The ancient Egyptians believed that the first to achieve eternal life following death was the god Osiris. Following his murder by his brother Set, Osiris’ body was scattered throughout Egypt. It was Osiris’ devoted wife Isis who travelled across the country, collecting body parts with the aid of the other gods, to restore her husband. Thus, Osiris became the first mummy and the mythological basis for Egyptian embalming practices.
The present cartonnage mask shows two scenes from this story; at the base of the wig is the mummified Osiris, being worshipped by Isis. We also see Isis in the form of a kite or kestrel as this was the shape she took when fanning magical breath back into Osiris’ mummified body with her wings. Yet interestingly, Osiris does not appear in this depiction, suggesting that Isis is in fact shown fanning life into the wearer of this mask.
It is through painted scenes such as this we can understand how the deceased wished to be transfigured, achieving eternal life in the same way as Osiris himself. This is further emphasised by the use of gilding to the face; the ancient Egyptians believed that the skin of Osiris (and all gods) was formed of gold; its eternal, unchanging nature and solar glow reflecting the divine. As such, a mask such as this was intended to equate its wearer with the divine in the hope of eternal life.
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