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Work Lintel from the tomb of Païrkep with bas-relief sculpture: making lily perfume
Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Religious and funerary beliefs
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La préparation du parfum de lis
© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps
Religious and funerary beliefs
This delicate bas-relief, sculpted on a Late Period tomb lintel from the Delta, presents the various stages in the process of making perfume. Women are depicted gathering lily flowers, extracting their juice by squeezing them in a strip of cloth twisted between two sticks, then presenting it to the owner of the tomb: Païrkep, known as Psametikmerneith.
A detailed agricultural scene
A sequence from country life unfolds before our eyes, finely sculpted in bas-relief on a tomb lintel. The successive stages of the action are in sequence on the same register, without any hiatus. The figures head toward a man on the left, who is represented on a larger scale and seems to unify the scene as a whole. A line of text at the top provides a caption, listing the deceased's many administrative and religious responsibilities.
On the far right, women are depicted gathering Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum), extracting the juice by squeezing the flowers in a cloth twisted between two sticks, then pouring the liquid into a large jar (the text says "filtering"). On the far left, a man designated as an "inspector" is presenting a bowl to the tomb's owner.
A surprisingly difficult interpretation
This scene has always been interpreted as the perfume-making process. The Egyptians were certainly very fond of potted preparations, which they used as scents or body creams. According to the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), lilies were used in his day for "unguents and oils known to us as lirinon" (Natural History 21.11). The recipes for the famous perfumes of Mendes in the Delta, known in the 3rd century BC, however, do not include this ingredient.
The lily used to be cultivated in the French region of Grasse for its juice, used in the composition of eye lotion. Lily flowers are naturally very fragrant, but can only be used by perfumers once they have been macerated in oil. Perhaps this first preparation is represented here by the twisted cloth over the large jar, but the preliminary maceration is shown neither here nor in the various reliefs treating the same subject that are conserved in other museums.
Another interesting aspect of this scene is that the lily is designated as "seshen"-a term also attributed to the lotus. This should be interpreted not as a confusion but as a floral classification corresponding to principles that differ from those of modern-day botany.
A narrative and a message
This account of a floral industry during the Late Period, south of the Delta or in the Memphis region (where this relief and similar ones were found) does not indicate whether the purpose of the end product was medical or aromatic. The Egyptian habit of representing selected moments with major spatial or temporal gaps does not allow for a definite reconstruction of the process in question.
This was surely not the intention of the relief, since the activity represented must have been familiar to contemporaries who passed by the tomb. The deliberately succinct composition delivers a more general message by representing a luxury industry of which the master of the tomb could be proud, or a precious product that would be at his disposal in the afterlife, thanks to the magical powers attributed to representations.
BibliographyDesroches-Noblecourt, "Les récentes acquisitions", in La Revue du Louvre, 1975, tome 4, p. 249-251.
La préparation du parfum de lis
règne de Psammétique II ?(595 - 589 avant J.-C.), 26e dynastie
H. 0.29 m; W. 1.1 m; D. 0.08 m
Vitrine 9 : Scènes agricoles
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