Tutankhamun for the Twenty-first Century: Modern Misreadings of an Ancient Culture

Robert K. Ritner

The following text was delivered at the first inaugural celebration for incoming University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer, hosted by the Chicago Society at the Field Museum of Natural History, Thursday, October 26, at 7:30 PM.


It is an honor for me to participate in the inaugural festivities for our president Robert Zimmer by providing a brief introduction to the Tutankhamun exhibition that awaits you. In proper University of Chicago fashion, however, your raw enjoyment of the exhibit should be leavened by the requisite dose of intellectual provocation, and I hope to leave you with a few questions to ponder as you go where thousands before you have flocked, been fascinated and departed with modern artifacts of sphinxes, mummies and bobble-headed Tuts. I speak as a repeat offender.

I. Mere Glitter?

Thirty years ago, an earlier Tut exhibit, of which I was a part, initiated the phenomenon of "blockbuster exhibits," and our own presence here tonight is the direct result of the little diminished cultural sway of such installations and of Tutankhamun in particular. Yet why are we here? Media pundits have regularly derided these types of exhibits as pandering to the unsophisticated, a criticism --it could be argued-- that is motivated perversely by their very popularity. Kevin Nance, art critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has uncharitably characterized "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" as "glitter"1 for "the crowd who just want to see the shiny stuff."2 If you are tempted by such anti-populist arguments, then you must augment tonight's viewing with a visit to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which is the permanent repository for both the most imposing statue of Tutankhamun outside of Cairo and a large collection of the crockery used during the funeral banquet of the king, ceremonially buried and wrongly assumed when discovered in 1907 to be the full burial regalia of Tut.3 The statue is imposing and the pottery dishes humanizing, yet neither glitter and we have adequate crowd control. It is, however, a useful corrective to know that the "boy-king" buried with so much gold was fêted at death with little clay cups holding "7 grapes" and that the king's monuments were posthumously usurped by his own former major general.

In ancient Egypt, the use of glittering gold was both popular and sophisticated. Regional mines made gold so plentiful that trading partners from what is now Iraq begged that "gold is like dirt in your country, …please send us some."4 Royal burials employed gold not simply because it was valuable, but because it was equated with the brilliant skin of the solar creator, who had "flesh of gold and hair of lapis lazuli." By encasing Tutankhamun in a new golden skin, he is re-embodied as the deathless creator in fulfillment of his name Tut-ankh-Amun, "The living image of Amun." The glitter and "shiny stuff" in the current exhibition was intentional and purposefully significant within the culture that produced it; it is not a distorted assemblage cobbled together by cynical curators. You are welcome to enjoy it without prejudice to either your populist or your elitist sympathies.

II. Culturally Irrelevant?

Far more problematic, and potentially damaging, to the value of the exhibit is the charge of exotic irrelevance. This accusation comes from what should seem an unlikely source, the nominal academic curator for the Field Museum exhibit itself. James L. Phillips, interviewed in the museum's public journal In the Field for summer 2006, made the pronouncement that interest in ancient Egypt is simply an accident of the 1922 discovery of Tut's tomb and without cultural foundation:

"The drama of the discovery entered the psyche of the Western world (Egypt was always in the psyche of the Eastern world)… we think of ancient Egypt as a forerunner of our own cultures, even though that really isn't true. Judeo-Christian-Muslim origins have nothing to do with Egypt. Those cultures began in Mesopotamia or the Levant, not Egypt."5

This is a remarkable charge and would seem to clash with the goals of an institution dedicated to anthropology and the interrelationship of world cultures. It is also false. The refutation of any such assumption was the guiding force behind the foundation of my home institution, Chicago's Oriental Institute. The goals of that institute are enshrined in the decoration of the tympanum over our front door, on which Egypt, followed by the representatives of the ancient Near East, hands over to Greece and the Western world artifacts of education, literacy and sculpture. The Greek recipient holds an Egyptian text that states: "I have seen your beauty."

The influence of, and interest in, Egyptian culture is hardly a product of 1922, though the tomb's discovery certainly did ignite a renewed wave of modern interest. However one describes "our" Western culture, Egypt played an active role from its inception. Few --if any-- Biblical scholars are ignorant of the significance of Egypt both politically and culturally for the development (favorable as well as hostile) of Canaanite and later Hebrew cultures. Levantine Byblos was in fact an Egyptian cultural colony, adopting Egyptian religion, funerary practices and hieroglyphs and serving as a major export center for Egyptian papyrus, imagery and ideas throughout the Aegean. The alphabetical letters that I am reading now derive not from Hebrew or Mesopotamian cuneiform, but from Egyptian hieroglyphs, adapted by Semitic workers in Egypt and spread to the Classical world by Phoenicians. The phoenix is an ancient Egyptian solar bird that rose regularly from its ashes. The official symbol of the University of Chicago is thus an ancient Egyptian deity, borrowed by Greek mythology. Archaic Greek sculpture began as provincial Egyptian art, adopting the Egyptian representational canon. Greek and Egyptian cultures would become closely entwined, with Greek scholars from Hecateus onward visiting, or claiming to have visited, Egyptian priests for theoretical discussions. The occupation of Egypt by Alexander the Great caused Greeks to settle in Egypt, where they married Egyptian wives. Their bi-cultural and multi-cultural descendants would spread Egyptian ideas to the wider Hellenistic world. Egyptian medicine contributed, among other things, soap, the practice of taking the pulse, a rudimentary knowledge of the circulatory system, the world's first comprehensive theory of disease and aging, and a less invasive philosophy of treatment that was unfortunately abandoned by the Greeks in favor of bleeding.6 Later Egyptian theologians were also Greek grammarians, philosophers (including the Stoic teacher of Nero) and active in the Alexandrian schools that would produce the doctrines of nascent Christianity. Egyptian temples, perhaps not incidentally, were regularly dedicated to a divine trinity, and the notion that "all the gods are three without a second" was well established in Egypt by Ramesside times (ca. 1300 BC.) Far earlier, the multiplicity of Egyptian gods could be summarized as "The One God Who Made Himself into Millions."7 For Egyptian intellectuals, monotheism vs. polytheism was a matter of seeing the collective forest or the individual trees. Egyptian religious iconography was adapted for Christian depictions of Madonna and Child and Saint George and the Dragon. Pharaoh was the product of a "virgin birth" wherein the queen was impregnated by the creator to produce an intercessor for his people who was at once human and divine.8 That idea seems to have had some longevity and cultural relevance.

Through Biblical and Classical literature, ancient Egypt was always in the Western consciousness, and far more so than in the Islamic East. The fall of Constantinople brought the Greco-Egyptian Hermetic literature to Renaissance Rome, where it became so intellectually popular that portions of the Vatican were decorated by Pinturicchio with scenes of Isis, Osiris, Horus and the Apis Bull. It is a little-known, but significant fact, that the private apartments of Pope Benedict XVI are illustrated with the same deities worshipped by Tutankhamun, but in Renaissance attire.9 The last heretic burned in Rome (Giordano Bruno in 1600) died for advocating the return of Egyptian religion.

As the conquest of Egypt by Macedonia and Rome initiated a vogue for Egyptomania in the Classical world, so the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon from 1798 to 1801 began not only renewed Egyptomania in European decorative arts but the new field of Egyptology itself. Egyptologists have never had doubts about the relevance of their field. Two Oxford volumes on The Legacy of Egypt (1942 and 1971)10 offer sections on

  1. The alphabet and the hieroglyphic tradition
  2. Calendars and chronology
  3. Mathematics, geometry, astronomy and science
  4. Artistic traditions
  5. Technology and materials
  6. Medicine
  7. Mystery, myth and magic
  8. Language and writing
  9. Literature
  10. Egypt and Israel
  11. Concepts of Law
  12. Greek and Egyptian interactions
  13. Preservation of Greek and Multicultural Hellenistic culture in papyri
  14. Egypt and Rome
  15. Egypt, the Coptic Church, origins of Monasticism and Early Christianity
  16. The legacy to Africa
  17. The legacy to Byzantium
  18. The legacy to Islam
  19. The legacy to Modern Egypt

Any of these topics is worthy of a lecture longer than that of tonight's date, which is, by the way, reckoned by a Roman adaptation of the Egyptian calendar of 24 hours in a day, ideally 30 days in a month, and 12 months in a year of 365 days. Mesopotamia contributed the 60 seconds in a minute - and astrology.

These earlier volumes are now supplemented by a 2003 series of 8 volumes issued by University College London on "Encounters with Ancient Egypt" which provide thorough interdisciplinary coverage of such varied issues as ancient perspectives on Egypt, ongoing western views of Egyptian wisdom and civilization's origin, revised views and appropriations of Egypt since Napoleon, modern Egyptianizing architecture and "consuming ancient Egypt" through media, museum exhibits and gift shops.

Any suggestion that Egypt has not been, or is not now, integral to notions of "our" western civilization is simply false. Yet there are equally fascinating aspects of Egyptian history and culture that are not mere legacies, but are relevant for current political and social discussions. Egypt was the world's first nation state, in which people spoke of themselves as "Egyptians" (rather than clan members) and evolved notions of national (not the king's) boundaries and "our" (rather than the royal) army. A philosophy of "multiplicity of approaches" harmonized regional religious differences so as to synthesize widely varying deities and notions. Hollywood movies notwithstanding, the Egyptian state (aside from the chaotic period just before Tut) did not persecute on the basis of religion. It adopted all foreign gods, including Yahweh. In stark contrast to all of the ancient Mediterranean world (Greece and Rome included) and most of the modern Middle East, by 3100 BC. Egypt had absolutely no tribal divisions, no extended kinship groups but rather nuclear families. The role of women had no equal until early modern times and still seems revolutionary in the Middle East. Egypt was the first community property state, wives automatically inherited 1/3 of the joint property, together with all that they had brought into the marriage, and they could dispose of property as they saw fit without any male interference (unlike in Greece and Rome). Wives did receive alimony payments, and society allowed "no-fault divorces." In the absence of sons, daughters could act as trustees for estates. Marriage was not a religious event and not regulated by the state or temple, and serial monogamy was common. Many, if not most, Egyptians had half-siblings from what we might call "broken homes" yet the society lasted longer than has the modern West and with no apparent ill-effects. Of course, no social stigma was attached to divorce, the culture did not treat women as property and there was no legal concept of "virginity" or even "illegitimacy." Much of the glittering gold that you will see tonight comes from the tomb not of Tutankhamun but of his great grandmother, Tchuya. The prominence of royal women in the exhibit is no accident. Ancient Egypt is fertile ground for critiquing modern social theories.

Tutankhamun came to the throne after one of the most turbulent periods in Egyptian history, and it has been suggested that the opulence of his burial reflects the gratitude of the elite for their deliverance from a revolutionary figure, the king Akhenaton. Akhenaton has been praised as an inspired prophet and monotheist, the first free-thinking individual and a messianic precursor to Christ. I would argue that the option of monotheism long preexisted Akhenaton, and that his true contribution was monotheism's ominous partners, religious intolerance and persecution. Under Akhenaton, worship of the solar disk alone was tolerated and all other gods were banned. The traditional clergy was suppressed in favor of a newly zealous military, which savagely attacked the prominent temples and even ransacked private tombs to erase any mention of the gods (and especially Amun) from personal prayers, names and depictions. Even his father Amunhotep became "blank-hotep." The country faltered politically, socially and economically. Akhenaton has left much work for our Institute's Epigraphic Survey, which copies the surcharged reliefs and texts from the period, and he left generations of ancient Egyptians with beloved monuments horribly defaced. If Akhenaton's regime has a modern corollary, it is the Taliban. With the ultimate failure of Akhenaton's unmourned cultural revolution, it was not a resurgent clergy that prevailed, but, as usual, the military. A dynasty of generals soon followed the ephemeral Tut. They, not the priests, erased his memory.

III. Evil Undercurrent?

A supposed subtext of martial aspects in the Tutankhamun exhibit has provoked Mr. Nance, the Sun-Times' art critic previously mentioned, to produce a review entitled "The Dark Side of King Tut," an article glossed by his paper as "King of Pain."11 While it is hardly unexpected that nationalistic military imagery would be associated with modern commanders-in-chief, Mr. Nance is scandalized by the practice in Egypt. Using Tut's childhood chair as his springboard, Nance writes:

"Its four legs end as lion's paws, their sharp claws full of menace. The rear claws are stained red, as if dripping blood. Its a chill-inducing glimpse of the dark subtext of "Tutankhamun," which was introduced …as embodying Maat, a concept loosely translated as "justice and truth." But as the exhibit itself makes clear, the fabled wealth and advanced culture of ancient Egypt were largely fueled by centuries of imperialist military policy, cutthroat domestic politics, cruel subjugation of enemies and mass enslavement of prisoners of war. Moreover, the existence of the Tut artifacts today is the result of a state religion that combined a major death fixation with an intense materialism …complete with forced labor by servants.

…To stroll through the exhibit…is to be regularly treated, if you look closely enough, to the unselfconscious trumpeting of official brutality."12

This is a rather harsh assessment of claw-footed furniture, which many of you will have at home, and to be fair it is only the dew claws that are of red-stained ivory (perhaps indicating interior veins), certainly not the claws that would be used to rend a victim. More importantly, however, Nance has made a critical error. The military themes are not a subtext of the imagery, they are the very text itself.

Tut's sandals are decorated with prisoner figures, his cane handles with bound enemies, his shields with defeated foes, his footstools with bound prisoners. Simply by making a state appearance, and with no special ritual, the king throttles and crushes underfoot the potential enemies of the state. This is self-conscious trumpeting, but hardly true brutality, since the depictions were intended to prevent the need for real warfare. The intended audience for these religious images was the company of gods, who would thereby ensure that the state was protected against enemy groups who were not killed, but, it was hoped, made powerless to attack. This is no Abu Ghuraib. No real prisoners were injured or humiliated in the enactment, and Maat ("truth and justice") was the intended result.

The guiding force for these features was defensive magic, the primary focus of my own Egyptological research. By using this magical means, Egyptians sought to suppress the force of their political neighbors and avoid actual conflict. Egypt's vaunted empire was not due to inherent bloodlust, but was the response to a century-long invasion of Egypt by Caananities that began about 1665 BC. After expelling the invaders, Egypt created a political (and economic) buffer zone governed through local vassal kings. Local rulers were acculturated into Egyptian society, not purged. While slavery was a component of all ancient societies, Egypt was hardly sustained by "cruel subjugation of enemies and mass enslavement of prisoners of war." Contemporary Egypt was a cosmopolitan society, with unenslaved immigrant communities, cross-cultural influences, foreigners in high social positions and foreign gods welcome at court. The desire to take the pleasures of this world into the next was a religious "life fixation" not a "death fixation," and the "forced labor" in the next world was performed by magical dolls.

Labor in this world was rather different from what is commonly assumed. Nance concludes that: "It's sobering to reflect, too, on the multiple meanings of his ceremonial pharaonic emblems, the shepherd's crook and the flail. The latter is described in the exhibit catalog as referring to a "flywhisk," but you don't need to have seen "The Ten Commandments" to guess what other purpose flails served in ancient Egypt; it may be enough to recall that the pyramids weren't built with union labor."13

The so-called "flail" was no slave-master's whip, but most likely an agricultural instrument, used to harvest ladanum-resin as is still done by shepherds in Crete and Cyprus.14 It is a sad commentary that Hollywood films still dominate our historical "facts," but while the pyramids were not built with union labor, they were built by a WPA project. For the third of the year when the Nile valley flooded and farmers could not work in the fields, they were drafted for national service projects that not only created physical monuments but instilled a sense of national identity. Free Egyptians not only built the pyramids, the pyramids built Egypt.

The idealized image of the Egyptian state is represented by Tut's cosmetic jar that can be seen in the exhibit. Foreign enemies of the state are pinioned helplessly below the jar, in the center the king as a royal lion battles wild animals, the symbols of world chaos, and at top, after the defeat of the chaos of man and nature, the king rests serenely as a victorious lion, clearly indicated by his royal cartouche. This is the religious face of Tut.

IV. Face of Tut?

The conclusion of the exhibit makes much of this issue of the "face of Tut." Ironically, the current iconic emblem that replaces the 1977 exhibit's golden mask is one object that certainly did not originally represent Tut's face. The small coffinette for the separately-embalmed royal liver had been made for Tut's older brother Smenekhare, who briefly shared the throne in Akhenaton's final 2 years and who was hastily buried. Never used, the coffinettes were reinscribed on the interior with Tut's name, but the mounting of the object in this exhibit prevents one from seeing this. A picture of the changed cartouche does flash briefly on the wall. The issue is a bit complicated. In public programs, it has been stated that Tut's images, such as the torso (or "wooden mannequin") were "generic" images of Egyptian royalty, but this is certainly false as even uninscribed objects can be assigned to Tutankhamun on the basis of unmistakable court style. Tut's name was removed everywhere on the Oriental Institute's colossal statue, but the king's identity has never been in doubt. Whether these images are true portraiture in the modern sense is debated, but this was not really the primary purpose of Egyptian art, which, as I have noted, was magical by design. Statues were intended to preserve and house the spirit, and the simple placement of a name could transfer ownership. If an image is said to be Tut's then it would function properly. Thanks to Tut, the gift shop has become an inevitable and genuine cultural feature of blockbuster exhibits, chronicling the reception of the exhibit material into modern culture. By this standard, Tutankhamun has acquired many faces. All of them have ancient religious validity, and some of them have bobble heads.


  1. Kevin Nance, Art Critic, "The Dark Side of King Tut" Chicago Sun-Times 5/26/06, p. 46.
  2. Ibid., p. 47.
  3. Theodore M. Davis, The Tombs of Harmhabi and Touatânkhamanou, London: Archibald Constable & Co., 1912.
  4. The literal translation appears in William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1992, p. 39 (EA 16, from the king of Assyria): "Gold in your country is dirt; one simply gathers it up. …I am engaged in building a new palace. Send me as much gold as is needed."
  5. James L. Phillips, In the Field, Summer 2006, p. 4. Phillips' historical statements concerning Tutankhamun are wrong. Contra Phillips, p. 5, Tut's grandfather Amunhotep III, not his father Akhenaton, is generally called the "Sun King," and Amunhotep III did not enlarge, but rather inherited the vast kingdom.
  6. Robert K. Ritner, "The Cardiovascular System in Egyptian Thought," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65/2 (2006): 99-109; and idem, "Cultural Exchanges Between Egyptian and Greek Medicine," to be published in Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 2007, pp. 183-95.
  7. J. A. Allen, Genesis in Egypt, New Haven: Yale Egyptological Seminar, 1988, p. 54; and R. K. Ritner, "The Great Cairo Hymn of Praise to Amun-Re," in W. H. Hallo and K. L. Lawson, eds., The Context of Scripture, vol. I, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997, pp. 37-40.
  8. The Madonna and Child and St. George imagery has long been discussed, see the overview in R. K. Ritner, "Egyptians in Ireland: A Question of Coptic Peregrinations," Rice University Studies, vol. 62, 1976, pp. 65-87. In the birth reliefs of Amunhotep III at Karnak, the god Amun impregnates the queen mother by holding an ankh to her nose, thus transmitting human and divine life. This is not a "polite avoidance" of a depiction of the act of physical procreation; elsewhere in the temple artists regularly depict the deity as ithyphallic and could have done so here.
  9. Ermanno A. Arslan, Iside: il mito il misterio la magia, Milan: Electra, 1997, pp. 696-97.
  10. S. R. K. Glanville, The Legacy of Egypt, Oxford, 1942; and J. R. Harris, ed., The Legacy of Egypt, 2nd edition, Oxford, 1971.
  11. Kevin Nance, Art Critic, "The Dark Side of King Tut," Chicago Sun-Times 5/26/06, pp. 46-47; glossed as "King of Pain" on p. 1.
  12. Ibid., p. 46. Egyptian religious iconography was intended to convert the hostile into the protective, so that the cobra, jackal and vulture became defenders, not devourers, of the dead. Thus is answered Nance's criticism of "…Tut's dazzling diadem, which sports a cobra and a vulture -- signs of the deities associated with ancient Egypt's upper and lower regions, but also of the obvious: bringer of death, eater of death's leavings" (p. 47).
  13. Ibid., p. 47.
  14. H. G. Fischer, "Geissel," in Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vol. II, Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1977, cols.