Canopic jars were special vessels that were used in Ancient Egypt during the mummification process. The jars were used to preserve the organs of mummies and prepare them for the afterlife. These jars were often made of pottery or carved from limestone. Traditionally, there were four jars, one for each of the following organs: stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver.
The term canopic was used by Egyptologists who initially associated the jars to the Greek legend of Canopus, who according to legend, died of a serpent bite while visiting Egypt and is buried at the mouth of the Nile River. It is now believed that there is no connection between the jars and the myth though the name was kept.
Canopic jars were used from the Old Kingdom up to the Ptolemaic Period. The first known use of canopic jars was during the burial of Hetepheres I, a queen from the fourth dynasty. During the time of the Old Kingdom, canopic jars were simple in design and had plain lids. During the Ptolemaic Period, the organs were wrapped and placed in the tomb alongside the body. By the First Intermediate Period they were much more elaborate and the previous plain lids were replaced by sculptures that portrayed human heads. These heads represented the deceased. By the time of the New Kingdom, canopic jars had once again changed. This time, the change took on a religious characteristic depicting heads such as the four sons of Horus: Duamutef, Qebehsenuef, Hapi and Imseti. These gods were believed to protect the contents of the jars and were even further protected by a companion goddess.
The first of the jars contained the stomach and was protected by Neith, goddess of creation and hunting. The second jar contained the intestines and was protected by Selket, goddess of protection and scorpions. The third jar contained the lungs and was guarded by Nephthys, goddess of lamentation. The last jar contained the liver and was protected by Isis, the goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility. These jars would be sealed inside a canopic chest and buried within the tomb. In certain cases the jars would also depict the head of Anubis, the god of death though the reason behind this is unknown.
Going through the mummification process and the use of canopic jars to protect the organs, demonstrates that the Egyptians believed the deceased were a continuation of their mortality. They believed that the preservation of these vital organs would help the deceased during the afterlife. The most important organ, the heart, was not put within a canopic jar for good reason. The heart was believed to be the home of the soul during Ancient Egypt. Due to this belief, it was important to leave the heart intact within the corpse.
Canopic jars are abundant in the world today and can be found in many museums. They served a major role within the mummification process that was sacred to the Ancient Egyptians. The Ancient Egyptian ties to the New Kingdom gods demonstrate a strong belief in deities and how importance this conviction was within their society.