Ancient Egypt was a land of elaborate religious customs which coloured every aspect of every action its people took. Egyptians fervently believed in the concept of an afterlife, and thus, funerary tradition was always enacted with deeply religious implications. Not only was the concept of a paradise beyond mortal life pivotal to their beliefs, but they also believed devoutly in the Divine Right of Kings, which espoused the idea that the Pharaoh was a representative of the Gods (and would, upon death, become a part of the gods Osiris and Re, also known as Ra). His proclamations therefore bore divine authority and could only be realistically challenged by religious orders, especially that of Amon-Re (an amalgamation of the gods Amon and Re), which was a powerful institution until the monotheistic sun-worship of Akhenaten and resumed its status shortly thereafter). Correspondingly, he was entitled to greater wealth and prosperity in the next life (in addition to this one) than the common man.
The basic notion of transcendence into the afterlife (a privilege initially offered only to the Pharaoh in accordance with Old Kingdom belief, then to aristocracy and finally to anyone who could afford the materials necessary in the flourishing New Kingdom period) is illustrated in the following diagram (which accompanies the ‘Negative Confession’ – a series of proclamations denoting the various misdeeds the deceased has avoided in his life). One illustration details the process by which a soul entered the afterlife:
• Beginning with the upper-left hand corner, the deceased faces a panel of 14 judges to list and is required to justify his deeds in life.
• The individual is then led by the jackal-headed god Anubis to the balance, where his heart (a metaphor for the person’s motives and emotions) is measured against the Feather of Ma’at (truth).
• The ibis-headed writing god Thoth stands by to record the verdict. Should the heart be heavier than the feather, the individual’s soul would be devoured by Ammit, the crocodile-headed beast, and committed to oblivion. Should it be lighter, however, the deceased progresses to the next stage.
• He is then led by the falcon-headed Horus and presented to Osiris (laden with various symbols of rulership), who allows the deceased access into the afterlife.
Of course, the process was never this simple, as it required ritual and ceremony of epic proportions. The incorporeal soul itself was comprised of many different components and factors. The Egyptians believed in the existence of five different components of the soul:
• The Shadow, capable of leaving the tomb in which the body was interred,
• The Name, which, if mentioned by the living, kept the deceased’s essence ‘alive’. Should the Name inscribed in a deceased individual’s tomb be marred, the deceased was ‘killed.’
This is, more or less, the extent of current knowledge about the previous two elements.
• The Akh (the title given to anyone who had passed the judgement of Osiris), was at liberty to roam free, and it was probably the Akh which dwelled within the paradise known as the ‘Fields of Aru’),
• The Ba, a hawk-bodied being with the face of the deceased which was able to enter the regions of the dead and assume any form it desired. The Ba returned to the tomb every night.
• The Ka, which dwelt within the tomb and required sustenance, just like a living person. To this end, relatives of the deceased would provide offerings of food and inscriptions were written upon the tomb which, if recited, would mystically sustain the Ka (utilised in times of food shortage). The Ka was often believed to inhabit a ‘Ka statue’ (sculptural representation of the person) when such was placed in the tomb.
The afterlife was a place in which the Egyptians expected to enjoy all of the pleasures of mortal life without any of the hardship. S/he was said to depart “into the beautiful west,” a reference to the conception of the Nile River as being central to the world. They believed that the afterlife had to be thoroughly provided for, for a person would continue to use their skills in the afterlife and the body needed to be preserved for use (it was for this reason that the body was mummified, and the organs ritually preserved in canopic jars). Tools (or representations thereof) were placed within the tombs for the deceased’s use. Certain other models were provided, such as granaries and butcher shops for food and a model boat for “transportation on the waters of eternity”. Actual physical offerings of food were made (it was possible to purchase a service of the priesthood whereby regular donations would be made). Images of pleasurable activities were inscribed upon the walls (which were representations of the individual’s plans for paradise).
It was common for spouses and even families to be interred together. Some common conventions of tomb paintings include the visible dominance of the male figure (significantly taller and in a protective or otherwise domineering pose), the gentle features, attractiveness and subservience of the female figure and the relative inaction of children. These family portraits are interpreted as attempts to bring the family together in the afterlife. One wall-painting in the tomb of a scribe, Menna, contains all of these characteristics and some recurring imagery of hunting, fishing, sailing and of the Nile River itself.
In addition to such pictorial inscriptions were certain ritual texts designed to shield the spirit during its transition, enabling it to turn into various mythical creatures in order to overcome obstacles and to ensure the favour of the Gods while doing so. Collectively, these mortuary texts are now known as the Book of the Dead or (as a translation of the original Egyptian title) the Chapters of Coming Forth by Day. It is important to note that the former (and more commonly cited) title is a misnomer; the ‘book’ was a compilation of a number of different texts which included writings dating from as far back as 2400 BC (the Coming Forth By Day began to appear in Egyptian tombs around 1600 BC). These texts were commissioned prior to death and were often scribed on papyrus. The degree of protection offered by the text was directly proportionate to its cost (thus giving Kings, with the wealth of Egypt subject to their sole discretion, a distinct advantage).
During the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom, Thebes (on the east bank of the Nile) became the capital city of Egypt (with over 100 temples and the seat of the Theban Princes who founded the New Kingdom) and, due to concerns over the tombs of past royalty being plundered, a new burial site was declared in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens (across the river from Thebes). The change to interring royalty within sunken tombs instead of pyramids was designed to thwart prospective grave-robbers. These sites were difficult to enter, for they were surrounded by mountains and the passes were guarded by the Pharaoh’s soldiers. When a tomb was robbed (and most of the 62 discovered tombs were, despite precautions), the perpetrator was frequently one of the guards or one of the artisans who constructed the tomb. In the latter case, the thieves had exhaustive knowledge of the tomb and access to it because they lived and worked in the valley.
These artisans lived in the village of Set Ma’at, or Deir el-Medina as it is contemporarily known (the construction of which is believed to have been authorised by the Pharaoh Amenhotep I). They were a community of some 200 individuals (as many as 120 of them workers) with a variety of skills which were passed from parents to offspring. The common conception of Egyptian construction projects tends to conjure images of tormented slaves labouring under lashes and appalling conditions to build vainglorious edifices under the iron fist of a tyrant. It was far more likely that, based on religious doctrine, the people of the village were content with their lives (and relative affluence) and honestly desired to ensure an afterlife for their King, especially since New Kingdom Pharaohs had vastly expanded the prestige and wealth of Egypt and its people.
It is important to note that the spirits of dead people (particularly Pharaohs, who were said to merge with the Gods Re and Osiris) were revered. To this end, there were usually small chapels built into tombs, where people could come to pray to the spirit of their departed relative (often to ask for good fortune, or protection from evil spirits). The contrast between the common people and royalty is evident even here – the death of the Pharaoh Amenhotep I, for example, inspired an enduring funerary cult amongst the Medina villagers (in large part because he founded the village itself).
Villagers were not permitted into temples and would instead convey their supplication or pleas via writing (uncommon, given widespread illiteracy) or to carvings on ears inscribed into exterior temple walls. In order to express the omniscience of the god, temples walls would often be covered with ears. Requests for magical assistance were common and usually concerned healing, protection, providence for departed relatives or cursing. As a polytheistic faith with several thousand deities (some of which could be mergers of several or regional interpretations of the same deity), the attribution of thanks to a god could be heavily convoluted. One papyrus fragment contains a prayer of thanks to the intoxication goddess for the blessing of his lover’s kisses which, he professed, made him “fly cloud high without beer.” In cases where individuals had sinned, wished to repent and announced that fact to the gods, it was believed that the gods would set trials (often ominous and/or symbolic in nature) which the sinner was obliged to complete and could thereby be forgiven.
The tomb construction process was extremely intricate, as befitted the status of a ruler. After the basic shape of the tomb (usually three corridors, an antechamber and a sunken sarcophagus chamber) was cut from the limestone by quarrymen, the surface was smoothed (meticulously, with geometrical instruments) using muna, a type of plaster made from clay, quartz, limestone and crushed straw to smooth the walls. Over that they laid thin layers of clay and limestone whitened with a layer of diluted gypsum. The designs (contrived by High Priests and approved by the Pharaoh) were then sketched - they used red ochre to divide out the wall and ceiling surfaces into squares in order to correctly place the figures and text of the decorations. The sculptors and painters would then carve the bas-relief of the images and paint them in six basic colours.
The Pharaoh’s body would be swathed in intricate garb and placed in several layers of ornate coffins and subsequently into a stone sarcophagus. By contrast, common folk (who, being paid a wage of food, other essential supplies and few luxuries had no chance of affording the mummification process, let alone the tomb) often purchased simple wooden coffins with funerary inscriptions on the side. Even the tombs of privileged aristocracy were somewhat more sparsely furnished than those of the King, as were those of Queens who had fallen from the Pharaoh’s favour. The most basic tomb would have taken no more than a few months to build, whereas the King’s tomb often required six to ten years for construction, as it would involve a significantly greater amount of ritual inscription.
Symbolism was also important and commonly featured in funerary decorations, as well as in amulets. Some common symbols are described below:
• The Ankhwas thought to unlock heaven and earth, being ‘the Key of Life’. To emphasise their central role, it was commonly incorporated into representations of Pharaohs and gods.
• The flail and crook symbolised guardianship and adherence to tradition. The triple sceptre (comprised of a whip, staff and stick) was an assurance of a stabilising power which dominated matter, emotion and thought. This too was commonly seen in the presence of Pharaohs and was adopted from the gods Osiris and Andjeti.
• The Djed Pillar, Osiris’ backbone, was a symbol of stability (especially of the monarchy, who as aforementioned were closely affiliated with Osiris).
• The Wedjat (Horus’ left eye) was restored by his wife, Hathor after a confrontation with Set, also known as Seth. It is used as a general curative symbol.
• The Lotus represented upper (southern) Egypt and, in connection with a creation myth, symbolised rebirth. As it was the symbol of Nefertem (‘Lord of Perfume’), it also had sensual implications.
• Ouroboros, the snake swallowing its own tail, is present in Greek and Egyptian mythology and is cited as evidence that the two civilisations had a great deal of contact and cultural merging, especially during the New Kingdom. Symbolising infinity, the perpetual turning can be seen as metaphors for seasons, life and death or good and evil.
• The pyramid is thought to be a symbol of human ascension. To support this, the alignment of the pyramids with cardinal points and the tapering structure is cited. Pyramids were actually simple developments from slab tombs and their funerary purpose could be seen as supporting this view.
• The cartouche and shen (the former a longer version of the latter) symbolised encircling protection and infinity, respectively.
• The sphinx represented the riddle of human existence, possessed of infinite strength and wisdom.
As a society heavily reliant upon the land’s bounty, the common themes of protection, fertility and obedience are easily understood.
Documents of the Egyptian Empire (1580-1380 BC), C. Forbes and G Garner.
Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt, Mary Barnett.
The Encyclopaedia of Eastern Mythology, Rachel Storm.
The World of Ancient Times, Carl Roebuck.
…And some notes I took in Preliminary history.