Death. No religion can avoid the subject, but the ancient Egyptians—who thrived between 3100 B.C. and 332 B.C.—built their faith around it. The worldly life, proclaimed the priests, was just a prelude to eternal life beyond the grave. The ancient Egyptians lived this life to the fullest, and expected to continue doing so upon death.
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But to ensure a flourishing afterlife, certain provisions were required, including a preserved body (aka a mummy), a stocked tomb, and animal companions. Even then, eternal life was not guaranteed, until the deceased found their way through the underworld, where they were tested by the god of judgment. Here are the specific steps the ancient Egyptians took to guarantee life ever after.
To arrive in the afterlife in one piece required a preserved body. To that end, most people wished to have their corpse mummified, which preserved the body in the most lifelike state. Depending on finances, there were different degrees of mummification. The poor were simply washed and placed directly into the desert sand. Some were packed in salt to help desiccation. Those of higher status might receive an enema of juniper oil to liquefy internal organs and scent the body before salting.
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The mummification process for the rich and royal, especially during the New Kingdom (ca 1539–1075 B.C.), took 70 days from start to finish and was carried out by special priests. The body was washed and purified. The blood was then drained and, to avoid putrefaction, most internal organs were removed and placed into special jars. Brains were pulled out through the nose with a hook and discarded. The heart, however, was left intact inside, for Egyptians believed it was the center of a person’s entire being.
The body was then packed with natron, a special salt found in dried lakebeds, and left on a table to dry. As the body dried out and shriveled, pieces of cloth strips were inserted to fill it out. Fake eyes, rouge, and other makeup were added for a more lifelike appearance. When the drying process was completed, the priests washed the body again, covered it with oils and resin, and bound it in hundreds of yards of linen. Finally, the whole wrapped package was boxed and returned to the family for delivery to the tomb.
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A well-stocked tomb
The tombs of the elite were often prepared long before their death. When the time came, important individuals were placed in multiple coffins, some beautifully decorated. Some were then interred in elaborate stone sarcophagi. Confident that their tombs were the gateways to the next world, Egyptians stocked them with everything they would need: food, wine, clothing, furniture, and other essentials for the journey ahead. “Beautify your house in the Necropolis and enrich your place in the West,” said Prince Hordedef, a renowned sage of the 4th dynasty. “The house of death is for life.”
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Animal mummies also accompanied ancient Egyptians in their tombs—shrews in boxes of carved limestone, rams covered with gilded and beaded casings, and ibises in bundles of intricate appliqués. Even tiny scarab beetles and the dung balls they ate have been found. Some of these animals were pets, preserved so deceased humans would have companionship in eternity. Others, cut into portions, served as perpetual meals for the people they were buried with. Still others were votive offerings meant to carry prayers to the gods or were reverently laid to rest as the living representative of a god.
(How was King Tut’s tomb discovered 100 years ago? Grit and luck.)
But even with all of this preparation, life everlasting was not yet guaranteed. The deceased first had to be judged for the life he had led. The ancient Egyptians believed everyone possesses the ka, or life force, and the ba, the soul. Upon death, the ka leaves the body first, wandering aimlessly. The ba remains in the body until burial. Then, the ba—guided by spells and images painted on the tomb walls and amulets attached to the body—would proceed on the journey through the underworld. The falcon-headed god Horus leads the ba through doorways of fire and cobras to the halls of judgment, where the deceased is tested.
Overseen by the jackal-headed god Anubis, his heart is weighed against a feather of ma’at, the goddess of truth and cosmic harmony. Part of this ritual is the “Negative Confession,” in which the deceased has to deny committing theft, murder, causing others distress, and other transgressions. Osiris, king of the underworld, and other gods watch as judges. If the deceased fails this test, a monster goddess named Ammut—part lion, part crocodile, and part hippopotamus—devours his soul, dooming the deceased to a perpetual coma.
Obtaining eternal life
But if the heart balances, the ba reunites with the ka (which had been wandering aimlessly), creating a spirit called akh. The spirit emerges in the bright realm ruled by the crowned Osiris, called the Field of Reeds, a land of beautiful mountains and rivers. Here, the deceased is reunited with his loved ones, including his pets. The utopian life is now his for eternity.
Being dead didn’t mean being gone for good, though. The deceased could also ethereally reenter the living world and enjoy its pleasures, including offerings of food, his wife’s life, and the attention of his servants.
To learn more, check out King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.