Ancient Egypt: death and the afterlife

Ancient Egypt: death and the afterlife

To fully understand ancient Egypt, you must immerse yourself in their fascinating beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife. But what did they think happened in the afterlife and how did these beliefs inspire the elaborate rituals and practises associated with death?

It was initially believed that only Pharaohs could achieve immortality. However, as time passed, a consensus arose that those who could afford the proper equipment and rituals could also have this opportunity.

One such person was Ani, a Theban scribe. His grave goods were discovered in 1888 and are now housed in The British Museum.

Preparing the Spirit

Before his death, Ani had created his own Book of the Dead - a papyrus guidebook, riddled with hieroglyphic spells, prayers, and codes that his spirit would need to traverse the underworld.

His funeral is of great importance. Mourners are hired to make as much noise as possible – the more weeping, the more important people will think he is. A special ceremony called The Opening of the Mouth is also performed where his mouth is magically opened through touch by a special chisel. This will restore Ani’s senses for his spirit in the afterlife. Music is played to bring back his hearing. Dancing helps restore his sight. Incense, perfume and flowers are used to revive his smell.

Ani’s household items have also been placed in his tomb for use in the afterlife and include food and drink that will keep his spirit nourished. A team of priests now mummifies Ani’s body, removing every organ except his heart – the centre of memory, emotion, and intelligence. His body is stuffed with natron salt and wrapped in resin-soaked linen; these wrappings are woven with protective charms. Finally, a scarab amulet is placed over his heart (the use of which will be explored in a moment). This process of preservation has taken up to two months; now Ani’s spirit has awakened and is ready to venture into the underworld.

Traversing the Underworld

Ani’s spirit travels across the underworld via an Egyptian ship called the solar bark. On the journey, he encounters lakes of fire and vast caverns. Serpents, reptiles and dragons also stand guard, with Apep 'the evil lizard' and God of chaos acting as a final adversary barring Ani's way. His Book of the Dead comes in handy here, providing the necessary spells and charms to vanquish Apep and ensure safe passage.

The scarab amulet inscribed with the message ‘Do not stand as a witness against me’ plays a key role

His spirit then reaches the hall of Maat – the Goddess of truth and Justice. He will now be judged by 42 assessor Gods who must be convinced that he has lived a righteous life. Each God is approached, addressed by name, and then told a sin Ani has not committed e.g. not polluting the River Nile, not making anyone cry, not eavesdropping. The scarab amulet inscribed with the message ‘Do not stand as a witness against me’ plays a key role here, guaranteeing his heart doesn’t betray him by recalling any sins. This test is passed!

For the next stage, Ani encounters Anubis – the God of mummification and the afterlife. Anubis weighs his heart against a feather. If his heart is heavier (weighed down by his wrongdoings), it will be devoured by the monstrous Goddess Ammit who is part lion, part hippopotamus, part crocodile, the three largest man-eating animals known to ancient Egyptians. Thoth – the god of writing and wisdom – is also present, recording the judgement...

Ani’s heart is judged as pure! Ra, the Sun God, takes him to Osiris, the God of the Underworld. Following the judgement, his soul is now one with Osiris and he’s granted passage to the afterlife.

The Field of Reeds

More tests await Ani including one in which he encounters the Divine Ferryman, the cruel Hraf-hef (He-Who-Looks-Behind-Him). Ani's task is to be courteous to Hraf-hef, despite the unkind or cruel remarks Hraf makes, to prove himself worthy of continuing the journey.

After passing these final tests, he is brought across the waters to the Field of Reeds. Here, he finds his loved ones …his favourite animals… his home; life just as it was before he departed it upon death. Ani can continue to plough fields and harvest grains. If he does not wish to, he can call upon a shabti doll to do the work, whilst he reads underneath his favourite tree.

Ani has been given back everything he has lost. He has finally achieved eternal paradise.

Written by:

Yadavan Moorthy

Yadavan Moorthy is a freelance writer from London specialising in history, and is currently contributing to Sky HISTORY.