The Path to the Western Lands:Death Ritual and Beliefs in Ancient Egypt
Most ancient and OprimitiveO societies seem to be possessed with what we would consider an unhealthy preoccupation with death. The greatest architectural achievements of ancient civilizations are either tombs, or temples; that some suggest began as tombs (Jaynes). To appreciate why this might be it is necessary to dismiss our social biases as much as we are able to. The ancients lived in a world where death came quickly and often. Food storage allowed some protection against starvation but if more than two or three harvests failed, mass starvation was not uncommon. Plagues were also frequent by todayOs standards and even more frightening because they had no concrete cause. Not only can we not conceive of being in this situation but we have lived our lives in a post-enlightenment Judeo-Christian society where, as a result of the comparative ease of our lives, we are assured for the most part that whatever happens after death; it is pleasant. The ancients had no such intellectual background. Death was
The Egyptians were, arguably, the most death-obsessed civilization ever. Much of what we know of them comes from their elaborate and well stocked tombs. Situated in the well defined, agriculturally stable Nile Valley, the Egyptian civilization developed many unique and innovative beliefs about the nature of death and the afterlife.
The Egyptians believed that every person is made up of seven OsoulsO. These are much different from our understanding of the Christian soul. It is not clear what function each one serves but what is clear, is that each has important tasks to perform in order to safely pass to Tuat (also known as the Western Lands; the Egyptian Land of the Dead) - immortality was not guaranteed to the Egyptians. The souls are not divided as simply as western dualistic thought would lead one to assume. It is not Oangry soulO, Ohappy soulO and Osad soulO. Each soul is a separate entity which, though its fate is tied to the others, seems to have its own consciousness and need not stay with the other souls.
The first soul is Sekhu , the body or spirit body. Sekhu seems to most closely parallel the Christian soul. Egyptian texts pertaining to the journey to Tuat are told from the point of view of the Sekhu. The Ka, or OdoubleO is the most important of what I will call the Osecondary soulsO. The Ka is with a person throughout his or her life and serves as a guide on the journey to Tuat. Kings and gods are said to send forth their Ka as messengers to their subjects (Breasted). The depictions of the deceased on route to Tuat often show him (the majority depict men) with his Ka beside him.
The Ba is interpreted as KaOs soul or heart soul. The Ba often dwells with the Ka but is free to travel separately. Just as one might send out oneOs Ka, the Book of the Dead (chap. 29) states:
Their Bau come forth upon earth to do the will of their Kau...
Contained within the Ba and the Sekhu is the Ab or heart. The Ab is the seat of the passions and a record of good and evil done by its Sekhu. Budge numbers the Ab among the souls. The Book of the Dead however, discusses the Ab as a thing to be protected, and there is no mention of the Ab coming and going of its own volition, a quality shown by the other souls. The nature of the Khaibit, or OshadowO is unclear but it is something that the deceased is instructed to protect.
The last of the secondary souls is the Ren or name. It is a common belief among ancient peoples that oneOs name holds great power. How can one be introduced to the gods if he or she has no name? (Budge) This could help explain the practice of the pharaohs and nobles to cover walls and columns with their names and the later trend to cover old kingOs names with oneOs own; possibly to gain the power of othersO Ren.
In addition to the Sekhu and four secondary souls, the Egyptians believed in two immortal souls; the Khu and Sekhem. The Khu is translated alternately as OsoulO, OspiritO or Ospirit-soulO. A more appropriate name for Khu would be Odivine soulO. The Khu leaves the body and goes to dwell with the Khu of the gods as soon as the first prayers are said over it. The Khu will unite with the Sekhu, Ka, and Ba in Tuat if they survive the journey. The last soul of the Egyptians is the Sekhem or power. It is equivalent to the New Age vernacular OenergyO; the life force which sustains the Khu and possibly Sekhu.
As was stated above, immortality was not guaranteed to the Egyptians. Immortality was secured only by complex measures taken in the physical world and knowledge of the proper courses of action on the journey to the Western Lands. Out of these perceived necessities developed some impressive technological achievements.
Tombs were of great importance to the Egyptians. In pre-dynastic times, tombs were simple mounds or small ovular or rectangular rooms placed over the buried corpse. The everyday items found in graves or the tomb chambers above the graves suggest that Egyptians had already formed ideas of an afterlife similar to this world (David). The bodies in such graves are almost exclusively situated with the head to the North and the face pointing West.
The Early dynastic period saw the rise of the mastaba tomb. These were larger, house-like tombs often with several rooms. It is at this time that the first boats and mass human burials are found associated with tomb sites. The small idols found in earlier graves were replaced by larger and more detailed figures. These may have been early ushabti to serve the deceased or possibly a precursor of the life-sized Ka statues of later periods. This period also saw the rise of regular offerings of food being made to the deceased.
In Old Kingdom Egypt, the size and complexity of tombs reached unprecedented levels, leading up to the building of the pyramids. The first pyramid at Saqqara was built as essentially a stack of six mastaba. Around the step pyramid was a large walled complex containing duplicates of many features of the royal palace. In addition to any megalomaniacal factors in the building of the pyramids, they were probably seen as a very safe place to put oneOs body. The enormous size allowed the entrances to be hidden and gave a good deal of space for hidden and false passages. The building of such a monument could have been a very effective way to preserve oneOs Ren. Additionally, Edwards suggests that the slant of the pyramidsO sides parallel the angle of the sun on winter afternoons. He and David note references to the pharaohs walking up rays of light to heaven. The Egyptian word for pyramid, mer, has been tentatively translated by some as Oplace of ascensionO.
The great and lesser pyramids are very similar to the early tombs in that they are made up of a superstructure containing the majority of the grave goods over an underground pit or shaft containing the remains. They usually contain a small easily accessible room with a statue of the deceased where food offerings were given for him and/or his Ka. The grave goods are largely similar, but more extravagant, large boats are found in association with Old Kingdom tombs and pyramids. The most distinctive feature of the Old Kingdom burials is the beginning of large scale tomb art depicting every aspect of life and the painting of false doors for use by the various souls.
After the decline of the Old Kingdom, the majority of tombs consisted of several chambers dug out of cliff faces, usually the familiar pattern of an offering room with a Ka statue above a burial chamber. The grave goods, though still often extravagant, are much more modest than what is known and suspected to have been in Old Kingdom sites. Boats and human servants are replaced by small figurines or ushabtis designed to fulfil their functions. Tomb art becomes much more elaborate in the Middle and New Kingdoms. This shows a development of a more abstract view of the afterlife, although it is still very much based in the physical world with the survival of the souls relying on food offerings and the continued existence of the physical body. The latter of these was accomplished through mummification.
Mummification is the process of drying tissues to the point where decomposition will not occur. The Egyptians accomplished this by removing the bodyOs organs, drying them and the body with the chemical agent natron, and covering the body with linens, oils and resins. The technique and inspiration thereof probably began in pre-dynastic times with people observing preserved corpses in the deserts uncovered by erosion. The preservation of the body was considered absolutely necessary for the survival of the souls.
Mummification, including full evisceration began in the Old Kingdom; supplanting the older method of wrapping the body in stiff linens to merely maintain a lifelike shape while the body rotted beneath. Mummification methods were perfected further in the Middle and New Kingdoms to levels never surpassed at anytime in history.
Once the body was properly preserved and laid to rest in a tomb with the proper trappings, both real and representative, the long and difficult journey to the Western Lands began. In some texts Tuat is said to be located in the sky but it is generally described as being far across the western desert beyond a large mountain range. Tuat is a long river valley bordered by mountain cliffs. Its similarities to Egypt extend even further in that each Egyptian city has its duplicate in Tuat. The Tuat cities are ruled by the Egyptian citiesO local gods. The dead live in the Tuat counterpart of their own city but the favoured dead ride with the sun god Ra who becomes Af while sailing through Tuat at night. Tuat is a place of darkness and gloom; each section is lit briefly each night as Af sails by.
Passage to the Western Lands was reserved for the pharaoh in Old Kingdom mythology, along with his court and servants who might also live eternally through him. During the Middle and New Kingdoms, anyone who could have his or her body preserved and Ka fed, might achieve immortality through the cult of Osiris, god of death and rebirth.
On route to Tuat, the deceased is attacked by many beings trying to eat him or take necessary things from him. Gods and their Kau come to steal his Ab. His own Ba might turn against him and leave with his Ab. Eight crocodiles come to take his amulets and Sekhem, which he repels by crying:
OO reptile! Walk no more...Stop. You eat the rat hated
by Ra, you shall devour the bones of a putrid cat.O
(Book of the Dead, Chap. 33)
Similar chants are given to ward off the other threats of a tortoise, The-One-That-Turns-Its-Head, the ass eater, asps, Apep the serpent called Stinking Face, and many others.
If food offerings are not left in the deceasedOs tomb, the Ka and Sekhu will be forced to eat the excrement lying along the way to the Western Lands. This would lead to him not being granted entrance to Tuat and possibly his destruction. The deceased must declare at various times:
OThe abomination, the abomination, I do not eat it.
The abomination is the excrement; I do not eat it;
I eat your food. Do not throw me down in (excrement).I do not stretch my arms to it, I do not tread upon it with my sandals...I live upon loaves, white bread,beer and red wheat...I make my way. I sit in every place that pleases me.O
(Ibid. Chapters 51-52 parenthesis authorOs)
Excrement is also possibly responsible for the attack of the eight crocodiles. The deceased cries OWhat you hate is in my belly!O (Ibid. Chapter 32). It is possible that these are references to the effect that full intestines have on the decomposition of the corpse; a fact that the Egyptians clearly knew of. The excrement could also be a symbol of the mortal failings and a link to the imperfect body. This would not be consistent however, with the strong ties the Egyptians believed existed between the souls and the body.
The deceased experiences several transformations on his journey. At various times he states that he is Osiris, Horus, Ra, many other gods and their respective Kau or Bau. Additionally, he must become, at the proper time, a phoenix, a swallow, a golden hawk, a crocodile and a fish.
Eventually, those that survive will come to AfOs boat. Upon boarding, the deceased must know the Ren of every part of the ship and everything on it. Af then takes him before Osiris and forty two other deities. There he gives the Negative Confession; a declaration consisting of forty two statements such as OI have dealt fairly in tradeO, O I did not murderO and O I did what my masterOs Ka lovedO. Each statement was given to a different god or goddess. Then his Ab is weighed against the feather of truth and if it is found lacking, he and his Ka will be devoured by Am-mit, the tri-formed crocodile/hippopotamus/ape god.
If however, his heart weighs true, he will be taken to Tuat or if he is favoured by the gods, he will ride with Ra/Af across the heavens. Even at this time, the deceased will still only live as long as his body remains intact, food is being offered daily at his tomb and his name is not lost.
The Egyptian afterlife has been described as Oa monopolistic immortalityO. This is a valid assessment but it is what one would expect to arise from such a highly stratified and centralized state. By our standard of belief, the path to Tuat is rather unfair. The only element similar to our own mythology is the weighing of the heart before Osiris. This is the only element of OjusticeO as we know it. The ancient Egyptians did not have the same concepts of rationality and equality that we have. Life for them was much harsher than it is for modern people and this is reflected in their mythology of death.
Sources Breasted, James 1959 Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt Harper and Row, New York Budge, E.A. Wallis 1973 Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection Dover Publications, Inc., New York Budge, E.A. Wallis 1976 Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London David, A. Rosalie 1982 The Ancient Egyptian Routledge & Kegan Paul, London Davis, Charles H.S., translator 1894 The Egyptian Book of the Dead G.P. PutnamOs Sons, New York Jaynes, Julian 1976 The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston Wenke, Robert J. 1990 Patterns in Prehistory Oxford University Press, New York