ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: The Egyptians and their dead
Life after Death
Ancestor Worship
The Dead and the Living
Remembering the Dead

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The Egyptians and their dead

    The Egyptian religion was polytheistic and their pantheon included numberless deities, daemons, spirits, and ghosts. These spiritual beings were of varying importance, according to the powers they had. Some had influence over the world at large, the scope of others, among them the Dead Ones, was more limited. But even if these were of the lowest rank of immortal beings, they continued to have an existence of sorts and participated, as their names were slowly forgotten over the years, to an ever diminishing degree in the lives of their descendants.

Life after death

    The Egyptians loved life, the longer the better, and expressed this love in writing throughout history. In the first millennium BCE they counted it among the Four Kas, the four boons the gods bestowed upon those who lived righteous lives. But as the death of the body was inevitable, they created an after-world which afforded them a, to all intents and purposes, eternal and at times improved version of the life they had enjoyed in this world.
    But this vision of eternal bliss became blurred in the New Kingdom and even more so in the Third Intermediate Period, as more and more people whose ancestors would never even have dreamt of an eternal life in a sunlit after world, could afford to aspire to becoming godlike when merging with Osiris. Doubts about a beautiful afterlife began to haunt people, and to some the thereafter became a place of gloom, where the dead existed in isolation and finally lost their individual consciousness.[6]
prehistoric tomb painting

Pre-historic tomb decoration
J. E. Quibell, F. W. Green Hierakonpolis Part II, Egyptian Research Account, Fifth Memoir

    The belief in a hereafter goes back a long time. Pre-historic graves contain vessels which presumably held food offerings, some of the more elaborate tombs have been decorated with scenes from daily life and some corpses even underwent a kind of preservation.
    The form this afterlife took is only known since the times when the first texts appear describing the pharaoh's ascent to heaven. From the late Old Kingdom on noblemen and, increasingly, highly placed and affluent commoners underwent similar funerary rituals at first in the hope of continuing their lifestyle after death and, as an akh-spirit, of wandering in peace on the beautiful paths of the West[7] and in later times of deification, of becoming one with Osiris.
Body, ka, ba, akh
Some of the constituent parts of a deceased person and their relationships with the world: the body, the ba, the ka, the name, the akh.
For further explanations see Body and Soul.

    The body, obviously, remained in its tomb, the akh (MdC transcription Ax ), the transfigured dead, was hoped to rise to the heavens after the performance of the appropriate transfiguration rituals, [2] the ka was closely bound to its body - partaking of the offerings in the funerary chapel, but the ba could leave the tomb, roam the necropolis and even visit the living [1].
    The majority of the Egyptian people appears not to have aspired to an eternal life among the immortal stars. They may not have had the necessary means or knowledge, the latter being probably more decisive, as the case of some New Kingdom craftsmen of Deir el Medina suggests, who, while not being rich by any means, were inspired by their involvement in the building of elite tombs to invest considerable effort into creating albeit modest eternal abodes for themselves.[5] But even to the peasant death was not the end, but the beginning of an existence as a spiritual being in whose power it was to affect the lives of the living.

Ancestor worship

    One's ancestors were seen as friendly powers in a world where one was beset by dangers. Dying, they had left their offices, possessions, and rights to their offspring, and dead, they protected them against evil influences. Their survivors repaid them by giving them a proper burial, perpetuating their name, feeding their kas and protecting their resting place.
    Among pharaohs these duties were performed by armies of servants building at times huge tombs, erecting mortuary temples filled with priests in charge of the offerings and setting up police forces in an attempt to prevent tomb robberies.
    But even when intentions were good, things often went wrong: Tombs were broken into, corpses desecrated, their belongings despoiled, and offerings were neglected and forgotten. But forgetfulness on behalf of the descendants did not stop the flow of offerings, as texts were inscribed on the walls of the tomb ensuring their perpetuity. Against intruders curses threatening dire consequences were used:
May there be no son and no daughter to give him water (i.e. as a libation)
May there be no mortuary offerings for him on any
wag-festival or any other festival of the necropolis!
    The wag-festival, mentioned first in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, was celebrated in honour of Osiris, first of the Westerners (i.e. the dead), who had died and was resurrected. Osiris embodied the hope of the Egyptians for a life after death.
Lo, Osiris has come as Orion,
Lord of wine at the wag-feast.
Pyramid texts of Pepi I, Utterance 442
    On certain festivals the gods (i.e. their statues) were taken out of their sanctuaries, put on boats and rowed to a near-by temple, from where they returned the following day. The deceased undertook similar journeys, though their travels occurred in the next world in the solar ships of Re, the Bark-of-the-Evening and the Bark-of-the-Morning:
May one make the Wag-feast (wAg) for you, may one give you bread and beer from the altar of Khentamenti. You will travel downstream in the Bark-of-the-Evening ( and sail upstream in the Bark-of-the-Morning (manD.t).
Louvre Bowl, Louvre E 6134
First Intermediate Period
    Food offerings were made to the dead on a number of occasions. Ahmose I erected a stela at Abydos enumerating them:
One spoke with the other, seeking benefactions for the departed (dead), to present libations of water, to offer upon the altar, to enrich the offering tablet at the first of every season, at the monthly feast of the first o the month, the feast of the coming forth of the sem, the feast of the night-offerings of the fifth of the month, the feast of the sixth of the month, the feast of Hakro (hAkrA), the feast of Wag (wAg), the feast of Thoth, and at the first of every season of heaven, and of earth.
Building inscription at Abydos, Ahmose I
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §35
The pharaoh went on and mentioned how he remembered his ancestors, the mother of his mother and the mother of his father and ensured the future of their cult. Then he said a prayer on their behalf:
Lo, his majesty extended his arm and bent his hand; he pronounced for her a mortuary prayer.
Building inscription at Abydos, Ahmose I
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §37
    Commoners could make offerings using the king as an intermediary. The offering formula in their tombs generally begins with the words: An offering which the king grants and often invokes Osiris and Anubis who is on his mountain. Even if in drawings offering tables are laden with all kinds of food, according to the texts the dead received little more than bread and beer.

The dead and the living

    The dead and the living both were supposed to honour the quid pro quo their relationship was based on. But sometimes the descendants were unaware of any wrongdoing on their behalf, and yet the deceased failed to live up to his obligations: they became victims of disease, poverty and crime caused by spiritual beings. It was often thought that at the root of one's problems was someone deceased, referred to as the Dead One who could be of either gender, mwt or mwt.t. In such a case the aggrieved son would complain to his dead father, orally by the grave or, sometimes, in writing which was powerful magic by itself.
It is the sister who is saying to her brother, the Only Companion Nefer-sefekhi (nfr-sfx-j):
O, great grief! Useful is a complaint [speaking (?)] concerning this which is done <against> my daughter in such an unjust way, although there is nothing that I have done against him, and (although) I have not eaten of his offerings, (and although) he has not given anything to my daughter. All mortuary sacrifices are made for the enlightened one (Akh) in order to intercede on behalf of the inhabitants of earth. (Therefore) make a decision concerning him who caused that of which I suffered, for I want to be justified in front of the male and the female dead (mwt mwt.t) who did this against my daughter.
Hu Bowl, University College London
First Intermediate Period
    In the after-life the deceased were thought to experience the same feelings as the living. They could be angry and bear grudges, have likes and dislikes, be caring and show mercy. But above all they were expected to bat for their own team and lend full-hearted support to their family.
You have been brought here to the City of Eternity, without you harbouring anger for me. (But) should it be the case that these injuries were caused with your knowledge (then) behold: though the house is in the possession of your children, the privation (in the house) arises again and again. But if it is done as something you abhor, then may your father be great <in> the necropolis. If there is a reproach in your heart, forget it for the sake of your children. Be merciful, be merciful, (then) all the gods of the Thinite nome will be merciful towards you.
Berlin Bowl, Berlin Inv.Nr. 22573
First Intermediate Period
    They were also not beyond flattery, thus a judiciously inserted you are the excellent transfigured one might convince them to help the petitioner. Good wishes too, such as May your condition be like life a million times! were hoped to improve their mood.
    Just as they did in their letters to each other, the living showed interest in the well-being of their deceased loved ones:
How are you? Does the Great One (the goddess of the West) look after you according with your wish?
Little Stele (Cairo-Museum)
    At times the mechanics of the dialogue between the living and the dead are somewhat unclear. Thus Shepsi reminds his mother how she had asked him for some special food:
This is an oral report concerning you saying to her son (i.e. the speaker): "You shall bring me poultry so that I can eat it," and when your son brought 7 quails (pAa.w.t) you ate them.
Qaw Bowl, outside
Late Old Kingdom to First Intermediate Period
If this was a post-mortem request, some of us may be somewhat at a loss to understand the mode of communication his mother used to get her message across to her son.

Remembering the dead

    Memory being what its is, even in times less hectic than ours people were likely to forget things, and even the memory of the dead could do with a little nudge in the right direction:
A speech of Mer-irtief ( to Nebet-itief (nb.t-jtj=f):
... Behold, I am the one you loved on earth.
Little Stele, (Cairo-Museum)
One can imagine the glorious late Nebet-itief, had her husband not added the latter line, asking: "Mer-irtief - who?"
    Such lapses apart, most Egyptians would have seen the ritual remembrance of their own parents, the maintenance of their tombs and the bringing of offerings as a personal obligation; and they fulfilled their filial duties some with more, others with less enthusiasm. But, given the short life-span of people in antiquity, many had no personal experience of their grandparents and very few had known their great-grandparents, lessening the incentive to perform the necessary rituals, more so, as one was bound only to do so for one's own parents. Thus people were either forgotten after a generation or so, or they took care of their post-mortem needs themselves, while they were still alive; and institutionalized mortuary services became in earliest historic times big business and brought about the amassing of huge fortunes in the hands of the temples and with it their increasing political influence. But in spite of having been paid for in advance–or perhaps because of it–the rituals ceased to be performed after a few generations.
    The endeavours of the kings to be remembered did not fare much better. During the early pyramid age the tomb and mortuary temple building reached such proportions that some scholars have claimed that it caused the decline and eventual collapse of Old Kingdom society. Whatever its economic and social effects, it appears that the size of the tombs, the temples and their priesthoods did little to perpetuate the names of the pharaohs among their own people, Snefru who had started the tradition, Amenemhet III, in whose honour children were still named in the Ptolemaic period, and a few others being exceptions.[3] But there was an ordinary mortal to really conquer the hearts of the people: The Old Kingdom official Imhotep became venerated as a healer and mediator between mankind and the gods and finally entered the Egyptian pantheon officially.
    Most people's ambitions were not as grandiose as the kings' nor their means as unlimited, but the donations to the priesthood could be significant. The nomarch Hepdjefi drew up ten contracts that we know of, in which he set down the mortuary services he expected to receive in exchange for his considerable endowments:
Behold, I have endowed thee with fields, with people, with cattle, with gardens (and) with everything, as every count of Siut (does), in order that thou mayest make offerings to me with contented heart.
    But if being remembered was the path to eternal life, being forgotten was the worst thing that could happen to a dead Egyptian. Damnatio memoriae could be the fate of criminals and kings. Nowadays famous pharaohs to have their memories expunged were Hatshepsut, the reasons for whose post-mortem persecution are somewhat unclear, and Akhenaten, who had attempted to overthrow the mighty Amen priesthood and had ultimately failed. Their names were erased in the hope they would be forgotten. But the orders to do so were somewhat self defeating, as one had to name him, whose name was to be forbidden. The Second Intermediate Period king Nebukheperre-zare-Intef ordered oblivion for him who has no name, Teti, son of Min-hotepu with the words: one shall not remember his name [4] with the result that few persons from the Second Intermediate Period are better known than Teti, son of Min-hotepu.  

J. E. Quibell, F. W. Green, Hierakonpolis Part II, Egyptian Research Account, Fifth Memoir
Serge Sauneron, "Une statue du vizir Pasar adorant Rehorakhty", BIFAO 55 (1955), p.151
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings, Vol.One, 1975, p.45
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, Chicago 1906
James Henry Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt
R. O. Faukner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Kessinger 2004
Sylvie Donnat, Contacts with the dead in Pharaonic Egypt, Marc Bloch University, Strassburg
Juan Carlos Moreno García, Oracles, ancestor cults and letters to the dead: the involvement of the dead in the public and private family affairs in pharaonic Egypt, ?Perception of the Invisible - Wahrnehmung des Unsichtbaren?, Conference at the University of Köln (Institut für Afrikanistik), 15-17 November 2007
Ursula Verhoeven: "Post ins Jenseits - Formular und Funktion altägyptischer Briefe an Tote" in A. Wagner (ed.) Bote und Brief - Sprachliche Systeme der Informationsübermittlung im Spannungsfeld von Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. NWS 4, Frankfurt/M. 2003,
[2] sAx.w, causing to become an ax.w
[4] After Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website  Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Briefe vom/an den König => Cairo 30770 => Königsdekret von Nebuheperre-Intef - Hafemann ed.
[5] David P. Silverman, Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press US, 2003, p.199
John Baines, Visual and Written Culture in Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.91
[6] Maya Müller; "Afterlife" in Donald Redford, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press 2001, pp.32-37
[7] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Teti-Friedhof => Mastaba des Mereri (Merinebti) => Fassade (Eingang) => Architrav

- Letters to the dead[1] Stela of Paser
Letters to the deadLetters to the dead
-Mourning and burial
-Funerary practices: Preparations and burial
-Index of topics
-Main index and search page
Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
Cult of kings after their death: the success stories[3] Cult of kings after their death: the success stories
Letters to the DeadLetters to the Dead


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© May 2006
November, October 2008