Greco-Roman-Egyptian culture and the mummy of Herakleides

It’s been a molasses-slow weekend as far as bloggable news goes, so a video from the Getty it is. The video is less than 10 minutes long, but it manages to cover the interesting subject of how the beautifully painted cartonnage mummy of one Herakleides exemplifies the melding of Greek, ancient Egyptian and Roman cultures in post-Ptolemaic Egypt.

The mummy dates to the Roman period — ca. 120-140 A.D. — and is complete with intact linen wrapping and a fine wood portrait panel depicting a beardless young man with curly hair wearing a gilt laurel wreath. The linen shroud was painted red, symbolic of eternal life, and then decorated down the length of the body with the iconography of Egyptian deities including Osiris, Horus and Isis. The bottom of the shroud is painted with a representation of the youth’s feet with gilded toes, incorporating the pharaonic funerary tradition of golden toe caps. Above the feet is a Greek language inscription: ΗΡΑΚΛΕΙΔΗC ΘΕΡΜΟΥ, meaning Herakleides, son of Thermos.

The portrait panel, painted in realistic Greco-Roman style, was a Roman-era addition to the traditional Egyptian mummification practices that had continued, albeit in altered form, under the rule of the Ptolemies. A CT scan of the mummy confirmed that Herakleides was 18-20 years old when he died, so the portrait is at least accurate to his real age.

The CT scan also found a surprise inside: a mummified ibis placed on his abdomen just under the ibis painted on the shroud. Mummified animals were not usually incorporated into the mummies of humans. Ibises were sacred to Toth, so it’s possible Herakleides had a particular connection to the god, perhaps as a priest.

Anyway, awesome video follows. If you like that, have a browse through the Getty’s YouTube channel because this is one in a series of six collaborations between the museum and Smarthistory that highlights select pieces in the collection. The Victorious Youth, an exceptional Greek bronze that has been the subject of a 15-year legal struggle between the museum and Italy over the highly dubious legality of its sale and export, is one of the other subjects

One thought on “Greco-Roman-Egyptian culture and the mummy of Herakleides

  1. Indeed, “Thermos” could have been his dad’s name, but it actually seems more likely that he simply came from a place called “Thermos” (Θέρμος), as Thermos had been “an ancient Greek sanctuary, which served as the regular meeting place of the Aetolian League”:

    “The Aetolians allied with the Romans, while Philip V [of Macedon] destroyed the temple of Apollo Thermios and allied with the Carthaginians. The Aetolians continued to fight on the side of the Romans even in the Battle of Cynoscephalae (196 BC). However, the Aetolians took the side of Antiochus III against the Roman Republic, and on the defeat of that monarch in 189 BC, they became virtually the subjects of Rome. Following the conquest of the Achaeans by Lucius Mummius Achaicus in 146 BC, Aetolia became part of the Roman province of Achaea. When the Roman garrisons were withdrawn because of the civil wars in Rome, the Aetolians, too, began to fight each other. Following Octavian’s victory at the Battle of Actium, the Aetolians who had sided with Antony disbanded completely. Octavian pursued Antony and Cleopatra and defeated their forces in Alexandria [founded in Egypt by another Macedon] on 1 August 30 BC.”

    Hence, Herakleides’s family maybe ended up in Egypt by –not so quite– accident. The gods, unfortunately, seem a bit fading away in the 2nd century AD. Besides, ‘Thermou’ is not an uncommon Greek family name.

    Epiphanius of Salamis in Cyprus reports that in his time in Alexandria, on the night of January 5-6 [i.e. Epiphany], the feast of the “Nativity of Aion by the Virgin Kore” was celebrated. This birth took place in an underground shrine in the Koreion, the temple of the Kore [Isis]. There was a wooden image of Aion, which, after hymns were sung throughout the night, at dawn, was decorated with five golden crosses and carried around in a procession.


    Spoiler: This festival finally ended up as Christmas as we know it 🌿️

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