What are Canopic Jars? - Ancient Egypt's Mummies
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What are Canopic Jars?

Canopic Jars
Canopic Jars from Egypt
(Vatican Museum, Rome)

When people who lived in ancient Egypt died, if they were rich enough, they paid to have their body made into a mummy to preserve it for the afterlife. In order to make you into a mummy, the undertakers had to take out your guts (otherwise you would rot). This was kind of like cleaning a fish. They took out your liver, your stomach and small intestine, your large intestine, and your lungs. (They left your heart inside your body, because people thought the heart was where your soul lived.)

But what should they do with the guts? You might need them in the afterlife, too. So the undertakers put your guts in jars, each organ in its own jar. We call these jars "canopic jars", and we find thousands of them in Egyptian graves.

Each kind of organ had its own god and goddess to protect it, and the jars showed which god was responsible. These gods were the sons of the Egyptian god of protection and rebirth, Horus. Your liver went in Imsety's jar with the human head on it, and Isis protected that jar. Your lungs went in Hapi's jar with the baboon head on it, and Nephthys protected that jar. Your stomach went in Duamutef's jar with the jackal head on it, and Neith protected it, and finally your large intestine went in Qebehsenuef's jar with a hawk head on it, and Serket protected it.

Learn by doing: Egyptian afterlife project
More about ancient Egyptian mummies

Bibliography and further reading about mummification:

Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, by Leonard Fisher (1999). For younger kids.

Isis and Osiris, by Geraldine Harris (1997). A retelling of the story for kids.

The Egypt Game (Yearling Newbery), by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (reprinted 1985). A great kids' story about kids who pretend to be Egyptian gods and goddesses.

Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, by John Baines, David Silverman, and Leonard Lesko (1991). Pretty hard going, but it will tell you everything you need to know about Egyptian religion.

Isis in the Ancient World, by R.E. Witt (1997). Mostly about the spread of Isis worship to Greece and the Roman Empire.

More about Mummies
More about Weighing Souls
More about ancient Egypt
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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