The tombs and remains unearthed by archaeologists in ancient Egypt reveal a complex society with many distinct rituals carried out by both commoners and kings. Egyptologists concur that immortality was an important aspect of the ancient Egyptian belief system, and expectation of an afterlife permeated many of their day-to-day affairs and rituals.
Ancient Egyptians used several means to preserve their dead for the afterlife. The earliest Egyptians simply buried their ancestors directly in the ground, depending on the dry climate for preservation. They later progressed to building mastabas, tombs of mud brick. Mummification gradually developed as a drying process to further keep remains intact. Techniques grew in sophistication from wrapping sun-dried bodies in linen and natron salt to removing internal organs and entombing the deceased in a sarcophagus. Typically only the wealthy and elite could afford this process; Egyptian commoners likely continued placing their dead in sand cemeteries, the same as their early ancestors.
Preparation for the Afterlife
Based on artifacts discovered in royal tombs, archaeologists hypothesize that Egyptians strongly believed in bringing current possessions with them into the afterlife. Individuals of any status were frequently entombed with treasured objects intended for use in the afterlife, such as furniture, clothing, food or jewelry. The quality of these items depended on the Egyptian's status in life. Egyptologist Salima Ikram speculates that poor Egyptians believed they would come into a much wealthier existence. Kings were also entombed with an expectation of increased comfort and prestige. Shabti figurines were among the many possessions found within pharoanic tombs, often buried to return as servants for the buried kings. Canopic jars containing a king's removed lungs, liver, intestines and stomach were also entombed.
Existence in the Afterlife
Egyptologists believe that common Egyptians imagined a more fertile Nile Valley with limitless beer and easy labor. The more shabti figures one was buried with, the less work would be required of him in this Field of Reeds. Kings believed they would revel in the best food and drink, commune with Egyptian gods such as Re and battle against evil forces to ensure Egypt's continued existence.
The Role of Osiris
The god Osiris is a central figure in ancient Egyptian beliefs about immortality because his legend allowed many Egyptians to believe they had a place in the afterlife. Ancient mythology holds that Osiris was trapped in a coffin and later torn into pieces by his brother Set. Osiris became lord of the underworld and judge of the dead after being resurrected by his wife, Isis, and his mythology has become associated with the practice of mummification in preparation for the afterlife.
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