Afterlife in Ancient Egypt: When the Dead Live

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland P.h.D., Colgate University

The afterlife in ancient Egypt was the eternal comfort in life that Egyptians looked for. They believed that the dead come to life in the underworld, and can live there away from diseases. They prepared the dead to successfully enter the new realm, starting by mummifying. How was this new life in the underworld?

Wall art from Dendera Temple complex, located about 2.5 kilometres south-east of Dendera, Egypt.
Entering the underworld and beginning the afterlife was not granted to all the dead. They had to pass Osiris and his test. (Image: Matthew Laird Acred/Shutterstock)

The Book of the Dead

The book was a collection of hymns, spells, and instructions that helped the dead pass through the obstacles on the way to the afterlife. It also contained instructions on what to do when facing Osiris, the god of death, and rebirth. Osiris performed a test to find out if the newly dead person is good and just, as himself.

The Negative Confession

The test was called “negative confession”, in which the dead person had to deny wrongdoings. The statements were written down by the divine scribe, Thoth. A female monster with the head of a crocodile, the foreparts of a lion, and the back legs of a hippopotamus was waiting behind him to eat the newcomer if they failed the test.

After the negative confessions, the heart would be weighed against a feather representing Maat, signifying truth and harmony. If the newcomer passed the test, they would join the akhu – the blessed dead that can grant some wishes to their praying relatives. Thus began the afterlife.

Images in rock cut tombs in The Valley of the Kings, Egypt.
The dead needed guidebooks and spells to pass the gate of the underworld and enter the new life. (Image: George Nazmi Bebawi/Shutterstock)

Gods Involved in the Afterlife

There were various beliefs about what happens after death, but the majority believed that the dead would become Osiris. Thus, Egyptians made shabtis – small figures of Osiris and buried these with the dead. If the dead needed to do some work in the afterlife, the shabti could do it for them.

Another god involved in the other realm was Ra. He was the creator of the universe and the source of life in the afterlife. He would pass through the underworld every evening, bringing light to the realm, just like the sun.

Even though before 2000 B.C., only pharaohs were believed to be connected with Osiris and gaining afterlife; after that, normal people were also mummified to resurrect and enter the afterlife. Hence, the death market grew significantly in size.

Learn more about practicing Egyptian religion.

Mass Production for the Realm of the Dead

Since many people were being mummified, as were the pharaohs, the embalmers had much more to do, and so did the other workers related to the death industry. Thus, Egyptians began the first mass production act of history.

There is not much information on how the industry was run. However, the numerous shabtis used in the tombs were of identical size and figure, suggesting that they were made in large quantities. An industry of this size always attracts thieves, who need to be non-believers first.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Non-Believers in Ancient Egypt

Some Egyptians believed the afterlife was nonsense, including some embalmers. Thus, many strange mummies were created from different parts of different corpses. For example, one was discovered with the head of an old woman, the body of a child, and the legs of two different men.

These mummies were made mainly in Hellenistic Egypt when Egypt was ruled by the Greeks. There were also non-believers among normal people, who thought of all the wealth in the tombs as booty.

Tomb Robbery

Since the Badarian Period, i.e., around 4400 to 4000 B.C., tomb robbery existed. The curses cast in tombs, and the security devices never stopped the robbers. Even the harsh death penalty could not change the situation.

Original gold mask of the pharaoh in a museum.
Some mummies are made of a few corpses’ limbs, showing the embalmers did not necessarily believe in the afterlife. (Image: Photo Spirit/Shutterstock)

One common security device was constructing one or several portcullis blocks, set into grooves at the side of the tomb entrance. The block or blocks were then let down and jammed into place, once the tomb had been sealed. Another method was building a false burial chamber. None, however, stopped the robbers from breaking into the tomb shortly after burial. However, the curses scared some of the archeologists who excavated some Egyptian tombs.

The Curse of Tutankhamen Tomb

In 1922, Lord Carnarvon financed an expedition, which resulted in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. He then died of blood poisoning, making some people fear the curses. However, Howard Carter, who made the discovery, died 16 years after the expedition.

To prevent robbery, pharaohs decided to build their tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Nevertheless, tomb robbery still happened in Egypt.

Thus, the dead had the difficulties of entering the underworld, and at the same time, their belongings could be stolen.

Learn more about being Egyptian.

Common Questions about the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

Q: What was the afterlife like in ancient Egypt?

The ancient Egyptians believed that there was eternal life in the underworld, similar to the world of the living. The dead could have everything that they had in real life and some extra comfort, as they could take shabtis with them to work, if necessary.

Q: How did ancient Egyptians prepare for the afterlife?

Mummification was the first step in preparing for the afterlife in ancient Egypt. The mummy was provided with a book on how to pass the obstacles, necessities, and models of things that would be useful to them in the afterlife.

Q: Why was the Egyptian afterlife so important?

The afterlife in Ancient Egypt granted eternity to the dead. Egyptians were obsessed with life and wanted to make sure their dead ones survive it and continue to live in the underworld.

Q: Who was the god of the afterlife in ancient Egypt?

Osiris was the god of death and rebirth. Egyptians buried figures of him with the dead, called shabti. He was also the one who judged the dead and decided if they were worthy of entering the underworld.

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