The ancient Egyptians had a unique and enduring vision of the afterlife that was closely linked to their mythology.
In this article, we’ll explore their unique and enduring vision of the afterlife and the rituals and practices they followed to ensure a safe passage to the next world.
The Underworld and the Judgment of the Dead
The ancient Egyptians believed that the underworld, also known as the Duat, was a realm of darkness and danger that had to be traversed by the soul of the deceased. The only entrance to the Duat was through the tomb, which was considered a portal between the worlds of the living and the dead.
The soul had to face many challenges and obstacles in the Duat, such as demons, serpents, lakes of fire, and gates guarded by hostile deities. The most important and difficult test was the judgment of the dead, which took place in the Hall of Two Truths. There, the soul had to confess its sins before a tribunal of 42 divine judges, presided by Osiris, the god of the underworld.
The heart of the deceased, which was believed to contain the essence of the person, was weighed on a scale against a feather, which represented Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice. If the heart was lighter than the feather, it meant that the person had lived a virtuous life and was worthy of entering the afterlife. If the heart was heavier than the feather, it meant that the person had committed evil deeds and was condemned to be devoured by Ammit, a monstrous creature with the head of a crocodile, the torso of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus.
The Eternal Life in the Field of Reeds
The ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a paradise called the Field of Reeds, which was a mirror image of their life on earth. The Field of Reeds was a land of abundance and joy, where crops grew without labor, rivers flowed with milk and honey, and animals lived in harmony. The deceased could enjoy all their favorite activities, such as fishing, hunting, playing games, or listening to music.
The soul could also reunite with their loved ones who had passed away before them, including their pets and ancestors. The only requirement for living in the Field of Reeds was to worship and serve Osiris and other gods who resided there.
The Rebirth of the Soul
The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul could be reborn after death through a process called saḫu (meaning “to make effective”). This involved transforming the physical body into an immortal form that could house the soul in the afterlife. The Egyptians used various methods to achieve this goal, such as mummification, burial practices, funerary texts, and magic.
Mummification was a technique that involved removing the internal organs (except for the heart), drying the body with natron (a type of salt), wrapping it with linen bandages, and applying resin and oils. The purpose of mummification was to prevent decay and preserve the appearance of the deceased.
Burial practices included placing various objects in or around the tomb, such as amulets, jewelry, furniture, food, weapons, models, statues, and paintings. These objects were meant to provide protection, comfort, identity, and status to the deceased in the afterlife.
Funerary texts were collections of spells, prayers, hymns, and instructions that were written on papyri or inscribed on coffins, walls, or objects. These texts were intended to guide and assist the deceased in their journey through the Duat and help them overcome any difficulties or dangers they might encounter.
Magic was an essential element in Egyptian religion and culture. It involved using words (heka), images (seshaw), and actions (iri) to manipulate natural or supernatural forces. Magic was used for various purposes, such as healing, protection, cursing, or creating life. One example of magic was creating an artificial body (ka-statue) for the deceased that could serve as an alternative or backup for their mummified body in case it was damaged or destroyed.
Egyptian Mythology Facts
What is Ma’at?
Ma’at is an ancient Egyptian concept that represents truth, justice, order, balance, harmony, and morality.
Ma’at is also the name of the goddess who personifies these principles and who judges the dead in
the Hall of Two Truths.
Who is Osiris?
Osiris is one of the most important and popular gods in ancient Egyptian mythology. He is the god of the underworld, the afterlife, resurrection, and fertility. He was also the first king of Egypt and the ancestor of all pharaohs. He was killed by his brother Set, who cut his body into pieces and scattered them across the land. His wife Isis collected and reassembled his body and with the help of Anubis, mummified him. She then used her magic to conceive a son with him, Horus, who later avenged his father and became the ruler of Egypt.
What is the Book of the Dead?
The Book of the Dead is a common name for a collection of funerary texts that were used by ancient Egyptians from the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BCE) to the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BCE). The Book of the Dead is not a single book but a compilation of various spells that were customized for each individual. The Book of the Dead was intended to help the deceased achieve a good afterlife by providing them with knowledge, protection, and power. The Book of the Dead was usually written on papyrus scrolls that were placed in or near the coffin of the deceased.
Who are some other important gods in Egyptian mythology?
Some other important gods in Egyptian mythology are:
- Ra: The sun god and the supreme creator of all life. He was depicted as a falcon-headed man with a sun disk on his head.
- Anubis: The god of mummification and embalming. He was depicted as a jackal-headed man or a black jackal.
- Thoth: The god of writing, wisdom, and magic. He was depicted as an ibis-headed man or a baboon.
- Bastet: The goddess of cats, joy, and protection. She was depicted as a cat-headed woman or a cat.
- Sekhmet: The goddess of war, fire, and healing. She was depicted as a lioness-headed woman or a lioness.
Other Ancient Egyptian Beliefs
Besides their beliefs about the afterlife, ancient Egyptians also had other beliefs that reflected their understanding of the natural world and their place in it. Some of these beliefs are:
- The Nile River was the source of life for Egypt and was considered sacred. The annual flooding of the Nile brought fertility to the land and was seen as a gift from the gods.
- The pharaoh was the divine ruler of Egypt and was believed to be the son of Ra. The pharaoh had absolute authority over his subjects and was responsible for maintaining ma’at in the country.
- The ka was the life force or vital essence of a person that existed separately from the body. The ka needed food and drink to survive after death, which is why offerings were made to the deceased.
- The ba was the personality or soul of a person that could travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. The ba needed to recognize its body in order to return to it, which is why mummification was important.
- The akh was the immortal spirit of a person that could only be achieved after passing the judgment of Osiris. The akh could join other akhs in the Field of Reeds or ascend to the sky as a star.
Egyptian mythology is full of fascinating stories and characters that have captivated people for centuries. From the creation myth of Atum to the adventures of the god Horus, these myths and legends provide insight into the beliefs and values of ancient Egyptian society. One of the most well-known myths is the story of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, who was murdered by his jealous brother Set and then resurrected by his wife Isis. This story reflects the importance of death and the afterlife in Egyptian culture, as well as the belief in the power of love and devotion. Overall, Egyptian mythology is a rich and complex tapestry that offers a glimpse into the minds and hearts of one of the world’s greatest civilizations.