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Definition: Sarcophagus (Greek sarx, ‘flesh’, and phagein, ‘to eat’) from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

A stone coffin, so called because it was made of stone that, according to Pliny, consumed the flesh in a few weeks. The stone was sometimes called lapis Assius, because it was found at Assos in Lycia.


Summary Article: Sarcophagus from Encyclopedia of African Religion

In general, a sarcophagus is a stone container that houses either another smaller coffin or a corpse. The word derives from the Greek words sarks, meaning “flesh,” and phagein, meaning “to eat,” and literally translates as “flesh eating.” It is said that Herodotus (or Pliny) observed that the stone used to construct sacrophagi in Troy, in Asia, consumed the flesh of the corpse inside. Hence, all such structures were referred to as sarcophagi. However, in ancient Egypt, the word used to designate the outer stone container for the body is transliterated as nb'nkh and translates to “lord of life,” a reference to Osiris (Ausar) who is the Lord of Life because of his resurrection after being murdered by Set. Because Osiris represents eternal life, the nb'nkh is designed to protect the body for eternity, ensure the well-being of the deceased in the afterlife, and provide a house for the ka. The glyphs that make up the word “lord of life” are the basket, the ankh, water, placenta, and a determinative made up of the rectangular outline of the nb'nkh. Another determinative used for nb'nkh is the image of the reclining Osiris.

Osiris recurs as an essential theme in the symbolism, imagery, iconography, and text that appear on most nb'nkh. However, early in Egyptian history, bodies were flexed and placed on plank constructions within baskets. Perhaps the glyph of the basket reflects this early usage. Bodies were buried in extended positions during the time of Khufu and Sneferu in the 4th dynasty, which was approximately 2494 BC. Later in the Old Kingdom, physical offerings and provisions of food were placed inside, and images of food offerings were drawn inside of the nb'nkh. These were to sustain the ka of the deceased. A pair of eyes was drawn on the side of the nb'nkh that faced east, the direction of the rising sun. This was to ensure that the ka could “see,” but, more specifically, to see the rising sun, which is another prominent Egyptian symbol of rebirth. During the Middle Kingdom, extracts from the Pyramid Texts appear on the nb'nkh and more explicit identifications with Osiris such as anthropoid-shaped containers with arms crossed at the chest and his signature beard.

In the New Kingdom, scenes once drawn on tomb walls were rendered on these containers, still with Osiris as a key theme. Images would be drawn depicting the deceased standing in judgment before Osiris, the journey of the deceased into the underworld, and the voyage on the solar bark. New imagery was also introduced during this period with the depiction of Geb on the floor of the nb'nkh and Nut on the lid. As a variation, Hathor and the djed pillar would be rendered on the floor while Nut would still be drawn on the lid. In addition to images, text was often rendered such as the Litany of Ra and excerpts from the Book of the Coming Forth by Day. The 25th dynasty revitalized styles from earlier periods and introduced nb'nkh with two or three nesting containers.

See also

Burial of the Dead

Further Readings
  • Shaw, I., & Nicholson, P. (1995).. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.
  • Martin, Denise
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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