Funerary Traditions in Ancient Egypt

Regardless of whether the Egyptians were monotheists aor polytheists, they all agreed – hell was a very nasty place indeed, as awful as anyone could imagine today.  The following is a description of hell narrated in Egyptian texts by one who had actually been there, a mummy, who is being questioned by a priest:

When it became necessary for me to die, the Kosmokrator angels were the first to come round about me, and they told me of all the sins which I had committed, and they said to me, “Let him that can save you from the torments into which you shall be cast come hither.”  And they had in their hands iron knives, and pointed goads which were like unto sharp spears, and they drove them into my sides and gnashed upon me with their teeth. …at that moment angels who were without pity came and dragged my wretched soul from my body, and having tied it under the form of a black horse, they led me away to Amenti [Hell]. … I was then delivered into the hands of a multitude of tormentors who were without pity and who had each a different form. … And it came to pass that when I had been cast into the outer darkness, I saw a great ditch which was more than two hundred cubits deep, and it was filled with reptiles; each reptile had seven heads, and the body of each was like unto that of a scorpion.  In this place also lived the Great Worm, the mere sight of which terrified him that looked thereat.  In his mouth he had teeth like unto iron stakes, and one took me and threw me to this Worm which never ceased to eat; then immediately all the [other] beasts gathered together near him, and when he had filled his mouth [with my flesh], all the beasts who were round about me filled theirs. (E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Religion, 139-40)

In contrast, paradise for the Egyptians was a marvelous place, quite similar to this earth, with all the good things of this earth and without the bad things.  These were the Elysian Fields, where the soul could enjoy a very physical existence forever with his family and friends, playing cards, drinking beer, listening to music, fishing, all that he had most enjoyed in this life. 

That being the case, any Egyptian in his right mind would want to spend eternity there.  And so they took great pains to ensure that they had this opportunity.  But remember the lesson of Osiris – you can only enjoy eternal happiness in heaven if your body is preserved through the very process that Osiris was the first to undergo – mummification.

The process of preparing a mummy evolved over time in Egypt.  Initially, bodies were probably buried in the sand.  Over time, the wealthy came to have special burial chambers built for themselves, which also meant that their bodies required special preparation in order to preserve them.  The following were the steps generally required in this 70 day process:

1. Brain

As the Egyptians believed that the heart was the location of the soul and of human thought, they had no interest in preserving the brain (which is pretty sad, really, because that means that if the Egyptians had been right about their paradise, and the means of getting there, they had spent 3 millennia filling paradise with lobotimized spirits).  To remove the brain, a spike was hammered up through the nose to break through the nasal cavity and open a passage into the skull.  This allowed the priests to poke a long stick with a hook at the end through the cavity and into the brain.  Using the hook, they would wisk the brain into a thin mush, quite liquidy.  Tipping the head forward, then, the brain would seep out through the nasal cavity and ears.

2. Organs. 

Make an incision in the left side of the body.  Remove the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines through this incision. 

3. Canopic jars. 

Clean these organs and place them into caponic jars, which would stand near the sarcophagus in the tomb.

4. Heart

Remove the heart, cleanse it, wrap it, and return it to the chest cavity.

5. Dessication. 

Dry the body by leaving it covered in natron for 35 to 40 days.  Natron was a natural substance that collected along the banks of Egypt’s small lakes as the waters evaporated.  Composed of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride, it’s pretty much like covering the body with a combination of salt and baking soda, which leach the moisture out of the body.

6. Stuffing. 

Stuff the resulting body cavity with materials provided by the family, such as cloths used by the deceased during life which are soaked in gums, herbs, and oils.  In some cases of poorer mummies, researchers have found other less personal material used to stuff the dead, including straw and mud.

7. Cleaning. 

Cleanse and purify the body.  Various oils and perfumes were used, such as palm wine, frankincense, and mer, to provide the body with a pleasant aroma with which to come into the presence of Osiris, the Judge.

8. Wrapping. 

Wrap the body in cloth strips.  The body of a king would be carefully wrapped in the finest linen, while less noble bodies might be wrapped in strips made from their own clothing or bed sheets.  While the body was being wrapped, the priests would hide magical amulets within the layers of cloth to further protect the body from harm and assist the journey of the dead into the Underworld.

Death mask.

Assuming this to be an individual of some standing and wealth, then along with amulets, the priests would decorate the body with jewelry and ornaments of gold and precious stones.  And at the very end of the wrapping, a death mask would be laid over the face of the deceased.  All of which was far too compelling for thieves in Egypt to ignore.  After all, if you break into a tomb, hoping to become rich, the last thing you intend to do is leave the dead in peace.  You know the traditions.  You know there are valuable jewels and gold on or buried beneath the layers of cloth, and so thieves would tear apart the dead, ensuring that the entire purpose of mummification was not achieved.  The spirit could not live forever once the body was destroyed.

9. Coffins. 

Finally, the mummy was placed in one or more coffins or sarcophagi to further ensure its protection against the elements.  Remember, the ultimate goal of all this apparent obsession with the body is in fact to secure the survival of the spirit in the life to come.  Destruction of the body was believed to threaten the survival of the spirit, and everyone wants the chance to live on in the afterlife, right?  The Egyptians thus became masters at physical preservation for the sake of spiritual longevity. 

Not only did burial customs evolve over time in ancient Egypt; the place where the dead were buried also changed.  In the pre-dynastic period, before Egypt was unified as a single state and mummification became the funerary ritual of choice, the dead were simply buried in the sand, which was an extremely effective form of natural mummification in such a dry desert.  However, over time and with increasing wealth, the Egyptians began to construct tombs for their dead.  Or at least for the upper classes.

For those who could afford it, an increasingly common form of tomb construction was the mastaba, a term derived from the Arabic for “bench,” used to describe even today the table or platform on which the deceased are prepared for burial.  You can see a large number of mastabas clustered around the Great Pyramid of Giza. 

These pyramids became the symbols of ancient Egypt, and there were in fact more than most people know, probably some 100 pyramids in all.  Regardless of fantastic speculations about who built them and what they were for, the simple explanation is that they were tombs.  All excavatable pyramids in Egypt have revealed chambers for the burial of a pharaoh or, in the case of the smaller pyramids, a close relative of the pharaoh.

The shape of the pyramid has also inspired much conjecture.  From an architectural standpoint, the pyramid is far more durable than a rectangular building with vertical walls, at least in the pre-steel and pre-cement ancient world.  A monument of the massive size of the Great Pyramid with vertical walls would surely have collapsed.  However, there may have been another source of inspiration for the shape of the pyramid in Egypt – the primeval hill, Ben-ben.  Just as the gods emerged from the hill in the beginning of time, the descendents of the gods – the pharaohs – would return to the heavens through their own artificial hill, the pyramid.