Carved or painted wall decoration is a feature of Old Kingdom elite mastaba tombs, for example at Saqqara and Giza. Detailed representations of quantities of material offerings, which might or might not have been present in physical form, were activated or given substance by means of ritual. By the Egyptian belief in the power of the written word to encapsulate the essence or reality of the objects and actions depicted, the captions accompanying the tomb images ensured the provision of agricultural produce, domestic services and all the comforts of home for the deceased in perpetuity.
The focus of the ritual was the chapel where commemorative offerings were made by surviving relatives or the mortuary priests whose services, like the offerings themselves, were paid for from the revenue of the tomb-owner’s funerary endowments. In the absence of physical offerings, the great and varied arrays of food and drink – shown on offering tables, being delivered by bearers, or being produced in fields, kitchens, and workshops – could be made available to the tomb-owner by oral recitation of the descriptive texts. Most importantly, the stela that proclaimed the name and status of the tomb-owner included a formal request for offerings to provide sustenance for the ka-spirit in the next life. Whatever the scale of the offerings and activities depicted on the chapel walls, they could all be condensed into this one, essential formula, introduced by a distinctive and easily recognisable group of hieroglyphs. Known as the Htp di nsw, ‘a gift given by the king’, this formula appealed to the king and the gods to provide the deceased with the basic requirements for the afterlife, a simple ‘wish list’ for eternity.
The introductory phrase preceded the name and epithets of the god with whom the king was asked to intercede to make the donation on the tomb-owner’s behalf. Most commonly this was Osiris, or another of the funerary deities, such as Geb, Anubis, Ptah, or Sokar. This might suggest that the king was personally responsible for providing extensive offerings for all his subjects, or at least his closest officials. However, the next statement, simplified to another distinctive hieroglyphic group, prt-xrw, translates as ‘a voice offering of bread and beer’, revealing that the offerings were envisaged as being made manifest by recitation of the wish list that followed. Bread and beer, signified by a conical loaf and a simple beer jar, were the staples of the diet of all Egyptians, from the royal family to the poorest field hand, and the formula requested loaves and jars by the thousand. Sometimes the list of food requests specified particular types of bread, and wine could be listed as well as, or instead of, beer. Meat was a food indicative of status and prosperity, and was next on the wish list, represented by the words for cattle and fowl, or the heads of an ox and a duck, again numbered in thousands. Despite heaps of fruit, vegetables, and flowers appearing among the images, these commodities are only occasionally included in the list as ‘all growing things’.
More specific requests were likely to be listed in an offering chart or grid, similar in appearance to a modern spreadsheet. The expressions DfA and Htpt, both mass nouns for ‘provisions’ or ‘food supplies’, reinforced the request for generalised food offerings. The catch-all phrase, ‘every good, pure (and sweet) thing on which the gods live’, xt nbt nfrt wabt (nDmt) anxt nTrw im, revealed the tomb-owner’s desire to enjoy, in his next life, only the very best of all foods.
Not all offering requests referred to food. Standard inclusions in the formula were alabaster and linen, representing household wares and clothing, and incense and ointments, necessary for the purification rituals attendant on rebirth or regeneration. At the centre of the false-door stela, the tomb-owner would be depicted seated, often with his wife, at an offering table that might be labelled with the expression dbHt Htp, ‘the requested offerings’. These offerings are then represented by hieroglyphs, each with its own water-lily leaf, the sign for ‘thousand’ (as on the funerary stelae of Mery and Rahotep). The practical requirements of air to breathe and water to drink were sometimes included, as were other less tangible requests for ‘a good old age’, ‘a perfect burial in the sacred land’, and the freedom of movement on all the paths of the next world.
The funerary offering formula, known from the early Old Kingdom, continued in use into Roman times, but its format and placement within the tomb changed over the millennia giving us an idea of what the Egyptians of different periods thought were the essentials for the next life. Many wooden coffins of the Middle Kingdom had interior decoration in the form of painted scenes showing the sorts of provisions and belongings the owner needed in preparation for his rebirth in the ‘Field of Reeds’, the Egyptian paradise. Tomb models of offering-bearers and domestic and agricultural activities replaced the extensive wall scenes, while the offering formula was frequently inscribed in bands around the outside of the sarcophagus. In addition, Middle Kingdom funerary stelae tend to focus on the company of family and friends as an essential contribution towards a contented afterlife.
By the New Kingdom, many of the so-called ‘scenes of everyday life’, which dominated Old Kingdom tombs, became less significant, as images of the funeral rites, the journey to the afterlife, and justification before the gods – primarily Osiris – took precedence. Inscriptions on funerary stelae also tended to focus on the owner’s worship of the gods, who were believed to ease the deceased’s passage to rebirth, and an abbreviated offering formula appeared on funerary furniture, statues, and shabtis. Apart from the archaistic revival during the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties, decorated walls were not generally a feature of tombs from the Third Intermediate Period onwards. Inscriptions painted on coffins and wooden stelae were largely magico-religious texts concerning the transformation of the deceased into an immortal form, but still space was reserved for the standard wish list, since the Egyptians could not imagine life continuing without the bare necessities.
Hilary Wilson is a retired maths teacher and is Chairman of the Southampton Ancient Egypt Society. She is now a freelance lecturer and writer, and is the author of several Egyptological books and articles, as well as the previous Per Mesut series in Ancient Egypt magazine. Under the name Hilary Cawston, she writes fiction with an Egyptian theme.
All images: Hilary Wilson, unless otherwise stated