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The ancient Egyptians – quite unlike any other civilization – placed a huge emphasis on death in ...
2021-02-23 09:00:00

The Trials of the Dead
Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
The Trials of the Dead
The Trials of the Dead

The ancient Egyptians spent their entire lives preparing for death. No wonder. The crossing to that world was complicated, and many traps and trials awaited the souls of the deceased.

Read in 14 minutes

As we study diverse cultures, we always need to remember that we naturally view them through the prism of our own prejudices and customs based on our traditions. The fact that we are astonished by the interest of ancient or ‘primitive’ societies in death is above all the result of the complete absence of the subject in our world. There is actually no room for death in the everyday life of modern human beings.

Yet even if we do consider this skewed perspective of ours, we can conclude that ancient Egyptian culture, like no other, placed death in the absolute centre of its rituals, customs and beliefs. This – by the way – is the key thesis of one of the top contemporary Egyptologists, Jan Assmann, one which he extensively discussed in his book Tod und Jenseits im Alten Ägypten [Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt].

We must admit that even the most superficial knowledge of ancient Egyptian civilization seems to justify this opinion, as no other culture has put so much incredible effort into the practice of mummification – and not only of the human body. Numerous mummies of cats, falcons, ibises and crocodiles (in Saqqara alone, several million – let me reiterate that: million – dog and jackal mummies were discovered). No other civilization left behind tombs the likes of the Giza pyramids, and for no other culture was the construction of tombs more important than the construction of houses and palaces. Who else but the inhabitants of the Nile valley created such sophisticated and beautiful sarcophagi? What other nation developed such exceptional and rich literature illustrating the fate of the soul after death?

To be like Osiris

It would seem that the ancient Egyptians spent their entire lives diligently preparing for death, which would prove to be a critical trial, one which would decide whether they would continue to ‘live’ or be doomed forever. In a certain sense, the life-death opposition did not exist for the inhabitants of ancient Egypt. Rather, they believed in the temporary life / eternal life pair (although a person could die definitively in the afterlife, which I’ll discuss in more detail further on). Death was merely the passage from one state to the other. At this moment, I would like to mention the Dispute Between a Man and his Ba (The Debate Between a Man and his Soul), a literary work that is nearly 4000 years old. As interpreted by archaeologist James B. Pritchard, the text discusses the life of a man, who, having endured suffering and regret due to the many difficulties in life, wishes to convince his own soul to commit suicide. Yet his soul persuades him to continue on with his life and promises that it will never leave his side.

The myth of Osiris significantly unriddles the Egyptian approach to death. Unfortunately, the only version of the story that survived until our times were the later Greek accounts, which we know mainly from the works of Plutarch. Let’s recall the key themes: the good King Osiris ruled over the kingdom of the gods. He was killed by his jealous brother Set (let me add right away that Set did not have a bad reputation always and everywhere, while his demonization developed over time and not in all centres of worship). The brother then proceeded to chop up Osiris’ body into pieces and scatter them all over Egypt. Isis, both the wife and sister of Osiris, collected all the fragments of his body and ‘reconstructed’ it, thereby creating the first mummy. Only one part was missing, that of the divine phallus, which was thrown into a river and swallowed by a fish. Isis created an artificial phallus and changed into a bird – a kite. In this form, she copulated with Osiris’ mummy and became pregnant. The son of the royal couple, Horus, took revenge on Set when he became an adult and introduced a new order.

Osiris was therefore resurrected. He became a god and lord of the afterlife, one who was the first to conquer death (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).

In ancient Egypt, death was always associated with a certain kind of fragmentation; that’s one of the reasons why the mummification ritual played such an important role. It assured physical cohesion, which was synonymous with the achievement of immortality (at a certain level). What’s more, a mummified body was considered to be superior to a living one, being more permanent. Yet to clarify the more profound meaning of these treatments, we need a more detailed explanation of how the Egyptians envisioned the composition of the human body.

Compared to Western notions, dominated by the opposition of the body and soul, Egyptian anthropology is much more rich and complex. We have the body, name and shadow (which is associated with solar deities), as well as the akh, ba and ka. Akh is a certain divine power that the deceased acquires through a funerary rite celebrated after death; as a result, the deceased becomes a being identified with light, often associated with a star. Ba is the soul represented as a bird flying high up into the sky, but also returning to the mummy in the grave (these returns are necessary; there has to be contact with the body once in a while, otherwise ba will cease to exist). And ka is a vital force present in human beings from the day they are born, and simultaneously a kind of caring spirit that continues to live after death, sustained by gifts brought to the grave (real or symbolic food). The ka would not eat these gifts as such, but instead just absorb the nutrients. Name, shadow, body, akh, ba, ka – preserving each of them is key in achieving immortality.

Thus the deceased live in their graves and beyond them, in their bodies and beyond them, and all this occurs on different planes of reality. The tomb is therefore the posthumous home of the dead; in accordance with these beliefs, the spirits of the pharaohs roam the hallways of the pyramids to this day, as long as their mummies are there. For this reason, the deceased were often buried with all their possessions. And this, in turn, is the reason for which the penetration of Egyptian tombs is such a treat for archaeologists. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922 was one of the greatest events in the history of archaeology, as the grave contained abundant royal objects, all nearly 3000 years old (these included the Pharaoh’s chariots, beds, nearly 200 canes, the dishes he used and even the toys he played with in his childhood, all excellently preserved).

Curses and traps

The looting of Egyptian tombs was tempting not only for modern archaeologists, but also for thieves in every period of history. That’s why desecration of a grave was associated with a number of curses and punishments; there were even specially hired guardsmen. However, since even back in ancient times people had started to ignore curses, the construction of giant pyramids gradually declined, with Egyptians increasingly opting for discreet and concealed graves instead. These, in turn, were protected with traps, such as those in the famous Valley of the Kings. Quite often a key member of a group of tomb robbers was a person who participated in the building of the tomb and knew all of its secrets. If a thief was caught, he would be tortured – his feet would be beaten, his nose and ears cut off, or he would be impaled. After all, the penalty had to be great, as robbing a grave was synonymous with murdering the soul. Nevertheless, the greatest punishment for a thief was crossing his name off the population census or removing it from monuments, which meant death in the kingdom of the dead (unpopular pharaohs would suffer a similar fate). Let’s also add that people would sometimes ravage a tomb located in a symbolically attractive place to then clean it out and use it for their own purposes after their own death.

Proper mummification took around 70 days. Responsible for this act were professional embalmers, who would wear masks of Anubis as they worked. In addition to the numerous technical procedures performed by the embalmers (such as sucking out the brain through the nose, removing internal organs and placing them in separate urns, and filling the empty spaces with myrrh, cinnamon, etc.), priests would perform funerary rituals (no expense was spared in this case). The body was treated as if it were ‘alive’, meaning that it was given food, had servants and received symbolic sacrifices. If bodies were damaged, or if, for example, the deceased was missing a hand during his lifetime, the embalmers would add the lacking parts, using animal bones among other things. Similar practices were considered to be highly ethical, as thanks to them the dead could enjoy their complete body in the afterlife (remember how Isis reconstructed Osiris’ phallus?).

The funeral itself was a loud event with crowds of people attending. Even back then, you could hire professional mourners, present in Egypt to this day, who would loudly weep and tear apart their robes in a ceremonial procession. The most important ritual was the mouth opening ceremony. The priest, dressed in leopard skins and using the same tools the Egyptians used during childbirth, would touch the mummy to ‘open’ its senses one at a time and have it awaken in the afterlife.

I already mentioned animal mummies earlier on. The number of animal mummies preserved is much larger than the amount of human mummies. The Egyptians mummified their favourite household pets (we know of tombs of people who wished to be buried with their pets; their names were even carved on the walls of the tombs to guarantee their immortality), animals they viewed as sacred, animals that were sacrificed, and… animals that were to be food for people in the kingdom of the dead.

In addition, the graves could contain clothes, furniture, cosmetics, toiletries, mirrors, party games and amulets. One of the most important elements of the ‘kit’ were texts, thanks to which we know so much about Egyptian beliefs today – they were a collection of tips for the soul on what to do on its journey in the afterlife. Such texts were inscribed on the walls of pyramids, inside coffins, on papyrus, as well as on the bandages the mummy was wrapped in. At any rate, the hieroglyphs were considered to be alive; they were meant to be food for the soul. A fascinating practice of ancient Egyptians involved the deliberate ‘crippling’ of hieroglyphs, which could potentially be dangerous for the deceased if they came to life. Such modified hieroglyphs would illustrate snakes cut in half or birds without beaks and claws, to name a few.

The bumpy road to eternity

And here is where we come to the entity that is behind all the customs and rites mentioned above; it is just as impressive as the pyramids and sarcophagi. Namely, we speak of the refined ancient Egyptian afterlife.

Researchers traditionally distinguish three periods of development of these beliefs, corresponding to the texts that address the subject. These are conventionally named as follows: 1. Pyramid Texts – around 760 inscriptions that we can read on the walls of the oldest royal tombs (beginning from the 24th century BCE); 2. Coffin Texts – they were inscribed on the interior sides of wooden coffins (22nd–17th century BCE); 3. Book of the Dead – a popular collection of texts and illustrations usually written on papyrus and placed inside the coffin of the deceased (from the 16th century BCE to the Roman period).

But before you sit down to read descriptions of the Egyptian afterlife, you need to be aware of one key thing: ancient Egypt was a land famous for its magic. Remember how according to the biblical Book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron had to seek the help of Yahweh to conquer the powers of Egyptian sorcerers (Ex. 7, 12)? Ancient Egyptian literature is full of descriptions illustrating the magical abilities of sorcerers to transform and metamorphose (such as breathing life into a wax crocodile, changing clouds into ominous stones, or the ability of a sorcerer to transform himself into any creature). As we’ll soon see, such skills came in very handy in the afterlife, according to the ancient Egyptians.

The Pyramid Texts only explore the journey of the pharaoh through the netherworld, since in the oldest period, only he could look forward to eternal life. The final destination on this journey was Heaven, and the pharaoh metamorphosed into Osiris along the way. There were two ways to get to Heaven: either by going up the ladder created by the god Re, or by transforming into a scarab, locust, falcon, or a bird that was a combination of a falcon and a duck. As he was ascending to Heaven, the pharaoh underwent several transformations and turned into a cosmic being; although he still had the head of a falcon, all other parts of his body – such as his eyes, nose or teeth – each became a separate god. Of course, during his journey to the other side, the pharaoh went through purification. Sometimes, the gate to Heaven was blocked by the phallus of the god Babi. That was when the pharaoh made use of his divine knowledge, magic, spells, and the above-mentioned art of transformation: he would change into Sobek (a crocodile), be reborn as a giant cow, or bathe in the sweat of Osiris (meaning in gold), thanks to which he could pass through the gate. As a result of all these treatments, his bones became like iron, and he transformed into a spirit, into a star. To acquire even greater magical powers, the pharaoh ate other gods, which equates to the symbolic assumption of their powers.

With time, the possibilities of beyond-this-world redemption gradually became more ‘democratic’. The Coffin Texts speak not only of the posthumous fate of the ruler, but also that of high royal dignitaries and priests.

Their journey after death was much more dangerous than the pharaoh’s wanderings. Many traps and trials awaited the souls. The first one involved an enormous fishing net between Heaven and Earth that caught all the dead. There was, however, a way to free yourself from it – you needed to know the name of a certain cosmic fisherman. Escape was possible if the soul transformed into Sobek, a flame, a god, or a bird (which was the most frequent solution). Monstrous demons were on the prowl for the transformed figure, but here again, magic came to the rescue, or more specifically the utterance of the following sacred formula: “I will not give away my powers, I am a clean spirit that has rejected his body, I am a child and I am impassive” (Coffin Texts, spell no. 441). With dagger in hand, the spirit of the deceased was ready to attack the evil ghosts. When the soul made it to heaven, it still needed to watch out, as Set’s numerous henchmen were still keen on annihilating it. If they succeeded, the deceased would die a second time; and this time for good. On the other hand, if all went well, the deceased would create its akh, turn into a shining being and enter the Egyptian paradise: the Fields of Aaru.

The Book of Two Ways provides an alternative version of the journey in the afterlife. It describes two paths, one by water, the other by land, both leading to the kingdom of Horus the Elder. Intersecting the path were terrifying rings of fire that were impossible to overcome unless you possessed the appropriate spells. Moreover, other dangers awaited the soul: strange figures holding daggers, lakes of fire, or the many Gatekeepers. Only knowledge of the Gatekeepers’ names could protect the soul from death in the afterlife. We can conjecture why the dangers were so abundant and why the demons were numerous and so powerful: if all went well and the soul managed to make it to the other side, all the dangers it managed to avoid would protect the deceased from death.

Yet according to Egyptologists, the texts from this period can also be interpreted differently. Specifically, the righteous had nothing to fear, because their journey through all the cosmic portals was a type of ceremonial procession, a formality. The magical power of a virtuous soul chased away all evil.

The famous Book of the Dead no longer pertains to the pharaoh and aristocracy only. Its magical contents were available to anybody who could afford to buy it (there were versions with empty spaces to enter your name). This is a text documenting the final phase of the evolution of the Egyptian vision of the afterlife. Naturally, the book contains a variety of prayers, ready-to-use wordings of spells, illustrations to help identify a deity or demon, and descriptions of places and roads to help find one’s way in the geography of the netherworld.

However, the most significant part of the Book is the famous Judgement of the Dead. While the idea of such judgement has a long history and had evolved over the centuries (it was already discussed in the Teaching for King Merykara, which was probably created in the 22nd to 21st century BCE), in the Book it takes on the most developed form. Judgement of the dead appeared along with the gradual democratization process in the afterlife I mentioned earlier. It was not deemed necessary before, since the pharaoh was in the end a superior being. The idea of judgement was a direct result of the expansion of the idea of royal immortality to regular citizens. The basic role of the pharaoh was to maintain the cosmic and social order. Therefore, if the dead were aspiring to attain immortality, they had to represent royal justice.

Here is how the Book of the Dead presents the judgement. The goddess Maat would bring the dead to the Hall of Two Truths. The heart of the dead was weighed by Horus (with the head of a sparrowhawk) and Anubis (with the head of a jackal). The gods placed the heart on a scale, which was balanced by the symbols of ‘truth’ and ‘order’. Osiris was seated on the throne. The deceased then began to recite the confession, declaring his or her purity, and assuring the gods that he or she had led a hardworking life and had not killed anybody. Interestingly, the deceased also declared that he or she had not committed any sins that we could today classify as damaging to the environment – including the construction of illegal dams that would redirect the flow of water, or fishing on wetlands where fish were spawning. Then the soul was interrogated by a council of 40 god-judges (the knowledge of their names and the names of the Afterlife Gatekeepers is of essence here as well). The results of the hearing were recorded by Thoth, the god of art and literature. If the verdict was not positive, the ‘soul-eater’, Ammit, would appear. The god, depicted as a combination of a crocodile, lion and hippopotamus, would eat the heart of the dead, irreparably destroying it. If the verdict of the hearing was positive, the next step was salvation – the soul on trial became a god and one of the stars, too.

I mentioned earlier that during mummification, the brain would be discarded – this was not without reason. The Egyptians considered the heart, or the ib, to be the habitat of human intelligence and will. The same principle applied to the gods – the idea of the creation of the universe was found in the heart of the god Re-Atum-Khepri. We can distinguish two sides here: ib, the ‘passive’ side, executing the will of the gods and uncontrolled desires, which constitutes the conscience; as well as the ‘active’ side, or the autonomous will, which makes decisions (suggesting that the level of Egyptian psychology was quite high). What’s more, during the hearing, the heart (clearly in its ‘passive’ aspect as the conscience) could speak as a witness against the soul and lead to its doom. Who knows if these ancient Egyptian notions didn’t influence the beliefs of other peoples of the Middle East, including the authors of the Old Testament, thereby making it to our times through the teachings of Jesus?

One last thing about the Book of the Dead – it’s actually a conventional title given by contemporary researchers. The real title is Book of Coming Forth by Day. The meaning of this title lays in the amazing possibilities the soul has. According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, the sun sets at night into the world of the dead, so they can enjoy its radiance. And when the sun makes its way up to shine on the living in the morning, a soul can hitch a ride on the divine solar barge to sail across the sky with it or visit the world of the living for a day. That’s when the soul takes on the form of a falcon, lily, ram or scarab.

Letters to the dead

There’s yet another charming belief that we absolutely need to mention. Since the afterlife is a land modelled after the land of the living, a divine mirror image of a familiar reality (specifically that of Egypt, where agriculture plays a substantial role), there was a risk that after death, the deceased would have to work. This risk was actually quite high, so that’s why one needed to take to the grave a small lookalike carrying an axe or mattock and a bag on its shoulder, called an ushabti. The ushabti could be brought to life in the netherworld with the use of magic spells. It could then do all the work, while the deceased could enjoy the freedom to do what they wanted (in some of the graves, 365 ushabti were found with 36 overseers for a total of 401 afterlife servants).

Another interesting custom also included placing ‘letters to the dead’ in the grave, which were a valuable record of the relationship of the living with the people who died. The letters often contained trivial information on day-to-day life (they were written on papyrus or on bowls that probably held the favourite dishes of the deceased). Those who were alive notified the souls of their loved ones about the birth of new family members or conflicts between heirs. And, of course, requests for intercession with the gods would also appear. Even more interestingly, the living would also organize picnics at cemeteries.

If we tend to view similar customs with disbelief, we need to go back to the thought expressed in the first paragraph. While it is true that the traditions and behaviours of the ancient Egyptians often seem strange or incoherent, there is no reason for us to perceive them as such. We rather need to recognize that we no longer understand them. Western culture, perhaps like no other, has set an uncrossable border between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Unlike many religious traditions in the world, we have no form of contact with the ‘spirits of our ancestors’. We do not visit the world of the dead, and the dead do not visit the world of the living. The astonishment we feel when we read about ancient Egypt is nothing but a function of our own solitude.

Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska

Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon

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