Today’s bullshit meme is the picture of eyes from ancient Egyptian statues posted below (definitely not the image above) that is shared around the internet as a harmless ‘appreciation’ of ancient beauty.
However, the source of this meme is an American pseudo by the name of Robert Sepehr who creates fantasy reconstructions of ancient Atlantians that ‘quite incidentally’ are based on white supremacist models. He circulates theories that all the cool kids; like the ancient Egyptians, the Minoans and Sumerians were white peoples descended from an advanced yet uncannily completely lost civilisation.
Changes the nature and intention of the image somewhat doesn’t it?
Oh, and hence the importance of having blue eyes on one statue, or even violet grey.
So the meme is not innocent, and whenever this image is shared on any not too discriminating Facebook group or Twitter you can expect the topic of race to rear its ugly head and for chaos to ensue as different theories get knocked against each other by people with limited social skills.
But it is all based on a lie – the eyes on these statues are dark grey/black, only one has been ‘doctored’ to appear blue, i.e. photographed from a particular angle to get the right reflection and then the colours have been enhanced to appear brighter in a digital program.
Every one of the original statues in this meme has transparent rock crystal eyes, even the one eye of queen Nefertiti which is clearly black has crystal set over it filling the entire eye (second from top).
The ancient Egyptians used two semi-precious stones to make the iris of the eye on statues of important dead people: black obsidian and rock crystal. Obsidian is a dark volcanic stone that is a naturally formed glass.
Rock crystal on the other hand is transparent and was chosen because of its reflectiveness. They did not have clear glass, so to achieve the right effect a disk of rock crystal was placed over a base of carbon black or blackened copper for even more reflectiveness, because shiny in Egypt meant magical power.
A quick illustration of this would be that the ancient Egyptian language had many words they could use to express the idea of shine and radiance (25 +), and the majority of these were connected to divinity, power and particularly the sun or heavenly bodies.
These words could also be used to refer to vision, like the word hedj – that we might simplistically translate as white, but is much better thought of as meaning ‘bright’. Another word for bright and shiny, tjehen, could be used to describe human eyes. So the intention behind these choices was not at all about colour the way we think of it.
But for the record the intention was ‘black’, but their idea of black, not ours.
Ancient Egyptian colour
Which brings me to my second point – the foolishness of applying our language to another culture. Colour values in ancient societies do not match ours, and by ‘ours’ I mean the English language, as other modern cultures also have different ways of understanding colours.
So you might see what we could call ‘blue’ or ‘grey’ or ‘black’ eyes in these photos, an ancient Egyptian would not necessarily perceive these values. For one thing they had different conceptual boundaries for their colours, and light, dark, and shiny had influences upon these.
We think of a modern colour wheel with three primary colours (red-yellow-blue - white-black), an idea that evolved over the past 200 years with paint pigment and technology, but in ancient Egypt colour ranges and boundaries were different and based on materials and environment.
Dark blue for example was special, and included within the kem or ‘dark’ colour, that was any shade between purple – black – dark grey – dark brown, but dark blue materials were rare and mainly reserved for special contexts, kings and gods. Kem proper had a value of fertile earth, generation and was used for underworld and night sky symbolism. Light blue on the other hand was wadj – any shade from green – blue/green– turquiose and it had a value of youth, freshness and fertility.
What we think of as one colour was 2 separate colours.
In Egypt what we translate as ‘red’ – desher actually included any shade from yellow-orange – gold – red – red-brown, and it was connected with the sun and solar gods, it was also sometimes associated with negative things like rage and violence. ‘White’ – hedj, ‘light/bright’ on the other hand included silver – cream – white –‘shiny/radiant’, it literally reflected purity and ritual cleanliness.
Colour was used to indicate gender in Egyptian art, elite men were painted desher red-brown and elite women much lighter colours, the only exceptions to this occurred in around 1350 BCE when Nefertiti and her daughters were also painted desher like the king, and this will have been a symbolic decision, a reference to the sun and to their importance.
If you fancy a (slightly simplified) symbolic viewpoint, think of desher and hedj together as ideas of duality, sun and moon, male and female, a united land via Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt, etc. The Egyptians loved a bit of meaningful colour coordination and it was as equally important to their symbolic vocabulary.
Therefore, few conclusions about race or ethnicity can be drawn from ancient Egyptian colour symbolism, and old fashioned western clichés about Egyptian women staying indoors and avoiding the sun and men getting epic tans really need to be put in the dumpster.
Colour choice for high end ancient Egyptian art was highly symbolic and not photographic reality.
To sum up, the faked blue eyes in that one image here in the bullshit meme, are technically ‘wadj’ or ‘green’ to the people who made the statue. But much more importantly the colour of the one outlier image is simply not correct, not blue, nor green, it has been modified in a computer paint program.
Notice that the orange face is also too bright, that is actually bare wood, not paint. Also for the meme the appearance of the skin of queen Nefertiti (faded red-brown paint) and of Kaaper (sycamore wood) has been lightened for maximum subjective effect.
The altered statue is btw a scribe called Mitri from the 5th Dynasty, ca 2312-2282 BCE. He has dark black irises that are overlaid with disks of rock crystal, the eye lids on the other hand were originally made with blackened copper, but this has corroded over the centuries, and they now appear greenish and black. His red-brown pigment is almost completely flaked away leaving the lighter colour of the wood and plaster underneath.
The modified photograph was taken from an article about the statue by Jeff Burzacott from 2015 (link below). The photographer was Matthias Lensing-Rossbach.
But don’t trust me, search ‘Mitri, scribe statue’. In fact, search each name I have provided here, they are all famous examples of ancient Egyptian sculptural art, you will find many photographs taken from different lightings and angles, and with or without garish colours and artificial contrast.
And bear in mind you cannot judge the ethnicity of an entire ancient culture (3,000 years guys) from 4 stylised samples (Nofret and Rahotep are a pair) that were basically sourced by some guy(s) lazily surfing the internet.
Finally, if you were in any doubt about white supremacist models lying at the back of this meme after all this (informed) blather, the side comments in the screenshot adequately back this up, as while one fan has commented on the lovely eyes, and a resourceful Sepehr has provided links to his conspiracy theory videos (no, I am not linking him), the lower comment by the blonde girl called ‘Vril’ sums up the issue.
Oh look, the same photo of a mummy that gets posted all over the shop on the net to argue the Egyptians were white.
Big deal, like all well to do Egyptians she was mummified, dried out with natron salts and then covered in natural petroleums, herbs, oils and resins (for weeks). Salts are a natural bleach, something you would know if you have every spent a summer at the beach (my dark brown hair goes red), but she was also likely a ripe age at death, the odds that she has her original hair colour after 3,470 years lying in a leaky tomb are minimal.
And on the long shot that she had natural red hair, this too proves nothing about her ethnicity or the ethnicity of an entire ancient culture.
This photo is the second mummy (KV60-B) from tomb KV 60 in
western Thebes and dates to the early 18th Dynasty. The image colours have again been lightened to support the whitewashing argument and the woman pictured is unidentified. She may have been the nurse of Hatshepsut, but no-one is arguing she is Hatshepsut, please ignore
Pinterest and Twitter or anyone else who has stuffed that up (like Foerster in the meme above).
However, she could also be anyone hurriedly bunged in tomb KV60 after 1450 BCE, the later Egyptians often exploited available resources. Oh, and she is another good example of cherry picking and deft use of photoshop to manipulate your audience.
But much more to the point, the Vril Facebook profile that posted the picture is a sock puppet account belonging to the same pseudo-‘anthropologist’, Robert Sepehr. It is a page dedicated to an entirely fictional Nazi esoteric group of glamorous young women, a cult invented by neo-fascists and conspiracy theorists in the 1950s to make the original Nazis look a bit cool, pagan and sexy.
Therefore, try as you will, there is nothing harmless about the motives of this meme.
Photos in my composite images are sourced from Wikipedia (Jon Bodsworth, Giovanni, Djehouty).
Burzacott, J. 2015. 'Meet Mitri,' Nile Magazine - https://www.nilemagazine.com.au/2015-july-1/2015/7/2/meet-mitri
Cheal, C. 2003. 'The Meaning of Skin Colour in Ancient Egypt'. In Race and Identity in the Nile Valley, Ancient and Modern Perspectives.
Collis, J. 2017. 'Ethnicity is not something dictated by people's genes,' The Guardian - https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/aug/14/ethnicity-is-not-something-dictated-by-peoples-genes
Galicier, L. 2013. Let's focus on the eyes. In The Artefact Lab: Conservation in Action - https://www.penn.museum/sites/artifactlab/tag/egyptian-statues/
Hannig, R. and P. Vomberg 1999. Wortschatz der Pharaonen in Sachgruppen. Mainz.
Morgan, L. 2014. Enlivening the Body: Colour and Stone Statues in Old Kingdom Egypt. In Notes in History of Art 30.
Rose, M. 2007. 'Hatshepsut found; Thutmose I lost,' Archaeology - https://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/hatshepsut/
Worrall, S. 2017. 'Why race is not a thing according to genetics,' National Geographic - https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/10/genetics-history-race-neanderthal-rutherford/
I myself have written various academic and magazine articles on colour theory in antiquity that are available as pdfs at Humanities Commons here: https://hcommons.org/members/andrea/