Death Masks

Emily Freedman


The golden mask of Tutankhamun (Hawas 24).

In ancient Egyptian society, making preparations for one’s death as well as ensuring the proper burial of deceased relatives played a fundamental role.  This aspect of life can be shown through death masks, which were placed in both non-elite and royal tombs.  These masks can be analyzed through a functionalist lens by thinking about what funerals did for the community and how these masks helped accomplish this.  By doing so, we are able to see how the dead were idealized by the living.

During the Old Kingdom, the representation of the body of the deceased was intended to depict solely who they were during life.  However, starting in the First Intermediate Period and continuing all the way through the Roman and Ptolemaic Periods, these preparations were taken one step further with the intentions of displaying the deceased actually in the afterlife and did not attempt to resemble the true likeness of the deceased.  This was achieved primarily through the use of these death masks, which were placed over the heads of the mummies, as these masks were the way the living chose to characterize the dead (Taylor 60).  Not only were these masks used to protect the head and ensure it’s function during the afterlife should the physical remains be in any way damaged, they were also used to identify the deceased with Egyptian deities (Teeter 30).  Thus, these masks were a way for the living to show the deceased in an idealized form and ensure that this was who they would be in the afterlife (Taylor 60).

“Ancient Egypt’s most famous artifact is surely the gold mummy mask of Tutankhamun. Inlaid with glass and gems, it vividly portrays him as the god Osiris, with whom every dead pharoah was identified (Pemberton 98).

The famous death mask of King Tutankhamun, who ruled during the New Kingdom, is the best possible example through which Egyptian death masks can be explained.  His mask contains various inscriptions from the Book of the Dead which serve to protect the King (Hawass 22) and associate the deceased with various deities.  For example, lines 648 and 709 of the Coffin Texts (which are on the mask) contain statements which translate to “I am Re…” (the Egyptian sun god) as well as  “I am Atum…” (the god who was believed to be the creator) and continue to portray the deceased as different gods and goddesses.  Part of spell 531 relates various parts of the body (particularly the face) to various deities, such as comparing the eyes of the deceased to the night bark and day bark, which are the two different boats that Re (also spelled “Ra”) used to travel through the sky and the underworld respectively (de Buck 150).  These spells are how the deceased was symbolically depicted as a divine being.  Different aspects of the mask also allude to the association of the King with other deities.  In Egypt, deceased kings were believed to become Ra, who supposedly had a body made of gold and hair made of lapis lazuli (a semi-precious stone).  The mask of King Tutankhamun is made of solid gold with pieces of lapis lazuli; this is clearly an attempt to physically represent the deceased King as the sun god (Dorman, Lilyquist and Russman 22).  Pharaohs in death were also portrayed as Osiris, the god of the underworld, physically characterized on the mask by the curved false beard, which is a symbol of divinity and immortality (Pemberton 112).  Because we know that it was the living who placed this mask on King Tutankhamun, and not the King himself, we can assume that by including these various inscriptions and artistic elements on his mask they believed that he was indeed becoming a god in the afterlife.

The practice of idealizing the deceased through the use of death masks continued throughout Egyptian history.  During the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, the cartonnage headpieces placed over the heads of mummies were the “direct descendants of helmet-style masks like the famous gold covering of Tutankhamun” (Teeter 30).  While the style of these masks changed, their underlying purpose and symbolic meaning did not.  They were still used as a protected representation of the head and the linens which were used to construct the cartonnage were covered in gold leafing, continuing the representation of the deceased as Re (Teeter 30).

“The face of Tutankhamun’s extraordinary innermost coffin, fashioned from solid gold some 1-1.2 inches (2.5-3 cm) thick and weighing more than 240 pounds (110 kg). It portrays the King as the god Osiris, with crook and flail and curved beard (Pemberton 107-109).

We can try to understand this practice of idealizing the dead through a functionalist standpoint: what purpose did this particular aspect of funerals in ancient Egypt serve to the living members of society?  While the placement of death masks over the heads of the mummies was rooted in history, there must have been a reason why it was continued over such a long period of time and did not die out like other elements of Egyptian burials.  I believe that the answer to these questions is related to Arnold van Gennep’s and Robert Hertz’s “Rites de Passage” theory.  This theory relates “the notion of death…with that of resurrection…The journey of the soul into the land of the dead is made visible to the living by the transformation of the…corpse” (Pearson 22).  Those in charge of burying King Tutankhamun were the ones who decided to place that particular mask on him.  They were the ones who decided what it should be made of, what should be inscribed on the mask and ultimately what it would look like.  This mask is the culmination of how the living chose to present the King as a transformed being through physical, written and symbolic representations.  These decisions are based on the beliefs of the living about death and the afterlife.  It was clearly important to the living to represent the deceased as a deified form and to ensure that he achieved an idealized form in the afterlife.  I believe that this could additionally reflect what the living hoped for themselves after death.  One key feature of the transformation of the corpse is the death mask and one of the primary functions of this mask was to show the deceased successfully reaching the afterlife, thus supporting the Rites de Passage theory.  If we can assume that this theory holds, we can infer the importance of the idealization of the dead to the living.  If they see their relatives and their King in the afterlife in a desired state, then they too can look forward to a similar future.  Death was deeply integrated into many aspects of the culture of the living, such as the role burials played in the economy as well as the existence of mortuary cults.  The importance of preparing the deceased for the afterlife shows us that death was not a feared and unknown part of life the way it is in our society today.

The electrum mask buried at Grave Circle B c. 1550-1500 BC (Athens, National Museum; photo courtesy of Athens Archeological Society) (Musgrave 120).

While death masks also appear in Greek tombs, the inferences that we can make about Egyptian idealization of the dead and their overall beliefs about death and the afterlife based on their usage of death masks cannot be extrapolated to ancient Greek society.  In total, six electrum death masks were found at Mycenae during the shaft grave period (during the Middle to Late Helladic Period) from which we can attempt to infer the purpose of these masks.  While the five masks found at Grave Circle A were found covering the faces of the deceased, the mask found at Grave Circle B was found too far away from the skull of the deceased to have been intended to be used as an actual mask.  Because of this, we can only assume that the primary function of these masks was to serve as a status symbol and therefore cannot relate this to the idealization of the dead in Greek society (Musgrave et al. 120).


Works Cited

de Buck, Adriaan. “The Egyptian Coffin Texts. VI. Text of Spells 472-786 .” Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 17.2 (1958): 150. <>.

Dorman, Peter, Christine Lilyquist, and Edna R. Russman. “Egyptian Art.” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. 41.3 (Winter 1983/84): 22. Print.

Hawass, Zahi. Inside the Egyptian Museum with Zahi Hawass. Collector’s edition. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2010. 22. Print.

Musgrave, J. H., R. A. H. Neave, A. J. N. W. Prag, R. A. Musgrave, and Danaé I. Thimme. “Seven Faces From Grave Circle B at Mycenae.” Annual of the British School at Athen. 90. (1995): 120.  <>.

Pearson, Michael Parker. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Texas A&M University Press, 1999. 22. Print.

Pemberton, Delia. Treasures of the Pharaohs. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, LLC, 2004. 112. Print.

Taylor, John. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: The British Museum Press, 2001. 60-61. Print.

Teeter, Emily. “Egyptian Art.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies. 20.1 (1994): 30. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. < .>.