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Ancient Egypt: Solar ships and Funerary Boats
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Solar Ships and Funerary Boats


    The god Re reigned supreme over the earth but the human beings revolted against him. In anger he sent the goddess Hathor to destroy them, but then changed his mind. He abandoned the earth and mounted on the heavenly cow, ascended into the sky in order to reign over them in the form of the sun. He had two ships to complete his daily journey, one for the day, the manedjet (manD.t), and another for the night, the mesektet (msk.t.t) [4]. In the west lay the gloomy Realm of the Dead, to which he brought some light and joy in the evenings.

The sungod's daily journey     At the first hour of the day the sun sets out on its daily journey over Egypt with Re at the helm. Under the ship swims a serpent, a creature venerated by the Egyptians.


    In the Book of the Dead there is a story of how the boat of Afu Ra (the sun god) passes the territory of the town of Sais.
"The region to the left of the god is one of fire, and close to the boat stands Horus who is working magic with the sake-headed boomerang which he holds in his hand, Before him stands the serpent god, called 'Seth-heh', i.e. the 'eternal Seth'. Before the boat is the great serpent Ankh-neteru, and twelve amikhiu gods, taking hold of the tow line, enter this serpent at the tail, and drawing the god in his boat through the body of the serpent, bring him out at his mouth. During his passage through the serpent Afu Ra is transformed into Khepera [1] and is now towed into the sky by 12 goddesses."

Funerary boats

Ship of the Dead, model; Haifa Naval Museum     According to Egyptian beliefs, the soul of the dead accompanied the sun on its eternal journey in the Upper Waters (the heavens) around the world. A boat or at least a model of a boat was therefore included in every tomb.

Ship of the Dead, model
Haifa Naval Museum

    The mast was bipod. A lookout was placed in the stern, slave rowers rowed to the beat of a drummer and the pilot steered with the double rudder. The place of the dead was under the canopy.
    The form of the boat is very similar to that of the reed boats. Both the stern and the bow were decorated with lotus flowers.

    Full sized sacred barges [3] were large, often longer than twenty metres. They were built of the best wood and decorated with precious metal.
    I built the august [barge] of new cedar of the best of the terraces; its bow and its stern being of electrum, making festive the lake [2]; to make his voyage therein at his feast of the "District of Peker."
Words of the Chief Treasurer of Thutmose I
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Two, § 94

Religious ceremonies

    Barks played an important role in many religious ceremonies. There were Hathor's mr-ju at Itjtawy (Aphroditopolis), xbA.t, the holy bark of Hathor at Denderah, the mH, Hnw, or sxn serving Sokar, nSmt, the holy bark of Osiris at Abydos. In the nome of Koptos the nSm-wDA-xw=f: was used, in the 6th nome of Lower Egypt the DAn.t, at Djeba (Edfu) the HA.t.Hr, the boat of Horus, and in the nome of Elephantine the Hts-Xnm.w.

Procession - (Excerpt from a photo by J. Bodsworth Karnak procession
Excerpt from a photo by Jon Bodsworth

    A solemn procession would leave the Temple of Karnak every New Year, carrying the sacred solar barks of Amen, Mut and Khonsu. Its destination was the Temple of Luxor, a subsidiary of the Karnak Temple.
    Some of the divine vessels belonged wholly in the realm of mythology like the sun barks (msw-nb, skt.t), the bark of the other world qAytt or the bark of the gods, the smj.w or smA.

[  ] The model is in the Haifa Naval Museum, Israel
[1] Khepera, xprj, is the ancient god associated with the creation of the world
[2] Meaning it was reflected in the water (Breasted)
[4] These boats are very ancient. In the 5th dynasty Pyramid Texts Unas uses boats, among them the Morning and the Night barge to reach the heaven:
Unas has passed by the dangerous place. The fury of the Great Lake avoided him. His fare is not taken in the Great Ferryboat. The Hedj-uru could not ward him off the road of the sehedu-stars. See then, Unas has reached the height of Heaven! He has seen his self in the Night Barge. It is Unas who rowed it. He has recognized his uraeus in the Morning Barge. It is Unas who has bailed it out.
Pyramid Texts of Unas, Utterance 261

- Ships and BoatsShips and Boats
Khufu's solar boat[3] Early ship construction: Khufu's solar boat
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Abydos boats by Francesco RaffaeleAbydos boats by Francesco Raffaele

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