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Just 20 kilometers beyond Cairo, the Great Pyramids of Giza loom over the landscape. They’re a testament to the ancient Egyptians’ complex ideas about the afterlife. These pyramids housed royal remains plus valuables, household objects, clothing, and a plethora of texts. Were they obsessed with death, or is there more to the story? We can understand a lot through a quick look at their beliefs.

Life, Death, and the Afterlife

Ancient Egyptian culture had a lot to say about death. But as World History Encyclopedia explains, it was only one part of an eternal journey. Most Egyptians did everything they could to live their best lives. Death was merely a transition to the afterlife, which they pictured as a better version of life on Earth. The afterlife offered all the potential happiness that the living enjoyed and more – but minus illness and suffering.

What we do know about Egyptian afterlife beliefs comes from several sources, including the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead. These texts existed as spells and images on the insides of tomb walls, with some copies on papyrus manuscripts buried with the dead. Up until the 16th century B.C.E., these texts were only available to royals and the upper class. Eventually, afterlife mythology spread to the common people.

Weighing of the Heart

Ancient Egyptians believed that souls journeyed on after their bodies died. Guided by Anubis, these souls arrived in the Hall of Truth to await Osiris’ judgment. While Osiris governed this process, he did consult with others. He turned to Anubis and Thoth, plus a group of divine beings called the Forty-Two Judges.

Each soul presented the Negative Confessions, a list of 42 sins against oneself, their communities, or the gods. These statements asserted that a person had never partaken in these sins. Rather than being perfect absolutes, these confessions included qualifications – “I have not made anyone angry without reason,” for instance.

With an acceptable confession, Osiris weighed the soul’s heart on a golden scale with a white feather of truth. Those whose hearts were lighter than the feather could continue forward. But if a heart was heavier, Ammit would instantly devour it. Called the “female devourer of the dead,” Ammit was a fearsome creature that was part lion, hippo, and crocodile. Once she consumed a soul’s heart, that person ceased to exist.

The Field of Reeds

If a soul passed Osiris’ test, it could then continue its journey. Depending on the text, it might face even more perils or travel on without incident. Some versions mention Lily Lake, where souls were taken across by a rude and insulting Divine Ferryman. Passing the test meant being cordial to this ferryman, no matter what crude remarks he made.

As an eternal soul, your final destination was the Field of Reeds. Also called Aaru, this realm was paradise. But what did it look like? That depends on which edition of the ancient Egyptian funerary texts you read. The Australian Museum details one version in which the dead receive plots of land. Others describe lakes and gardens with gentle breezes, where eternal souls ate delicacies called “cakes of Osiris.”

In the Field of Reeds, you could end up with the same home you had on Earth – except better. You’d reunite with loved ones who’d already passed on: your spouse, parents, siblings, friends, and more. And it didn’t matter what species they were. Your cat could be sitting on your front porch, chirping happily as you ascend the steps.

A Rich, Exuberant Worldview

Modern popular culture shows ancient Egypt as a land of curses, idols, and mummies. But what its people left behind is an incredibly sophisticated mythology. Through its many texts, we’ve discovered how they saw the world – not just what they thought about death.

Category: Funeral


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