How do you picture ancient Egypt? Do you see mysterious pyramids, linen-wrapped mummies, and secret religious ceremonies? Many of our images of ancient Egypt probably derive from Hollywood movies like The Mummy’s Curse. Surprisingly, however, many observers throughout history have shared this picture of Egypt as an uncanny culture, wise in secret lore. Although these popular ideas about ancient Egypt are exaggerated and distorted, they do contain a grain of truth. The ancient Egyptians were preoccupied with death and the progress of the soul through the underworld. Their concern, however, reflected an optimistic – not a dark – outlook. They believed in a type of life after death. To prepare for this existence, they collected the numerous spells, confessions, and words of power known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The title incorrectly suggests a single volume. Actually, it refers to many different texts written in different eras. These texts, inscribed on long papyrus scrolls entombed with the deceased, were a guide for a dead person on the perilous journey through the underworld. They contained, for example, magical spells that would fend off demons and monsters, as well as confessions and assertions of innocence that would help the soul when it came to judgement before Osiris, the god of the dead.
In some ways the Egyptian Book of the Dead resembled a travel guide to the underworld. Just as a contemporary travel guide might inform you about accommodations, traffic, and currency in a foreign country, so the Book of the Dead told the ancient Egyptian what to say and what to do in the strange country of the hereafter. For example, on the way to see Osiris, the ruler of the dead, the deceased had to pass through seven great halls. Each of these was supervised by three gods, and unless the deceased could tell each god his or her name, the journey would end. Not knowing the magical names was comparable to arriving at a modern frontier without a passport!
The story of Osiris involved suffering, death, and resurrection. That emphasis on resurrection is why Osiris’s story had such an appeal, for the average Egyptian hoped to survive death. The identity they felt with Osiris was so strong that the dead were referred to by name as Osiris.
The most dramatic moment of the underworld journey was the judgment of the dead by Osiris. The heart of the deceased – for Egyptians the word «heart’ also meant «conscience» – was weighed against a figure of Ma’at, the goddess of law, truth, and justice. Souls that failed that test were tortured and destroyed. Such destruction, called «repeated death», was perhaps the greatest fear of the Egyptians. It meant complete extermination.
The conception of judgment, reward, and punishment is common to many cultures, including our own. Compare the Egyptian underworld with that depicted in The Epic of Gilgamesh :
«…The house from which none who enters ever returns, down the road from which there is no coming back. There is the house whose people sit in darkness, dust is their food and clay is their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away forever. They who had stood in the place of the gods, stood now like servants to fetch baked meats in the house of dust... There was Ereshkigal the Queen of the Underworld; and Belit-Sheri squatted in front of her, she who is recorder of the gods and keeps the book of death. She held a tablet from which she read. She raised her head, she saw me and spoke: «Who has brought this one here?» Then I awoke like a man drained of blood who wanders alone in a waste of rushes; like one whom the bailiff has seized and his heart pounds with terror.» (from The Gilgamesh Epic).
Associated with the Book of the Dead were the Egyptian burial practices that have fascinated so many other cultures, including ours. They embalmed the dead using the process of mummification. The techniques of embalming usually involved the removal of the inner organs, treatment of the body with resin – an organic substance from plants – and wrapping the corpse in linen bandages.