Like in many traditions around the world, the ancient Egyptians saw mortal life as a temporary existence. It was what came after that was really worth living for. In Egypt, the gods and deities give the gift of life. One was the make the most of their limited time on earth, and the afterlife would be an eternal paradise.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Egyptian Views on Death and Dying
- What Did Egyptians Believe About the Afterlife?
- Ancient Egyptian Burial Rituals
In the afterlife, ancient Egyptians believed in a place that was a reflection of one’s life on earth. To live a better life on earth would mean having a more joyous afterlife, and this played into many of the Egyptian burial traditions.
In modern times, many people look at the ancient Egyptians and think of them as being obsessed with death. This is likely due to the sensualization of Egyptian culture in popular culture, like through films and TV shows.
In reality, the Egyptians were more focused on the importance of life than they’re given credit for nowadays. Their gods and deities were very concerned with the welfare of humans during their mortal journey, and living life to the fullest was a big part of society.
Observing death in different cultures throughout history reveals more about ourselves than others. In this guide, we’ll travel back to ancient Egypt to see what these people believed about life after death.
Egyptian Views on Death and Dying
As mentioned before, Egyptians didn’t have much fear surrounding death. Because death meant continuing on to the afterlife, which was very similar to the life they knew—this wasn’t a reason to be sad. Daily life in ancient Egypt focused on living to the fullest, whether that meant joining festivals, gaining wealth, or appreciating moments with friends and family.
In ancient Egypt, death was a transition. While we think of death as “the end” of things today, it was just another opportunity for happiness to Egyptians.
Researchers know so much about the Egyptians views of the afterlife because it was so prolifically written about and depicted in art. The Egyptians had many books explaining the rites associated with death like The Book of the Dead and the Coffin Texts, all of which were found painted on tomb walls.
This ancient society also buried their dead to prepare for the afterlife. We’ve all seen artifacts from tombs of famous pharaohs like Tutankamun. People were entombed with their most cherished belongings. For the wealthy and revered, they were even buried with pets and servants. All of these things would be of use to them in the afterlife.
What Did Egyptians Believe About the Afterlife?
The transition to the afterlife was not a quick one. Like in other belief systems, there was a judgment process by which the soul’s sins were weighed. From there, the soul proceeded to the afterlife.
However, it’s important to avoid applying one’s own beliefs about the afterlife and what comes after to ancient belief systems. Though there are some similarities, it’s hard to view this understanding through a Christian or Western lens.
Hall of Truths
The first stop for departed souls is to the Hall of Truths. This is where they wait in line for judgment from Osiris, the god of the afterlife. In front of Osiris and the Forty-Two Judges, the soul makes what’s known as their Negative Confessions. This is a list of 42 sins one can commit against one’s self, the gods, or others.
These confessions are a way to judge one’s moral virtue. They’re to recite the confessions, saying things like “I have not made anyone angry,” and so on.
From there, the judges discuss the confession and present the heart to Osiris. It’s weighed on a scale against the feather of truth. If the heart is lighter than the feature, the soul goes to the afterlife.
What happens if the heart isn’t lighter than a feather? For those who are found to live immoral lives, there is no “hell” or eternal suffering. Instead, the heart is tossed to the floor and eaten by a creature that devourers the dead. What comes next is simply nonexistence.
The Field of Reeds
For those who passed through the weighing of their heart, they go to the Egyptian afterlife known as the Field of Reeds. On the way, they reach Lily Lake. This might either be an easy walk that resembled one from their home, or it could also have numerous perils and dangers.
At last, the soul meets a ferryman who brings souls across the lake to the Field of Reeds. The Field of Reeds was a joyous place filled with many of the pleasures of home. Deceased ancestors, beloved pets, and one’s home are all waiting.
This is where the ancient Egyptians were believed to spend the rest of eternity. In other words, the Egyptian afterlife was an idealized, perfect version of life on earth.
Ancient Egyptian Burial Rituals
One of the most well-known and fascinating aspects of the Egyptian belief system about the afterlife is its focus on burial rituals. All of these practices ensure loved ones rest peacefully in their afterlife, and that they have all the earthly belongings they need to succeed.
Mourning and grief
By modern standards, Egyptian burial rites were very elaborate. After a death in the family, women plastered their heads and faces with mud and went into public and beat their chests as a sign of distress. Mourning was considered a women’s job in this society.
To have distressed mourners at one’s funeral was a sign of a life well-lived. It also showed the individual’s social status during their lifetime. As such, wealthy families hired professional mourners to mourn publicly after the death of a loved one. There are stories of pharaohs hiring slaves to parade through the streets in their mourning after an important death.
Bodies were also mummified to preserve the body of the deceased. Because the soul needed the preserved body to ensure eternal life, families took great care to mummify the body correctly.
The Ka was an individual’s double form, and this is what moved on after death to the afterlife. In order for the Ka to stay preserved, the physical form needed to be intact. Professional embalmers were tasked with this intense process.
For the families who could afford the most expensive embalming process, all important organs were removed and the body was preserved.
However, while this was a costly process, even the poorest Egyptians give a ceremony to their deceased. Not burying the body properly, whether in a tomb or in the ground, would lead the soul to return to haunt the living as a ghost. Because of this, poor families got crafty to mummify the bodies of their loved ones and keep the souls happy after death.
Bodies were placed in coffins (sarcophagus) that symbolized the person’s life. Whether it was painted with a depiction of the deceased or covered in written hieroglyphics, this was a way to honor the soul.
Once the tomb is sealed or the coffin is buried, mourners celebrate the life of the departed. The soul was believed to be in its next phase of life, and this was something that brought families peace.
Frequently Asked Questions: Egyptian Afterlife
Exploring the afterlife beliefs of different cultures is one of the best ways to see through the lens of history. Because these ideas can be foreign and difficult to understand, it’s normal to have questions. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the Egyptian afterlife.
What’s the name of the Egyptian afterlife?
Every culture has a specific name for death and the afterlife. In the Christian faith, for example, this is known as Heaven. For Muslims, this is Paradise. What is the name of the Egyptian afterlife, and does it relate to these other traditions?
The realm of death was known as the Field of Reeds, also referred to as the Field of Offerings. In Egyptian, this was called “A’aru.” Though the name might sound complicated, the Field of Reeds was seen as a mirror image of one’s life on Earth.
How did ancient Egyptians prepare for the afterlife?
With that in mind, how did ancient Egyptians prepare for the world after death? With popular images of mummies and grand tombs, many believe the ancient Egyptian people were obsessed with death. In reality, Egyptians believed death to be a continuation of their spiritual life. While the dead had to face a final judgment, the worthy would find the Field of Reeds, a place for eternal life and rest.
Ancient Egyptians believed that people could take their belongings with them when they passed, which is why it was common to place funerary items in the tombs of the dead. The storing of funerary items ensured the deceased had what they needed in the afterlife. Some of these funerary items include amulets, funerary texts, and even food. The wealthy would spend time choosing their coffins and would purchase funeral items before they passed.
Where can you find art about the Egyptian afterlife?
There’s a lot of art about the Egyptian afterlife that you can discover online or in person. While you might be able to visit a well-known museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, many resources are also available online.
For starters, Google’s Arts & Culture website displays art focused on the Egyptian afterlife. Similarly, the British Museum showcases artifacts related to Egyptian life and death on its website, complete with curated descriptions and text.
What did Egyptian pharaohs take to the afterlife?
Popularized by films such as The Mummy, Egyptian pharaohs had the most extravagant entrances to the afterlife. There are several things you might find in a pharaoh’s tomb, and these were things that brought safe passage, comfort, and spirituality in the afterlife. Things they took included:
- Painting/art: The walls of the most majestic tombs were usually covered with paintings and artwork. These paintings depicted the pharaohs in the afterlife, and they told the story of life after death.
- Food: As Egyptians considered the journey to the afterlife to be very long, many of the deceased were buried with food, water, and wine. Pharaohs, in particular, had jugs of vintage wine, fine food, and more to keep them sated.
- Clothing and fine jewelry: Appearances don’t end in the afterlife. Pharaohs were buried with fine clothes and jewelry so that they could travel in style to the afterlife.
- Weapons: Also found in tombs were weapons meant to protect pharaohs on their journey to the afterlife. Some of these weapons include shields, chariots, and swords.
- Games: Believe it or not, pharaohs were also entombed with games because they were believed to need entertainment on their trip to the next realm.
Each pharaoh had things in their tomb that reflected their own wishes, experiences, and values. Because these were things that would accompany the pharaoh on the long journey to the Field of Reeds, they were equipped with every possible comfort.
Ancient Egypt’s Afterlife: A Continuation of Life
Unlike other belief systems, the people in ancient Egypt saw death as a continuation of life. This was one of the most comforting of ancient ideas of death. When one passed on, they weren’t greeted by a fork in the road between damnation and salvation. Instead, they rest eternally in a land of comfort and peace amongst friends and family.
While it might seem anti-climactic compared to other belief systems, the ancient Egyptians believed the soul deserved to be reunited with everything it lost throughout life, from beloved pets to old friends. This forms its own paradise, without the glitz and glamour of an unseen paradise. The Field of Reeds brought meaning not only for death, but also life in ancient Egypt.
- “Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt.” University of Missouri: Museum of Art and Archaeology. Missouri.edu.
- Greenberg, Isabel and Imogen. “Top 10 Things You Might Find in a Pharaoh’s Tomb.” The Guardian. TheGuardian.com.
- “Life After Death.” Canadian Museum of History: Egyptian Civilization. HistoryMuseum.ca.
- Mark, Joshua J. “Egyptian Afterlife - The Field of Reeds.” World History. WorldHistory.org.
- Mark, Joshua J. “Egyptian Burial.” Ancient Encyclopedia. 19 January 2013. Ancient.eu.