One of my favourite places here in my home town of Adelaide is the South Australian Museum and one of the museum’s most interesting rooms is the Ancient Egypt gallery, a room that I have visited countless times, I can tell you. One of the most beautiful and valuable of the museum’s possessions is the coffin and mummy of a woman called Renpit Nefert. She was bought by the museum in the 1890’s and judging from the style of her gorgeously painted coffin, she lived during the late Ptolemaic Period, (c.100 –30 BC) so she may have been a contemporary of Cleopatra. It is not known exactly where in Egypt Renpit Nefert was found as records were rarely kept in the 19 th century and no other biographical details about her are revealed by the texts on her coffin which are, as tradition dictated, of a standard religious nature. But due to recent work on her by the museum, it has been revealed that she is well preserved and died in her late teens or early twenties and, judging by the quality of her coffin, her family were at least wealthy enough to afford to have her buried in style. She may well have been married and a mother, but we well never know. Her name means ‘Beautiful Year’.
A Meeting With the Lady Renpit Nefer
I can read thy name and speak it
And I know too whence you came
But, dear daughter of the two lands, (1)
No more knowledge can I claim.
So I beseech thee, Year of Beauty;
Thou that hast seen the living past
Unfolding plain before thine eyes;
Answer my questions first to last.
O I know that they all loved you,
That they worked with pious hands,
They who sealed with lamentation
Thy chamber beneath the sands.
But O where wert thou to see them
As they brought forth bitter tears;
All thy kith and kin, their glory
Wert thou, the song in their ears?
Was it thy mother, black with grief,
Who poured the lustral water?
O say that it was not dear one,
Tell me it was thy daughter. (2)
Did you swear by great Osiris,
Did you swear by Anubis
And did gentle, weeping Isis
Offer better worlds than this ? (3)
Did you praise thy mother Hathor
For the beauty that was thine,
Making unto her oblations
Of fragrant flowers and wine ? (4)
Did the falcon god hear thy prayer,
Did he see thy head bowed low
And what heed did he take of thee,
Thou who dwelleth here below? (5)
Did you know to name each demon,
Did you know to stand, not run
Before their glowering faces
And so vanquish every one ? (6)
Does the sky look down upon us
As we toil unceasingly ?
Do the waters show us pity
As our tears drop in the sea ?
Do the winds declare their mercy,
Are mountains to be moved
When a man’s love for his brethren
Is made manifest and proved ?
Does the sun with all his aspect
Care aught for we grains of sand
Who build and boast and think we leave
Our own mark upon the land ?
Was man created by the gods
Or the other way around ?
And will those men one day rise up
Who lie rotting in the ground ?
This very morning I beheld thee.
Alas ! Resplendent though thou art,
I saw a dry and brittle body
In which there does not beat a heart !
Art thou lost to us forever
In that chasm ruled by time,
With each second growing deeper,
Growing darker with each chime?
All these things you cannot tell me
But one truth I hear you tell:
One day, like thee, I too will bid
This life one last fond farewell.
Ah, to be able to ask the dead just one question! I made a copy of this poem and together with a dried flower, left it upon the glass case in the museum inside of which she lies. I feel she would have approved.
(1) The ‘Two Lands’ were one of the ancient names for Egypt.
(2) Purifying the mummy with Nile water was an important part of the funeral ceremony.
(3) Osiris was the chief god of the dead. Anubis guided the soul
into the underworld and Isis was a protector goddess.
(4) Hathor was the goddess of love, of childbirth and a protector of women.
(5) The falcon god Re, one of the most important gods.
(6) The soul faced many perils on its journey through the underworld.