(No, this is not a post about a new band.)
Ah, canopic jars. We’ve all seen them in museums, or on websites having to do with Egypt – jars carved out of limestone, in sets of four, with lids carved to look like human and/or animal heads. Most people even know how they were used, or think they do anyway – each jar held an important organ from a now-mummified body and the jars were placed in tombs with the body so the deceased would have their organs in the Afterlife.
During the Old Kingdom period, canopic jars were almost never inscribed and had plain lids, while Middle Kingdom jars had inscriptions and often lids that were human headed. It wasn’t until the 19th Dynasty that the lids were formed into the shapes with which we’re so familiar… and then later embalming techniques that allowed the organs to remain within the mummified body led to false jars that were not hollowed out and, eventually, to using the representations of the figures on the wrappings of the organs themselves.
But, who are these guys supposed to be? Why was it so important to save someone’s viscera in jars? And how can this knowledge be incorporated into individual practice today?
So, let’s take the easy part first – the four adorable little jars to the left, with their cute little head lids, represent the four sons of Horus (Heru). Imsety is represented with a human head, Duamutef with that of a jackal, Qebehsenuef (who kindly provided his name for my title) as a hawk, and Hapy with the head of a baboon. These netjeru, who are associated with the four directions, can also be associated with four pillars that hold up the sky. In the Pyramid Texts, they are invoked to protect Ausir the King and to support his body. In the Coffin Texts, they are the sons of Isis and Horus the Elder (Heru-Wer), (although Pinch notes that the kinship terms used could as easily mean descendant rather than son.) The sons came to be seen as powerful protectors of the dead and were often named on canopic chests and coffins.
As for the viscera, well: The stomach, lungs, intestines, and liver were considered to be essential organs of a person, and thus would be needed in order to ensure that one arrived whole in the Duat. (The heart, of course, was also crucial but because of its ties to the self was left within the body cavity.)
Now, when it comes to incorporating this knowledge into modern practice…well, I have to admit there’s nothing I do specifically to honor the sons of Horus, nor do I call upon any or all of them for assistance. I have some ideas of what could be done, but I’d really love to hear from anyone who does worship them, or work with them. Call it crowd-sourcing, if you like – I don’t know everything (being human and imperfect) but I’m sure someone out there has something useful to add to the conversation.