Osiris, Hathor, and the Gendered Dead
One type of identity which was quite clearly expressed in funerary art was the sex of the deceased, based on the binary pairing of male and female. By the start of the Roman Period, the custom of describing and depicting women in a different way from men in a mortuary context had been more or less fixed for at least two thousand years. This desire to preserve the gender identity of the dead stemmed from Egyptian ideas about rebirth and renewal but also reflected the social construction of distinct roles for men and women. In artistic terms, the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods saw an increased variety in the ways that both genders were represented. The cultic roles of the Ptolemaic queens revived the representation of women in Egyptian sculpture, which had nearly disappeared in the Late Period. There was also a rise in the number of representations of females in funerary art, where women and girls were increasingly commemorated with their own burial outfits, stelae, or papyri.
Gender-based iconography expressed the dual but complementary nature of the reproductive forces through which Osiris, the sun god, and the dead were rejuvenated. The greater frequency with which dead women were likened to Hathor from the Late Period onwards suggests an increasing concern with individualizing the deceased in funerary texts and pictorial representations, by maintaining in the afterlife the gendered role, identity, and body that individuals assumed in Egyptian society. Thus one’s gender, and concomitant physical appearance, in life was a factor in how one achieved and experienced the afterlife and in the artistic commemoration of one’s death and rebirth.
This chapter first surveys the construction of gender difference in funerary texts and art. A cluster of coffins from the Kharga Oasis demonstrates how inscriptions and art modelled men as Osiris and women as Hathor, and also offers some of the earliest evidence for Greek representational forms being brought into an Egyptian funerary context. The bulk of the chapter considers a distinct group of coffins from late Ptolemaic or early Roman Akhmim (Panopolis), which differ markedly from earlier assemblages at the site and have sometimes been interpreted as examples of Greek or Roman artistic influence. The inscriptions of the coffins, their context, and their iconography, however, indicate that the owners of the Akhmim coffins were a local elite engaged with indigenous high cultural forms.