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The Egyptian view of death during the dynastic period involved elaborate mortuary rituals, including the careful preservation of bodies through mummification as well as immensely rich royal burials such as that of Seti I and Tutankhamun, and construction of the pyramids, the largest and most long-lived monumental architecture known in the world.
The Egyptian religion is described in the vast body of mortuary literature found and deciphered after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The primary texts are the Pyramid Texts - murals painted and carved onto walls of the pyramids dated to the Old Kingdom Dynasties 4 and 5; the Coffin Texts - decorations painted on elite individual coffins after the Old Kingdom, and the Book of the Dead.
The Basics of the Egyptian Religion
All of that was part and parcel of the Egyptian religion, a polytheistic system, which included a number of different gods and goddesses, each of whom was responsible for a specific aspect of life and the world. For example, Shu was the god of the air, Hathor the goddess of sexuality and love, Geb the god of the earth, and Nut the goddess of the sky.
However, unlike the classic Greek and Roman mythologies, the Egyptians' gods didn't have much of a backstory. There was no specific dogma or doctrine, nor was there a set of required beliefs. There was no standard of orthodoxy. In fact, the Egyptian religion may have lasted for 2,700 years because local cultures could adapt and create new traditions, all of which were considered valid and correct - even if they had internal contradictions.
A Hazy View of the Afterlife
There may have been no highly developed and intricate narratives about the actions and deeds of the gods, but there was a firm belief in a realm that existed beyond the visible one. Humans could not comprehend this other world intellectually but they could experience it through mythic and cultic practices and rituals.
In the Egyptian religion, the world and the universe were part of a strict and unchanging order of stability called Ma'at. This was both an abstract idea, a concept of universal stability, and the goddess who represented that order. Ma'at came into existence at the time of creation, and she continued to be the principle for the stability of the universe. The universe, the world, and the political state all had their appointed place in the world based on a principle system of order.
Ma'at and a Sense of Order
Ma'at was in evidence with the daily return of the Sun, the regular rise and fall of the Nile River, the annual return of the seasons. While Ma'at was in control, the positive powers of light and life would always overcome the negative forces of darkness and death: nature and the universe were on the side of humanity. And humanity was represented by the ones who had died, especially the rulers who were incarnations of the god Horus. Ma'at was not threatened, as long as man was no longer threatened by eternal annihilation.
During his or her life, the pharaoh was the earthly embodiment of Ma'at and the effective agent through which Ma'at was realized; as the incarnation of Horus, the pharaoh was the direct heir of Osiris. His role was to make sure the obvious order of Ma'at was maintained and to take positive action to restore that order if it was lost. It was crucial for the nation that the pharaoh successfully made it to the afterlife, to maintain Ma'at.
Securing a Place in the Afterlife
At the heart of the Egyptian view of death was the Osiris myth. At sunset every day, the Sun god Ra traveled along a heavenly barge illuminating the deep caverns of the underworld to meet and battle Apophis, the great serpent of darkness and oblivion, and succeed to rise again the next day.
When an Egyptian died, not just the pharaoh, they had to follow the same path as the Sun. At the end of that journey, Osiris sat in judgment. If the human had led a righteous life, Ra would guide their souls to immortality, and once united with Osiris, the soul could be reborn. When a pharaoh died, the journey became crucial to the whole nation - as Horus/Osiris and the pharaoh could continue to keep the world in balance.
Although there wasn't a specific moral code, Ma'at's divine principles said that to live a righteous life meant a citizen kept moral order. A person was always part of Ma'at and if he or she disordered Ma'at, he or she would find no place in the afterworld. To live a good life, a person would not steal, lie, or cheat; not defraud widows, orphans, or the poor; and not harm others or offend the gods. The upright individual would be kind and generous to others, and benefit and help those around him or her.
Building a Pyramid
Since it was important to see that a pharaoh made it to the afterlife, the internal structures of the pyramids and the royal burials in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens were built with intricate passageways, multiple corridors, and servants' tombs. The shape and number of the internal chambers varied and features such as pointed roofs and starry ceilings were in a constant state of reformulation.
The earliest pyramids had an internal pathway to the tombs that ran north/south, but by the construction of the Step Pyramid, all corridors began on the west side and led toward the east, marking the journey of the Sun. Some of the corridors led up and down and up again; some took a 90-degree bend in the middle, but by the sixth dynasty, all entrances started at ground level and headed eastward.
- Billing, Nils. “Monumentalizing the Beyond. Reading the Pyramid before and after the Pyramid Texts.” Studien Zur Altägyptischen Kultur, vol. 40, 2011, pp. 53-66.
- Kemp, Barry, et al. “Life, Death and beyond in Akhenaten's Egypt: Excavating the South Tombs Cemetery at Amarna.” Antiquity, vol. 87, no. 335, 2013, pp. 64-78.
- Mojsov, Bojana. “The Ancient Egyptian Underworld in the Tomb of Sety I: Sacred Books of Eternal Life.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 42, no. 4, 2001, pp. 489-506.
- Tobin, Vincent Arieh. “Mytho-Theology in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, vol. 25, 1988, pp. 169-183.