Wherein the Egyptians know you’ll never be recognized if your face isn’t totally put together.
As a kid I speculated whether the line in “Eleanor Rigby” about her “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” was about her keeping a jar full of real faces removed in a serial-killing spree. Eleanor could open the door on Halloween and ask the trick-or-treaters, “Who are you supposed to be” and then, yanking a preserved flap of skin over her head, shriek, “I’M MAILMAN DAN” as the kids run away screaming, now knowing what happened to their beloved postal carrier. Paul McCartney says the line was actually inspired by a jar of cold cream his mother used, which is far less interesting.
The ancient Egyptians knew that keeping multiple faces was useful for more than simply scaring children. An alternate face—preferably a facsimile of your own, rather than the preserved remains of your neighbors or postal workers—was an essential practice for guaranteeing a happy afterlife.
You’ll See My Smile Looks Out of Place
Egyptian funerary practices, such as mummification, were intended to preserve the body so that it would remain intact and recognizable to the soul. The soul, recognizing its body, would return and give breath and life to the body, enabling the person to engage in her journey to the afterworld. Masks were an essential part of this process, protecting the mummified face from damage but also providing a secondary recognizable visage if needed.
While the earliest masks were made from wood (and continued to be for less important or affluent people), masks in later periods were commonly made from cartonnage, a papier-mâché or cardboard-like material made from layers of papyrus or linen covered in plaster. The masks of more important and wealthier people—such as Tutankhamun—would be made from gold (or at least cartonnage covered with gold), giving the deceased the appearance of the golden flesh of the gods. All masks were then decorated with acrylic paint and, for the wealthiest, precious stones.
Interestingly, given the importance of the departed soul recognizing the body, most masks were not exact depictions of the deceased individual. Instead, funerary masks were usually idealized depictions of a person, with specific features designed to be directly identified with specific gods. We can see this in Anubis’ words in chapter 151 of The Book of the Dead:
Hail beautiful of face, lord of sight, bound by Ptah-Sokar, raised by Anubis
Whom there has been given the pillars of Shu, beautiful face that is in the gods
your right eye is the Evening Boat, your left eye the Morning Boat
Your eyebrows are the Nine Gods, your brow is Anubis
Your brow is Horus, your fingers Thoth
Your tress is Ptah-Sokar
You are at the fore of the Osiris N, so he may see by you
This non-individualized design allowed masks to be mass-produced from molds in specialized workshops, or created by traveling craftspersons. We do not have any records verifying this—nor would it even occur to a legitimate historian—but I think competing artisans must have engaged in advertising to attract customers: “Need a mask that looks better than Dad’s dead mug? Come on down to Crazy Abbas’ Discount House o’ Masks! If I don’t give you the lowest price, I’ll eat my fake beard!” Just steer clear of the used-mask dealerships.
Hey Yeah, Outside I’m Masquerading
People in the modern West generally don’t utilize funerary masks, but I like the idea of some perfect visage being used to represent me after I’m gone (assuming my wife doesn’t simply say to our kid over my corpse, “Drag this thing out to the car…this is why God gave us dumpsters”). A holograph of a handsome, sophisticated person floating over my grave would be nice, but I’ll probably have to settle for a dollar-store plaque with the sticker “Put here sample human photograph” still covering where my idealized image should have gone. Either way, I’m definitely crocodile food in the afterlife.
Image: Mummy Mask (A.D. 60–70) (Source).