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Exploring the Symbolism and Mythology of Isis in Tutankhamun's Golden Shrine

Updated: Jan 8

Reproduction Details

Object Type: Sarcophagus shrine (third shrine, interior door)

Date: c. 1336-1327 BC

Period: Dynasty 18, New Kingdom

Findspot: Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62), Valley of the Kings, West Thebes

Material: Gilded cedar wood

Inventory number: Carter object #238

Print Reference: DP08

This image of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis with protective wings outstretched is based on a scene on the golden shrine of Tutankhamun dating to 1324 BC. The shrine was one of five nested structures made of gilded cedar wood which held the body of the dead king. On the inside of the doors at one end of the shrine stood the sister goddesses Isis and Nephthys, offering words of protection to aide Tutankhamun in his journey to the Afterlife.

The Goddess Isis

Isis is one of the oldest gods in the ancient Egyptian pantheon and was one of the main characters of the Osiris myth, in which she resurrects her slain husband, the divine king Osiris, and produces and protects his heir, Horus. She was believed to help the dead enter the afterlife as she had helped Osiris, and she was considered the divine mother of the pharaoh, who was likened to Horus.

Isis wears a tight-fitting linen dress which bears her breasts as well as a floral collar and golden jewellery. Her black wig is held in place with a band and on top of her head sits the hieroglyph of a throne, representing her name.

She is standing upon the Middle Egyptian hieroglyph ‘nebu’, a collar with beads hanging from it, meaning ‘gold’. In ancient Egyptian symbolism gold was considered an indestructible metal of heavenly origin and the flesh of the gods. It is an important metal in the afterlife because it represented immortality. It is associated mostly with the sun god, Re, as its polished surface is often linked to the brilliance of the sun.


The interior doors of the third shrine (TAA i.3.26, Griffith Insitute)

The hieroglyphics surrounding the goddess record her words of protection for the king within the shrine. The eight columns of text are read from left to right, top to bottom and say:

Words spoken by Isis: You make the transformation in heaven like Re, you are born in the morning like him. You sail on high in the Evening Barque and join the followers of the Sun. You are forever enduring, and eternally, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, Nebkheperure, Son of Re, Tutankhamun, like Re, every day. Geb, with his two arms, gives light to my face, you open my eyes, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, living on Truth, Nebkheperure, given life forever.

Tutankhamun’s various names and titles are given in cartouches. The uppermost gives his throne name, Neb Khepuru Re meaning ‘Lord of the Forms of Ra’, and the lower gives his birth name Tut ankh Amun heqa Iunu shemai meaning ‘The living image of Amun, ruler of southern Heliopolis’.

For more translations of the shrine’s inscriptions see The shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon (1955) by Alexandre Piankoff.

The Third Shrine

Exterior of the third shrine, showing the decorated inner doors (TAA i.3.26.10, Griffith Institute)

Howard Carter’s notes about the golden shrines made in preparation for the complete publication of Tutankhamun's tomb have been digitised and made available by the Griffith Institute. Of shrine #238 that this scene comes from, he said:

“The [third] shrine was fitted over so as to completely enclose the first innermost shrine (No. 239). It is constructed of wood, and its external and internal surfaces are entirely coated with gesso, and overlaid with a thin layer of gold laid on as gold leaf. Structurally, it takes the characteristic Egyptian shrine-form, since it has the customary shrine-roof with receding slopes towards the back, otherwise the essential parts of its crowning members and under-structure are precisely the same as those of the first innermost shrine. Its workmanship, however, taken as a whole, is the finer of the two, especially in the case of its overall decoration of incised figures and texts.
Like the former shrine, it is of rectangular oblong shape. Its slightly elevated roof with curved front, receding slope towards the back, with vertical sides and end, rests upon an overhanging cavetto cornice. Beneath this crowning cornice is a plain roll moulding which is also carried down the external angles of the under-structure. These uppermost members of the entablature surmount a chief beam or frieze. The understructure consists of four corner posts, broad side and end panels, and a dado. The corner posts fulfil a double purpose, for while they form the styles of the side and end wall panels, they also act as the door posts of the front. The front of the shrine comprises, beneath the crowning cornice and roll moulding, a chief beam or over door frieze, two door posts, and a sill; to which are hung its folding doors…
…The folding doors were bolted in similar manner as the doors of the first innermost shrine, but in addition they were secured by a cord bound and tied to the central pair of staples fixed to the meeting styles for that express purpose. Affixed to the cord was a seal. This original seal was discovered intact, proving that the doors had not been opened since they were closed and sealed at the time of the burial of the king.
Seal from the doors of the third shrine (TAA i.3.26.8, Griffith Institute)
The seal of clay, or Nile mud, probably made plastic with oil, bears two impressions in relief obtained from separate incised seals:- one showing the prenomen of the King surmounting a recumbent figure of Anubis over nine Asiatic captives; the other, a counter-seal, showing only the recumbent figure of the Anubis animal over nine alien captives. The matrixes were evidently engraved (intaglio) upon some hard material, like stone or metal, and took either the form of signet-rings or ordinary stamp-shaped seals.
The first device is evidently of the house of Tutankhamen, while the second would seem, with little doubt, to be a departmental seal of the necropolis administration.”

Further Reading

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