Heavenly cows and celestial oars

One of the most common wall scenes in tombs of the New Kingdom and later is a scene showing seven cows and a bull, generally shown with an offering table laden with food and drink, and four steering oars, similar to those used to steer boats on the Nile. Sometimes this is large and prominent as is the case in the tomb of Nefertari:

Spell 148 in the Tomb of Nefertari

Another prominent example is found in the Osiris suite of Medinet Habu, the funerary temple of Ramesses III:

Spell 148 at Medinet Habu

In other places, it’s small and difficult to spot, such as this example from the tomb of Amenemipet, TT41, which is above a door lintel:

Spell 148 in the tomb of Amenemipet

If you look out for this scene in New Kingdom tombs, though, you’ll see it all over the place.

The scene is the vignette (ie the illustration) that accompanies spell number 148 of the collection of funerary spells called by modern Egyptologists “The Book of the Dead”. The spell itself is never written out in tombs (although it is found in numerous papyrus copies of the Book of the Dead), but the vignette alone achieves the same magical goal as writing out the actual spell.

The spell begins as follows with an address to the sun god, Re:

Greetings to you, who shine in your disk, living spirit who comes forth from the horizon. I know you, and I know your name, and I know the names of the seven cows and their bull, who give bread and beer, and are beneficial to the souls who are provided with food in the underworld. May you give bread and beer to me and make provision for me, let me be in your following, and let me be born on your thighs.

We then have a list of the rather poetical names of the seven cows and their bull:

Mansion of the Kas, Mistress of All.
Silent One who dwells in her place.
She of Chemmis whom the god ennobled.
The Much Beloved, with red hair.
She who protects in life, the multicoloured.
She whose name has power in her craft.
Storm in the sky which wafts the god aloft.
The Bull of Bulls, husband of the cows.

There’s then an appeal addressed directly to the cows:

May you give bread and beer, offerings and provisions, which shall provide for my spirit, for I am an effective spirit who is in the God’s domain.

We then have the names of the four steering oars, which represent the four cardinal direction of the sky, and an appeal to them:

Good Power, the good steering oar of the northern sky.
Wanderer who guides the Two Lands, good steering oar of the western sky.
Shining One who dwells in the House of Images, good steering oar of the eastern sky.
Preeminent One who dwells in the House of the Red Ones, good steering oar of the southern sky.

May you give bread and beer and provisions to my spirit. Grant me life and strength and health, and abiding happiness on Earth. Grant me triumph in the horizon and in heaven and upon Earth and in the underworld.

So, what’s this all about?

The spirit of the deceased required food and drink, just like a living person, and the main purpose of this spell is to ensure that the deceased is provided with bread and beer (the staples of the Egyptian diet) for all eternity, by the seven heavenly cows. The cows are often shown with a solar disk between their horns, and are connected with an Egyptian creation myth. The myth of the heavenly cow tells how she arose from the primordial ocean, gave birth to the sun, and lifted him into the sky on her horns. There’s a lovely scene depicting the heavenly cow in an antechamber of the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings:

The Heavenly Cow in the tomb of Seti I

The scene shows the heavenly cow, with stars on her belly, being supported by Shu, the god of the air. As the heavenly mother, she gives birth to the sun anew every morning, and thus, by extension, to the dead as well. This is expressed explicitly in spell 17 of the Book of the Dead, the spell which lays out the fundamental “theology” of the Egyptian afterlife. One part of spell 17 says:

I have seen this sun god who was born yesterday from the thighs of the Heavenly Cow.

And it is the desire of the spirit of the deceased to share in this fate, and be born again each day, hence the line in spell 148 which says “let me be born on your thighs”.

The fact that there are seven cows may well be a reference to the story of the “Seven Hathors”. This is a popular story which appears in several well-known literary works of Egyptian literature, such as the Tale of the Two Brothers. The Seven Hathors are a manifestation of the goddess Hathor who appear at the birth of a child and foretell its fate, rather like the Fairy Godmother in “Sleeping Beauty”! Hathor is often depicted as a cow with a solar disk (or a woman with cow’s ears, wearing a solar disk), hence the seven cows.

The steering oars are much more straightforward to explain. When people in Egypt travelled, they nearly always did so by boat, and so naturally they also used boats to get around in the afterlife, too. The four steering oars of the sky ensure that the deceased will not get lost as they travel through the perilous underworld.

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