In order to understand the ancient Egyptian concept of death and dying, one must first understand the absolute longing and love for life the ancient Egyptians had (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 166).
The latter devotion and love for life propelled the ancient Egyptian people into an obsessive desire (Richards 1997: 33; Brewer & Teeter 2008: 166) for their lives to continue in heaven [the field of reeds] in the same manner of luxury, pomp and pageantry as their lives had been whilst they were alive.
Therefore, it was not the ancient Egyptians desire for death that propelled them to such extreme preparations for the afterlife, on the contrary, it was a desire for life to continue with all of its trappings that was the driving force behind their obsessive preparations for death (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 166). The biography of Taimehotep in 35 BC provides evidence of the ancient Egyptian’s fear of death, ‘as for death “Come” is its name, All those that he calls to him immediately: Their hearts afraid through dread of him, But he does not listen.’ (cited in Brewer & Teeter 2008: 166).
To have everything in heaven that one had in life (Brewer & Teeter 2007: 166-188) was the ultimate goal for the afterlife of the ancient Egyptian’s (O’Brien 1999: online). However, the ancient Egyptian belief regarding heaven suggests they believed one’s eternal life in the afterworld [the field of reeds] could be more plentiful and comfortable both spiritually and materialistically than their lives had been before death (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 166-188; O’Brien 1999: online). Illustrations on tomb walls provide evidence of the bountiful crops, abundance of food, and fine clean clothes worn by the deceased in the field of reeds, which provides evidence for the latter (Robins 1997: 22, 102, 204).
In this paper, I will describe some of the ancient Egyptian concepts of death and dying by providing evidence from tombs, texts and art, including descriptions from the book of the dead and the book of gates and one myth pertaining to Osiris in regard to mummification and the reanimation of the ba, into the field of reeds. I will also include descriptions of mortuary practices and rituals, for example mourning and mummification, however, due to the ancient Egyptians having had such incredibly varied and contradictory descriptions of death and dying, this essay will not be pertaining to all the variations of latter, and will only concentrate on singular examples of the previously mentioned relevant areas of research.
The ancient Egyptians had a vast array of concepts and traditions concerning death and dying (David & Trapp 1993: 37-40; World Civilizations 1999 online; Scarre 2005: 376-9) that were variable throughout time and landscape (O’Brien 1999: online; Brewer & Teeter 2008: 98-109, 166-188; Coffin & Stacey 2005: 41; Egyptology Online no date). However, despite the fact the Egyptian concepts regarding death and dying varied greatly and were generally contradictory, they were also complementary (Ancient Egypt and the Afterlife no date: online; Brewer & Teeter 2008: 98-109, 166; Egyptology Online no date) to each other. Differential and unique expressions of ancient Egyptian ideologies regarding death and dying are illustrated in the temples, pyramids, tombs and burials of royalty, nobility and common people (Allam 11 Feb 2006: online; Egyptology Online no date; O’Brien 1999: online; Scarre & Fagan 2003: 104-146; Allen 2006: 23-102; McIntosh & Twist 2003: 81; Reeves & Wilkinson 2000: 25-33; Dodson 1991: 7-57; Robins 2000: 146-165; Manniche 1987: 1-16; Hornung 1990: 184-5; Hornung 1991: 11-26; McFarlane 2000: 23-24; Richards 1997: 33-36; Martin 1991: 82-84; Riggs 2005: 1-174; Tyson Smith & Stone Bernard 2003: 36-37).
Examples of the varying ancient Egyptian concepts of death and dying are described in funerary texts such as the Book of the Dead (World Civilizations no date: online; David 1993: 42; Brewer & Teeter 2008: 174; Tyson Smith & Stone Bernard 2003: 19; Martin 1991: 90; Manniche 1987: 65,78,83; Hornung 1990: 31; Hornung 1991: 11; Budge 1895: online) and the Book Of Gates (The Global Egyptian Museum no date: online).
The Book of Gates provided the deceased with the skills to navigate through the treacherous twelve hours of the night, which were believed to be guarded by serpents whom asked the deceased questions at each of the twelve gates pertaining to the twelve hours of the night. However, only after answering the questions correctly was the deceased able to continue on the journey through the netherworld (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 49, 183). The Egyptian Book of the Dead first appears in the archaeological record from the new kingdom period and was designed to either harm or protect by means of reciting any of the two hundred of more spells contained within the book (World Civilizations 1999: online; Budge 1905: online; David 1993: 42; Brewer & Teeter 2008: 174). However, the principle purpose of the book was to help the deceased pass through the dangerous abode of the underworld and to ultimately help the deceased to be reborn into the field of reeds (Egyptology Online no date: online; Brewer & Teeter 2008: 174).
The judgement hall was where the ancient Egyptians believed the deceased answered questions and denied their sins to Osiris [Lord of the dead] who was seated on a thrown in front of a tribunal of forty- two gods, by reciting magical words from the Book of the Dead (Ryan 2002: 87).
The later was known as the negative confession or the declaration of innocence, yet whilst the dead recited the negative confession, their heart [ba] was weighed against a feather and if the heart and the feather were balanced, the dead was considered vindicated thus enabling Horus to transfer the deceased to the abode of Osiris in the field of reeds (Ryan 2002: 87). However, if the feather and heart were not balanced the Ammit [eater of souls], who was considered the devourer of souls and was depicted as a combination of crocodile, lion and hippopotamus, devoured the ba causing the extinction of the soul [the devouring of the ba was considered to be one of the greatest fears of the ancient Egyptians because it ultimately meant there was no chance of an afterlife] (Ryan 2002: 87).
Concepts of death and dying are displayed in artwork, hieroglyphs, pyramids, tombs, and funerary offerings excavated from the many sites (Wilkinson 2003: 79-241; O’Brien 1999: online; Lost Civilizations no date: online) throughout Egypt, for example, in the Valley of the Kings (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 56; Reeves & Wilkinson 2000: 16-45; Hornung 1991: 11; Dodson 1991: 22,42; Carter 2006: 164-173; Allen 2006: 13-15; Scarre & Fagan 2003: 133-144; Scarre 2005 : 177; Coffin & Stacey 2005: 58; Robins 2000: 122-148; Riggs 2005: 1-40) amazing finds such as Tutankhamun’ tomb (Carter 2006: 165-173; Allen 2006: 91-102) was discovered that revealed copious illustrations of concepts of death and dying, and at Saqqara (McFarlane 2000: plates 1-50) for example, the tomb of Irukaptah (McFarlane 2000: 26) has provided evidence of false doors which were considered gateways for the ka to enter and exit the otherworld.
However, one unwavering and unchanging ancient Egyptian concept regarding death and dying was in the faith that death was just the beginning of the souls [ba's] journey to the afterworld because in the afterworld the Egyptian’s believed one could attain immortality and eternal life (O’Brien 1999: online; Egyptology Online no date; Brewer & Teeter 2007: 166-188).
Table 1 below (O’Brien 1999: http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/RA/ABZU/DEATH.HTML
|body||XAt||The mummy in the tomb was believed to house the ka after death.|
|ka||kA||Dynamic and impersonal life force. When depicted in tomb or temple scenes shown as the double of an individual, sometimes in miniature, frequently with the ka sign on the head. Rather than the ka actually having been seen as a separate double of an individual, it is likely that it was so depicted as it was inside a person and therefore looked like that person.|
|ba||ba||“Animation” or “manifestation”, something akin to the idea of “soul”. It was depicted as a human-headed bird.|
|akh||Ax||The “Transfigured spirit” into which the dead were transformed after the funerary rituals were completed. The akh could exert influence on the living, and the Egyptians often wrote letters to the akh of a deceased person in the belief that the malevolence of the akh was responsible for misfortune in life|
|name||rn||The name was regarded as an essential part of an individual, as necessary for the survival of the deceased in the After-life as the ba, akh, and the preserved corpse. The name of an individual was preserved by its inclusion in funerary texts, either on papyrus or on the tomb walls. Should they wish to do so, later generations could destroy the existence and memory of a deceased individual by removing their name from their tomb.|
|shadow/shade||Swt||An integral part of the personality, which was necessary to protect from harm. Usually represented as a black double of an individual.|
According to Alexandra O’Brien (1999: online; David 1993: 39), the ancient Egyptians believed an individual’s personality was made of several parts, for example, after death, the embalming process of mummification was ritually practiced for the purpose of the ka having an eternal physical manifestation which it was able to attached its self to. However, while the deceased’s Ka [spirit] was believed to be able to wonder around the tomb or burial chamber and exist by eating, drinking and indulging in the sustenance and provisions provided by family or the mortuary cult, the ka was only able to do the latter if it could recognise its body (O’Brien 1999: online; Budge 2003: online; Brewer & Teeter 2008: 166-188; Richards 1997: 33-36; David 1993: 39). Therefore the mummification process was necessary in order to preserve the body as close to its natural likeness as possible.
According to Donald Ryan (2002: 86; O’Brien 1999: online), the ancient Egyptians believed the body was made of five aspects that entailed both the physical and spiritual. For example, the physical body housed the heart which was considered the centre of one’s intellect and emotion and was therefore, the seat of the ba, ka, the word or name and the shadow which ultimately, comprised all of the five essential components that pertained to ones personality.
The hieroglyph for heart is a two handled urn which may be a reflection of the heart being kept in the same style vessel during the mortuary ritual, according to Jonathon Dee (2003: 113), and Dee (2003: 113) further suggests scarab amulets were often placed on the chest, replacing the heart of the deceased, which then had spells and incantations spoken over it; the ka was generally represented in hieroglyphs as a pair of arms pointing upwards and was considered the life force that was destined to reside with the deceased’s physical body; the ba was considered as one’s eternal soul that travelled through the twelve hours of the night, eventually coming to reside in the field of reeds (Global Egyptian Museum no date: online; Ancient Egypt and the Afterlife no date: online; Budge 1905: online) and was often depicted as a bird with a human head (Ryan 2002: 86), which is thought to represent the spirits mobility; the shadow was considered the double of the spirit and was thought of as an essential living part of each person (Egyptology Online no date: online).
Funerary texts generally describe the shadow as a being with great power that is capable of moving with incredible speed and was often depicted as a small human figure painted completely black (Egyptology Online no date: online). The name was particularly important because the Egyptians believed the name was the embodiment of one’s entire being that was a living part of the individual, and, when spoken, the ancient Egyptians believed the name or word would reanimate the ba and allow for eternal life in the field of reeds (Ryan 2002: 86). Therefore, magical words and spells were often displayed on the walls of tombs and coffin texts (Wilkinson 2003: 78-79). Evidence of the power of the word and the name is provided in the destruction and removal of Arkenahten’s face and name, which occurred sometime after his reign in the 18th Dynasty. Because in wiping Arkenahten’s name and face from existence (Egyptology Online no date: online), the Egyptian’s believed they were destroying and ending the ba, ka and eternal life in the field of reeds. Therefore, the removal of names from monuments, texts and iconography was equivalent to destroying the memory and existence of the dead (Egyptology Online no date: online).
The akh is thought to represent the completely resurrected, reanimated form of the deceased and was believed to be capable of reaching beyond the boundaries of the deceased’s tomb while carrying with it the capabilities of effecting the living in both a negative and or positive fashion (The Afterlife in Ancient Egypt no date: online) [the akh was represented in the hieroglyphs as the crested ibis].
According to Herodotus (1996: 150), ceremonial mourning of the deceased was a ritual event for the ancient Egyptians, for example, whenever a man of importance or nobility died, the body was left residing indoors whilst the female family members plastered their heads and sometimes faces in mud. The mourners would later wander around the town beating their naked breasts with their fists, and sometimes-mourning men, while walking separate from the women, would beat their bare chests (Herodotus 1996: 150). After the ceremonial mourning was completed, the body was taken away for the ritual mummification process (Herodotus 1996: 150).
After the predynastic period, mummification appears to have been the means by which the ancient Egyptians believed they were able to achieve eternal life in the field of reeds (Lacovara 2003: online). The later was possibly a response to witnessing the natural mummification process of bodies buried in the western desert region (Hornung 1990: 58; David 1993: 39), which consequently, may have created the ancient Egyptian’s desire to imitate the process.
There were several official attendants in charge of the mummification process, for example; the ‘Overseer of the Mysteries,’ known as heri seshta, was apparently chief in charge of mummification and was represented by the god Anubis with the head of a jackal and the body of a man (Thinkquest no date: online). The ‘Seal Bearer of the God,’ otherwise known as hetemw netjer, was assistant to heri seshta and the heri heb was the lector priest in charge of reading the magical spells for the deceased (Thinkquest no date: online). The latter three oversaw the wetyw, otherwise known as the bandagers, whom were in charge of conducting most of the bandaging and eviscerations (Thinkquest no date: online). According to Thinkquest (no date: online) all of the latter processes indicate a highly ritualized process or ceremony that appears to make available the re-enactment of the stages for making the original mummy who was thought to have been the god Osiris (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 168) whilst in mortal form.
According to one of the many ancient Egyptian myths (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 102-3), Osiris was dismembered by his brother Seth and later rejuvenated, reformed and reanimated with the aid of the goddess Isis’ magic. Subsequently soon after, Horus, whom the ancient Egyptians believed was the son of Osiris, defeated Seth and cast him in to the Sahara Desert, in the west of Egypt. Seth’s defeat and subsequent burial in the western desert may have helped form the ancient Egyptian belief that the underworld lay to the west. However, because the sun sets in the west before rising again in the east, it would be just as likely that the disappearance of the sun in the west may have propelled the ideology of the dead residing in the west, due to the concept of the sun dying each night in the west and being reborn again in the east.
According to Herodotus (1996: 150-152), there were three techniques which a body could have been mummified, however, each was dependant on the cost of the service, for example, type one was the most expensive and type three was the cheapest. The first and most expensive method of mummification was considered the best according to Herodotus (1996: 150-152); first the brains were removed with an iron hook through the nostrils and any remnants were later flushed out with drugs. The internal organs were later removed with an obsidian blade and the body cavity was rinsed clean with palm wine and crushed spices (Herodotus1996: 150-152) and then sewn back together. Once the later was complete, the body was covered in natron for a seventy-day period, and on conclusion of the seventy-days, the body was wrapped in clean bandages of high quality linen which had been soaked with gum [gum was used as type of glue] (Herodotus 1996: 150-152). Once completed, the internal organs were placed inside canopic jars and given with the finished mummy to the deceased’s relatives who then took the mummy and placed it up against a wall inside a tomb with the canopic jars buried along side it (Herodotus 1996: 150-152).
The opening of the mouth ritual was considered very important to the ancient Egyptian’s and was conducted by the mummification attendant in the guise of the god Anubis (The Global Egyptian museum no date: online). The opening of the mouth ritual, according to the Global Egyptian Museum (no date: online), was originally conducted on the statues of the deceased for the purpose of allowing the dead to speak, smell, hear, see and eat in the afterworld. The ritual is believed to date back as far as the pre-dynastic period, however archaeologists have discovered ceremonial hooks used to open the mouth that date to the Naqada l culture phase. Yet, the new kingdom appears to provide the richest sources of information regarding the opening of the mouth ritual represented on the walls of tombs and on papyri (The Global Museum Online no date: online). For example, the tomb of the vizier Rekhmire, located in Thebes, provides evidence of seventy-five different components that made up the complete ritual for opening the mouth ceremony, for example, purification, censing, libations and animal sacrifice were just a few of the ritual acts involved in the opening of the mouth ceremony (The Global Museum Online no date: online).
Peter Lacovara (2003:118) suggests mortuary practices in ancient Egypt a too conflicting and do not allow one to completely understand the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians in regard to death, dying and the afterlife. However, exuberant amounts of the countries wealth and resources were spent on burials during differing periods of Egypt’s history that provide evidence of the importance of mortuary practices (Lacovara 2003: 118). Lacovara (2003:118) further suggests, whilst there is a common scholarly acceptance that the ancient Egyptians believed in life after death, there is little surviving evidence that can be directly related to the ancient Egyptians attitudes regarding death, furthermore, the beliefs of the living in regard to the deceased are currently poorly understood or known. In addition, Lacovara (2003: 118) argues the written record, for example funerary texts, are generally ‘formulaic’ in nature and provide little insight in to the ancient Egyptian public’s individual or reflective beliefs. Furthermore, in regard to the old kingdom, Lacovara (2003: 118) argues the kings [pharaohs] afterlife may have been considered separate to the general publics, however, Lacovara (2003: 118-120) suggests in the later periods, pertaining to the new kingdom, the same awards and benefits may have been awarded to the pharaoh and his people in regard to the afterlife.
According to Thinkquest (no date: online), when death occurred away from home during the Greco-Roman period, the bodies were required to be transported, therefore, mummy labels which were very small and made of wood or stone, were used as a means of identifying the corpse. The labels were inscribed with Greek and Demotic languages, and provide details of the deceased’s age, name, hometown and destination (Thinkquest no date: online). Furthermore, according to Thinkquest (no date: online), some mummy labels were more elaborate due to providing descriptions and details of transport expenditure and funerary prayers, however, some of the peasant classes may have used the labels for tombstones or as a cheap version of stelea.
The solar bark or sun boat was not only a means for the ancient Egyptians to travel the Nile River while fishing and hunting. It was the method for travel through the underworld whilst on the perilous journey to the field of reeds and was believed to ensure that life would continue and humanity would remain in balance with the seasons of the earth. This was possibly because the sun god was believed to travel each night through the stars to heaven before it was reborn on earth in the morning. Therefore, because the pharaoh was considered the son of Ra, he was also expected to travel by boat through the twelve gates of the underworld until he reached the field of reeds, where he was reanimated and rejuvenated. Hence, his ba was able to live in eternal happiness (Thinkquest no date: online).
In conclusion, the ancient Egyptians appear to have had an incredibly complex contradictory yet complimentary belief system concerning death and dying that was propelled towards the reanimation of the ba and the desire for eternal life in the field of reeds due to a complete love for life, and a tremendous fear of the soul’s extinction. Therefore, this essay has argued and provided evidence for the ancient Egyptians’ love for earthly pleasures and the great lengths and measures they took in order to ensure the souls eternity in the field of reeds.
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