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The Afterlife In Ancient Egypt Essay, Research Paper
THE AFTERLIFE IN ANCIENT EGYPT S RELIGION AND LITERATURE
Ancient Egypt is often identified by its enormous pyramids, in particular the Great
Pyramid at Giza, which was built during the middle of the third millennium, BC. Pyramids
are massive monuments built over or around a crypt or tomb. The Egyptian pyramids served
as royal tombs. Not only do these colossal constructions depict the Egyptians advanced
architectural abilities, but they also give us an insight into their belief system. Ancient
Egypt s beliefs were based on their view of life as a process which began on earth, but
continued in the afterlife, or continued existence after death. Egyptians believed that proper
burial ensured the deceased entrance into the afterlife. Their belief was that in order for the
soul to pass into the next life, the body must remain intact; therefore, to preserve it, they
developed the procedures of mummification or embalming, the art of preserving bodies after
death, generally by the use of chemical substances. The preservation was essential to
resurrecting or moving on to the afterlife. The preserved body would then be placed in the
pyramid which was considered a vessel that transported the deceased into the afterlife.
Ancient Egypt s religious beliefs were the dominating influence in the development of their
culture. Egyptian religion gave reason for their belief in an afterlife, and their literature
demonstrated how important that belief was to Ancient Egyptians. The religious beliefs of
the Ancient Egyptians were based on a combination of the belief in spiritual beings, existence
of many gods or divine beings, and the depiction of these gods in either human or animal
form. Egyptians religious beliefs about the afterlife are depicted in their hymns to their gods
and in an extensive collection of mortuary texts which demonstrate their religious beliefs.
Some examples of these pieces of literature are The Hymn to the Nile (Middle Kingdom,
1938-1600 BC), The Story of Sinuhe (Middle Kingdom), and the Egyptian Book of the
Dead. “The Story of Sinuhe,” is a story of a palace official who flees to Syria at the death of
King Amenemhet I, and becomes a rich and important man there, but feels obligated to
return to his motherland to have a proper burial, thus ensuring his entrance into the afterlife.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a text containing prayers, spells, and hymns. The basis of
the Ancient Egyptians strong beliefs regarding the afterlife was their religion.
The belief in an afterlife was an important aspect of the Egyptian religion. One of their
principal deities, Osiris was the ruler of the dead, and regarded as the source of renewed life.
Egyptians believed that the vital life-force was composed of several elements, the most
important of which was the Ka. The Ka, a duplicate of the body, accompanied the body
throughout life and, after death, departed from the body and tried to take its place in the
kingdom of the dead. The Ka, however, could not exist without the body; therefore, every
effort had to be made to preserve the corpse. Bodies were embalmed and mummified
according to a traditional method, supposedly begun by Isis, Osiris s wife and sister, who
mummified Osiris. Much evidence demonstrates that Egyptian embalming is religious in
origin, and was conceived as a means of preparing the dead for the life after death. Entering
the afterlife to be with Osiris was of great significance to every Egyptian.
Ancient Egypt s literature clearly demonstrates the influence of religion in relation to the
afterlife. Ancient Egyptian literature is characterized by a wide diversity of types and subject
matter. It dates from the Old Kingdom (about 2755-2255 BC) into the Greco-Roman period
(after 332 BC). Some of the best-known pieces of Ancient Egyptian literature that best illustrate
the society s religious beliefs. One of these, Hymn of the Nile, exalts the Nile River as a deity
or god. Ancient Egyptians viewed the Nile as a source of renewal and rebirth. It was from the
Nile that Osiris emerged from death and resurrected, thus giving significance to their belief in
resurrection and afterlife. Another piece, The Story of Sinuhe the Egyptian provides a
demonstration of the importance of the afterlife. Sinuhe is depicted as a typical Egyptian,
concerned with the proceedings of his burial. Far from his home in Egypt, Sinuhe must return to
his motherland to gain passage to the afterlife because a messenger was sent by the king to remind
Sinuhe of the urgency to return and be properly buried. In the Story of Sinuhe , the quote, Be
mindful of the day of burial, of passing to a revered state! (39), is a reminder to Sinuhe of the
guidelines by which one enters the revered state or afterlife. Through this story one can see
how important it was to the Ancient Egyptians to reach the afterlife. A third piece of Ancient
Egyptian literature also emphasizes the strong belief in an afterlife. The Egyptian Book of the
Dead (about 1310 BC)(a title given to a large collection of funerary texts of various dates)
contains magical formulas, hymns, and prayers believed by the ancient Egyptians to guide and
protect the soul (Ka) in its journey into the region of the dead. The title “Book of the Dead” is
misleading; the texts do not form a single connected work and do not belong to one period.
Egyptians believed that the knowledge of these texts enabled the soul to ward off demons
attempting to impede its progress, and to pass the tests set by the forty-two judges in the hall of
Osiris, god of the underworld. These texts indicated that happiness in the afterlife was dependent
on the deceased’s having led a virtuous life on earth. Proof of a good and just life was needed.
Ancient Egypt s interpretation of the significance of life after death is quite evident in their
religion and literature. Egyptian religion was the foundation or basis for their belief in an afterlife,
and their literature illustrated how important that belief was to Ancient Egyptians. They placed
much value on the passage to the afterlife. Their religious beliefs provided meaning to the
customs involved in embalming and burial in order to reach the afterlife. They readily carried out
their customary beliefs in their everyday lives, and strived to reach the other world. As they
remained focused on their goal of reaching the great Osiris in the afterlife, Ancient Egyptians
recorded their beliefs and rituals in literal form. Through this we are able to get an insight into
their life and how they lived for the reward of it in the next world.
Interdisciplinary Studies Staff, ed. The Story of Sinuhe the Egyptian. Ancient Legacy of the
Modern World. New York: American Heritage, 1996. 35-42.
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