Credit Line: Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Ann and Henry Brunnier Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Ancient Egypt was likely one of the first civilizations to believe in an afterlife. Beliefs relied heavily on the preservation of the soul, or Ka, and the body, or Ba. Herein lie the roots of embalming and mummification practices in order to preserve the individuals body for use in the afterlife. Canopic jars were utilized in these practices to contain the viscera of the deceased. There would typically be four canopic jars per mummy, one with the head of a baboon (Hapi) for the lungs, the head of a jackal (Duamutef) for the stomach, the head of a falcon (Kebechsenef) for the intestines, and one with a human head (Imset) for the liver.
This object is a lid to the jar containing the liver. The lid depicts Imset, a god illustrated by the human head and always associated with funerary rites and practices. Imset was one of the four sons of Horus and the earliest form of Isis was considered Imset's protector. This canopic jar lid is made of alabaster which was viewed as a sacred mineral in ancient times. Alabaster was quarried in Alabastron, Egypt and frequently utilized in the creation of canopic jars.
Canopic jars were used by the Ancient Egyptians during the mummification process to store and preserve the viscera of their owner for the afterlife. They were commonly either carved from limestone or were made of pottery. These jars were used by Ancient Egyptians from the time of the Old Kingdom up until the time of the Late Period or the Ptolemaic Period, by which time the viscera were simply wrapped and placed with the body. All the viscera were not kept in a single canopic jar, but rather each organ was placed in a jar of its own. The name 'canopic' reflects the mistaken association by early Egyptologists with the Greek legend of Canopus.
The jars were four in number, each charged with the safekeeping of particular human organs: the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver. The design of these changed over time. In the Old Kingdom the jars had plain lids, though by the First Intermediate Period jars with human heads (assumed to represent the dead) began to appear.
Canopic jar, ca. 1353-1336 B.C.This practice continued up until the time of the New Kingdom, though by the late Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt the human heads were replaced by heads associated with the four sons of Horus, who were also the gods of the cardinal compass points. Each god was responsible for protecting a particular organ, and were themselves protected by companion goddesses from harm. They were:
Duamutef, the jackal-headed god representing the east, whose jar contained the stomach and was protected by the goddess Neith.
Qebehsenuef, the falcon-headed god representing the west, whose jar contained the intestines and was protected by the goddess Selket.
Hapi, the baboon-headed god representing the north, whose jar contained the lungs and was protected by the goddess Nephthys.
Imseti, the human-headed god representing the south, whose jar contained the liver and was protected by the goddess Isis.
The canopic jars were placed inside a canopic chest and buried in tombs together with the sarcophagus of the dead. It was also done because it was believed the dead person would need their organs to help them through the after life.
The Egyptians considered the heart to be the seat of the soul so it was left inside the body instead of being placed in a canopic jar. The Ancient Egyptians believed that in the afterlife the heart would be weighed against the feather of ma'at (truth) by the god Anubis. If it was too heavy from bad deeds it would be fed to the monster Ammit.
Sometimes the covers of the jars were modeled after (or painted to resemble) the head of Anubis, the god of death/embalming. Copious numbers of the jars were produced, and surviving examples of them can be seen in museums all over the world.