that you're exactly right that anthropology offers a more fluid approach that is actually more-- the Egyptian religion was not so-- one God can turn into another God, often its equal opposite.

And Egyptians didn't believe the same thing all over the same country. One area, one town, would believe a totally different creation myth than the one right up the road. And that was fine. That was considered completely fine. Like it wasn't-- they never went to war over religion in that way that we do now. And so trying, as moderns, to sort of encompass this fluidity becomes very problematic, I think, for Egyptologists.


JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: I want to know what you think, Mariam.

MARIAM AYAD: If I may interject something here, I think another problem that we have is that we often tend to treat the 3,000 years of Egyptian culture as if they're monolithic, when they're quite different. So diachronic pronouncements that plagued the earlier literature, taking some bits of information from pyramid texts and then something from the Greco-Roman period, and meshing them as if they present a coherent narrative is just fiction.

So I think for young students and graduate students, one of the major struggles is they want a linear narrative of religion or art, especially of religion, and there isn't [INAUDIBLE] And if you try to push them too hard, you think synchronically rather than diachronically, then they can become frustrated or let it be.

So back to Rami's point-- and he's a dear colleague-- is Egypt-- so the question presumes that you want to understand the religion, Rami. And unfortunately, our field is so descriptive, to the extent that we forget that these religious practices, these religious beliefs were practiced. So often, we're so wrapped up into--

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: That's a good way to put it. That's a really good way to put it.

MARIAM AYAD: So often, we're so wrapped up in the manifestation of the different gods, or the 75 names of Amun-Re, which is, again, a constructed number. It's not a real number. And we forget that for one individual, they may have just known the god in one name, at one point. And that's it. And again, it's like Jackie said, we're very positivist, data driven field.

But sometimes, even when the data's there, it's become-- because we have an embarrassment of riches, in terms of how much evidence we have, then the attitude is, hmm, can we really trust that evidence? Maybe it's not quite representative, especially if it goes against some ingrained bias. And I've come across that in my own work repeatedly.

So if people believe that the Opening of the Mouth is just there as wallpaper, it's very hard to move them to an idea of seeing how these texts actually functioned, in a particular monument, to enact the revivication of a deceased, for instance. And that's not even talking about gender. That's just talking about pre-conceived ideas. And people are very hard pressed to change and to make any changes in their mindset.

And then they move to the other side of it, is-- so these women, all these chantresses, they had-- there's so many that were Chantresses of Amun . And if there were that many, then the title must have been honorific. But then the material culture evidence is that these women were very wealthy. So they try to decouple the title from the accumulation of wealth that is so evident. And the objects in the museums are treated as disembodied objects, as if they did not ever belong to anyone, let alone being a mummy case for someone.

So I can rant forever.

ANN BRAUDE: Well, before you do that, we just have a few more minutes and we have some fascinating questions. So I'm going to read two different questions and let both of you chime in during our last few minutes here. We have a fascinating question from another Egyptologist, Solange Ashby, who asks-- she says, "Certainly, it can't be any coincidence that Amenirdis felt completely comfortable feminizing her funerary texts as a Kushite woman from a culture where powerful women are so central to the society."

So I'd love to hear you comment on that, but I also want to throw out another really fascinating question from a recent research associate, the sociologist Jyoti Puri, who asks about a larger question. "What is the role of death and mortuary rituals in Egyptology?" So she wants to know what this can tell us, not just about the dead, but also about death itself. And, yeah. I'll--

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: So Mariam, why don't I let you answer that first question, because that's definitely in your bailiwick.

MARIAM AYAD: OK. So Solange, great that you are with us. Very excited to have you. Definitely. Amenirdis comes from a very long line of powerful women, and then her successors back in Nubia continue to perform, very visibly, in the temple, smiting enemies, mastering power. Yeah, so the Nubian connection's definitely there. Her immediate predecessor, Shepenwepet I, as you know from the presentation I did for students earlier, was also quite unique in appropriating a lot of royal rituals, including the suckling by a goddess, the crowning by Amun-Re.

So I agree with you that Amenirdis, as a Kushite woman, would have been very proud of her femininity. But also, she came into a position where already the unthinkable had happened, with Shepenwepet I, with the appropriation of these very sacred scenes, royal scenes. So it's not an either/or proposition. I think it's both, that being a Kushite enabled her to fill that role more comfortably.

One of the earliest papers I published talked about the demise of the office, in which I actually argued that once the Persians invaded Egypt, they couldn't appoint a Persian woman as a God's Wife of Amun because Persian women in the court were not socialized to become independent, not financially and not, definitely, to hold any position of power. So Shepenwepet established her power as a [INAUDIBLE] God's Wife. Amenirdis, as a Kushite, saw that as an opportunity and capitalized on it, expanded on it.

And her texts [INAUDIBLE] a unique-- none of the others have such an extensive selection of funerary texts.


--do the other about funerary religion.

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: Sure. So how exciting is that? I mean, oh my god, I could listen to you talk forever about-- I mean, first off, hello, the name Shepenwepet. Can we just say that many, many times? That's awesome.

So one of the things that's really an interesting point here, that, actually, I kind of want to take this question about death and mortuary identity and sort of turn it into a broader sort of examination of our field. One of the things that I think that many people think is because the majority of the evidence that we have, that's shown on the Discovery Channel or whatever and the stuff that is really, really well preserved, is mortuary. And so what this gives is an accidental perception that the Egyptians were obsessed with death. And they weren't.

It's just that those are the sparkliest, most interesting monuments that catch the eye. You can't ignore a pyramid, and you can't ignore these amazing Gods Wives monuments because they're huge, they're beautiful, they're extraordinary. But of course, they're designed to last forever because that's their job, is to last forever. And so we do have evidence for daily life, beliefs and things like this. And so what this can do though is this gives the misperception that the Egyptians were obsessed with death. They were not. They were actually obsessed with life. They loved living, and they were-- and that's one of the reasons that we see this attempt to continue this eternal life.

And so when we do examine material, very often, it ends up dovetailing into these ideas of death because that's the best preserved evidence. However that's not the majority of our evidence. And so it does give the sort of misleading understanding about not only Egyptians, but also Egyptology in and of itself, because there's a lot of [INAUDIBLE] that we do that has nothing to do with death either.

And so that's just sort of that. So we actually don't study those sorts of ideas. I mean, because it's actually wouldn't be-- I think if you went up to an ancient Egyptian-- now, of course, our colleagues here may fundamentally disagree with me about this-- but I think that if we ask them sort of existential questions that we have today about death, life, et cetera. I think that their cultural viewpoint would have been so fundamentally different that I don't know that they would have even asked the same kinds of questions.

And this is the problem, I think, in our field, is trying to figure out what questions do we need to even ask. Because sometimes, we're asking the wrong question or fundamentally asking the wrong question because it's not how the Egyptians view their world. And it's one of the hardest aspects of our field, is trying to figure out what questions to ask properly to put ourselves in that Egyptian mindset.

So it's a great question. It's a really, really great question.

MARIAM AYAD: And if I may just say one thing. The bias also has to do with the types of monuments that survive. The Egyptians lived in mud brick houses, but built monuments of stone for eternity, literally, for their tombs and [INAUDIBLE] So the evidence has this inherent bias. But also, in terms of the genesis of our field, people were very interested in glittery, beautiful, objects for their museum collections.

So they would toss away the daily life pots and keep the golden ones meant for the afterlife. But essentially, what I'm trying to do this year is in a way, take a step back. Because any time we find change, the change implies agency. Some actor made a decision about something, and that decision is made within the cultural context in which they live in, but that decision also has an impact on their ecosystem and their cultural context. So it's a cycle.

But unless we look at these decisions as based in the individual, work on [INAUDIBLE] selections then becomes mute-- moot, rather. And muted, both, because who made these selections, right? So this idea of intertextuality-- I think a colleague, [INAUDIBLE] is in the audience, and he's been doing a lot of good work on this. But who made those selections? Who made those quotations and inserted them in later texts?

So the agent is there. It's the idea of trying to identify who the agent is and their impact long term.

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: I know that we're also starting to kind of go over our time limit here, so God bless the people who are still hanging on. But one of the things, I think, that is so fascinating about this is the question is, who, then, is the agent? Who is decide, so to speak, who is deciding the selection of text? And it does seem that if you say, for example, as Mariam and I were talking about before, if you go back to the reign of Amenhotep III, which is before this time period that we're talking about, for the God's Wives of Amun, a lot of Amenhotep III's courtiers took part in his jubilee ceremonies, of which he had many.

And a lot of them-- it's a big deal to be part of these things. And so a lot of them will show the moments of those rituals that they, themselves, participated in. So that could not have been a selection by the artist. That had to be the owner of the tomb saying, hey, I want you to show the ritual where I did this thing because that's important for my identity and my role in my society. And so this has to be on my tomb walls. So if it was just a question of, oh, all the people who who took part in the jubilee festival have to show the jubilee festival, which might just be Amenhotep III standing there in his jubilee regalia, then it would be identical.

It would be identical from tomb to tomb to tomb to tomb. But they're not. They're fundamentally different. And that, in and of itself, indicates that the owner of the tomb is playing a very active role in terms of the decision making process of what actually goes on these tomb walls. And that most certainly then also indicates that the God's Wives of Amun are most certainly, who are-- and the God's Wives of Amun were phenomenally powerful. I mean, they were on the level of the king. In some instances, more powerful, depending upon what time period you're in.

And why would they not then have equal agency in selecting not only the content, the images and et cetera, that they put on their tombs? And that, again, also indicates, again, if this is a conscious selection, then that means that's a reflection of that person, it's a reflection of their interests, and a reflection of their ideas. And so that's very exciting. And if we can start looking at it in that way, not as an abstract, as you were saying so brilliantly, wallpaper, but rather as them telling us.

So it's like in fiction, right? What do they tell you? They tell you to show and not tell. Well, they're showing us, not telling us, you know? And so why don't we listen to what they're showing us?

MARIAM AYAD: I'll tell you why, very briefly, if I may, Ann, for a minute here. There is a presumption of ignorance that permeates our scholarship, as regards to ancient Egyptians. And it doesn't matter whether you're talking about a woman, like a God's Wife, who I believe was, of course, highly educated, but other people may disagree. But it also speaks to regular people. The question of literacy has been coming up over and over and over again, to the extent that I believe there's a paper published recently about questioning whether the kings themselves were literate. And I think the conclusion at the end, yes, they were. But they had to make this very elaborate argument to construct why they were literate.

So again, how can you make a choice if you cannot read? Or if someone narrates the text to you, are you well educated enough, versed enough in the funerary literature to know what you want? So I think in our scholarship, sadly, there's this presumption of ignorance that we apply across the board to ancient Egyptians, to the advantage and benefit of these mysterious priests who are never named, and who are the designers of everything single thing.

ANN BRAUDE: So I'm going to ask one last question, and then we are going to close. We've gone a bit over, but this is such a fascinating conversation and there are still 50 people on the call. So we will invite them for another two minutes. I'm going to give the last question to Professor Jacob Olupena, who extends this conversation with the observation that-- well, a question, really, of whether our students' overexposure to Western epistemology and theories is a problem in their scholarship and in your field, in particular.

And he asks, "Is contemporary Egyptian life and culture helpful in understanding the past?" And I just want to extend that question to give Mariam an opportunity to reflect, with us, on your decision to move back to Egypt and to be an Egyptian Egyptologist in Egypt, which is a fairly unusual category and one that I think is extremely important. And I would love to hear you respond to Professor Olupena with any observations you want to offer on that issue.

MARIAM AYAD: Thank you, Ann. Well, I would like to bring in Jackie about the Western epistemology, because in my view, our field suffers from a dearth of theory, to the extent that a colleague shared that their dissertation advisor told her off when she tried to bring in some anthropological theory to understand Egyptian religion. So she had to toss out that chapter and rewrite it. And he said to her, point blank, we don't do a anthropological theory here. And that's a very prestigious institution. I think she's still on the call, so she can or cannot identify. I may have misrepresented that.

And that's just my impression. But again, my training has been very skewed. I've been an Egyptologist since undergraduate. I could do that AUC, as an undergrad. I did a degree in Egyptian literature and archaeology as an MA, and I did a degree in Egyptology. So coming to this, sometimes I feel very ill equipped. So that's why I doubly appreciate the opportunity to be here this year, because of the interdisciplinary conversations I'm able to have. And I've been learning so much on a practical level and on a theoretical level, just on issues of even agency, right?

So that's about the theory. But again, my training is very skewed. Very immersed in the field. In terms of contemporary Egyptians, contemporary Egyptians, for the most part, are quite divorced from their past. They don't view themselves so much as descendants of the pharaohs unless there's a soccer match and they want to ramp up the [INAUDIBLE]

But generally speaking, I've had a mentor, currently a colleague, at the AUC, whose work has really focused on cultural idiom, whether it's in religious practice or in the vernacular of Egyptian Arabic. And she's ingrained in me, and in her own work, the importance of doing ethno-Egyptology and the success she's had there.

So I've tried to apply some of it, like if there's a turn of phrase that is especially cumbersome to render in English, then if I think of it in colloquial Egyptian, then it makes sense and I can provide an intimate translation occasionally. There's also, according to her work, some religious practices that have to do with having a meal at the tombs, with the deceased, on feast days, that are still practiced. Certain phrases that are said today in commemoration of the departed that we can show our direct descendants of tomb decoration, like the [INAUDIBLE] at the top of the tomb is something that's often referred to.

And she's been able to demonstrate that these are essentially Egyptian and not-- because, you know, Egypt had a lot of cultures and it's been a long time since then. But in these two instances or more, that was very clearly demonstrated. But aside from that, Egyptians are totally decoupled from their past, to the extent that they can desecrate and loot monuments. And they think that these monuments belong to the tourists. There's no sense of national ownership of that culture. And it's sad and breaks our hearts.

And that's partly why I moved back. Ann, to circle back to your question, because one of my colleagues Monica Hanna, has been very vocal about the importance of cultural preservation. And she's a very courageous woman, and did tremendous work combating looting and shedding light on the state of looting since 2011.

And I thought, you know, I'm here in a comfortable job, tenured in Memphis, but essentially isolated from all the action. And in the fervor post-2011, I thought maybe the most revolutionary thing I can do is move back and be the best scholar I can be, where I may be more needed. But it turns out I'm still in an ivory tower at AUC. It's quite isolated.

But outside of school and the limited number of students that we have, I may be able to support colleagues who are in the field there.

ANN BRAUDE: Well, thank you so much. I think that's a wonderful place for us to put a period on this fascinating conversation. I really want to thank you both for illuminating not only how much and how important it is for Egyptologists to learn from gender theory, but also how students of religion and gender can learn from Egyptology, and how much we have to learn about the limitations of our own time specific and very modernly oriented database that has been the basis for most gender theory.

So it's really wonderful to have both of you pushing in both directions for an interdisciplinary conversation, including both gender and Egyptology. Please join me in thanking these two scholars for a wonderful conversation.

MARIAM AYAD: Thank you, Jackie.

JACQUELYN WILLIAMSON: Thank you, Mariam. This was a lot of fun. And hello to all of our dear friends in the attendees column, who are still there, 37 of you. God bless all of you. And it's lovely to see you all.

ANN BRAUDE: And we look forward to seeing all of you at another WSRP lecture. And if you're an Egyptologist working in gender studies, please apply to become a future research associate at Harvard Divinity School.