The afterlife in ancient Egypt was the eternal solace the Egyptians sought. They believed that the dead were brought back to life in the underworld and could live there free of disease. They prepared the dead for successful entry into the new realm, beginning with mummification.
The ancient Egyptians believed that in the underworld, similar to the world of the living, there was eternal life. The dead could have everything they had in real life, plus some extra comfort, as they could wear shabtis to work if necessary.
In ancient Egypt, mummification was the first step in preparing for the afterlife. The mummy was given a book on how to overcome obstacles, needs and patterns of things that would be useful in the afterlife.
In ancient Egypt, the afterlife guaranteed the dead eternity. The Egyptians were obsessed with life and wanted to ensure that their dead survived and lived on in the underworld.
The Book of the Dead
The Book of the Dead was a collection of hymns, incantations and instructions to help the dead overcome obstacles on their way to the afterlife. It also contained instructions on what to do when confronted by Osiris, the god of death and rebirth. Osiris would make a test to see if the newly deceased was as good and righteous as he was.
The test was called “negative confession”, in which the deceased had to deny wrongdoing. The statements were written by the divine scribe, Thoth. Behind him awaited a female monster with the head of a crocodile, the forelegs of a lion and the hind legs of a hippopotamus, who would devour the newcomer if he failed the test.
After negative confessions, the heart was weighed with a feather representing Maat, meaning truth and harmony. If the newcomer passed the test, he joined the akhu, the blessed dead who can fulfil some of the wishes of praying relatives. Thus began the afterlife.
Gods involved in the afterlife
There were different beliefs about what happened after death, but most believed that the deceased became Osiris. So the Egyptians made shabtis – small figurines of Osiris – and buried them with the dead. If the dead needed to do work in the afterlife, the shabti could do it for them.
Another god associated with another realm was Ra. He was the creator of the universe and the source of life in the underworld. Every night he passed through the underworld, bringing light to it, like the sun.
Although before 2000 BC it was believed that only pharaohs were linked to Osiris and had an afterlife, after this period ordinary people were mummified so that they could be resurrected and enter the afterlife. In this way, the market for death expanded considerably.
Mass production for the realm of the dead
As many people were mummified, like the pharaohs, embalmers had much more work to do, as did other workers connected with the death industry. Thus, the Egyptians initiated the first act of mass production in history.
There is little information on how this industry was managed. However, the numerous swords used in the tombs were identical in size and shape, suggesting that they were produced in large numbers. An industry of this scale always attracts thieves, who must first be unbelievers.
Unbelievers in ancient Egypt
Some Egyptians, including some embalmers, believed that the afterlife was meaningless. That is why many strange mummies were created from different parts of different corpses. For example, one was discovered that had the head of an old woman, the body of a child and the legs of two different men.
These mummies were created mainly in Hellenistic Egypt, when Egypt was ruled by the Greeks. Among the common people there were unbelievers who considered all the riches in the tombs as booty.
One of the most common protective measures was the construction of one or more gate blocks, placed in slots on the side of the tomb entrance. The block or blocks were dropped and fixed in place after the tomb was closed. Another method was the construction of a false burial chamber. However, none of this prevented robbers from entering the tomb shortly after the burial. The curses, however, terrified some archaeologists who were excavating some Egyptian tombs.
The curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb
In 1922, Lord Carnarvon funded an expedition that led to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. He later died of blood poisoning, leading some to fear a curse. However, Howard Carter, who made the discovery, died 16 years after the expedition.
To prevent looting, the pharaohs decided to build their tombs in the Valley of the Kings. However, tomb robberies continued to occur in Egypt.
This made it difficult for the dead to enter the underworld and, at the same time, their possessions could be stolen.
Not all Egyptians were convinced of the certainty of eternal life after death. Ancient Egypt is believed to have been a society captivated by the notion of eternal life.
Ancient Egyptian religion is, in this sense, a naïve and narcissistic effort to deny the inexorable depredation of time, tending instead towards immortality. This is partly justified. They dried their bodies for use in the afterlife and built pyramids – ‘resurrection machines’ – that ensured the pharaoh’s eternal life, turning him into a star, living forever in the night sky.
Ancient Egyptian literature often suggests a similar ethos. In the ‘Great Hymn to Athena’, from the reign of the heretical pharaoh Akhenaten, the pharaoh’s wife Nefertiti is described as ‘living and young for ever and ever’. Similarly, in the “Hymn of the Cannibals” from the pyramid of Pharaoh Unasa in the Old Kingdom, it reads: “The life of Unasa is eternal, its limit is eternity”. Shelley’s Ozymandias resonates with students of ancient Egypt for good reason.
However, despite this popular view of the Egyptian afterlife, some ancient Egyptians were very ambivalent about these beliefs. Two texts from the Middle Kingdom period demonstrate that, far from blindly pursuing the afterlife, there were individuals who engaged in critical and even cynical religious thought and philosophy. It is significant that such sentiments emerged in the Middle Kingdom. At this time, Egypt had just emerged from an era of decentralised power, fragile central government and intermittent wars between various Egyptian kingdoms, dynasties and petty warriors. Despite the restoration of central authority in the Middle Kingdom, a certain fatalism persisted in its literature, indicating a constant awareness of the dissonance between the invincible pharaoh projected by state propaganda and the relative chaos of the previous era.
“The Dialogue between a Man and his Soul” is considered a masterpiece of Egyptian literature. It has come down to us in papyri and fragments, probably from the reign of Amenemhat III. The text takes the form of a dispute between man and his ba, an aspect of the soul represented as a bird with a human head that glides between the underworld and the world of the living to visit the tombs of the dead. Ironically, it is man who longs for death, while his soul begs for life.
The anonymous scribe’s assertion of equality in death is profound. The implication that death comes to us all and in equal numbers, that the departed nobles and pharaohs are as dead as the poor, is radical. It testifies to the deep cynicism of the foundations of Egyptian funerary religion, explaining that even the most lavish attempts to stop death are ultimately futile. However, the scribe does not suggest that there is no life after death; in fact, this concept is redeemed somewhat at the end, when man and soul agree to join hands and enjoy life and death together as partners: “I will go down when you are tired and we will arrive together at the harbour.
Above these declarations of joie de vivre, however, resounds a sentimental harpist’s song, probably intended to be performed during funeral rites, associated with King Intef (since several kings of the 11th Dynasty bear this name, it is unclear in which tomb the song would have originally appeared). The language of the surviving copies and their attribution to Intef place it at the end of the Early Intermediate Period, when the Theban state was gaining supremacy over its rivals in Hermopolis to the north. The novelty of his thought may be related to the newness of the Theban kingdom: as young pretenders to the title of pharaoh, perhaps the old religious orthodoxies were less securely respected at the Theban court.
In other words, the afterlife cannot be bought, even by the greatest and wisest – the winds of time, as in Ozymandias, triumph over all. The simple remedy to this problem is to adopt a true carpe diem attitude and “do what your heart tells you to do, while you are on earth”, for “mourning will not save the hereafter”!
This sentiment seems to us highly topical and even easy to understand. Despite the gold and alabaster, the magnificent pyramids and the heaps of incense, doubts persist in people’s minds as to the validity of it all. “The impatient [Osiris] cannot hear their wailing,” the song says, no matter how much you pray for the dead, for they are deaf and the world beyond is silent. It is hard to see how such profound scepticism can be unusual. However, these poems show individuals who doubt, investigate, question and have their own ideas about the world and the afterlife.