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What can Egyptians tell us about eternal life?

For more than 3,000 years, ancient Egyptians embalmed, preserved and entombed their dead with materials they would need for life in the next world. Offerings to the gods to help ease the deceased person’s passage were often included in tombs. Ancient Egyptians believed death marked the beginning of a journey to eternal life. What can ancient Egyptians tell us about eternal life? 

Ancient Egyptian afterlife beliefs were centered around a variety of complex rituals, that were influenced by many aspects of Egyptian culture. Religion was a major contributor, since it was an important social practice that bound all Egyptians together. For instance, many of the Egyptian gods played roles in guiding the souls of the dead through the afterlife. With the evolution of writing, religious ideals were recorded and quickly spread throughout the Egyptian community. The solidification and commencement of these doctrines were formed in the creation of afterlife texts which illustrated and explained what the dead would need to know in order to complete the journey safely.

Egyptian religious doctrines included three basic afterlife ideologies; belief in an underworld, eternal life, and rebirth of the soul. The underworld, also known as the Duat had only one entrance that could be reached by travelling through the tomb of the deceased. The initial image a soul would be presented with upon entering this realm was a corridor lined with an array of fascinating statues, including a variation of the famous hawk-headed god, Horus. It must also be noted that the path taken to the underworld may have varied between kings and common people. After entry, spirits were presented to another prominent god, Osiris. Osiris would determine the virtue of the deceased’s soul and grant those deemed deserving a peaceful afterlife. The Egyptian concept of ‘eternal life’ was often seen as being reborn indefinitely. Therefore, the souls who had lived their life elegantly and were guided to Osiris to be born again.

In order to achieve the ideal afterlife, many practices must be performed during one’s life. This may have included acting justly and following the beliefs of Egyptian creed. Additionally, the Egyptians stressed the rituals completed after an individual’s life has ended. In other words, it was the responsibility of the living to carry out the final traditions required so the dead could promptly meet their final fate. Ultimately, maintaining high religious morals by both the living and the dead, as well as complying to a variety of traditions guaranteed the deceased a smoother transition into the underworld.

Ancient Egyptians theorized the passage to the afterlife in a series of stages. The first phase was believed to encompass the vehicle of transportation, which would eventually direct their departed souls to immortality. Individuals were subjected to a multitude of passages; but the choice of route was not theirs, it was dependent on their status. The aspect that was most universally influential in determining what passage was taken was one’s position among their leaders. Despite the differences between voyagers, beliefs concerning the afterlife are astronomically reliant on religious ideologies. For example, early people often used religion to understand and comprehend, as well as relate to natural occurrences since science had not yet defined everyday incidents. To demonstrate, there was no justification for the sun’s orbit, so religious myths redefined and answered the questions prehistoric people had. Yet, since natural incidences were explained by religious beliefs, other realms of creed mimicked the natural patterns of life. For instance, the general ideology associated with the path to the underworld was believed that as night overshadowed the land, the deceased would begin their journey. And with the rising of the sun, a new day was not only thought to have begun, but a new life as well.

Boat passages to the underworld were strictly reserved for pharaohs who had died. The Egyptian sun god, Ra, was believed to travel to the underworld by boat as the sun set. As a way to mimic Ra’s daily expedition, the ancient people of Egypt would construct model boats, ranging in many sizes in which they would bury alongside their Pharaohs. For example, next to the Pyramid of Khufu, researchers uncovered a boat the size of traditional ships, which displayed not only the extreme devotion Egyptians had for their leader, but their dedication to obtaining eternity for all. In other words, a great deal of the requirements for the deceased to properly reach the underworld rested on the living. In order for Pharaohs to arrive at their final destination, his people had to construct a variety of boats to ensure his departure. As a result, communities had to come together to support each other, otherwise their perspective of immortality, as well as their beliefs would end indefinitely. Therefore, commitment to helping others achieve eternity was a vital component to Egyptian culture, as demonstrated by the gallant boats buried with their rulers.

Additionally, an alternate vehicle for entrance to the underworld was the coffin. While king’s often used coffins in addition to, or in substitution of the boat belief, everyday citizens had less choice. Therefore, this method was more universal while alluding to a different, more ‘frequent’ path of entry. To compare, while passages by boat directed the deceased to the sun god, Ra, coffins were thought to guide individuals to the sky goddess, Nut. Each coffin was uniquely attributed to the person who rested in it.

In other words, every coffin was subject to a variety of interpretations, all of which were intended to promote the deceased in obtaining eternity.

However, not all who died were presented with the opportunity to travel to the underworld. Since the living were obligated to ensure that the deceased could travel to the afterlife, it was also in their control to eliminate one’s chance in achieving eternity. Therefore, the living had an array of options that prevented a second life to an unworthy individual who had died. The most famous included decapitation, which when executed, “killed a person twice.” As a result, the second death associated with decapitation was also assumed to have annihilated the chance at another life. As noted in Egyptian texts, this instance was incredibly feared, but happened most often to those who rebelled or disobeyed the king.