The ancient Egyptians had a strong religious belief that when a person died they would return to an ‘afterlife’ that was almost the same as the life they had when they were alive. In their belief, the body needed to be preserved so that the person could return. This is why the Egyptians created mummies. The process required that not only the outside of the person’s body be mummified, but also all of the internal organs. Canopic jars were created to contain all of the organs, so that upon entering the afterlife, the person would be complete.
We might find the practice of preserving the internal organs and placing them in jars, a bit odd. The ancient Egyptian religions were very specific about the way someone needed to be prepared so that they could enter the afterlife. Each of the Canopic jars had a specific purpose and were designed to honor the four sons of Horus. Horus was the Egyptian god of the sky and the contents of the Canopic jars would go along with the person as they passed through and entered the afterlife and protect the remains.
Canopic jars were highly decorated and the top of each jar was a kind of lid or ‘stopper’. Each lid had a representation of the head of each of Horus’ four sons and contained a different organ. They were put into a special chest that was placed in the tomb of the person that had died. If there wasn’t a chest to put the jars into, they kept all four jars together and put them close to the mummy.
The four jars were:
- Imsety had a human head and carried and protected the liver.
- Qebehsenuf had a falcon’s head and carried and protected the intestines.
- Hapy had the head of a baboon and carried and protected the lungs.
- Duamatef had the head of a jackal and carried and protected the stomach.
Part of the Egyptian religious belief was that as a person prepared to enter the afterlife, they would have to be tested to see if they had led a good life. Their heart would be placed on a scale with a feather on the other side. If the feather was heavier than their heart, they could pass. It was because of this belief that the heart was left in the body and not placed into a jar. They thought the mummified body needed the heart so that it could pass the test.
Strangely, the Egyptians didn’t think the brain was important. They thought the center of the body and soul was the heart. When they created a mummy, they destroyed the brain.
The original Canopic jars were hollow and the internal organs were wrapped in linen along with their holy oils and placed inside the jars. This process was thought to preserve the internal organs for all eternity. As the Egyptians got better at making mummies, they would mummify the internal organs and put them back in the body of the person that had died and then complete the mummification. They continued to put the four Canopic jars into the tomb, even though they were empty. This was a symbol to honor the four sons of Horus and allow them to protect the person as they crossed over.
The jars could be made of a number of different things” limestone, calcite or alabaster. The Old Kingdom of Egypt was around 2686-2181 BC and during that time there was hardly ever any inscription or writing on the Canopic jars. By the Middle Kingdom, 2025-1700 BC, they began to put writing on the jars. It wasn’t until the Nineteenth Dynasty and later that they began to decorate each of the jars with the heads of the four sons of Horus.