Ancient Egypt is a fascinating subject. Equally fascinating was the belief that Ancient Egyptians had for the afterlife. You only have to look at how a person was ‘prepared’ after they died to realise they had a tremendous respect for the soul and most definitely believed in some sort of afterlife.
Ancient Egyptians believed that their spiritual body would exist in the afterlife long after their body died. They believed however that entry into this afterlife was not guaranteed. They would have to go on a long journey to face final judgement to gain access, and this of course was not guaranteed once you got there. If they did make it past judgement, they needed to provide sustenance for all eternity for their spirit to survive. In order to do this, certain preparations were made.
Funerary items such as jewellery, furniture and expensive coffins were placed in the tomb of the deceased. Food and clothing was provided for their journey. Then they are given ‘The Book of the Dead.’
The Ancient Egyptians considered the afterlife to be a continuation of life on earth. Just because the physical body has died, they believed the soul lived on. A belief that many cultures still hold true today. Once someone had passed away, the soul was to go through various tests where they would eventually end up in the ‘Hall of Truth’ where they would face their final judgement. The Hall of Truth was a paradise which was a reflection of the person’s life on earth. Probably it is in a lot of ways what people imagine heaven to be. If they passed their judgements, the soul would then cross over Lily Lake to then rest in the Field of Reeds where they would find everything they lost in life and would enjoy eternal bliss. To get to this final resting place however was a challenge and was not ‘common knowledge’. They needed with them ‘The book of the dead’.
The Book of The Dead contains spells with illustrations with a special purpose. It was almost a survival guide for the deceased to navigate their way through the afterlife. (Extra points for you if you are instantly thinking of the ‘Handbook for the recently deceased from Beetlejuice).
The book told the soul where they needed to go to get to the final resting place. They would encounter certain gods along the way and they needed to know the special passwords and what things were acceptable during this journey. It was a map so to speak to get to the final destination. They were able to transform into different mythical creatures and teach them what was expected at each stage. Originally the book of the dead was only available to royalty and the elite. We are talking in years a couple of thousand BC so they couldn’t exactly run to the local bookstore.
The first texts were called Pyramid texts. They were written on the walls of the tombs using hieroglyphs that represented humans or animals. These then transitioned into ‘Coffin texts’ where the spells and illustrations were carved in the inner surface of the coffin. They then were written on a papyrus scroll with illustrations. It was revised and updated throughout the many centuries however it always had the same intention.
The most famous reference to the Book of the Dead which may not even realise is the part when the soul would be judged in the ‘Weighting of the Heart’ ritual. The deceased would be led by the god Anubis in the presence of Osiris. They were given a list of 42 sins where the deceased had to swear they had not committed any. They were read from a text called the ‘Negative Confession’. Their heart was then weight on a scale against the goddess Maat who represented truth and justice. She was represented by a feather. Perhaps this is where the phrase 'heavy heart' came from? If the scaled balanced and it was not heavier than a feather, it meant the deceased had led a good life. If it was not balanced, a beast called Ammit the gobbler would end the soul’s journey in the afterlife where it would be left in some soft of purgatory. Spells in later editions of the book of the dead provided protection against this where they could recite a spell to stop their heart from speaking out against them “O my heart which I had from my mother! O my heart of different ages! Do not stand up as a witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the keeper of the balance, for you are my ka which was in my body, the protector who made my members hale. Go forth to the happy place whereto we speed, do not tell lies about me in the presence of the god; it is indeed well that you should hear!”
Other cultures also have a form of the book of the dead which while not the same and has different content, really has the same kind of intention which is to help the soul during it’s journey in the afterlife. I find it quite intriguing when you look at what our ancestors through of the afterlife compared to what we do now. People blindly followed faith and did not question anything like we do today. It makes you wonder, did it make things simpler just accepting things as they were to be?
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