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Ancient Egyptian Burial Practices: Significance, Origin, and Customs in 2021

Ancient Egyptian Burial Practices

One of the inevitable facts of life is the ultimate climax of death itself. Humans tend to view death contrastingly depending on their customs and beliefs. Every religion and significant culture has a distinct representation and meaning to death. In some places, the prolonging question of what comes after death is also assumed and conferred in texts that nurture belief. One such culture that is so rich in having created a unique representation of the afterlife is the Ancient Egyptians burials, who flourished along the river Nile as a disciplined civilization. To trace back and understand Ancient Egyptian burial practice, Egyptian death rituals and beliefs practised nearly three to four thousand years ago, they manifest their ability to keep their theoretical and practical testaments intact and preserved.

Understanding the depth of a definite religion or culture always begins with understanding its mythical creatures and references.

The story of Orisis, Isis, Nephthys and Seth:

Story of Orisis, Isis, Nephthys and Seth
Story of Orisis, Isis, Nephthys and Seth

It begins with these four siblings borne from the sky and the earth, Geb and Nut. The oldest son Orisis initially becomes the King of Egypt as. This is due to the traditions of Egyptians which are based on hierarchy. These traditions state that the oldest son is first in like for the throne. As most cases of mythology involve siblings having to get married to procreate, Orisis married his sister, Isis. Likewise, the second son Seth and his sister Nephthys get married.

Orisis was the rightful and just king who commanded the respect of everyone on earth and from the Gods. Seth was, however, incredibly dissatisfied with this establishment as he did not have access to anything that his brother did. To claim the right to be king and be respected, he kills Orisis by transforming himself into a spiteful monster. In fear of being caught, he then dismembers Orisis and distributes his body parts across Egypt.

Isis weeps over her lost husband as Seth becomes the king of Egypt. But, Nephthys and Isis together roam around the country in search of Orisis and gather his pieces. Isis uses her magical powers to reassemble him and resurrect him back to life for a brief amount of time enough to conceive a child. Soon after, Isis gave birth to a son called Horus, and Orisis developed the capacity to descend into the underworld as the lord of that domain.

It can be derived that this story of resurrection and having a life after death is the origin of the burial practices that the Egyptians followed. It is said that it is to Orisis that the dead are expected to report and serve in their afterlives.

Kingdom classification:

Ancient Egypt’s timeframe is classified into various periods and kingdoms based on their distinct rulers and customs during the specific period. They are:

· First Intermediate Period (2181 – 1991 BC)

· Middle Kingdom (2134 – 1690 BC )

· Second Intermediate Period and the Hyksos (1674 – 1549 BC)

· New Kingdom (1549 – 1069 BC)

· Third Intermediate Period (1069 – 653 BC)

· Late Period (653 – 332 BC)

· Ptolemaic Period and the (332 – 30 BC)

· Roman period (30 – 641 AD)

Out of these periods, The Old, The Middle and the New Kingdom were more distinct and recognised for their evolution of burial practices over the years. This classification of time periods helps to get an overview of certain norms that had to change according to the situation at that particular time. For example, the decrease in moral values towards the beginning of the New Kingdom had effectively enlarged the thickness of the structures (mastabas and pyramids) that contained the tombs of the dead.

Understanding the reasons behind the act of preservation:

Ancient Egyptian burials believed that life did not end with death and that everyday activities were further carried out in the nether land. To understand the logistics behind this belief, it is essential to understand the categorical divisions that the Egyptians devised the soul into:  

1.   Khat – The body

2.   Ka – a doppelganger

3.   Baa human-avian conduit between heaven and earth

4.   Shuyeta shadow self

5.   Akha transformed immortal self

6.   Sahupart of Akh

7.   Sechempart of Akh

8.   Abthe source of good and evil, the heart

9.   Rena secret name

Out of these nine divisions of the human soul that the Egyptians believe in, the Ka and Ba’s important ones. These two divisions of the soul are responsible for flying off to the land of fields in the afterlife (Ka) and to keep watch over one’s living family (Ba). These two divisions were said to come back to the preserved body each night to get a night’s rest, only to continue these duties the next morning. Therefore the absence of a preserved body could mean that those two divisions of the soul could get lost and render helpless in performing their appointed activities and disappear without a future in the afterlife or looking after its family.

Deriving a passage into the afterlife:

It is said that this division of the soul into nine categories only makes it easier to understand the various duties that it is allotted to perform. One can compare this system with that of the present Christian belief that every soul faces the judgement day upon which a destination is sorted depending on one’s personality. Likewise, the Akh is collected, and then the soul is judged by Orisis, who then proceeds to weigh the Ab (heart), and if one’s heart is light, he/she is allowed to pass through into the land of fields, also known as the Field of Reeds.

This is the place designated for the dead to pass their afterlives in complete peace. It is described as the place where there is no suffering but pleasure, and for a soul to reach here, it is necessary to have carried out proper Egyptian burial rituals. The Field of Reeds are said to tend to every individual’s lives by creating a space where they have their house just as they left it, the capacity to meet the ones they have lost to death earlier and even satisfying the likes of an individual like a favourite pet or favourite tree right around the corner. There were added pleasures of food and beer, spending time with family and friends, and also having the choice to pursue the hobbies they had been enjoying in life. This is a definition of what we know as paradise or heaven.

Burial rituals:

Ancient Egyptian funerals  - Burial rituals
Ancient Egyptian funerals – Burial rituals

When an ancient Egyptian passed away, a list of practices were mandatorily expected to be done irrespective of one’s class and wealth.

1. Burial tombs:

The burial tombs of the ancient Egyptians can be referred to as their ‘houses of eternity’ as it is intended for their bodies to stay in those tombs for time immemorial. These tombs were similar to the caskets that people use nowadays when burying corpses in the ground. The ingredients used to build the tombs can be tricky, and one might indulge in building one tomb for a number of years, primarily if it is intended to be occupied by a royal. The tombs are made of stone, something non-perishable even for the commoners who otherwise lived in straw or mud-brick houses.

Even during the process of building the tomb, certain rituals had to be performed, providing details on where it can be created, how and what materials can be used. Supervisors and instructors were making sure everything was perfect.

Mastabas and Pyramids were the constructive structures that carried these tombs inside. The Pyramids were built for the Kings with a more complex system so that the riches that were placed inside the tombs could be protected from theft. The Mastabas were shallower structures purposely built to contain other nobles.

2. Mummification:

It can be defined as the process of embalming a corpse to prevent it from complete decay. The aim of mummifying the bodies is to transform it into a new body that can have the power to resurrect, just like how Orisis was resurrected. It is probably from this belief that the process of mummification originated.

During this process, the organs inside the dead person’s body were removed surgically. The body was then wrapped around with linen or regular clothing, depending on what the person could afford. The process generally lasted for about seventy days and was delicately performed not to disfigure the body in any way. Once this was completed and the organs were stored separately in jars, the process was then transferred to the priests.

The priests were responsible for wrapping the bodies with the hundreds of yards of linen that might be required, carefully bandaging each and every body part, effectively plastering it with resin. Several variants were used for mummification, like alum, beeswax, honey, ointments, paint, palm wine, etc., other than the standard resin and gum resins used. Protection for the dead from mishaps was boosted with religious amulets wrapped in between the cloth and prayers and religious words. The mummy was then ready to be placed inside the tomb.   

3. Funeral texts:

There were inscriptions of texts and spells carved all across the tomb in the hope of securing goodwill for the dead person. These famous texts were taken from “The Egyptian Book of the Dead” and “The Pyramid Texts”. These spells gave the deceased access to reanimate his/her body into the afterlife and even summon the Gods if necessary. These were generally placed along with their most valuable possessions kept inside their tombs, in a belief that they would use it in the Field of Reeds. The things that were placed in the tombs were essentials like food, clothing, utensils, and even jewellery and riches for the royals. The Field of Reeds was believed to be a similar place, thus inducing the need to carry such items into the afterlife to continue their everyday lives as it was.  

4. Shabti Dolls:

One of the primary and exciting objects that were placed in the tombs are the Shabti dolls. These dolls were essentially the workforce in their afterlife. As it is believed that the dead are to fulfil the commands of Orisis and do regular work that they had been doing on earth, these dolls serve as a loophole to avoid work and rest in the Field of Reeds. Almost every tomb would carry a Shabti doll that was specifically curated to satisfy one particular job.

Egyptians being one of the highly industrious groups of people, they expected to fulfil their duties in the afterlife. As much as the afterlife was seen as a paradise filled with pleasures and relaxation, there was an effortless understanding that the concept of work would still be present.

The Shabtis, also known as the ‘Answerers’, were carved male or female figurines made out of stone or wood. They represented a worker or a slave who was anonymously assigned to one dead person who can now use the Shabti to fulfil his duties while he/she rests even as Orisis calls upon for them. Each Shabti was dedicated to a particular spell for the labour it had to perform, inscribed on it.

The Shabti dolls were carved as if they were armed with the necessary tools to carry out their assigned labour. For example, each of those dolls was created with a formula, and if the spell represents fieldwork, the doll would have a farming implement on one of its carved hands. It was believed that the dolls would come to life and act as a replacement for the dead person.

At a particular time frame, Shabti dolls were created excessively by the temple priests. This might have been a route to an unequal system in the afterlife where the richer would possess a few Shabtis, whereas the poorer would be fortunate to have at least one. But this is how it had continued, and there were even dead people buried with three hundred and sixty-five Shabti dolls, a different doll every day for a year.

But at the end of the day, it could also serve as a motivation to strive to work harder in life to gain more Shabtis. Because the more, the merrier the life in the Field of Reeds could be. It was also inevitable that almost every tomb that was grounded according to the ancient Egyptian’s burial practice had at least one Shabti doll.

5. Opening of the Mouth Ceremony:

This was a very important ritual that involved the priests of the temple having to tap an instrument over the mouth of the mummified corpse in order to achieve a passage that gives access to the dead person to possess capacities of everyday life in the other realm, like eating and talking. Statues were built for a particular individual to act as a surrogate if and when the preserved bodies get damaged or destroyed or when individual bodies were not maintained or mummified in the first place. These statues were generally placed in a closed chamber and had to undergo the ritual of ‘Opening the Mouth’. The ceremony was performed by priests covered in leopard skin touching the mouth of the mummy and the statue with their hands as a symbol of awakening their senses. This was also done with the involvement of many tools like an incense burner, amulets, a blade, etc.   

Importance of Mourning:

Ancient Egyptian funerals 
 - Importance of Mourning
Ancient Egyptian funerals – Importance of Mourning

Ancient Egyptian funerals demanded a dramatic aspect when it came to mourning the dead. They truly believed that the lamentations of the living over the dead could be heard at the Hall of Truth, where the dead are judged for the life that has been led and the lightness of his/her heart. This system of measuring the heart’s weight was a highly logical aspect because the lesser the crimes, the lighter the feeling. While this vital judgement was being led, it is hopeful to believe that the cries of the living could positively affect the decision.

One would think that the elites could be incapable of publicly expressing distress in wails and cries, but the elites created the most distress in every funeral. Women of privileged backgrounds would beat on their chests and smear their faces with mud and ash and grieve superficially.

Lamentation and mourning were given so much importance that professional mourners were employed to perform “The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys”, a text in ancient texts that portrayed the sisters echoing to bring the soul of Orisis back to the living world. These professional mourners called themselves “Kites of Nephthys”.

Conclusion:

The burial rituals of the ancient Egyptians can be denoted as one of the richest and the most complex burying rituals there has ever been. There is an underlying beauty and comfort in knowing that there could be an afterlife after an inevitable death to every species in this world. Egyptian rituals pave an exciting and convincing pathway towards eternal peace and harmony.