Egyptian Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Burial Practices, Beliefs, Rites, and Rituals

The Egyptian afterlife was a vital aspect of ancient Egyptian religion and religious beliefs. The journey to Duat, the Underworld, was just a fraction of the bigger picture. Generations of study have taught us that the ancient Egyptians had complex beliefs surrounding the soul and death, all of which lent to their interpretation of life after this one.

There were precautions taken, funerary rites fulfilled, and offerings made. This was all to ensure that eternal life in Aaru, the Field of Reeds, was not only attainable but a place that had the unmistakable trappings of the living world.

Egyptian View of Life and Afterlife

egyptian-mummies-and-egyotian-afterlife

The Egyptian afterlife surrounded the belief that death was only one stop in life’s journey. If the gods so willed it, there was an entire life after life. Thus, one’s death was just as important as one’s birth.

We’ve seen excavations of ancient tombs, cemeteries, and graves. While there would be a mummy, archaeologists would also find burial goods, art and iconography, and religious texts that would help the deceased in their voyage through Duat. Several extremely complex rituals would prepare both the body and the soul for this vaunted life after death.

The Egyptians strongly believed in three things: an underworld where souls go after death, eternal life, and rebirth. Some of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, like Anubis and Osiris, were also deeply associated with the Egyptian underworld and afterlife. Thankfully for us, the Egyptians meticulously documented their beliefs and practices so that future generations could follow in their footsteps.

The Afterlife in Egyptian Literature

The afterlife was meant to be a life of eternal comfort. There was no disease there and the souls could be reunited with their bodies again; existence was peace. However, the first step to entering that realm was for the dead to be preserved properly. To not muck up this incredibly important process, the Egyptians wrote some handy dandy “How To” books.

READ MORE: 10 Gods of Death and the Underworld From Around the World

Pyramid Texts

Pyramid-Texts

The “Pyramid Texts” gave the deceased the knowledge to navigate the afterlife. They gave information about the paths one should take and the dangers that one might face along the way. They are among the most seminal texts of ancient Egypt.

These were the first religious spells that were carved into the walls of the ancient pyramids. At first, during the Old Kingdom period of the Ancient Egypt Timeline, only the pharaohs used these texts to decorate their tombs. Eventually, queens and important government officials also began to have these texts on their tomb walls. The knowledge gained by the Pyramid Texts was exclusive to the ruling class.

Coffin Texts

Coffin-Texts

The “Coffin Texts” are from the Middle Kingdom period of ancient Egypt. They gradually replaced the Pyramid Texts and were spells inscribed into the coffins themselves. These texts, unlike their predecessors, were more available to the common masses.

The Coffin Texts, especially “The Book of Two Ways” within them, were among the earliest manuals to the afterlife for the civilian populace. They gave information about the transformative magic the deceased would need on their journey to protect them in the afterlife.

The Book of the Dead

book-of-the-dead

The “Book of the Dead” is one of the most well-known texts of ancient Egypt. Constantly referenced in various films such as The Mummy franchise, the Book of the Dead was a large collection of spells. It included sections on both the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts.

The Book of the Dead was unique in that it was written on papyrus. However, it has also been discovered inscribed on tomb walls, coffins, and even mummy wrappings. Much like the Coffin Texts, the spells in the Book of the Dead were accessible and universally used.

The spells offered advice and protection to the deceased as they traveled to the underworld. The blessed dead needed the spells and rites in the Book of the Dead to journey safely, so they would not come across any harm before they reached the realm of Osiris.

Rites and Rituals

There were many ancient Egyptian afterlife rituals staged following one’s death. The status of the deceased individual could have added further complexity to otherwise standard practices.

The most standard of rituals was the mummification of the body. Mummification would be followed by sacred rites and spells to allow the deceased’s spirit to function in the afterlife. The most famous of these ceremonies is the “Opening of the Mouth,” depicted in the Pyramid Texts, which would give the dead access to their senses in eternal life.

Other funerary rites and rituals included:

  • Prayers and incantations staged at burial sites: Depending on the Period, these may have been from the Coffin Texts, the Pyramid Texts, or the Book of the Dead
  • Burial with objects from one’s life that the deceased could bring to the afterlife: Though the upper echelons of society had more valuable and elaborate burial goods, common graves have been found with pottery, jewelry, food, games, and toys
  • The ritual killing and mummification of servants, attendants, or pets: Retainer sacrifice was practiced by members of the royal court in the Early Dynastic Period
  • A reenactment of the Judgement of Osiris

The common people were not involved in the temple rituals, other than offering votive objects. Many of them had household shrines with their own household deities, to whom they offered food, drink, and clothing.

READ MORE: Ancient Egyptian Food: More Than Beer and Bread

A lot of their rituals were seemingly transactional in nature. This is not uncommon for old, polytheistic religions where the will of the gods was important to the quality of one’s lifestyle. The people left offerings for the gods so they could have adequate rain and a good harvest. This was a regular practice in all ancient civilizations.

The most mysterious rituals were the ones that were performed for a dead person. One would think that embalming bodies and preparing them for burial would be an expensive process that only the aristocracy could afford. Egypt’s history is significant in that the common populace too had its own tombs, cemeteries, and crypts. Even ordinary craftsmen designed and built their own tombs before death, a practice that was exclusive to royalty in most parts of the world.

Preparing for the Afterlife

Once someone died in ancient Egypt, many things were intended to happen within a certain time frame. Bodies were mummified over seventy days. Afterwards were funerary processions and public mourning, especially if the deceased were a public official.

Egyptians considered one’s death to be the start of a process: their journey to the underworld. Moving on to the next world was not wholly guaranteed. In the form of their spirit, the dead would need to succeed in a series of trials. At the end of it all, they needed to pass the single most important test of their life. Or, well, unlife.

That test is the famous Weighing of the Heart. There, in Duat, the heart of the dead is weighed against the feather of Maat. Anubis acts as the judge. If the heart keeps balance with the feather, the deceased is permitted to continue to the next world, Aaru, the Field of Reeds.

Burial Practices

Burial practices in Egyptian culture were complicated, to put it lightly. The kings and nobility paid a lot of attention to how they would be viewed in posterity. They made provisions for their own tombs during their lifetimes.

Unlike other civilizations, embalming and mummification were not restricted to the richest of society. They were a common enough procedure that the Egyptian middle class had access to mummification. The lower class and especially slaves, however, were not granted such a luxury.

The same classism applied to the method of burial in question and whether or not the individual was buried in a coffin. Not all dead of ancient Egypt were buried beneath pyramids, and not everyone was afforded burial goods.

In instances of such burials, where the dead could not afford customary funeral arrangements, bodies were naturally desiccated in the dry desert conditions of Egypt. These early “natural” mummies have been preserved miraculously well since Egypt’s environmental conditions made it possible. Somewhat like the bog mummies of Northern Europe, but for very different reasons.

READ MORE: Bog Body: Mummified Corpses of the Iron Age

Embalming-of-bodiesThe art of embalming by Thomas Greenhill, Surgeon

The Body, Soul, and Personal Identity

Beliefs about the Egyptian afterlife meant that the body itself needed to be well-preserved. The body needed to be recognizable so that the spirit could return to it when needed. The physical bodies would “wake” once the person had completed the journey to the afterlife.

As early as the First Dynasty (3200 BCE), select priests were in charge of the embalming and mummification process. The process of mummification involved removing the organs of the deceased and placing them into canopic jars. These jars hold several vital organs and were represented with the images of the Four Sons of Horus. Mummification also included getting rid of all the moisture in the body and covering it with natron. Once the body was properly preserved, it would be wrapped in bandages.

A focal point of the mummification and embalming processes was the maintenance of the pieces of an individual’s soul:

  • The ka
  • The ba
  • The akh

The ka was the deceased’s life force. The ba was a bird-headed spirit that could travel between the world of the living and the underworld; it was something that only kings had. The akh was a special, transformed spirit that had been given the seal of approval after the Weighing of the Heart; criminals and evildoers had no chance at their spirits becoming akh.

Funeral Offerings

The Egyptians believed that the life force (ka) could live on even after it was separated from the physical body. Thus, the tombs and locations of burial were essentially homes for the dead. Various offerings, especially food, were then left for the dead to nourish the ka. Shabti, or figurines of servants, would also be among funeral offerings and inscribed with passages from the Book of the Dead.

Most funerary offerings were remnants of one’s earthly existence. Clothing, textiles, and valuable ornaments were among the most common items. Other popular offerings were art, jewelry, and pottery.

Offerings-for-the-deceasedOffering for the deceased, Middle Kingdom, found at the tomb of Nehri I at Dayr al-Barshā

Tombs and Pyramids

Egyptian tombs are a sight to behold, on par with the great Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel, Luxor, and Karnak. While most of us are familiar with the Egyptian pyramids, it is a little-known fact that pyramids were used as tombs only in the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

The first burials in Egypt were simply pits dug into the ground. A few funeral offerings, such as tools and pottery, would be placed within. As time went by, the tombs – notably those for the elite – became more elaborate.

Tombs began to house multiple rooms with plaster walls and murals. A number of goods would be buried with the deceased, depending on economic status. For example, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 unearthed six chariots! While certainly not stock standard, the grave offerings at KV62 reflect the stark disparity between the burial of a common man and the king.

The pyramid complexes at Saqqara and Giza were built during the time of the Old Kingdom. The pyramids were surrounded by flat-topped brick tombs called mastabas, which were used to bury the elites. These had underground burial chambers beneath chapels: a standard design for most tombs of the time.

The New Kingdom tombs, situated in the Valley of the Kings, were carved into the hills of western Thebes. There are no pyramids constructed in this age and tombs were fashioned with a low profile. Since the tombs were largely hidden (likely to ward off grave robbers), memorial temples were built closer to the cities.

Egyptian-tombEgyptian tomb

Notable Pyramids and Tombs

The pyramids are some of the most notable structures of the ancient world. Awe-inspiring in their massive scale and historicity, the Great Pyramid at Giza housed several temples, stone-lined causeways, smaller pyramids, and chapels, as well as buried boats. The step pyramid at Saqqara, built by Pharaoh Djoser, was the oldest pyramid in Egypt. It consisted of six stacked mastabas. Eventually, the Egyptians polished their techniques and it culminated in the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza.

READ MORE: 7 Wonders of the Ancient World

Later kings began to hide their tombs in hillsides. The most well-known of these is in Luxor, in the Valley of the Kings. These rock-cut tombs housed the remains of the pharaohs and the most important nobles. The first tombs to be built here were those of Amenhotep I and Thutmose I.

Interestingly enough, with Ramses I there began constructions of Egyptian tombs in the Valley of the Queens. This is where the wives of the pharaohs were buried. In the nearby Valley of the Workers, the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Queens lived and were buried. The excavated village, called Deir el-Medina, had tombs built by the artisans for their own use. The tombs contained small rock-cut chapels and burial chambers adorned with small pyramids.

READ MORE: The Queens of Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Queens in Order 

Luxor-Valley-of-the-KingsLuxor, Valley of the Kings

Grave Robbers in Ancient Egypt

Tomb robbery has long existed in various cultures around the globe. So much so that a series of “robbers tunnels” would be established to make plundering easier. Since it was often customary for the wealthy to be buried with their riches in the ancient world, grave robbing was a lucrative business.

Grave robberies in ancient Egypt can be traced as far back as the Badarian period in Predynastic Egypt (around 4000 BCE). If caught, the penalty was hefty: death. And that isn’t to mention the popularized rumor of curses.

The act of tomb robberies during the New Kingdom was recorded in the Abbott Papyrus and the Papyrus Leopold II. Well, at least specific legal cases related to them were. Within, details of the crimes and the subsequent punishment of those involved were noted.

Now, breaking into a tomb was no easy feat. Security measures were often painstakingly complex. For reference, there were usually portcullis blocks that were set into grooves at the side of the tomb entrance. These would be lowered into place and jammed down, sealing the tomb. Records also state several instances of false doorways and false burial chambers being built, to confuse robbers.

One last measure was the curses that were placed over tombs. While this did not seem to frighten away robbers, they were seemingly effective against the archaeologists who excavated the tombs. At least, somewhat. The media sure thinks so!

Tutankhamuns-tombA seal on the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb

Tutankhamun’s Tomb and Legendary Curses

Many archaeologists were excavating the tombs of ancient Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries CE and none were as groundbreaking as the discovery of KV62, better known as the tomb of “boy king,” Pharoah Tutankhamun. One of the most well-known supernatural conspiracy theories of our modern world is the acclaimed curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

READ MORE: King Tut’s Tomb: The World’s Magnificent Discovery and Its Mysteries

Tutankhamun died and was buried at a tragically early age. His tomb was said to be very richly furnished. It received a great deal of attention when several members of Egyptologist Howard Carter’s team and visitors to the tomb died after the initial excavation of the monument. Lord Carnarvon, the English aristocrat who financed the expedition in 1922, died of blood poisoning in 1923.

More ill omens soon followed. Carter’s canary was killed by a cobra, a symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, which had found its way into the house. Sir Bruce Ingram, who was a friend of Carter’s and received a mummified hand with a scarab beetle bracelet from him (yuck), had his house burned down. When it was rebuilt, a flood followed. The superstitious masses believed that all of this could not have been a coincidence.

Howard Carter himself tragically died sixteen years after he led the expedition from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. However, some people have attributed his death to the curse, as well.

a-discovery-of-Tutankhamuns-tombA Discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb

Egyptian Gods of Death and the Underworld

Egyptians were polytheistic, so they had a lot of gods. When dealing with their beliefs about the afterlife, some of the more important deities were the Lord of the Underworld, Osiris, and the creator sun god Ra.

READ MORE: Sun Gods: Ancient Solar Deities From Around the World

The jackal-headed god, Anubis, was an important deity in the context of death and the afterlife as well. Sometimes considered the son of Osiris, Anubis was the one who came up with the concept of mummification. More often than not it was the priests of Anubis who were tasked with embalming dead bodies and delivering funerary rites.

anubisAnubis

Here is a list of key Egyptian gods of death and the underworld:

  • Osiris
  • Ra
  • Anubis
  • The Four Sons of Horus
    • Imsety
    • Hapy
    • Duamutef
    • Qebehsenuef
  • The 42 Assessors of Ma’at

Egyptian God Osiris and Underworld River

Osiris was the “Dead King,” the deity that triumphed over death itself. He lords over the underworld, where a lucky number of Egyptians would continue to live a life of undeath at his side. That is if they can have a heart in balance with a feather from the goddess Ma’at.

Although Osiris was a Chthonic deity, the ancient Egyptians believed he influenced the Nile River itself. The two were innately linked. It was Osiris who controlled the ebb and flow of the river’s waters, and it was he who decided when it would flood or recede. Thus, Osiris flexed his control over the process of life, death, and rebirth outside of Duat.

Life After Life in Egyptian Culture

When the body died, it was believed that the deceased’s spirit moved on to an afterlife. After several trials, the soul received everything that had been lost on earth. It was an eternal life of peace and happiness and a key aspect of the Egyptian funerary religion.

The ancient Egyptians believed that a person was born on earth with a material body through the grace of the gods. The gods decided the fate of the person. However good a person’s fate was in their material life, it was only a fraction of the bliss that one could get in paradise. This paradise was called the Field of Reeds or the Field of Offerings and was an ideal version of the living world.

It was the aim of every Egyptian to complete the (albeit) challenging journey to the Field of Reeds. This journey would give meaning to the life they had already lived.

Negative Confessions

The soul, accompanied by Anubis, would make its way to the Hall of Truth. It would join the line waiting for the judgment of Osiris. According to the most popular myth, the soul would then make the Negative Confessions in front of Osiris, Anubis, Thoth, and forty-two judges. It would be a terrible time to get cold feet.

The Negative Confessions was a list of forty-two sins addressed before the 42 Assessors of Ma’at that one must honestly admit to never having committed. The Confessions would be recited in this manner, “I have never told lies, I have never made anyone angry, I have never stolen, I have never stolen from the gods, etc.” With statements like “I have never made anyone angry,” we may assume what they meant is never angering anyone without a reason.

After the confessions were made, the gods and judges would discuss them among themselves. If the soul passed judgment, they could move on to the next ritual. And of course, Thoth is there to write everything down.

Weighing of the Heart

If one passed the test of the Negative Confessions, then their hearts needed to be weighed. The soul would present their heart to Osiris to be weighed on the golden scales. The heart was weighed against the white feather of truth. If the heart was lighter than the feather, the soul passed on to the next step.

However, if the heart was heavier than the feather, it would be thrown on the floor to be devoured by Ammut. Ammut was a monster – the devourer of the dead. If she ate one’s heart, it condemned the soul to eternal nothingness, an excruciating second death. This was the greatest punishment in the Egyptian afterlife.

weighing-of-the-HeartThe Weighing of the Heart from the “Book of the Dead” of Ani

The Field of Reeds: Eternity in Paradise

Even after the Weighing of the Heart, the tests were not over. The soul would then have to journey to the Lily Lake (or the Lake of Flowers). In some stories, this walk was strewn with difficulties to overcome. In other stories, it was as easy as walking down a road.

The consensus is that at the shore of the Lily Lake, the soul would meet the divine ferryman Hraf-href (He Who Looks Behind Him). Hraf-href was always foul-tempered and the soul had to be courteous to him, no matter what he said. The soul had to show itself worthy, patient, and kind to continue the journey, despite the unpleasant ferryman.

When the soul passed this final test, it was finally brought across the water to the Field of Reeds. This was a life of eternal bliss, with one’s favorite people and possessions, in the presence of the gods.

The Rebirth

If Osiris was born again, who says that others couldn’t be? 

The belief in resurrection, or rebirth, was a major facet of Egyptian religion. That is why such strenuous steps were taken to reach the Field of Reeds in the underworld. It is not reincarnation, as the soul lives on in the afterlife. However, it is a “rebirth,” one that was highly valued and sought out.

To be reborn (in a sense) to eternal life alongside the wise and kind Osiris meant that one never again had to suffer. There would be only happy, trouble-free days in Aaru – so long as one could make it there.

Importance of the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

The modern world has this idea that the Egyptians were only obsessed with death and that death was the center of their interests. While death was not the final destination, it wasn’t all the Egyptians thought about either. They weren’t so macabre.

Rather, the people of ancient Egypt greatly valued living life to its fullest. They enjoyed various kinds of sports. They held festivals throughout the year, where music, dancing, and gymnastics all played major parts. Food and drink were such an intimate part of their lives that Hathor, one of their most important goddesses, was deeply associated with beer.

The Egyptians liked to live well. No, they loved to live. In fact, life was so important to them precisely because the afterlife was intended to be a mirror image of their lives in the living world.

a-journey-to-the-afterlifeA copy of the Ancient Egyptian papyrus depicting the journey into the afterlife

Changing Views on the Afterlife

As to be expected, Egyptian society did not have one homogenous school of thought. The rule of Amenhotep IV – also famously known as Akhenaten – is proof enough of that. More specifically, in the Middle Kingdom, different perspectives about the afterlife arose.

Texts like The Lay of a Harper and Dispute Between a Man and his Ba reflect on customary beliefs surrounding life and death. These texts question the idea of the afterlife, going in opposition to the status quo and expressing skepticism. They speak of the afterlife as a myth that people cling to for comfort, or as uncertain a path as life itself. You know, standard philosophical and theological exploration.

Ancient Pilgrimage

A significant form of veneration in Egypt was pilgrimages made to Abydos, one of the oldest cities in Upper Egypt. Their patron deity was Osiris. There, the value of life and the significance of the underworld as a part of Egyptian society reigned supreme.

Abydos was the cult center of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, death, resurrection, and fertility. Thus, proximity to Osiris was a vaunted feat; pharaohs strove to make regular pilgrimages there to have a stele erected near the temple when their time came. Depictions of pilgrimages appeared on coffins and tomb walls. In fact, the pilgrimage to Abydos was so vital to ancient Egyptians that travel to the city meant one could join the prestigious “retinue of Osiris.”

Modern Perceptions of the Egyptian Afterlife

Ancient Egypt is a source of fascination for many in the modern world, even more so than the other cradles of civilization, like Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley. Perhaps this is because there is much more information available to us about Egypt. Or, because Western media has made a show of its history.

READ MORE: The Cradle of Civilization: Mesopotamia and the First Civilizations

As far back as the late 1800s, films have been made about mummies rising from the dead. The sensation of the Tutankhamun tomb excavation in 1922 added to the already bubbling excitement of uninformed, morbidly curious masses. It is one of the reasons King Tut’s “curse” was so sensationalized.

Mummy horror films were being made as late as 2012. In 2015, with the film Gods of Egypt, the focus shifted somewhat from mummies. However, the violence and death in the film still perpetuated very false narratives about ancient Egypt and the roles of the gods. Egyptian afterlife beliefs are still bastardized in film and television for the sake of entertainment.

Popular books and films over the last 200 years have spread the misinformation that the Egyptians were death-obsessed. Misinformation about mummies, curses, and an underworld filled with demons has played a prominent role in the continued dramatized view of the Egyptian afterlife.

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