In ancient Egyptian religion, the afterlife was considered an important aspect of existence, and the Egyptians had elaborate beliefs and customs surrounding it. Pyramids, mummification, and immortality are some of the first words that come to mind when we think of the Egyptian civilization and their belief in the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptian civilization had some of the most well-known and recognizable burial practices that we know of today. But why did they embalm bodies? What exactly did they believe? Were all Egyptians convinced of life after death? Is there more to the Egyptian beliefs about life and death than underground crypts and mysterious curses?
Egyptian Religious Beliefs and Beliefs about the Afterlife
The ancient Egyptians believed that death was only one stop in the journey of life. It was not the ultimate destination. The afterlife was just as important for them, if not more so, as their mortal life. This is why they had a number of extremely complex rituals to prepare both the body and the soul for life after death.
Most of us know the basics of Egyptian rituals for the afterlife. We are familiar with the fact that they embalmed the bodies of the dead and preserved them in their tombs. We also know about how the tombs of the kings were usually filled with treasures and riches. One might wonder what use a dead person has for such material possessions. But the fact that the Egyptians believed that death was just one part of a journey explains this.
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. With the invention of writing, the Egyptians wrote down their beliefs and practices so that future generations could follow in their footsteps.
Books About the Afterlife
The afterlife was meant to be a life of eternal comfort, once the gods had admitted a soul into the underworld. There was no disease there and the souls could be reunited with their bodies again and exist in peace. But to properly enter that realm, the dead had to be preserved properly. And the Egyptians wrote books with instructions on how to do that.
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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. But soon, queens and important government officials began to have these texts carved in their tomb walls as well.
The “Pyramid Texts” provided the deceased with 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 some of the seminal texts of ancient Egypt.
The “Coffin Texts” are from the Middle Kingdom period of ancient Egypt. They gradually began to replace the “Pyramid Texts” and were spells that were inscribed into the coffins themselves. These texts were more available to the common people and were not simply reserved for royalty and rich government officials.
The “Coffin Texts,” especially “The Book of Two Ways” within them, were the earliest manuals to the afterlife. They gave information about the transformation magic that the deceased would need on their journey and provided protection for them in the afterlife.
The 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, the “Book of the Dead” was a large collection of spells and included sections of both the “Pyramid Texts” and the “Coffin Texts.”
Unlike the other two, the “Book of the Dead” was written on papyrus. However, it could also be found inscribed on tomb walls, coffins, and even the wrappings of a mummy. Like the “Coffin Texts,” the spells in the “Book of the Dead” were universally used, by common men and pharaohs alike.
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 world of Osiris.
Temples and Priests
The ancient Egyptians had complex religious beliefs and many rituals to accompany them. Their grand temple complexes were meant not only as places of worship but as a model of the perfect cosmos. Their relationships with their gods were intimate and the rituals they performed were meant to preserve perfect order in the ancient world.
For the Egyptians, the gods were always close at hand. There were priests at the major temple complexes. By the New Kingdom, this was a mostly hereditary position. But even apart from that, the individual could seek closeness to the gods. Hathor, as a tree goddess, was always present to give shade and be a mother figure.
In the temples, the gods were bathed and dressed, offered food and drink, and adorned with jewelry by the priests. The gods took care of the people and thus the people took care of the images of their gods within the temples. This feeling of closeness meant that the underworld of the gods was not a place to be feared. When death came and it was time to join Osiris and Ra in the afterlife, it was a journey to look forward to.
The common people were not involved in the temple rituals, other than offering votive objects. But many of them had household shrines with their own household deities, to whom they offered food, drink, and clothing.
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. But Egypt’s history is significant in that the common populace too had their own tombs 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.
The burial practices in Egyptian culture were complicated. The kings paid a lot of attention to how they would be viewed in posterity. They made provisions for their own tombs during their lifetimes. But unlike what was the case in other civilizations, this habit was not restricted to the kings alone. Embalming of bodies was a common procedure.
Body and Personal Identity
Beliefs about the Egyptian afterlife meant that the body itself needed to be preserved. The body needed to be recognizable so that the spirit could return to it as and when needed. The Egyptians thought that the physical bodies would wake once the person had completed the journey to the afterlife.
In the earliest instances of such burials, the bodies were naturally desiccated in the dry desert conditions of Egypt. These early natural mummies have actually been preserved quite well. But the rituals and practices became more and more complex over the years.
As early as the First Dynasty (3200 BCE), there were special priests who were in charge of the embalming and mummification process. The process of mummification involved removing the organs of the deceased, getting rid of all the moisture in the body, and covering it with natron. Once the body was all dried out, it would be wrapped in bandages.
There were different levels of mummification depending on the economic class of the deceased. These different levels had different costs and different degrees of success.
The Egyptians believed that the life force, called Ka, could live on even after it was separated from the physical body. Thus, the tombs were essentially homes for the dead. The Egyptians left various offerings for the dead within the tombs.
These offerings were remnants of their earthly existence, like clothing and valuable ornaments. Another important offering that had to be left in the tombs was food. Even though the Ka was immortal and ephemeral, the Egyptians believed it could still starve.
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 became more elaborate. They began to house multiple rooms with plaster walls. The walls often had complex scenes painted on them. A number of goods would be buried with the deceased, depending on economic status.
Egyptian tombs had two parts. There was a subterranean chamber where the actual coffin containing the body and the offerings were placed. Above this, there would be a chapel of sorts, which the family or friends could visit.
The old pyramid at Saqqara and the pyramid complex at 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 too had underground chambers topped by chapels for prayer.
Royal burial chambers often had lines of text inscribed on the walls, along with paintings. This tradition died out by the time of the Middle Kingdom. These later complexes are not as well preserved as the earlier pyramids since they were made of mud bricks and have become weathered through the years.
The New Kingdom tombs, situated in the Valley of the Kings, were carved into the hills of western Thebes. There are no pyramids in this time period. Since the tombs were largely hidden (probably as protection against grave robbers and looters), there were large memorial temples built closer to the cities. These memorial temples were used as chapels for the people to visit and leave offerings.
Private tombs of the period, however, continued to house chapels with elaborate paintings and decorations. The scenes were lively depictions of their lives on Earth.
Some 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.
Mass Production Embalming?
There were many people in ancient Egypt who needed embalming, even apart from the pharaohs. The priests who were charged with mummification and all other workers related to the industry of death had a great deal to do. They needed to keep up with all the deceased in need of mummification.
We do not know much about how the industry was run or how many workers there may have been. What we do know is that the shabtis (a small mummiform figurine found in Egyptian tombs) were of identical shape and size. Thus, this hints at mass production. However, this kind of large-scale industry assumedly attracted thieves and looters.
What about the Non-Believers?
There were those who believed that the Egyptian culture of mummifying in preparation for the afterlife was nonsense. They did not believe that there was any kind of afterlife for the deceased to go to.
Strangely enough, there seems to be evidence that several of these non-believers existed among the embalmers themselves. Very strange mummies have been found in Hellenistic Egypt when Egypt was being ruled by the Greeks. These mummies seemed to have been made with the body parts of different corpses. One such example is a mummy with the head of an old woman, the body of a child, and the legs of different men.
Was this a macabre game of some kind? Was it deliberate mutilation of the deceased persons? Was it some kind of strange ritual or magic? There are no answers to that. It does seem like a horrific joke to play on the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.
Another concern was the ordinary people who saw these tombs as a source of riches. Tomb robbery has long existed in various cultures around the globe. Since it was often customary for the wealthy to be buried with their riches in the ancient world, grave robbing was a lucrative business.
Tomb robbery can be traced as far back as the Badarian period in Predynastic Egypt (around 4000 BCE). Rumors of curses, security measures, the death penalty – none of it scared away the robbers.
Security measures in these tombs were often quite complex. There were 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. There were also several instances of false doorways and false burial chambers being built, to confuse robbers. None of these measures were effective in stopping the robbery.
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.
Tutankhamun’s Tomb and Common Curses
Many archaeologists were excavating the tombs of ancient Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries CE. One of the most well-known conspiracy theories of our modern world is the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb. But is it a conspiracy theory, really? Curses were said to be laid on the tombs of the pharaohs, to attack those who disturbed the mummy. It did not distinguish between archaeologists and thieves.
Tutankhamun died and was buried at a tragically early age and his tomb was very richly furnished. It received a great deal of attention when several members of Howard Carter’s team and visitors to the tomb died after the excavation of the monument. Lord Carnarvon, who financed the expedition in 1922, also died of blood poisoning.
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, had his house burned down. When it was rebuilt, a flood followed. The superstitious believed that all of this could not have been a coincidence.
Howard Carter himself died sixteen years after he led the expedition, from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. But some people have attributed this to the curse too.
Journey to the Afterlife
When the body died, the Egyptian people believed that the soul moved on to an afterlife. There, the soul received everything that had been lost on earth. It was an eternal life of peace and happiness.
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 a mirror of their life on Earth.
It was the aim of every Egyptian to complete the journey to the Field of Reeds. This journey would give meaning to the life they had already lived.
Gods Associated with the Egyptian Afterlife
There were many, many Egyptian gods. Some of the more important deities were the Lord of the Underworld Osiris and the sun god Ra. There were many beliefs about what happened to a person after they died. However, one popular belief was that the dead would become one with Osiris.
For this reason, the Egyptians made shabtis that they buried with the dead. These shabtis were small figurines of Osiris. By having these objects close, it was believed that the dead could have an easier path to Osiris. Osiris would judge whether they were deserving of a happy and peaceful afterlife.
Another god associated with the afterlife was Ra. As the creator of the universe, he was the source of all life. This included life in the afterlife as well. Ra traveled over the underworld every evening and brought light to the place, just as the sun did on Earth.
The jackal-headed god, Anubis, was an important deity in the context of death and the afterlife. Sometimes considered the son of Osiris, Anubis was the one who came up with the concept of mummification. It was the priests of Anubis who were tasked with embalming dead bodies. Images of Anubis decorated the tombs and he helped the deceased on their journeys to the afterlife.
The 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.
The Negative Confessions was a list of forty-two sins 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.
The 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 the female devourer of the dead. If she ate one’s heart, it condemned the soul to eternal nothingness. This was the greatest punishment in the Egyptian afterlife. There was no hell in their mythology. Non-existence was considered a far worse fate than eternal torment of any kind.
The Field of Reeds
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. But in some stories, it was as easy as walking down a road.
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 to continue the journey to the unpleasant ferryman.
When the soul passed this test, it was finally brought across the water to the Field of Reeds. There, they would meet their loved ones and treasured pets who had passed before. One’s home would be waiting there. One’s lawn and gardens and the favorite tree would be there, just as they had been left behind on earth. This was a life of eternal bliss, with one’s favorite people and possessions, in the presence of the gods.
Having heard of all these tests, it is difficult to believe that the pharaohs would pass even the first one. With their ruthless conquests and slavery and wars, how could they not have harmed thousands of people? And yet, these rituals were exclusive only to the pharaohs at first. It was only later that mass mummifications began. What were the Egyptians thinking when they came up with this afterlife? Alas, we shall never know.
Why Was the Egyptian Afterlife So Important?
The modern world has this idea that the Egyptians were only obsessed with death and that death was the center of their interests. This is not at all true. The Egyptians greatly valued various kinds of sports, like handball, hockey, archery, swimming, rowing, tug of war, etc. They held several 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. They loved their land. In fact, life was so important to them precisely because the afterlife was a mirror image of their lives on Earth. They lived as well in the afterlife as they did in life. Egyptian ideas about the afterlife were an extension of what they thought of their country. It was the most beautiful and blessed place in the world. Unlike the Greeks and the Romans, they had no wish to travel to faraway places and foreign lands in search of adventure.
The Egyptians encouraged living life to the fullest. They were proud of their homes and cared for them, no matter how modest they were. Family and friends were important to them. So were their pets, whom they preserved in writings and artwork by name and also mummified. They thought the afterlife was perfect because it was an eternal continuation of their mortal lives.
This thoroughly disproves modern ideas that the Egyptians concentrated on the afterlife at the exclusion of their mortal lives.
Changing Views on the Afterlife
However, Egyptian society did not have one homogenous school of thought. Especially 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 life and death. These texts seem to question the idea of the afterlife and were even skeptical of it. They speak of the afterlife as a myth that people cling to for comfort or as uncertain a path as life itself.
One other version speaks of the truthful and just souls as the crew of Ra’s solar barge. They help Ra row his barge across the night sky and defend him against his enemies. In this version, the dead work alongside the gods. The living look up at the dawning sun and remember their loved ones with joy in their hearts.
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.
As far back as the late 1800s, films have been made about mummies rising from the dead. The sensation of the Tutankhamun tomb excavation added to the excitement.
These mummy horror films were being made till as late as 2012. In 2015, with the film Gods of Egypt, the focus shifted a little bit from mummies. However, the violence and death in the film still perpetrated very false narratives about ancient Egypt.
Popular books and films over the last 200 years have spread the misinformation that the Egyptians were only obsessed with death. Mummies, curses, and the underworld filled with demons have played a prominent role in these. And even early historians interpreted the Egyptian interest in eternal life as a preoccupation with the end of life.