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Sacrifice for the State: Royal Funerals and the Rites at Macramallah’s Rectangle

Morris, Ellen F.

Of all political rituals enacted in a kingdom, coronations and funerals are typically among the most lavish and highly ritualized. At these two critical junctures, the paradox of the mortality of the body natural and the immortality of the body politic must be faced, reconciled, and triumphed over if order is to return to society. If the death of a ruler marks a reoccurring and unavoidable cyclical crisis in the life cycle of any state, there are two instances in which it is possible to envision this crisis ratcheted up significantly. The first is when the death of a ruler occurs at a particularly unstable period in that state's history. In the highly influential edited volume Rituals of Royalty, Averil Cameron and Amélie Kuhrt postulate an inverse correlation (in certain societies at certain times) between pomp and pageantry, on the one hand, and political power and stability on the other. In Babylon, in Byzantium, and in many other states besides, they suggest that rulers amplify the appearance of power in order to convince others of the reality of that vision. This tactic is, in their view, the political equivalent of sympathetic magic, and the extravagant rituals designed to showcase an absolute power that constituted more of a goal than a reality represent the last-ditch acts of threatened monarchs. Much the same strategizing, however, should also be expected when the state is new and is not yet an accepted part of the natural order of things.

In First Dynasty Egypt, the locus of this case study in royal funerary ritual, the effects of the state are starkly visible in the archaeological record. The monarchs of the First Dynasty were engaged in the project of trying to naturalize something that was at that point decidedly unnatural. At the same time, royal iconography equating the king with the falcon god Horus suggests that these individuals were actively promoting the ideology that the head of state was a deity incarnate. For all these reasons, and for undoubtedly many more besides, one can hardly imagine an ideological performance that would have been more carefully scripted or more highly charged than a royal funeral in First Dynasty Egypt.

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Also Published In

Performing Death. Social Analyses of Ancient Funerary Traditions in the Mediterranean
The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago

More About This Work

Academic Units
Classics and Ancient Studies (Barnard College)
The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago
Published Here
June 14, 2018