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Healing Statues in Late Period Egypt: Creating Elite Commemoration in a Religious Context


This dissertation is a study, broadly, of how images and texts were used to create meaning on religious objects through analyzing the compositional designs on ancient Egyptian healing statues of the Late Period (ca. 712-332 B.C.E.). These statues depicted elite individuals, and dense intricate combinations of secret healing spell texts and images were placed on these statues’ bodies. Liquids poured over these statues were charged with healing properties, and once charged, these liquids were used by injured or ill Egyptians for healing. Previous research has often focused on the texts inscribed on these statues but has not examined holistically the interactions of all of the religious elements of these statues, nor these elements’ engagement with the materiality of the statues. The dense compositional designs of these statues offer a unique opportunity to examine the commission and design of a religious object type within the social, political, and economic environment of ancient Egyptian society. I argue that the placement of religious knowledge on these statues was strategic, and that the strategic placement contributed to their religious potency and to the social competition of the depicted individuals via elite commemoration.

I explore this topic by carefully analyzing placement patterns and interactions between texts and images. In many instances, there is clear intentionality behind the placement of the images and texts, driven by the content of the spell; for example, a spell relating to the hand of a god would be written upon the hand of the statue. Thus, it is only through an analysis of the intericonicity and intertextuality of the religious content that we gain a better understanding of their meaning for the Egyptians. My results show that there was variability in the choice of images and texts, which demonstrates the flexibility of the design, and thus indicates that the Egyptian designers and creators intentionally manipulated religious knowledge onto materiality.

I approach this question in seven chapters. After the introduction, I present an overview of the religious practices of the Late Period (Chapter 2) and healing in private religious practices (Chapter 3). Then, I analyze the layout of images (Chapter 4), texts (Chapter 5), and elite commemoration (Chapter 6) before summarizing my conclusions. I identify specific strategies for placement that enhanced the religious functioning of the objects, including visual opposition, textual wrapping, and textual framing. Furthermore, with the same focus on placement, I show how individualizing markers like names and titles occupied areas that were highly visible to the ritual activities so that these statues furthered the commemoration of the elite individuals represented.

The layout design of healing statues shows that many factors can be at play in the materialization of religious objects in ancient Egypt. These objects were enormously creative and innovative products that reveal the agencies of various individuals in adopting and developing their desires and needs in a healing context. They offer a new perspective for thinking about how people interacted with religious traditions to solve immediate health crises directly, to promote their social standing, and to ensure the survival of their names and social selves for eternity.

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