Ancient History & Civilisation



ANCIENT EGYPT SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN A CIVILIZATION OBSESSED WITH death. From pyramids to mummies, most of the hallmarks of Egyptian culture are connected with funerary customs. Yet, if we look more closely, it was not death itself that lay at the heart of the Egyptians’ preoccupations, but rather the means of overcoming it. Pyramids were designed as resurrection machines for Egyptian kings. Mummies were created to provide permanent homes for the undying spirits of the dead. And if mortuary beliefs and grave goods dominate modern views of ancient Egypt, it is only, perhaps, because cemeteries located on the desert edge have survived rather better than towns and villages on the floodplain. Tombs have provided generations of archaeologists with rich and relatively easy pickings, while the excavation of ancient settlements is difficult, laborious, and decidedly less glamorous. Nonetheless, the importance of afterlife beliefs and customs to the ancient Egyptians cannot be waved away as a mere accident of archaeological preservation. Proper preparation for the next world was deemed an essential task if death was not to bring about utter annihilation.

Although the hope of an afterlife, and the necessary preparations for it, can be traced back to Egypt’s earliest prehistoric cultures, the century or more of political unrest (2175–1970) following the collapse of the Old Kingdom marked a watershed in the long-term development of ancient Egyptian funerary religion. Many of the characteristic features, beliefs, and practices that would survive until the very end of pharaonic civilization were forged in the crucible of social change that accompanied the period of civil war and its aftermath. The weakening of the monarchy affected all sections of the population to a greater or lesser extent. For the vast majority of the population—the illiterate peasantry—the presence or absence of strong government changed little in the pattern of their lives. Long days of toil in the fields, sowing, hoeing, tending, and reaping, were as predictable as the rising sun. But an ineffective national administration could have devastating longer-term effects for ordinary people and their families. A breakdown in central authority left the way open for unscrupulous local officials to exact punitive levels of taxation. Neglect of the irrigation and flood-protection systems increased the likelihood of poor harvests and famine. The failure of the state to maintain stockpiles of grain took away the peasant farmers’ only insurance policy. Little wonder that eyewitness accounts from the century or so following Pepi II’s death speak of hunger stalking the land. For the small, literate elite at the top of the social pyramid, the effects of the political crisis were perhaps less life-threatening but longer lasting. Senior bureaucrats could be sure of their next meal but not of their next promotion. When the fount of honor dried up, careers built on loyal service to the sovereign were suddenly going nowhere. Influential local families had to look to their own resources to maintain their affluent lifestyles. Shorn of royal patronage and authority, many of them simply decided to go it alone, continuing to govern their communities as before and aggregating to themselves a host of royal prerogatives.

As old certainties fell away, so did the rigid distinctions between royal and private provision that had characterized the Pyramid Age. As daily existence grew harder and more uncertain, the need for greater certainty beyond the grave became more pressing. If necessity is the mother of invention, the grim realities of life in post–Sixth Dynasty Egypt created a particularly fertile environment for theological innovation.

In more peaceful and prosperous times, as far as we can judge from the mute record of tombs and grave goods, the ruling class had been content to look forward to an afterlife that was essentially a continuation of earthly existence, albeit stripped of the unsavory aspects. The elaborately decorated tomb chapels of the Pyramid Age reflect an era of certainty and an overwhelmingly materialistic view of life after death. The fundamental purpose of tomb decoration, indeed of the tomb itself, was to provide the deceased with all the material needs of life beyond the grave. Scenes of busy bakers and brewers, potters, carpenters , and metalworkers; of fishermen landing prodigious catches; of offering bearers bringing joints of meat, poultry, fine furniture, and luxury goods: all were designed to ensure a never-ending supply of food, drink, and other provisions, to sustain the tomb owner in an all too earthly afterlife. While the king might hope for an afterlife among the stars, at one with the forces of the cosmos, that destiny was barred to even his highest officials. In death as in life, there was one rule for the king and another for his subjects.

Such rigid distinctions weakened and eventually gave way as royal authority waned during the long reign of Pepi II and the strife that followed it. Ideas of a transcendent afterlife in the company of the gods spread through the general population, transforming funerary practices and the wider culture. Earthly success and being well remembered after death were no longer enough. The hope of something better in the next world, of transfiguration and transformation, became paramount. Notions of what lay on the other side of death were elaborated, codified, and combined in ever more inventive formulations. In the process, the ancient Egyptians devised the key concepts of original sin, an underworld rife with dangers and demons, a final judgment before the great god, and the promise of a glorious resurrection. These concepts would echo through later civilizations and ultimately shape the Judeo-Christian tradition.


BACK IN THE DAYS OF THE GREAT PYRAMID BUILDERS, RESURRECTION in any meaningful sense was reserved for the king and depended upon him achieving divine status—even if, in the case of Unas, it meant literally consuming the gods themselves. Only the king, as earthly incarnation of the sky god Horus and son of the sun, possessed sufficient influence, knowledge, and rank to gain access to the celestial realm. The first cracks in this forbidding edifice of royal prerogative appeared in the reign of Pepi II. Ironically, the erosion of the monarch’s unique privilege began inside the royal family itself. Pepi’s half sister, Neith, had her own tiny pyramid inscribed with texts drawn from the collection of spells that had hitherto been the preserve of the sovereign. The ripples from this minor break with tradition soon spread out across a wider section of Egyptian society. In the remote Dakhla Oasis, far enough from the court for breaches in protocol to go unnoticed, the governor Medunefer was laid to rest surrounded by protective funerary spells culled from the Pyramid Texts. A generation later, another official went even further, decorating the walls of his burial chamber with the very anthology used in the pyramid of Unas. Before long, even minor administrators in the provinces were having their wooden coffins inscribed with extracts from the Pyramid Texts and new compositions.

Just how Pepi II’s successors responded to this profound social and religious change is difficult to say. With the exception of King Ibi’s tiny pyramid at Saqqara, the tombs of the Eighth Dynasty and of the Herakleopolitan rulers remain undiscovered. In all probability, these monuments incorporated new ways of distinguishing their royal owners from the common people. Yet the adoption of royal texts and images by private citizens represented a seismic shift in the underlying structure of ancient Egyptian civilization. A stark division that had existed between the king and his subjects since the dawn of history had been demolished, once and for all. Now every Egyptian could hope to attain divinity in the afterlife, to spend eternity in the company of the gods. At the same time, this blurring of the distinction between royal and private served, ironically, to underline the unique position of the king. Pictures of royal regalia painted inside private coffins gave their owners the wherewithal to achieve divine status and hence resurrection after death, but only by aping the king. At a time of political fragmentation and civil war, it may have been reassuring for people to feel that divine kingship was alive and well, and a force for good in their ultimate fate. The so-called democratization of the afterlife was anything but democratic, and in this respect was a characteristically ancient Egyptian transformation.

Just as profound as the opening up of the afterlife was the change in how the afterlife was envisaged. Many of the Pyramid Texts had stressed the age-old belief in the king’s journey to the stars and his destiny among the “indestructibles,” but some of the spells had also introduced a newer concept, the dead king’s association with Osiris. This ancient earth god was both revered and feared as ruler of the underworld, but his victory over the decay of death offered the promise of resurrection for the king and, later, for the common people, too. Eternal life could be sought just as well in the nourishment of the earth as in the unchanging rhythm of the universe. Osiris became the champion of the dead, and his underworld kingdom their destination of choice. His chthonic realm at first joined, then ultimately displaced, a celestial setting for the Egyptians’ afterlife journey.

The universal wish to be identified after death with Osiris led to important, visible changes in burial customs. From the very beginnings of mummification, its aim had been to preserve the body of the deceased in as recognizable a form as possible. By wrapping the individual limbs, fingers, and toes separately, and molding the features of the face in linen bandages, a more or less lifelike appearance could be achieved. Now that the deceased wished to be transmogrified into Osiris, the preservation of human characteristics was no longer necessary. Instead, the corpse was swathed from head to toe in a single cocoon of bandages, giving it the classic form of a mummy. With this outward appearance of transfiguration being sufficient to conjure the appropriate associations, even the process of mummification could be neglected. Corners were regularly cut, stages omitted, so that underneath the bandages many Middle Kingdom mummies are very poorly preserved. Sometimes the brain was left inside the skull or the organs inside the body, leading to putrefaction. Failure to dry the body sufficiently, or economies in the use of expensive unguents, caused rapid deterioration of the soft tissues. But now that religious concerns had largely replaced material needs at the heart of funerary beliefs, a functioning body was of lesser concern than a passport to the underworld. Being wrapped up to look like Osiris was a good start.


OVERCOMING DEATH, ACHIEVING A SUCCESSFUL RESURRECTION, AND navigating the many dangers that lurked in the underworld required powerful magic, and it was here that texts and images came into their own. In the royal and private tombs of the Old Kingdom, the necessary spells and pictures had been carved or painted on the walls of the burial chamber and tomb chapel. But as traditions of craftsmanship slowly withered after Pepi II’s death, with the decline of the royal workshops, so tomb decoration became increasingly rare. Experienced artists were simply no longer available. Three-dimensional wooden models replaced the painted scenes of craftsmen at work. For the modern scholar, the miniature yet intricate models of bakeries, breweries, slaughterhouses, and weavers’ workshops are a gold mine for reconstructing ancient technologies. For the Egyptians, they were simply a poor man’s substitute for fine paintings in an era of cultural impoverishment. In the absence of decorated tombs, the coffin itself became both a focus for decoration and a canvas for the magical formulae (called, appropriately, Coffin Texts) to assist the deceased in the afterlife.

To assist the owner’s resurrection, the mummified body was laid on its side, facing east, toward the rising sun—sunrise, unique among natural phenomena, offered the daily promise of rebirth after the darkness of the preceding night. A pair of magical eyes, painted on the eastern face of the coffin and carefully aligned with the mummy’s face, allowed the deceased to “look out” at the sunrise toward the land of the living. These eyes deliberately recalled the face markings of a falcon, giving the deceased the all-seeing power of Horus. By means of this interlocking and overlapping symbolism, the dead person was identified with Osiris, god of the underworld, and assisted by Ra and Horus, the two most powerful celestial deities.

And so, safe inside the coffin, reborn and revivified by the sun’s rays, the transfigured mummy set out on its afterlife journey. Or, rather, journeys. In typical Egyptian fashion, two different paths to paradise were imagined. These were described in The Book of Two Ways, the earliest of the ancient Egyptian afterlife books. This particular collection of Coffin Texts expresses two contrasting destinies, revealing two competing strands of belief that had already been articulated in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts. A celestial afterlife with the sun god was still very much an option, and was now accessible to all. To participate in this version of paradise, the soul of the deceased, imagined as a human-headed bird, would fly out of the coffin and up from the tomb into the heavens. Each night, as the sun sank into the underworld, the soul would return again to the mummy for safety. This concept of the soul (or ba) illustrates perfectly the ancient Egyptians’ fondness and talent for theological elaboration. Regarded as an individual’s personality, theba existed as a kind of alter ego during life but came into its own after death, allowing the deceased to take part in the solar cycle. However, in order to be reborn each morning, it had to be reunited with Osiris (in the form of the mummified body) each night.

The counterpart of the ba was the ka, the eternal spirit that required the sustenance of food and drink to survive, and through which the dead person could follow the alternative path, the journey through the underworld to the abode of Osiris. From the Land of Life, the deceased set out on an epic voyage toward his ultimate destination, the Field of Offering. This mythical land, the Egyptians believed, was located close to the eastern horizon, the place of sunrise. While part of the underworld, it nevertheless held the promise of rebirth. As the ka traveled from west to east, it followed the nightly progress of the sun through the realm of darkness and shared in its daily renewal. But accomplishing the journey safely was no easy task. According to the Coffin Texts, the way was full of obstacles and fraught with dangers: gates to enter, waterways to cross, demons to placate, esoteric knowledge to master. In one example, the dead had to learn the various parts of a ship in order to win a place on the barque of the sun god. Spells provided the magical means for overcoming such hurdles, and some coffins were even decorated (on the inside, for the convenience of the deceased) with detailed maps of the underworld, charting the various seas, islands, watercourses, and settlements along the way to the Field of Offering. The lurid descriptions of what lay between death and salvation conjure up a Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell, reflecting the universal horror of death and the desperate wish for eternal life. The ancient Egyptians’ fears ranged from the all-too-familiar afflictions of thirst and starvation to the peculiar horror of an upside-down world in which they would have to walk on their heads, drink urine, and eat excrement. The Coffin Texts show the human imagination at its most fevered.

The ultimate destination, however, was worth all the trials and tribulations. The Egyptians imagined the domain of Osiris as the elysian fields, a landscape of lush, well-watered farmland yielding record harvests; of orchards and gardens bringing forth abundant produce; of peace and plenty for all eternity. Having arrived at journey’s end, the deceased could look forward to an afterlife full of satisfaction:

I shall eat in it and I shall wander in it.

I shall plough in it and I shall reap in it.

I shall have sex in it and I shall be content in it.1

It was an afterlife to die for. Presiding over this agricultural idyll was the god Osiris, the exemplar of resurrection and the surest source of eternal life. By battling against the odds to join Osiris, the deceased had ensured not only his own rebirth but also the continued renewal of the god. In mythological terms, the deceased had acted as Horus for his father, Osiris, and Osiris had rewarded him appropriately. It is no accident that this concept of the afterlife reflects a world in which inheritance and succession are of central importance. The Coffin Texts were composed in a milieu of powerful regional governors, and simply reflected the governors’ particular concerns. The ancient Egyptians, like all peoples, projected their daily experiences onto their religious beliefs.


THE RISE OF OSIRIS FROM OBSCURE BEGINNINGS TO UNIVERSAL GOD OF the dead lay at the heart of the new religious order. As he became venerated throughout the length and breadth of Egypt, Osiris eclipsed a host of other, more ancient funerary deities, assimilating their attributes and usurping their temples. The townspeople of Djedu, in the central delta, had worshipped their local god, Andjety, for centuries, believing him to have been an earthly ruler miraculously resurrected after death. As the cult of Osiris spread outward from the royal residence, it asborbed these complementary beliefs, and Djedu eventually became the main center of Osiris worship in Lower Egypt. Andjety all but disappeared as a separate deity, becoming a distant folk memory. A similar process took place in the south of the country, at Abdju. Here, the local people worshipped a funerary god in the form of a jackal, an animal often seen prowling over the desert burial grounds. Khentiamentiu, “foremost of the westerners,” was the guardian of the west (the land of the dead) and lord of the necropolis. The cult of Osiris soon laid claim to these attributes as well. By the Eleventh Dynasty (circa 2000), inscriptions in the temple at Abdju were already speaking of a hybrid god, Osiris-Khentiamentiu. A few generations later and “foremost of the westerners” was regarded merely as an epithet of Osiris. The god’s triumph was total.

In the case of Abdju, the additional presence of early royal tombs gave the site a special sanctity and air of antiquity. It must have seemed preordained that the archetypal resurrected ruler, Osiris, should have his main place of worship in the place where kings had been buried since the dawn of history. So, from the period of civil war onward, Abdju became the principal center of the Osiris cult and one of the most important holy places in all Egypt. The desecration of its sacred sites during the bitter war between the Herakleopolitan and Theban dynasties was a cause of shame to the northern kings, and their ultimate defeat came to be seen as divine retribution for such a heinous act of sacrilege. The victor in the civil war, King Mentuhotep II, lost no time in demonstrating his devout credentials by beautifying the shrine of Osiris-Khentiamentiu. Under Mentuhotep’s successors, the temple received further royal patronage. Abdju was transformed into a focus for national pilgrimage and a stage for elaborate ceremonies celebrating the god’s resurrection.

The “mysteries of Osiris” were performed annually in the presence of a great crowd of spectators from all over Egypt. At the heart of the rites was a reenactment of the god’s kingship, death, and resurrection. These three strands of the Osiris myth were reflected in three separate processions. First, the cult image of the god appeared, to signify his status as a living ruler. One of the temple priests—or, on occasions, a visiting dignitary acting as the king’s personal representative—took the role of the jackal god Wepwawet, “the opener of the ways,” walking at the front of the procession as the herald of Osiris. The second and central element in the drama recalled the god’s death and funeral. A “Great Following” escorted the cult image, enclosed in a special barque shrine, as it was born on the shoulders of priests from the temple to the royal necropolis of the First Dynasty. En route, ritualized attacks on the barque shrine were staged to represent the struggle between good and evil. The attackers were repulsed by other participants, taking the role of the god’s defenders. For all its sacred imagery, this mock-battle could at times turn nasty, religious fervor tipping over into violence and resulting in serious injuries. Pious zeal and inflamed passion are ancient bedfellows. The third and final act of the mysteries was Osiris’s rebirth and triumphant return to his temple. His cult image was taken back to the sanctuary, purified, and adorned. The ceremonies over, the crowds dispersed and normality returned to Abdju for another year.

So powerful was the symbolism of the Osiris mysteries that participation, whether in person or vicariously, became a lifetime goal for ancient Egyptians, their equivalent of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca. For most of the population, long-distance travel within Egypt was a practical impossibility. Even if they could afford the trip, leaving their land unworked for a week or more risked crop failure and disaster. Bureaucrats working in the administration were rather better off in this regard, but still needed official permission to leave their posts and go up- or downsteam to Abdju. The best option for most people was attendance by proxy. If they could have a cenotaph or stela—anything with their name on it—set up along the route of the Great Following, then they, too, could benefit from the god’s resurrective power as he passed by. As a result, the sacred way leading from the temple of Osiris became the favored location for memorials great and small. Those with plentiful resources might commission statues of themselves, set within miniature chapels. The less affluent had to make do with a crude stone slab, or merely a mention on someone else’s monument. Rich or poor, every devout Egyptian longed for a piece of the action. Within a few generations, the Terrace of the Great God was packed with memorials five or six deep. They occupied every available inch along both sides of the route, threatening to encroach on the sacred way itself.

For those who could not afford even the humblest presence at Abdju, there were always the Osiris festivals celebrated throughout the provinces—not as potent, nor as prestigious, but better than nothing. By recalling and celebrating the god’s resurrection in their local cemeteries, the priests and people hoped that some of his magic would rub off on the poor souls interred nearby, affording them, too, the promise of eternal life. From prehistoric times, Egyptian towns and villages had played host to a plethora of different beliefs, deities, and styles of worship, reflected in the diversity of local shrines and the diversity of the votive objects deposited in them. Now, for perhaps the first time in its history, Egypt had something approaching a national religion.

As Osiris worship reached its zenith at the height of the Middle Kingdom, the Coffin Texts fell rapidly out of fashion. They were replaced by a whole host of esoteric magical objects that evidently had the same function. These objects enabled the deceased to be resurrected as Osiris, to reach the Field of Offering, and to journey with Ra in his solar barque. Some of these new objects were lifted directly from daily life but given an afterlife function. Ivory wands inscribed with the images of demons and protective deities were routinely used in Egyp-tian households to create a protected zone around women in childbirth, to ward off evil spirits that might harm the mother or baby. To the Egyptians’ way of thinking, it seemed perfectly natural to bury such an object in the tomb. The reborn was just as vulnerable as the newborn, and needed equal protection. In a similar vein, fertility figurines, used in a household setting to promote the successful delivery and rearing of children, found a corresponding role in a funerary setting, assisting rebirth and regeneration.

Other types of magical objects, however, were manufactured specifically for the tomb. Without known parallels from daily life, they often defy easy explanation. Two of the most characteristic—yet enigmatic—are small models of hedgehogs and hippopotami made from faïence (more accurately, “glazed composition”), a blue glazed glassy material. Because these are uninscribed, and without accompanying texts, it is impossible to deduce their original symbolism, although several different theories can be proposed. This is in keeping with the multilayered nature of ancient Egyptian theology, whereby multiple explanations for a single phenomenon, even if apparently contradictory, were believed to add to the weight of evidence in favor and to confer added numinousness. Hedgehogs were known to burrow underground, and may therefore have been thought of as intermediaries between the land of the living and the underworld—ideal companions for the afterlife journey. Hedgehogs also roll themselves into balls when threatened, taking on the shape of the sun disk in the process. It is possible they were believed to offer the deceased symbolic protection and a closer relationship with the sun god. Perhaps, as denizens of the semiarid desert margins, hedgehogs and similar creatures (model jerboas were also popular) symbolized the triumph of life over the barrenness of death, a highly appropriate metaphor for the tomb. Hippos, on the other hand, were aquatic creatures, inhabitants of the watery world that led to the Field of Offering. They were known to be fierce and aggressive, expert at warding off potential attackers. A hippopotamus goddess was also the deity most closely associated with pregnant women and childbirth. The web of potential connotations is extensive, reflecting the richness and variety of ancient Egyptian religious thought. Indeed, such complexity, often contradictory to the modern logical mind, merely served, in the Egyptians’ eyes, to underline the mystery and unknowability of the divine.

At about the time that hedgehogs and hippos were making their appearance among grave goods, another afterlife accessory arrived on the scene, a curious little object that encapsulates the Egyptians’ genius for invention and their intensely practical attitude toward problem solving. Thanks to its rapid rise in popularity, the object in question is now ubiquitous in museum collections the world over: the funerary figurine. The ancient Egyptian term was shabti, perhaps derived from the word for “stick” and reflecting the rudimentary modeling of the earliest examples. But this was no ordinary stick figure. It had a far more important, magical purpose. Its origins lie in the period of civil war, and, as ideas go, it was startlingly simple. Without royal workshops full of well-trained craftsmen, or sculptors and painters to decorate their tombs, the Egyptians faced a serious dilemma. If their mummified body were destroyed, how would the ka be sustained, and whence would the ba return each night after its celestial wanderings? A substitute body was the answer, and its early form was exceptionally crude, a small sticklike figure made from mud or wax, perhaps wrapped in a few shreds of linen to represent mummy bandages, and supplied with its own miniature coffin fashioned from some scraps of wood. The quality of the finished product hardly mattered. Once in the tomb, magic would put right any deficiencies in the workmanship. So began the tradition of funerary figurines, an emergency measure in an age of unrest and uncertainty. But with the reunification of Egypt under King Mentuhotep and the subsequent flowering of court culture in the Middle Kingdom, royal workshops returned, and finely crafted statues and painted tombs became available, at least to the elite, once more. Yet the funerary figurine did not disappear. It came to represent something different but just as useful—a servant to assist the deceased for all eternity.


With an Osirian view of the afterlife now dominant, the shabti really came into its own. For there was one major drawback to spending an eternity in the Field of Offering. While it might be an agricultural idyll, with well-watered fields yielding abundant crops, every Egyptian knew all too well that agriculture—even in such ideal conditions—involved hard physical labor. Particularly arduous and backbreaking was the annual repair of dikes, ditches, and waterways following the inundation, essential to restoring the irrigation network to full working order. Every able-bodied individual was pressed into service for this vital communal task, excavating and carrying baskets of sand and silt from field to field—all in the hot, humid, mosquito-infested conditions that followed the retreat of the floodwaters. Would this be an inescapable chore in the afterlife, too? Surely there was some way of avoiding such unpleasantness for all eternity. The solution was a stroke of genius. The little stick figure that had previously substituted as a body for the deceased retained its basic function as a stand-in, but now, instead of providing a home for the ka and ba, it would answer the call to work on behalf of its owner. Servant figurines from the late Middle Kingdom were duly equipped with miniature agricultural implements, such as hoes and baskets, and just in case they should forget, a brief hieroglyphic text, carved on their body, reminded them of their principal duty:

O shabti, detailed to [serve] me … if I am summoned or if I am detailed to do any work that is to be done in the afterlife … you shall detail yourself to me every time, [whether] for maintaining the fields, irrigating the banks, or ferrying sand from east to west. “Look, here I am,” you shall say.2

When it came to life after death, a shabti was the perfect insurance policy.


ONE FINAL, CRUCIAL ASPECT OF THE AFTERLIFE ADVENTURE ALSO MADE its first appearance in the years following the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Like the Coffin Texts, magical objects, and servant figurines, the concept of a last judgment reflected the mixture of hope and fear that beset the ancient Egyptians in their musings about life after death. Perhaps more than any other feature of Egyptian religion, the idea of a final, inevitable reckoning before a divine judge had a profound and lasting impact on the subsequent development of pharaonic beliefs. Unlike hedgehogs, hippos, and shabtis, the last judgment was picked up by other religious traditions of the Near East as well, notably Christianity.

The imaginary geography of The Book of Two Ways began with the Island of Fire, where the wicked were consumed in flames but the good were provided with refreshing water for their arduous journey through the underworld. The concept of trial by fire is an ancient one, but this relatively simplistic notion of judgment—whereby the unrighteous dead were separated from the righteous by means of a single, swift test—was itself to be refined in the flames of social change. Once again, the shattered illusions that accompanied the breakup of the Egyptian state proved a fertile breeding ground for new ideas. In troubled times, death came to be seen not as a mere transition to another dimension of creation but as a discontinuity, a break that might prove terminal. Whether an individual achieved rebirth as a divine being or suffered a second death depended on his or her own actions during life. The literary text known as The Instruction for King Merikara, purportedly composed by a Herakleopolitan king, summed up this new belief:

When a man remains after passing away,

His deeds are set alongside him.…

He who reaches [the next life] without wrongdoings

Will exist there like a god.3

In this scheme of things, virtue was no longer enough—it had to be accompanied by freedom from vice. In inscriptions of the period, the boastfulness and bombast typical of Old Kingdom autobiographies are joined for the first time by notes of doubt and defensiveness. A man might enumerate his many qualities and achievements but also take pains to state “I never spoke a falsehood against any living person.”4 The negative confession, a declaration not to have committed a prescribed list of wrongful acts, became an essential component of the judgment process.

Vindication before the divine tribunal required more, however, than a mere denial of wrongdoing. It involved a fundamental assessment of a person’s true worth, a weighing of their good and bad deeds in order to arrive at a balanced judgment of their character. Only those who passed this calculation of differences were deemed fit to join Osiris and live forever. On his stela from Abdju, the Eleventh Dynasty general Intef confidently proclaims that his “voice is true in the calculation of differences.” In other words, he has been justified and found worthy of resurrection as a transfigured spirit. From such tentative beginnings, the concept of judgment rapidly acquired a central place in Egyptian funerary religion, to the extent that the term “true of voice” became the most common euphemism for “deceased.” In a society as obsessed with bureaucracy and accountancy as ancient Egypt was, it is perhaps not surprising that theologians imagined the weighing of a person’s worth taking place on a giant set of goldsmith’s scales. The accuracy of the balance perfectly expressed the unerring judgment of the divine tribunal. A spell from the Coffin Texts describes the scales as “that balance of Ra on which Maat is lifted up,”5 indicating that the judgment is authorized by Ra himself, god of the sun and of creation, and that the deeds of the deceased are to be weighed against Maat, the goddess of truth. In this ultimate assessment, there was no room for cheating. The outcome of the judgment process was visualized as all the deceased being separated into groups, the justified and the unjust, “numbering the dead and counting the blessed spirits.”6 The differing fates of the two groups were crystal clear.

With eternal survival at stake in the last judgment, the fevered Egyptian imagination swung into action. Conceiving further hurdles hand in hand with the means of overcoming them seems to have given the ancient Egyptians the courage to face the uncertainties of death. In the case of judgment before the tribunal, the greatest danger was that one’s own heart—seat of the intellect, fount of emotion, and storehouse of memories—might decide to bear false witness and so tip the balance against a favorable verdict. To counter this awful risk, powerful magic was required. Somehow, the heart had to be prevented from blurting out untruths (or hidden truths) that might seal its owner’s fate. The ingenious solution was a new type of amulet, first introduced into burials in the late Middle Kingdom. It took the familiar shape of a scarab beetle, a potent symbol of rebirth (because young beetles hatch from a ball of dung, emblematic of death and decay). But unlike other scarab amulets, this one had a human head and was engraved with a protective spell, addressed to the heart. After the body had undergone mummification, the heart scarab was placed over the heart, with clear instructions as to how the organ should behave at the moment of truth:

Do not stand up against me

Do not witness against me,

Do not oppose me in the tribunal,

Do not incline against me.7

In time the heart itself came to stand for the deceased and his deeds, and the pictorial representation of the weighing of the heart against the feather of truth became an essential image on funerary papyri, an encapsulation of the final judgment. It remains one of the most instantly recognizable, characteristic, and evocative scenes from the entire repertoire of ancient Egyptian art.

And the concept of a “dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed” is still with us, four thousand years later.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!