Comparative Guts

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2600-300 BCE

Ancient Egypt

Rune Nyord

Assistant Professor, Art History Department, Emory University; Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

The Ancient Egyptian culture lasted over 3000 years in and around the Nile Valley in northeast Africa. The river Nile and the fertility brought by its annual inundation strongly shaped the landscape. Most settlements were located on the river’s banks, leading to a sharp contrast between the fecund “Black Land” (Kemet) of the Nile Valley and the “Red Land” (Desheret) referring to the surrounding deserts. At the height of its empire in the late Bronze Age, Egypt’s sphere of dominion stretched from the Sixth Cataract of the Nile in modern-day Sudan in the south to modern-day Syria in the north.

The long span of its history is divided roughly into three “Kingdoms” when the whole of Egypt was under the rule of a single king, the Old (c. 2686–2181 BCE), Middle (c. 2125–1773 BCE), and New (c. 1580–1069 BCE) Kingdoms. The three kingdoms are separated by periods during which more than one ruler laid claim to kingship over the land, known respectively as the First (c. 2181–2125 BCE), Second (c. 1773–1550 BCE), and Third (c. 1069–664 BCE) Intermediate Period. The time between the Third Intermediate Period and the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE is known as the Late Period.
Guts in ancient egypt
Surviving Egyptian texts for healing and protection of the body attest to detailed thinking about, and conceptual modelling of, the internal structure and processes of the human body. Similarly, the appearance of internal organs would have been well-known from mummification practices. Yet, depictions of human internal organs are virtually unknown in ancient Egypt. When the hieroglyphic script or related iconography needed depictions of internal organs, notably to write the words for them ideographically, they instead had recourse to animal body parts known through practices of butchery. Thus for example, the sign for the word qꜣb “intestine, coil” (fig. 1) likely the depicts animal, rather than human, intestines – although admittedly the high degree of stylization makes this less obvious in the case of this particular organ. In texts and language, the inside of the body, and the processes taking place there, were of immense importance. In healing practices, a system of conduits (mtw) was theorized, which linked the different parts of the body, and their proper connectivity and contents were imperative for the patient’s health. More generally, the inside of the torso was regarded as the seat of thought and emotion, and the ability to access this hidden realm of internality was an important skill for the successful official. The guts were not generally singled out in this “metaphorical” understanding of the inside of the body, but they no doubt formed part of the larger complex. The non-literal qualities associated with the “intestine”-sign (fig. 1) relate mostly to its spatial properties so that “in the intestines” (m-qꜣb) is used to mean “inside, in the midst of”, while the wider use of the sign connects it to verbal meanings like “move around”, “turn around”, “reverse”, and so on. The few exceptions from the practice of omitting intestines from imagery are found in the case of butchered animals. There are good, non-pictorial evidence for intestines of animals being used for various purposes, and correspondingly there are a few cases where intestines that have been removed, cleaned, and hung for drying are depicted as part of detailed butchery scenes (fig. 2). However, even in this context, they are not among the typical cuts of meat depicted, perhaps because they lacked prestige in the cultic, and generally elite, context in which such depictions were found. An especially characteristic role of the intestines in ancient Egyptian culture is that, along with other internal organs, they were removed from the body during mummification and placed in so-called canopic jars (fig. 3). In this connection, the individual viscera were each associated with a deity, the god traditionally linked to the intestines being the falcon-headed Qebehsenuef. The purpose of this was to effect the transformation of the body into that of a divine ancestor on the model of the god Osiris.