He's ancient Egypt's most famous pharaoh. The discovery of King Tut's treasure-filled tomb in 1922 made him an international sensation and a subject of continuing study and analysis.
Most recently, mummy expert Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, has suggested that the mortal remains of King Tutankhamun-including a symbolically erect phallus-may point to a struggle for the political soul of his country.
King Tut's mummy has many strange features that have often been explained as the results of his hurried burial after his untimely death around the age of 19. But Ikram now wonders if these oddities were deliberate attempts at making Tut look like Osiris, the god of the afterlife.
"It's a logical train of thought," Ikram said in a phone interview. "In ancient Egypt, the king was believed to be the god Horus during his reign, and then he became Osiris when he died." So Tut's physical transformation after death may have replicated that mythical trajectory.
Ikram, also a grantee of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, outlined the evidence for Tut-as-Osiris in a new paper published in the journal Études et Travaux, and described below.
Art. The first visual clue comes from the paintings on the north wall of Tut's tomb, where the deceased king is depicted as Osiris. No other tomb in the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of rulers during the 18th and 19th dynasties (1539-1190 B.C.), shows a king in that guise. (Learn more about the painted walls of King Tut's tomb.)
Color. Dark resins flooded King Tut's coffin, were lavishly applied to his body, and were twice poured into his skull after the brain was removed. Perhaps they were so enthusiastically applied to make sure that Tut appeared completely black. Osiris is often shown with black flesh-evoking the rich soil of tilled fields along the Nile, and thus emphasizing the god's association with fertility and rebirth.
Headgear. Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered Tut's tomb and catalogued its contents, described "linen wads and bandages" piled on his head. Carter himself thought these might have represented the tall conical white crown of Osiris. (Read more about the "miraculous and misunderstood" Howard Carter.)
Arms. Many royal mummies from this period have their arms crossed high on their chest. But Tut's are close to his waist. This is similar to the position of Osiris's arms, which causes his elbows to jut out sideways.
Missing body parts. The CT scan performed on Tut's mummy in 2005 showed massive damage to his body consistent with a violent death. His sternum was missing, as were large pieces of ribs and some vertebrae. But there was no heart-and no scarab that would normally have served as a backup for the real thing. (See more pictures of King Tut.)
That was especially strange. According to ancient beliefs, the heart had to be weighed before the deceased could successfully travel to the afterlife. Is its absence a sign that this burial deviated intentionally from tradition?
Embalming incision. This cut was normally made at the side of the abdomen to extract internal organs before mummification. But if King Tut's chest was a gaping wound, why make this cut at all? Also, Tut's incision was unusually large and ran diagonally across the abdomen from the hip to the navel. Ikram suspects this gash was created as another nod to Osiris, who was cut to pieces by his evil brother Seth in Egyptian myth.
Penis. When Howard Carter removed the linens from King Tut's mummy, he discovered that the penis stood upright at an almost 90-degree angle. "I think that was deliberate," said Ikram. In other words, the men who embalmed Tut arranged his penis to give him an erection, again evoking the fertility of Osiris. (To see a close-up of Tut's mummified member, click here and select image P0817.)
There's no double-checking that bit of evidence, though, because the penis fell off the body during the course of its examination by Carter and anatomist Douglas Derry. "We don't have any pictures of it in its priapic [elevated] state. We only have Carter's word for it," said Ikram. "There does seem to have been enough sticky stuff around the base for it to have been erect, though"-in other words, embalmers may have used some sort of glue to position the penis before Tut was entombed.
Photos taken after the mummy had been taken apart (to remove it from the solid-gold coffin) and reassembled merely show a bit of flesh collapsed between Tut's legs. The embalming process, which included 40 days of drying in a local salt known as natron, greatly diminished its size. "Think of a piece of steak that you put in salt," said Ikram. "What happens? It shrivels."
(In 1968, when x-rays were taken of Tut's mummy, his penis was nowhere to be seen. Many people feared it had been stolen, but scientists conducting the CT scan thought they spotted it in the sand that the mummy now lies on, along with other missing parts such a thumb and pieces of vertebrae.)
So what does all this have to do with politics? Everything.
Egypt's previous king was Akhenaten, identified four years ago as Tut's father through DNA. During his reign, Akhenaten not only built a new capital in the desert, but also launched a religious revolution. He suppressed the worship of the country's many gods, brutally attacked the temples of the preeminent god Amun, and encouraged devotion to Aten, the sun god.
It must have been a troubling time, full of turmoil and uncertainty. "Egypt was literally turned upside down during this period," University of Chicago Egyptologist Ray Johnson told me at the time of the 2005 CT scan.
By the time Tutankhamun ascended to the throne, at about nine years of age, the country's top officials had had enough. In the name of their pharaoh, they returned the county's administration to the ancient city of Memphis, brought back the old cults, reopened temples, and rehabilitated Amun.
Tut's mummification served to emphasize this momentous return to normal. The old gods were back in favor and smiling upon a powerful, productive, and traditional Egypt, symbolized by Tut turning into Osiris-literally and mythically-after death.
And maybe he wasn't the only pharaoh who was mummified to make a political statement. "We don't know if his successors might have been mummified in the same way because we don't have their bodies," said Ikram. "But maybe people were mummifying kings differently during a short moment in time then, at the end of the 18th dynasty."
Among the mummies of the 19th dynasty, there's no evidence of that kind of propaganda. There was no need for it. All was right with the world, and life was good once again.
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