The Old and the New, Religion or Art / by Jeannine Cook

Papyrus barges

Papyrus barges

Sunken City at mouth of Nile

Sunken City at mouth of Nile

Every time you step into a museum, something new and fascinating swims into your consciousness. The magic happened again yesterday as I was in the most interesting British Museum exhibition, Sunken Cities, Egypt's Lost Worlds. Presenting amazing artifacts recovered from on-going underwater archeological work in the re-located sunken ports of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus at the mouth of the Nile, the exhibition tells of the new insights into life in Egypt during the last four hundred years or so BC.

With Egypt opening itself up again to trade and immigration from the rest of the Mediterranean at this time, these two ports and slightly inland Naukratis were highly cosmopolitan trading centres, with many Greeks settling among the Egyptian populations. There was thus an active intermingling of cultures and religious beliefs and practices that has become much more evident thanks to these archeological finds. One of the clearest indications came from the astonishingly well-preserved Royal Decree of Sais stele, where the pharaoh set out parameters of trade for the ports.

The Royal Decree of Sais, underwater

The Royal Decree of Sais, underwater

380 BC stela with text recording a royal decree stating that a tenth of the taxes collected on imported goods should be donated to the temple of the goddess Neith in Sais, Nectanebo I, Late Period, (image courtesy of Kenneth Garrett)

380 BC stela with text recording a royal decree stating that a tenth of the taxes collected on imported goods should be donated to the temple of the goddess Neith in Sais, Nectanebo I, Late Period, (image courtesy of Kenneth Garrett)

What I then discovered to be a wonderful confluence of the old and the new, whether it be considered religion or art, or a mixture of both, was what happened during the Mysteries of Osiris. This was an annual event, the most important religious celebration in Egypt; when the Nile waters fell, from Mid-October to mid-November, the fertile soil was deposited and the ground was thus left for seed to be sown. At this time, Osiris, god of the underworld, but also of transition, resurrection, and regeneration. was celebrated in elaborate ceremonies.

Two figures of Osiris were secretly prepared for later procession on the river by the temple priests. One figure was a complex mixture of fragrant seeds, herbs and even ground semi-precious stones, the other of soil, barley grains and water. The moulds for these figures were in gold, and sycamore (a wood associated with Osiris' rebirth) and of a special length of one cubit (52.5 cm.),

Osiris vegetans moulds, from Dendara (Image courtesy of Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

Osiris vegetans moulds, from Dendara (Image courtesy of Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

The barley-soil figure, known today as "Osiris vegetans", had a human face, and wore the crown of Upper Egypt. Its two halves of the mould, packed with the barley and soil was placed in a massive granite garden tank and watered for eight days, until the barley germinated. The figure was then dried in the sun, wrapped in strips of linen.

Pink granite "garden" tank, still underwater at Thonis-Heracleion

Pink granite "garden" tank, still underwater at Thonis-Heracleion

Osiris, with wheat growing from his body. From a bas-relief at Temple of Philae. The sprouting wheat implied resurrection.

Osiris, with wheat growing from his body. From a bas-relief at Temple of Philae. The sprouting wheat implied resurrection.

Later, on the tenth day of the Mysteries of Osiris, thirty-three other gods were put on papyrus barges with Osiris' barley-soil figure, illuminated with 365 oil lamps, and floated down the Nile.

What caught my imagination in this description and exhibit of Osiris vegetans' moulds and vast garden germination tank was the delicious parallel with what I had recently seen again with land artist, Alain Bresson, in his amazing forest green giants in Argentenay, Burgundy. Just as the Egyptian priests did with the germinating barley for Osiris, Alain carefully plants grains in mesh and affixes them to his tree sculptures in the forest, often making the sprouting grains the contrast to the moss he also uses. His care and devotion to these sculptures is fervent; he works seasonally, scouting the forest for potential sculptures in winter. Then in spring he starts the process of shaping and growing, sowing and sprouting. just like the Egyptian priests as they prepared for Osiris' renewal of life each year.

Le Geant Vert 2, Alain Bresson, living sculpture in Forest of Argentenay

Le Geant Vert 2, Alain Bresson, living sculpture in Forest of Argentenay

For an exhibition at the "Jardin des arts", Alain Bresson prepared two scultpures covered with moss and sprouting grains, which were regularly watered. Baptised Mamhutte and Pachymachabec, they stood 2 m and 5 m high respectively. (Image courtesy of Le Monde)

For an exhibition at the "Jardin des arts", Alain Bresson prepared two scultpures covered with moss and sprouting grains, which were regularly watered. Baptised Mamhutte and Pachymachabec, they stood 2 m and 5 m high respectively. (Image courtesy of Le Monde)

i love these unexpected links between times past and present. In truth, we humans still create with the same fervour and energy today as did our ancestors, even if the optic guiding this creation is ostensibly different.