October 19th, 2009
Egyptian Death Beliefs


Especially as Samhain approaches and we are all steeped in the upcoming Halloween paraphenalia, I thought you might enjoy a brief post that touches on some of the death mythology of ancient Egypt. I’ve always had a great fascination for Egyptian mythology and given that I’m currently working on Desert Alchemy, my Great Egyptian Steampunk book 1, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Remember this is a light dusting of information. Ancient Egyptian mythology is very complex and many, many gods exist.

Although Egypt has no tradition of Halloween or Samhain, it does have a rich ancient mythology that includes some interesting views of life, death and rebirth. Some of this has bled over into what is now practiced as Halloween in the United States and the most notable of this are mummies.

Despite how they’ve been portrayed in the west, mummies are not evidence of a death cult but rather a life cult. Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with the idea of eternal life. Mummies are the result of elaborate rituals and processes designed to preserve the body so the person’s body double/spirit (ka) could be reunited with the ba or personality after death. Mummies of all classes exist but the best preserved are those of the richest or most important people as they could afford the enormous expense involved in mummification.

The mummies were believed to need food and the tools of their trade, things to read and even recreational items so sometimes vast arrays of grave goods are buried with them. These are not ceremonial offerings but rather supplies for the next life. Statues and representations of items were placed in the tomb as well. Statues could magically became real servants in the afterlife and representations of items could also magically became the real thing.

But Egyptians didn’t stop at the physical items. Tombs were brightly painted with scenes of the afterlife the person buried in the tomb wished for. Everything from family life, to vanquishing enemies in battle, to lots of fertile fields and abundant crops were pictured. Even food items were painted on the walls, just in case the mummy’s living relatives decided to stop bringing real food.

The heart was especially important to ancient Egyptians as it was viewed as the seat of the soul. This organ would determine whether the deceased would enter into the glorious afterlife or not. After death, Anubis would lead the deceased to the scales and the heart would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of Justice and Truth. Thoth, the god of of wisdom, records the outcome.

If the heart was heavier than the feather, the deceased was weighed down with evil deeds and the monster Ammut would devour the heart so the deceased would never enter the afterlife. If the heart was lighter than the feather, the deceased could be led by Horus to Osiris and presented as worthy to enter the afterlife.

Many spells exist that are designed to lighten the heart so the deceased could pass this critical test.

The masks often put on royal or elite mummies serve to protect the mummy and the deceased on the way to the afterlife but also allow the spirit to recognize the body in the afterlife. After all, who could recognize anyone with all that linen wrapped around them. One of the greatest fears of this journey is that the spirit will not be able to find its body. Then the deceased is stuck in limbo forever.

Thus destroying a mummy or making it unrecognizable will doom the spirit to wander forever. It was a powerful way to curse the dead.

Another aspect of ancient Egyptian beliefs I find particularly interesting centers around names. Names had real power in ancient Egypt and what someone was named was considered to be an important aspect of their entire being. Names had life! A way to remove a person from memory, to basically erase him or her, was to remove their name from anywhere it was written and never speak it again. As long as the person’s name existed, the person still had life. Many monuments were defaced by the Pharoah Horemheb – he removed all names between his rule and that of Amenhotep III in a bid to rewrite history and erase the pharoahs that ruled between those two.

It makes a very interesting tie in to the Samhain tradition of speaking the names of the honored dead. They are remembered, they still live in some way.

One comment to “Egyptian Death Beliefs”

  1. Ah yes, names and their power.

    A great quote from Normandi Ellis’s “Awakening Osiris” is:

    That which is named must exist.
    That which is named can be written.
    That which is written shall be remembered.
    That which is remembered lives.

    I want this as a tattoo;)

    Rebecca C. Wright