No other ancient dynasty conjures a more diverse and rich portrait of the afterlife. The greats, the peasants, the animals, the lords and nobles all buried within the same proximity; the relentless Sahara desert. Here they lie, guarded by complex and inexplicably created pyramids, untouched since the beginning of time. Their moment to glory has come once again as the popularization of Ancient Egypt infiltrates the media. But what is it about Ancient Egypt that we as modern citizens identify with?  Their incredibly intelligent and forward thinking capacity for learning? Their rich and diverse culture of Arabic, Coptic, Roman, Greek, amassed from centuries of foreign invasions? Or perhaps we see it as a fantastical diversion, a culture shock so different from our own? But it is more than that.  From the dawn of time society has been captivated by death, we celebrate death, we mourn the dead, and we have our own individualistic rituals.  But our rituals lack the flair of Ancient Egypt.

The Egyptians had elaborate beliefs about death and the afterlife. They believed that humans possessed a life-force (ka), which left the body during death. In life, the ka received its sustenance from food and drink, so it was believed that, to endure after death, the ka must continue to receive offerings of food, whose spiritual essence it could still consume. Each person also had a ba, the set of spiritual characteristics unique to each individual. Unlike the ka, the ba remained attached to the body after death. Egyptian funeral rituals were intended to release the ba from the body so that it could move freely, and to rejoin it with the ka so that it could live on as an akh.

However, it was also important that the body of the deceased be preserved, as the Egyptians believed that the ba returned to its body each night to receive new life, before emerging in the morning as an akh. The nobles would have a chance to become one with the gods, whereas dead commoners passed into a dark, bleak realm that represented the opposite of life. The nobles received tombs and the resources for their upkeep as gifts from the king, and their ability to enter the afterlife was believed to be dependent on these royal favours. In early times the deceased pharaoh was believed to ascend to the sky and dwell among the stars. Over the course of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC), however, he came to be more closely associated with the daily rebirth of the sun god Ra and with the underworld ruler Osiris as those deities grew more important.

In the fully developed afterlife beliefs of the New Kingdom, the soul had to avoid a variety of supernatural dangers in the Duat, before undergoing a final judgement known as the “Weighing of the Heart”. In this judgement, the gods compared the actions of the deceased while alive (symbolized by the heart) to Ma’at, to determine whether he or she had behaved in accordance with Ma’at.

In The Egyptian Book of the Dead it is recorded that the soul would be led before the god Osiris and recite the forty-two negative confessions beginning with the prayer, “I have not learnt the things which are not” meaning that the soul strove in life to devote itself to matters of lasting importance rather than the trivial matters of everyday life. The forty-two negative declarations which followed the opening prayer went to assure Osiris of the soul’s purity and ended with the statement, “I am pure” repeated a number of times.

It was not the soul’s claim to purity which would win over Osiris, however, but, instead, the weight of the soul’s heart. The ‘heart’ of the soul was handed over to Osiris who placed it on a great golden scale balanced against the white feather of Ma’at, the feather of truth, of harmony, resting on the other side. If the soul’s heart was lighter than the feather then the soul was freely admitted into the bliss of the Field of Reed and his or her ka and ba were united into an akh.

Several beliefs coexisted about the akh’s destination. Often the dead were said to dwell in the realm of Osiris, a lush and pleasant land in the underworld. The solar vision of the afterlife, in which the deceased soul travelled with Ra on his daily journey, was still primarily associated with royalty, but could extend to other people as well. Over the course of the Middle and New Kingdoms, the notion that the akh could also travel in the world of the living, and to some degree magically affect events there, became increasingly prevalent.

Should the heart prove heavier, however, it was thrown to the floor of the Hall of Truth where it was devoured by Amenti (a god with the face of a crocodile, front of a leopard and the back of a rhinoceros) and the individual soul then ceased to exist. Reminiscent of a court tribunal today, Egyptians had an acute sense of right and wrong. But the afterlife not only sought justice and the truth; it was also characterized by mummification, sacrifices and celebrations of the ascension into death, which will be discussed in part 2 of this article. See you next week!