Coming face-to-face with your own mortality can be hard to handle. I know this myself; just recently, I sat down with a life insurance salesperson and talked numbers. The whole experience was terrifying and not just because I was being forced to put a price on what the hell my life should pay out for should something happen to me. But it was also terrifying because I had to answer questions like, “what will your family do if something unexpected happens to you?” It really puts into perspective that quote by Benjamin Franklin: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
A need to bury the dead goes back pretty far in history. Scientists have reported that Homo neanderthalensis practiced burial culture. Undisputed burial customs for Homo sapiens go back at least 100,000 years. The experts seem to say that the fact that the ancient bipeds of our past buried their dead means that they had a concern for the dead, which is partially why grave goods were a thing, too. I don’t know about all of that, but I can kind of understand, especially in connection with my own recent reminder about my own mortality, why people would feel a need to provide creature comforts to the dead.
When I was an atheist, I was pretty sure the whole point in religion was so that people had something firm to believe in for that moment when they absolutely had to come to grips with the fact that, at the end of it all, they were going to die. That moment of facing your own mortality can really sneak up on you and punch you in the face with a tin can, in case you weren’t aware. So, I understood it all from that perspective. People needed something bigger to focus on in the hopes that there was something that happened after The Moment, not just for themselves but for all the people who had gone on before them. I got it, but back then, it just wasn’t for me.
It’s almost ironic now that the religion I’ve turned to and practice has a firm, strong basis in afterlife mythos and beliefs. It’s almost like I needed to go the complete polar opposite of how it was when I was an atheist. From the unsettling desire to want more as an atheist – thus the disturbing tenacious need to cling to something like reincarnation – to the full-blooded beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. I guess, one might say, I don’t really do anything half-assed.
The ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for over three thousand years. In that time, the beliefs in the afterlife changed and morphed. What we’re often taught in school is a bastardization of the rich beliefs. Teachers can’t even begin to touch the whole of it – three thousand years of belief on a specific subject in a single class? Hell, people go to college for the stuff and they can’t possibly learn the whole of it. I’m going to try and be as succinct as possible here, but I’ll admit that I have a thing for rambling about stuff and tangents may happen.
The ancient Egyptian beliefs in the afterlife get their start pretty early. Most Egyptologists will tell you that it stems from some high roller accidentally finding a body that naturally mummified in the dry climate of the desert after a burial. Maybe – I mean, who really knows? Jackals, specifically, are known to have scavenged around the necropoles that arose out of a need to bury the dead. Experts will tell you that this is why Anup has a jackal head. Maybe – again, who actually knows?
The point being that the reason why the ancient Egyptians went with what they did for their afterlife beliefs is never going to be known. We’ll have suppositions and theories, of course, because that’s kind of what we do. But we’ll never officially know what it was that made them go, “yeah, man. Let’s mummify this guy in some salt and then have a big jackal-faced guy stand guard while we do that!” For all we know, they got the idea because someone had a dream once and it just kind of stuck.
The earliest burials were conducted with who knows how much ceremony – they have one thing in common though, the people were buried with a single pot. We don’t know what the pot was for although popular theories tend to hold that this was a holding vase for food. During later Pre-Dynastic times, the people continued to be buried with a single vase or pot, but the burials grew. Bodies were arranged to face either east or west and in either a crouched or fetal position. The grave goods grew more elaborate with painted imagery on the pots and personal items, such as weapons for men and cosmetic palettes for women, joined the originally very limited burial customs.
The difference between the poor and the rich began to gain momentum even so far back as then. It wasn’t until the Early Dynastic period, though, when people began to have brick-lined tombs. Of course, these tombs lasted until modern Egyptologists could excavate them while those of the poor are lost to us. We have a million different little clues – many of which make no sense to us now – about how the rich and royals were buried. Chances are the beliefs held across the board and a desire to be taken care of after death was just as important as it was for those who could afford a better tomb.
The ancient Egyptian beliefs in the afterlife during the Old Kingdom culminated in the Pyramid Texts and the royal necropoles that litter the landscape: Saqqara, Abusir, Dahshur and Giza being the most well-known. The zenith in all of this belief was the protection and resurrection of the pharaoh to ascend into the heavens. The Duat, as we’ve come to know it, wasn’t fully developed by this point. It was the transcendence from human to star that the pharaoh was aiming for. I often wonder if the lay people wanted to become a star, too, but because of the whole poor be poor and rich be rich thing the ancient Egyptians had going on, they were barred from the practice.
The belief in the afterlife morphed throughout the First Intermediate period. I suspect that the fragmentation of the country and the different factions that arose are the reason why the more common people were allowed access to an afterlife. Since it had become clear with the collapse of the Old Kingdom, anyone who was powerful enough and edgy enough could make a name for themselves. The world of the ancient Egyptians had been built upon the principle that the pharaoh was a god on earth. But the people had to admit that it was possible to fell a good and the politico-religious world that they had crafted.
The Coffin Texts began to show up around the First Intermediate Period. They began as an offshoot of the Pyramid Texts. The difference being that everyday wants and desires were added to the lists, which seems to reflect the commoners were using them as well. The afterlife was no longer a royal monopoly, but open to anyone who had enough wealth to secure a good artist and a coffin.
It is during the Middle Kingdom that the Book of Two Ways gets its beginnings. This book starts to give the geographical details regarding the Duat. This original book insinuated that the Duat was made up of seven gates (which would later be changed to twelve during the New Kingdom) with each gate being guarded by a serpent and two deities. To name each correctly was to allow the deceased passage through to the next gate. The “two ways” seems to indicate that there were two ways to pass through the Duat on the deceased’s way to Rosetjau and the home of Wesir: one by land and one by sea.
This theme is fully explored throughout the New Kingdom. It is from the New Kingdom that we are mostly taught about the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians’ afterlife. This is where you hear about the Book of the Dead, the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and the Amduat. As long as the person had enough money to pass on to a scribe, they would be guaranteed the correct spells and incantations to pass through the Duat. Only now, instead of just leading towards the abode of Wesir, we have the Field of Offerings, the Field of Reeds, and of course, the ever present judgment chamber where the heart is weighed against the feather of truth.
But all of this is about the soul, to be honest. It was the soul that was important here. The body was going to end up being taken care of by priests with offerings in abundance and temples, or it wasn’t. The body was going to end up, inevitably, forgotten in the sands of time. The body part was pretty fucking important but it wasn’t necessary so long as the memory withstood and there were adequate representations of the deceased for them to inhabit. How they buried the dead tells a lot about them, but it’s the fracturing of the soul after death that is the most important.
The soul fragmented itself after death into eight parts: the body (khat), the mummy (sah), the heart (ib), the name (ren), the ka (ka), the ba (ba), the shadow (shut), and the akh (akh/akhu). Each part was fundamental to the greater good of the resurrection: the body, or a close approximation, was needed in order to perform the magical rites of mummification. It was these two fundamentals that were the first steps which led the deceased on the roller coaster that would lead them through the Duat and into their resurrection.
The ib was the essence of the life of the deceased. It was considered to be the power house for the mind and the seat of one’s emotions. The ib was necessary so that the records of all of the good deeds and bad deeds that the deceased had committed could be written in the Hall of Records and the gods could weigh it against the feather of Ma’at.
The ren was the part that needed to be spoken in order to keep the memory alive. To write one’s name in stone was to give it permanence, which is why the ancient Egyptians would hack out names for those that were deemed in need of punishment.
The ka was the part that seems to have been most like the soul as we know it today. It came into being at the birth of a person and it was the ka that required nourishment. The ka according to the ancient Egyptians was immortal. This is the part of the person that I tend to associate with my belief in reincarnation, but that’s UPG of course.
We don’t know what the point in the shut was, honestly. It could partake of nourishment. It was also needed to pass through the Duat and there were dangers specific only to the shadow.
The ba is most often associated with the personality of the deceased. The ba returned to the body every evening in order to continue the deceased’s existence in the afterlife. The ba required nourishment in the forms of food, drink, and sexual energy.
The akh is the part of the person that transcended and became one with the sky. The akh is not as tied to the rest of the sum total of a human being. It tended to leave the rest behind and quest for immortality by becoming a star.
All of the literature we read about how the ancient Egyptians buried their dead is only part of the whole. The tombs, the books, the texts – it’s all about where the soul was going to go and how it needed to get there. I think that we forget that the whole of it isn’t simply about how expensively and how lavishly they could bury their dead, but that the things left behind were needed in order to ensure the total composite parts of the soul were taken care of.
Personally, I think that’s kind of bad ass. They spent all this money and left a million different types of grave goods, but it wasn’t really about the here and now. It was about whether or not they were remembered and whether or not they would get to live some more in the afterlife. I think, as a modern American, I can understand that. Don’t we have enough of our own monuments all for the very same purpose? We only do it on a smaller scale.
As I mentioned above, I believe in reincarnation. I won’t bore people with the details, but honestly, how the ancient Egyptians believe things happened and how I believe things happen don’t actually work against each other. I believe that it’s the ka that is reincarnated in life after life. I’m not alone; I’m not the only Kemetic out there with this belief. We all have our own reasons for it, but it works for us. Just because the ancient Egyptian culture had a rich belief system when it came to life after death… it doesn’t really mean it’s going to negate what we, ourselves, believe. Sometimes, it just adds to it.
Personally, I don’t really think that Duat functions the way it used to. From my excursions over there (UPG, of course), it seems more like a store house or a stopping place. The belief in the place stopped thousands of years ago and I strongly suspect that’s wreaked some havoc. I don’t know if the gates are still all there, although from what I’ve found, there are certain places that do still exist. I know from other spirit workers that they’ve gone to specific places over there, as well. But to be perfectly frank, I don’t think the Duat is set up the way it once was. It’s possibly the landscape has changed, yet again, due to the disbelief or the falling out of belief. But it’s also possible that the energy the netjeru needed to maintain the landscape dissipated when they fell out of favor.
And we can’t really discount others’ beliefs. Many Kemetics who have attempted to honor their ancestors based on the ancient Egyptian belief system of akhu veneration have met with fierce resistance. I, myself, am one of those people. So, perhaps it isn’t simply that the Duat doesn’t function that way anymore but that the soul transfiguration output machine has closed up shop since the last believer has long since died. Maybe with our belief we’re rekindling it a little bit at a time, but mostly, I think, it’s just a place the netjeru go to escape the ravages of time, space, and humanity.
Maybe that’s why reincarnation among many Kemetics seems to be a thing. Or perhaps the ancients got it partially wrong in the first place. As I said above, we’ll never really know the truth. We can only move forward with our own beliefs and hopes and dreams and fear of our own impending mortality. All the more power to those of us who, at least, don’t go towards it with an ever-pressing fear but more with the eye of yet a new adventure eternally on the horizon.