Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum
Walters show delves into ancient Egyptian book
Published: December 25, 2013
Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum
The Walters Art Museum
Through Jan. 5
With its glass-bottomed boats and plentiful alligators, Silver Springs was once the premier tourist destination in Florida. Earlier this year, the quasi-amusement park was taken over by the state park service, but if you grew up in a certain era and traveled there, your mind may still be festooned with gaudy tourist maps and neon superimposed over darkly slithering reptiles.
Take this image, but turn the alligators into crocodiles and make them gods. Then push the whole thing back several thousand years and place it not in the gaudy world of American tourism but in the mysterious world of Roman Egypt, and you’ll have a pretty good sense of what Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum, on display at the Walters Art Museum through Jan. 5, is like.
Or at least you’ll get an idea. The scroll describes the Faiyum region of Egypt in geographical, ecological, and religious terms—and part of what makes it fascinating is the way these categories had not yet been separated from one another at the time the book was written. Unlike most mid-20th-century tourist maps, the scroll that holds the Book of the Faiyum is exquisitely rendered by hand, by a series of scribes in Egypt sometime around 2,000 years ago. The images look more like Joe Sacco’s stunningly illustrated scroll-book The Great War than any strictly commercial product. Like Sacco’s depiction of the Battle of the Somme, the Book of the Faiyum provides a bird’s eye view of its subject. This papyrus was split up, however, in the 19th century and is now reunited for the first time in over 150 years, allowing its cartographic function to become apparent. (Ancient authors saw it as a mythological labyrinth rather than a mythopoetic depiction of the landscape).
The Faiyum region was a desert oasis dominated and defined by Lake Moeris, out of which the sun rose and into which it set each evening (the local myth of the creation of the lake set the entirety of creation in motion). Both the daily and yearly solar cycles are represented in the lives of many ancient gods. (It is not an accident that we are celebrating the birth of the Judeo-Roman sun god, as we could justifiably describe Jesus, on the day this issue is published, just after the winter solstice, when the sun is reborn after the winter; nor is it an accident that this same sun god goes down into the underworld.) In Egypt, the sun god was Ra, or Re, and he took many forms depending on the locality. In the Faiyum region, a cow lifts the reborn sun god into the sky in the morning. By evening, Re becomes a ram’s-headed god before he sinks into the lake to become Sobek-Re, the crocodile god central to a region whose major city was known as Crocodilopolis. It is Sobek-Re who nocturnally swims across the bottom of the lake to allow the sun to be reborn the next morning. “The mystery of Sobek is the mystery of Sobek-Re, steadfastly forever,” reads text taken from the Book of the Faiyum.
Sobek is a bad motherfucker, as is evident not only from the beautifully drawn images of him on the scroll but from a stunning statue of the god dating from somewhere between 1831 and 1786 BCE—yes a 4,000-year-old statue of a Crocodile god! If the Walters really wanted a blockbuster exhibit, they could have courted the History Channel set and promoted the show as having to do with how our reptile alien overlords built the pyramids, because, looking at this statue, that’s sort of how you feel—like you are facing something entirely alien. It’s a long distance to travel between this fearsome creature and the bearded dude of Western art. And if anybody could build some goddamned pyramids, it would be a creature like this.
Like 2011’s Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes, this exhibition is important but not evidently so. If one cannot read the hieroglyphics on the scroll, the 20-foot-long document is interesting enough but would hardly warrant an entire exhibition. Fortunately, the Walters has a spectacular Egyptian collection with which to provide the context necessary to make the scroll come to life. Without the statue of Sobek, the god would seem neither as fearsome nor as real. The statues of other gods, arranged to mirror their ordering on the scroll—such as Horus trampling Set, in antelope form; and Ptah, the creator of Memphis; Osiris, the god of the afterlife; the jackal-headed Anubis; and Isis, wife of Osiris and father of Horus—go a long way to liven up the exhibition. But as long as they are providing such supplemental material, the Walters could have spelled out the soap-operatic relationship between this pantheon a little more clearly. Osiris, Isis, and Set are all born from the coupling of the earth and the sky. Set kills Osiris and cuts him up, scattering the pieces of the god. Isis searches and finds them, all but his penis, which has been eaten by a fish, causing Osiris, separated from the power of procreation, to become the god of the dead and the underworld, even though he has managed to impregnate Isis with Horus, who then avenges his father. Though the Walters provides some material on the ways in which local and national religion fit together in Egypt, it would have been interesting to have a clearer picture of how Sobek fit into this story, if at all.
Nevertheless, the supplementary material—including audio recordings and interactive computer exhibits—can easily keep one busy for an entire day. And even if the actual Book of the Faiyum can only repay so much study to the non-Egyptologist, perhaps its greatest function is to get us to walk up the stairs and revisit the Walters’ astounding collection of Egyptian art.
Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum is on display at the Walters Art Museum through Jan. 5.
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