Ancient Egypt Funerary Beliefs and Practices


Funerary Beliefs and Practices. Because of the way that sites have been excavated in Egypt, most material has come from either tombs or temples, which, combined with the classical view that the Egyptian people were the most religious in the ancient world, has encouraged theories that they were obsessed with death and the Afterworld. Actually little work has been done on the major Egyptian cities, but if this were redressed the Egyptians’ attitude would doubtless be better understood. It seems rather that they were devoted to life, and could not imagine anything better, and so based their ideas of the Afterworld on that of their own everyday life. However, funerary beliefs are never simple, and in Egypt they cover a particularly long time, during which many ideas changed, or were grafted onto earlier ones.

It is extremely difficult to give an idea of the religious beliefs and funerary practices of all classes of Egyptian society. Originally the best was obviously reserved for the king and the nobles, and it is from their tombs that most information comes. The poorer folk were, like those of the predynastic period, often wrapped in skins, baskets or linen shrouds, and placed in the sand where their bodies survived remarkably well owing to the very dry environment. There is no doubt that the Egyptians’ desire to preserve the body came from having observed the state of preservation of some of these early burials, conditions they tried to duplicate when carrying out their own, No definite treatise on mummification exists, but as belief in Osiris grew, and as his powers became diversified (originally only the rulers and ruling classes benefitted from his ministrations), so did the belief in resurrection spread. The Greek authors who were interested in embalming inform us that mummification took about 70 days, but there is one case of an Old Kingdom queen which took about 285 days, perhaps because her tomb-chapel was not ready. Evidence for the start of embalming is uncertain. Already by the 3 Dyn. the body was being dismembered and the limbs wrapped to represent the living body, but by the 4 Dyn. it was certainly taking place, and one of the earliest examples known is that of Hetepheres, mother of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid. Although her body was missing from her tomb, the box containing the canopic jars (see below) was present, evidence that she must have been embalmed.

Hetepheres canopic jars

Very few mummies have remained from the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but by the New Kingdom the main methods used to preserve the body were understood. The word mummy comes from the Arabic mimmi’ya’ (bitumen), the material in which bodies were later soaked in an effort to preserve them, and has really nothing to do with the Egyptians earlier efforts. The method seems to have been a dry process in which the soft parts of the body like the stomach, intestines and liver, were taken out and placed either in jars or wrapped in bundles; the brain was also usually removed but not the heart. Natron salt was used to purify and preserve the body, the body cavity was washed out with palm wine, and the body stuffed to preserve its contours.

Various methods were used at different times, those of the 18 and 19 Dyns being most effective, While those of the 21 Dyn. were the most elaborate. After the body had been dried, washed and wrapped, it was covered with an intricate pattern of cross strapping and for protection had various amulets placed upon it. The most import— ant was probably the heart scarab, which contained a short inscription from the Book of the Dead, while among the dozens of others, many intended solely for funerary purposes, the two principal ones were the djed pillar of Osiris and the thet girdle of Isis. The canopic jars in which the viscera were placed have already been mentioned. The term ‘canopic’ is derived from Canopus, the city where the sailors of Menelaus were said to have died and been buried, and later worshipped as a jar with a human head. The early canopic jars merely had a cap on them and were made of pottery or stone, but in the Middle and New Kingdom they had human heads representing the deceased, which were later replaced by the four sons of Horustuamutef (jackal) protecting the stomach, Gebehsenuf (falcon) the intestines, Hapi (baboon) the lungs, and Imsety (human) the liver. Each of these minor deities was under the guardianship of one of the four goddesses of the dead— Neith, Selket, Nephthys and Isis. The Egyptians also mummified certain animals, for example the Apis and Mnevis bulls, and the ibis and baboon sacred to Thoth. The burials of the Apis bulls are the best known as they are to be seen at Saqqarah in the Serapeum, and their embalming place, complete with huge alabaster tables, was found at Memphis near the Temple of Ptah in 1951. Most of the surviving animal mummies belong to the later periods, but it is obvious that animal worship, particularly the bull cult, is of ancient origin.


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