Ancient Egyptian Customs about the Afterlife
Ancient Egyptians had elaborate and complex beliefs about the afterlife, which was considered a continuation of a person's earthly life. Ancient Egyptian culture taught that death was a transitional stage from the world of the living to the world of the dead, where one would receive final judgment from Osiris, the god of the dead. Egyptian burial and funerary rituals of the time emphasized the importance of mummification as a means of preserving the body of the dead, so that the soul could reunite with it and take pleasure in the afterlife. The tombs of the dead were often filled with goods such as food, jewelry and weapons that Egyptians believed the deceased could use for protection and sustenance during their journey through the underworld.
The preservation of the body was essential to ancient Egyptians because it was believed an individual's soul and personality continued to live in the body after death. Without the body, the soul was unable to exist. The mummification process involved draining the body of liquids, removing the brain and organs, dehydrating the body by packing it in salt, and washing the dried skin with wine and oils. The body was then wrapped in layers of cloth strips, and sometimes amulets, before being placed in its coffin.
2 Departing and Returning Spirits
Ancient Egyptians believed humans possess a life force called the "ka" that leaves the body at the moment of death. Because the ka receives sustenance from food and drink during life, provisions were provided in the tomb as a means of sustaining the life force of the deceased. Similarly, ancient Egyptians of most periods also believed every person had a "ba," a sort of soul that after death would spend daytime in the world of the living, but had to return to the ka at night.
3 Something to Read on the Journey
Ancient Egyptians believed the spirit of the deceased would set off on a perilous journey through the underworld in order to reach Osiris, the god of the underworld, and the hall of final judgment. Tombs were filled with objects believed to be most useful on this journey, and among them were guidebooks of a sort. Egyptian funerary literature -- inscribed on tomb walls and contained in papyrus scrolls to accompany the departed -- was filled with prayers, spells and instructions designed to help the deceased navigate their way through the underworld. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, of which many different versions survive, is a compilation of this essential reading.
4 The Final Judgment
Once in the hall of final judgment, the deceased would plead for entry into the afterlife. First, the spirit of the deceased would plead innocence of any wrongdoing in life before a group of 42 divine judges. Then the heart -- believed to have recorded all the deceased’s actions during life -- would be weighed against a feather. If the heart was heavier than the feather, it would be fed to Ammut, a female demon known as "the devourer," and the soul of the deceased was cast into darkness. If the scales were balanced – signaling a virtuous life – the soul would be welcomed into the afterlife by Osiris.
5 The Field of Reeds
The dead who successfully the final judgment were believed to spend eternity in a paradise known as the Field of Reeds. The field, according to myth, was a reflection of the world of living, containing blue skies, rivers, crops and gods. Upon entry into the Field of Reeds, the dead were expected to maintain a plot of land and cultivate its crops. However, if the deceased were sent to the afterlife with small funerary figurines called ushabti, these servants could undertake the labor in their place.
- 1 University of South Florida - The Egyptian Soul: The ka, the ba and the aka
- 2 BBC History - Mummies Around the World
- 3 Australian Museum - The Underworld and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt
- 4 University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archeology -Final Farewell: The Culture of Death and the Afterlife
- 5 University of Pennsylvania - Papyrus of Ani, Egyptian Book of the Dead