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“At the Gate of the Ancestors: Saint Cults and the Politics of the Past at Abydos” Janet Richards (Sackler Lecture at the British Museum)

The 2015 Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology was given by Janet Richards, on the subject of saint cults in general and specifically the one of Idy at Abydos and how that fits into the wider sacred landscape there. The lecture was part of a colloquium about Abydos in general, which I didn’t go to (although J did) and I remember the lecture as including a lot of references back to things they’d discussed in the colloquium. I’m rather more reliant on my notes than usual when writing this up – as it’s nearly half a year since I went to the talk at the time of writing (and you’re reading this at least 2 months after that).

Richards is interested in saint cults in ancient Egypt, but in the introductory part of her talk she contextualised them for us in more modern terms (which was very useful for me!). There are saint cults all over the world – generally they are place bound, there is some supernatural element (they bless the living) and they are transactional in nature (you worship, the saint blesses). The focuses of them are not just saints as we think of them in a Christian tradition, but also local heroes and local gods. In modern Egypt there are small saint shrines that give charity to the local population – they are apolitical and small scale, rather than being tied to the big picture cultural narrative. This is another general feature of saint cults, but they can also be co-opted by the elite to link the large scale politics/religion of the country with the local population’s concerns. She gave us an example of a modern saint cult from the US, I think chosen to remind us that we’re not talking about official religion here. At the University of Michigan a(n American) football coach (I think deceased or retired) is the focus of a saint cult – he’s invoked in some way by home fans to try to ensure victory, or his memorial is desecrated by the away fans to ritually ensure their own victory. (This makes me think of the Bobby Robson statue in Ipswich outside the football stadium, I bet he counts as focus of a saint cult either here or in Newcastle.) In a speech President Obama gave when he visited the University of Michigan he linked this football coach (the local saint) with JFK (a national saint) in a way that linked himself with these two icons (thus co-option by the elite for their own political advancement).

In ancient Egypt in late Old Kingdom times there’s evidence of several saint cults starting up. At this period in Egyptian history the religion is in transition. It used to be that just the King had access to the gods, but during this time more “normal” people felt they were able to do things like write letters to the gods. I put scare quotes around normal, because obviously if they are writing letters then they are literate and educated which puts them into a different category than the bulk of the population. However these are people who are not part of the true elite hierarchy. And during this time saint cults begin to spring up around the periphery of the nation. One example she gave was of Heqaib at Elephantine, who was the Governor of the Nome. His saint cult is one of the best documented – it begins in the Old Kingdom and continues for several hundred years. His powers as a saint are related to his work during life (organising protection of expeditions) and his long-life itself. He was venerated both at his grave and in a hall built in the town. At the end of the First Intermediate Period the cult begins to receive royal attention, which continues throughout the Middle Kingdom. In each case the Pharaoh in question emphasises how he brought order out of chaos by restoring the shrine of the saint to its former glory – thus linking himself with the saint, which is part of legitimising his authority as Pharaoh. There is also mention in the inscriptions of a quid pro quo – the saint in return will bless the Pharaoh with a long life and smooth his eventual passage into the afterlife. My notes don’t say that Richards mentioned this explicitly – but it reminded me of the order out of chaos narrative of other texts from that era, like in Ankhtifi’s tomb.

Richards’ own work has been on the tomb and cult of Idy, who was an Old Kingdom official who was buried at Abydos. The cult hall for Idy must’ve been excavated by Henry Salt in the 19th Century – Richards has identified some objects in the British Museum’s collection that came from the site via Salt. However she didn’t know this when she first started excavating it! Her work on the tomb and the hall has uncovered an outline of how the cult of Idy developed over the centuries.

He was a local official, who married into a more senior family and subsequently rose through the ranks of the central government. He was one of the last officials of that era to be buried in that part of Abydos, and was deified before the end of the Old Kingdom. There was a cult hall built near his tomb, and his cult survived for centuries after his death. As central authority began to break down in the early First Intermediate Period there begin to be surface burials of lower status individuals near Idy’s tomb – associating themselves with the saint in death. There is then a gap in the pottery chronology of the site between the early and late First Intermediate Period. This may well be a true gap in the cult – a text of this period mentions a “desecration event”: burning in the town and burning in the cemetery. This matches well with the burnt limestone statue of Idy in the British Museum’s collection.

When Richards excavated Idy’s tomb there were several oddities. The name on the outside lintel was not Idy, and there were limestone blocks covering the name on the inner lintel. The floor was also oddly high, and the coffin was not of a similar quality to the decoration on the walls. It became clear that a late First Intermediate Period burial had usurped Idy’s tomb, probably after Idy’s tomb had been robbed. The usurping individual was an official in Intef III’s government called Nekhty. He says (on an inscription on a stela I think – I don’t have a note) that he “restored the tomb and set up his house in the entrance”. This is similar to the ruin to restoration rhetoric associated with Heqaib’s cult. And it’s now clear that the “house in the entrance” is a reference to usurping the tomb! Which he states he did to be “near Idy and to follow him”. He also says that he bought a boat for Idy so that he could join processions – a textual reference to the statue of Idy going on ritual processions, just as other gods do.

Later votive chapels are built around Idy’s tomb, and other people are buried nearby with their tombs aligned towards his. As with Heqaib there are references to Pharaohs using Idy’s cult to legitimise themselves – for instance Senwosret III. By the time of the Pharaoh Tutmosis III in the 18th Dynasty the cult has faded away sometime before and the limestone chapels are dismantled. In one of these dismantled chapels there is an 18th Dynasty era burial of an infant, next to a block with a scene of a cow & calf. Richards speculates that this burial was done by one of the people doing the dismantling, and that an 18th Dynasty figurine found in the main temple of the Idy saint cult is linked to this. She believes that it’s evidence that even though the cult was long gone there were still echoes of it remembered locally.

An interesting talk about a side of the Egyptian religion I don’t really know much about – the aspects of it that aren’t linked with the state and the major gods of their pantheon. It was also fascinating to think about saint cults in our own modern era as having similar underpinnings to these Egyptian ones – despite us thinking of that celebrity/hero worship as secular and very distinct from religion.