Ancient History & Civilisation


Morality, Life, Death and the Afterlife

Now, with some backstory, it is possible to better explain the concepts of the daily lives of the Egyptians. With Osiris now king of the underworld and his son, Horus, ruler of both lower and Upper Egypt, the stage is set for the more fundamental beliefs of the Egyptians.

First and foremost is that of Ma’at. Ma’at, as has been explained above, was the concept of order, truth, justice, honor and righteousness to the Egyptians. In order to fulfill one’s requirements during their lives, one must live by the principles of ma’at. This meant balance, this meant fairness to one another, but always in fealty to the pharaoh, who was considered to be a god among men.

Ma’at was not only a concept to the Egyptians though, she was also a goddess who played an important role in the journey from this life to the next. Once the dead reached the Hall of Two Truths in the Duat, their heart would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at. If the heart weighed less than or equal to the feather, the person would continue onward and enjoy a pleasant afterlife; if, however, the heart outweighed that of the feather, it meant that the person did not lead a just life, and their heart was then fed to the goddess Ammit, and the person would then be forced to wander the Duat (the underworld) for eternity.

The above requires some explanation. The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul (or the ba) resided in the heart, and thus it was not merely the physical organ of pumping blood which was weighed, it was the person’s very soul. When people died and were embalmed, all of their organs were removed except the heart, thus allowing them to opportunity to at least receive their judgment.

The Egyptians weren’t known for leaving things to chance, however, and in burial tombs it is more than common to find a number of spells, carvings and/or incantations to offset the sins which they may had committed in their lives. This shows us two things: one, that the ancient Egyptians weren’t above trying to bend the rules to get into the afterlife; and two, that they did not conceive of a perfect life as being possible, or at least very plausible. Everyone made mistakes, but it was possible, they believed, to alter their fates through these incantations.

There were many general principles that made up the conception of living a life of Ma’at, but there were certain types of crimes which could land a person in hot water. For instance, crimes against temples, priests or blasphemies against the gods were considered especially atrocious. Stealing from a temple, from the dead or desecrating holy spaces would fall under this.

Theft and murder were, of course, considered to be egregious offenses against Ma’at and one’s fellow man, but so also were such things as ignoring the truth or being slanderous of a servant toward his or her master. Other crimes which could weigh heavily upon the heart included causing pain or hunger; harming animals for purposes not of self-defense or to satisfy hunger; withholding the rightful possessions of orphans, being aggressive and even eavesdropping or speaking without thinking first could also be weighed against a person. The goal was for a person to be able to say honestly, “I have done no injustice to people, nor have I mistreated any animal. I have done no wrong.” (see Egyptian Book of the Dead, Chapter 125.)

Of course, in a system where losing one’s temper was considered sinful (perhaps not a bad idea, methinks…) it was through the rites and the practices of the priests and the incantations and inscriptions left with the dead that many Egyptians believed they would be able to enjoy an afterlife, whole and in paradise.

As has been stated above, it is a common misconception that Anubis, the jackal-headed god was that of death, or of the afterlife; however, Anubis’s part was in funerary rites, and the passage of souls. (The god of the dead and the afterlife was Osiris.) These rites included those of embalming, mummification, the incantations and various other processes meant to prepare the body and the soul for their journey through death and, hopefully, to the pleasures of the afterlife. It was Anubis who would weigh the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma’at and determine the person’s worthiness.

Ammit, the devourer of the hearts of the unjust, was either considered a goddess or a demon (more popularly, the latter) who had the head of an alligator, the torso of a lion and the hind-quarters of a hippopotamus. If Ammit devoured the heart, the person was said to not only wander between worlds, unable to continue on to be with Osiris, but that theirs would be a restless eternity, spent dwelling with only the memory of the mistakes they had made that had kept them from paradise.

It’s no wonder that the peoples of ancient Egypt often sought the blessings and rituals of priests to ensure their passage through to the afterlife.

When the dead of those who had been successful enough in life to warrant such honors were put through their funerary preparations, a scroll would often be placed into their mouth to allow the deceased individual to regain his or her senses as they passed onward through the many stages on their ways to the Halls where their final judgment would be heard.

First, the deceased would travel upon the barque of the sun, the vessel with which Ra would recreate the world every day. This would be the symbolic and, in the minds of the Egyptians, the practical way that a person would be able to achieve rebirth and thus, eternal life. They would then pass to the land of wish fulfilment, also called the Field of Reeds, where they would be required to pass through seven gates on their way toward the halls of judgment. It was with the help of the spells provided for the deceased that they would then be able to pass along into the presence of Osiris.

It is in the presence of Osiris where Anubis would weigh the heart, and judgment would be made. The person would also be required to justify their life. Depending on the time period, Osiris had different levels of discretion over whether a person would be spared, but regardless, if the heart outweighed the feather of Ma’at, that was that.

Should a person pass the test, they would then be taken into paradise. If not, well, we’ve already covered that…

There are certain texts which relate stories regarding the true worth of a soul to the Egyptians, especially in regard to the impact (or lack thereof) of earthly success on one’s chances to make it into the afterlife. Through the conception of the Egyptians, a person’s material success, while pleasurable upon this plane, could actually be damaging in the next. This is in stark contrast to many cultures, but in complete agreement with the belief systems on which these same cultures are based today.

The worth (or weight) of a person’s heart was measured in the emotions, the will, the intentions and the thoughts of the individual to which it had belonged. However, it is more than likely that the above mentioned dichotomy between what was believed and what was practiced was as schismatic then as it is today.

It’s difficult to say exactly what the Egyptians were like on a day-to-day basis, especially those of the peasantry, the largest portion of the ancient Egyptian population (and, indeed, historically always the largest portion of any known society,) but it can be fairly assumed that the peasants were held to a higher standard. Although it’s quite possible that many simply threw their hands in the air and conceded defeat as they wouldn’t have been able to afford the more elaborate burial practices; it’s also quite possible that many of them also sought to live according to Ma’at even moreso than their wealthier countrymen. Otherwise, how could they ever hope to even make it before Osiris?

Regardless one’s ability to afford elaborate funerary services, one thing is certain: the idea of Ma’at and the pantheon of the Egyptian gods played a vital role in every part of ancient Egyptian society. Even the poorest members of the society had their funerary rites (so long as they weren’t lost to the desert,) but these, of course would often differ in style or grandeur.

For instance, a wealthier individual (not to mention a pharaoh) would often be buried in a tomb with his or her possessions, including food, water, beer… you know, the essentials; but also sometimes with their servants, their spouses and even their pets. They would undergo the full embalming process and be adorned with numerous spells and incantations to grant them swift passage to and through the gates of the afterlife.

A poorer person, however, would much likelier have undergone a smaller ceremony with loved ones doing what they could to preserve their fallen, but often times, even though there were rites, these people would simply be buried in the desert.

As time passes, much is lost, but much is discovered. I’m sure that as people continue to investigate the practices of the Egyptians, we will learn more about their conceptions of morality, life, death and the afterlife of the Egyptians.

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