Having and Healing in Ancient Egypt and Today

UK Grief Awareness Week (2-8 December) is an initiative from the Good Grief Trust. The idea is to raise awareness of all aspects of grief and loss, and to offer access to a choice of tailored bereavement support to all those grieving in the UK and to those working with the bereaved. Above all, it aims to broaden our understanding of how to support those grieving the loss of someone they love and to open conversations and normalise grief. As we reach the end of Grief Awareness Week, this week’s guest blog from Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan, provides an introduction to the thinking behind Manchester Museum’s forthcoming programme ‘To Have and To Heal’, a unique new project, generously funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund – delivered by the Museums Association. To Have and To Heal will harness the Museum’s world-class Egyptology collection and the incredibly popular fascination with ancient Egyptian material culture and, with specialist support, facilitate sensitive, in-depth conversations around loss and bereavement. The programme aims to build resilience and explore personal reflections of experiences of the pandemic and, as Campbell explains, this use of ancient Egyptian objects echoes their ancient purpose.

Objects from ancient Egypt are among the most recognisable to survive from past societies. They are preserved in abundance, catch the attention, and have conveniently ended up in many parts of the world to be admired by lots of people – both in person and through photos or other forms of reproduction.

  • The back of a gold ancient Egyptian chest ornament
  • Ancient Egyptian decorative chest ornament

Egyptologists try to reconstruct how objects were interpreted by the people of the past who made and used them, although they are hampered by the distance of ancient Egypt from modern perspectives. Pharaonic material culture can, of course, acquire other meanings for subsequent peoples, quite unintended by the objects’ makers. This capacity makes the ‘reception’ of ancient Egyptian art a field of study in its own right. In trying to understand ancient perspectives, we are – to some extent, at least – helped by the fact that the ancient Egyptian elite recorded concepts in writing. Hieroglyphic texts give us an insight into ancient Egyptian perspectives on the world.

Blue glazed amulet of ancient Egyptian lioness-headed godess
Faience amulet of the goddess Sekhmet. c. 900-700 BCE

Items referred to by Egyptologists as ‘amulets’ or lucky charms are among the most common objects to feature in museum collections – because they are bright, colourful, eminently collectable and can be categorised into widely recognised typologies. The ancient Egyptians used a few terms to refer to these objects, notably as ‘sAw’ (pronounced something like ‘sah-oo’) which also simply meant ‘protection’ and indicates the purpose of these items: to protect people from harmful forces and promote the association with positive ones. Among the most common forms is the so-called ‘wedjat eye’ or the ‘Eye of Horus’.

Ancient Egyptian amulets on a string
Selection of amulets, c. 1300 and later.

Mythologically speaking, the eye refers to an episode in the mythological battle between the god Horus and his uncle Seth, a divine ‘ying-and-yang’ balance of cosmic forces. Horus lost his eye in a fight with Seth, but subsequently had it restored by his mother the goddess Isis, who was also a powerful magician.

Ancient Egyptian glazed amulet in the shape of the eye of horus.
Faience amulet in the shape of the wedjat eye. c. 900-700 BCE

The Eye of Horus motif is well known by many people today; it can also be written as the word ‘wedjat’ in hieroglyphic script, meaning ‘complete’, ‘healthy’, or ‘to heal’. The importance of this symbol worn around the neck by both kings and commoners lay in the ability ‘to have and to heal’. In ancient times, having a physical, amuletic object in one’s possession gave a solid, tangible assurance of the magical protection of Isis and other super-human entities.

A curator holds a box containing ancient Egyptian papyrus for 2 children to look at
Meeting a ‘Book of the Dead’ papyrus for the first time

For many people today, having access to collections provides aesthetic and intellectual stimulation, even if experienced through reproduced photographic images – that is why richly illustrated books on Egyptology are such a popular choice for publishers. Building on our previous work animating collections, I am really looking forward to sharing more facets of our Egyptology collection at Manchester Museum as part of this important project.

Further information about To Have and To Heal will soon be available on the Museum’s Manchester Museum from Home mobile site: https://www.mmfromhome.com/

We are extremely grateful to The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund – delivered by the Museums Association, for its generous support in making this project possible.

Logo for the Museums Association Esmee Fairbairn Collections fund

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