A mummy mask provided protection – both physical and magical – to the head of the mummy. Masks were introduced in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181-2955 BC) and were used until Roman times (30BC-395AD). They show the deceased in an idealised form, like a god who has triumphed over death. The use of gilding on masks of the wealthy symbolises the golden skin of the gods.
Spell 151 from the Book of the Dead – the ‘Spell for the Head-of-Mystery’ – makes the function of the mask explicit:
Anubis speaks, the embalmer, lord of the divine hall, when he has placed his hands on the coffin of [the deceased] and equipped him with what [he] needs: ‘Hail, O beautiful of face, lord of vision, whom Ptah-Sokar has gathered together and whom Anubis has upraised, to whom Shu gave support, O beautiful of face among the gods!
Your right eye is the night boat, your left eye is the day boat, your eyebrows are the Ennead. The crown of your head is Anubis, the back of your head is Horus, your fingers are Thoth, your lock of hair is Ptah-Sokar. You [the mask] are in front of [the deceased], he sees by means of you. [You] lead him on the goodly ways, you repel Seth’s band for him and cast his enemies under his feet for him in front of the Ennead of the great House of the Noble in Heliopolis. You take the goodly way to the presence of Horus, the lord of the nobles.’
This text appears on the famous golden mask of Tutankhamun, inscribing an object with its function in order to ensure that it would ‘work’ for the dead king. The spell makes clear that the mask was to protect the deceased (magically) from their enemies. As is common in such spells, the text is a command from a god to an inanimate object – divine authority used to spark to life a lifeless substance.
The spell emphasises the power of the mask to restore to the deceased the ability to see. An important part of the funeral ritual was a rite known as the ‘Opening of the Mouth’, which restored the power of speech, as well as the other senses to the mummy (set up outside the tomb, probably wearing the mummy mask). The senses were required for a successful rebirth into in the afterlife as a fully-functioning person, as in life.
In a label written to accompany a mummy mask displayed in our exhibition ‘Unearthed’, a schoolgirl wrote that she thought the mask in the case looked like it was “about to start speaking.” Although this is not the sort of label museum curators write, the girl highlights the essential function of one of the most important items of Pharaonic funerary equipment. Far from being made to simply look pretty, masks were made to give their owners the power of sight – and speech.