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Mummy by the Bay: Irethorrou, an Egyptian Priest of the Early Persian Period
This Halloween, we take you inside one of the Museums’ most enigmatic inhabitants: the mummy Irethorrou. While mummies have long been the antagonists of numerous horror films, they also provide us with incredible insight into the funerary practices and religious beliefs of ancient Egyptians. We dare you to read on as curator Dr. Renée Dreyfus and Egyptologist Jonathan P. Elias unwrap the Museums’ mummy.
Mummy CT scans are a vital first step in understanding the varied magical approaches of ancient Egypt’s funerary religion. Recent work on the mummy of the priest Irethorrou provided a wealth of new information about the activities of professional embalmers working in the period after 600 BC in the ancient Egyptian provincial capital known as Akhmim.
Located approximately 290 miles south of Cairo, Akhmim was an economically powerful city with a major temple dedicated to Min, the deity symbolizing the principle of male fertility. Although still standing in the early 14th century, this temple has since been buried below the streets of the modern town.
What began as a scanning endeavor led to deeper historical investigation about the temple’s priestly staff, whose mummified bodies are distributed throughout the world and whose analysis would provide the best starting point from which to reconstruct the temple’s function.
In 2009, Dr. Dreyfus led a collaborative team to scan Irethorrou’s well-preserved mummy at Stanford University Medical Center. Image data was assembled and interpreted to create an animated fly-through view of the mummy, which augmented the centerpiece of Irethorrou’s mummy and coffin in the special exhibition Very Postmortem: Mummies and Medicine.
Very Postmortem: Mummies and Medicine, October 31, 2009–October 31, 2010 at the Legion of Honor
When the mummy was originally donated to the California Midwinter International Exposition Memorial Museum (later the de Young Museum) on July 6, 1917, Irethorrou was known as “Bishop Thoth.” The mummy was gifted by the estate of local businessman Jeremiah Lynch, an adventurous sort who had gone to Egypt as early as 1889, when mummies were still numerous and relatively undervalued.
The inscriptions on Irethorrou’s coffin tell us about his social identity within the clergy of the fertility god Min, which maintained the important temple at Akhmim. The general context of the writing is a prayer that ensures that Irethorrou receive meals comprised of “…every good and pure thing” for eternity. In addition, the scribe delineates Irethorrou’s lineage, which was clearly among the most important in the city of Akhmim during the Saite period (664–525 BC), as well as for nine preceding generations.
According to the coffin text, Irethorrou was a stolist or wardrobe-priest of Min. Wardrobe-priests were responsible for caring for the god’s statue, which the Egyptians purified or washed, clothed, and fed on a daily schedule. Irethorrou’s role went far beyond this, however, as other titles indicate that he specialized in funerary rituals. He is described as servant (i.e. prophet) of the important funerary deity Osiris-Sokar, a position held by earlier members of his family.
Irethorrou’s body was methodically wrapped in linen, and amulets made of stone or faience were carefully positioned at crucial points within the swathing linen. The positioning of these amulets in the linen layers closest to the body is believed to have achieved desired magical effects connected with the Egyptian belief in resurrection.
The amulet placement on Irethorrou was deliberate, but not dense–key body parts were selected to receive amulets in a pattern, which can be described as pinpointing. This pattern is symmetrical, bilaterally balanced, and clearly intended to create a web of magical significance across the body.
The scarab (amulet 1) and the headrest (amulet 2) are placed according to well-understood traditions associated with the treatment of the head, which were meant to promote the body’s reawakening and reanimation. Irethorrou’s “two plumes” (amulet 3) positioned over the right eye, has direct associations with the atef crown, and the important trinity of the creator god Ptah, Sokar, and Osiris, all of whom wore the atef. These deities together would have worked to speed and secure Irethorrou’s resurrection.
Amulets 4–9 are arranged very carefully on Irethorrou’s torso. The amulets are so logically and methodically situated, it’s as if they were placed according to some ‘textbook of magic.’
Details about the life and death of Irethorrou can also be gleaned from these scans. Based on the state of the mummy’s teeth, it is estimated that Irethorrou lived to be between 40 and 50 years old. The cause of death here can presumably be said to be non-traumatic and possibly the result of infectious disease, in part indicated by the character of the skin of the back, which displays a large number of bumps not often found in examinations of images from other scanned mummies.
Perhaps the most exciting component of the CT scan is that the gathered data allowed us to generate a 3D model of Irethorrou’s skull, a vital step toward the creation of a forensic facial reconstruction.
As we continue to investigate the many questions raised by research on this fascinating Akhmimic priest, we hope to achieve a deeper understanding of mummification and culture in Egypt’s early Persian period.
Fly through the interior of the mummy in the video below for a closer look. Happy Halloween from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco!