When a man of ancient Egypt died, it was then his adventures really began. Despite whatever hardships they had encountered in life, the Egyptians seem to have thought life was good, and all their needs provided for in the Nile valley by the gods. But death on the other hand seemed to be a risky business, and one needed protection. Women at first weren’t included in the final ordeal except as part of their husbands’ salvation.
What follows describes a belief system of the period 1500 BC to 400 AD in Egypt, based on surviving copies of the Scroll of the Dead (more fully, Scroll of the man who dies and enters on eternal life). Survival after death at this time was a widespread belief, unlike earlier periods, about 3000 BC to 1500 BC, when survival concerned only the Pharaoh, who died and became one with the god Osiris in his daily battle to guide the sun over the sky and under the earth. Now many more believed in personal immortality after death.
They believed that when one died one’s immortal soul left the body for a short time (this is the first recorded mention of the idea of soul) then re-entered it. This is why the body was mummified, so that the soul could reactivate it and begin it’s journey in the afterlife. This afterlife was a very material one. The man who died was expected to need to eat and drink, to still enjoy perfume and beautiful clothes, to be able to hunt, and so on. Life after death was just like life before death to the Egyptians. They could imagine nothing better.
But at first the afterlife was full of dangers. First came the scarab beetle monster, which tried to eat the newly deceased body. There were poisonous snakes to be avoided. The newly awakened man had to follow a set path guided by the god Anubis the jackal headed, each time ending in front of a door guarded by one of the gods, who interrogated the man on his life and his behaviour in it. If he could answer correctly, the door would be opened and he would continue to the next one. Each step of the way was fraught with danger. Finally he would come to the Hall of Judgement, and the goddess Ma’at would place her feather in a scale against which he would place his heart, the organ of all his thoughts, hopes and fears and virtues. If the scale was not perfectly balanced, the crocodile monster would eat the newly risen body and its soul, and the man cease to exist. If his heart balanced the feather exactly, he would be admitted to the garden of life to live eternally with his wife and family and loved ones. This garden was like an ideal Nile valley, with all his needs provided for.
But each man needed help on such a dangerous journey. And the priests of ancient Egypt had the solution, a book of spells called the Scroll of the Dead, a scroll buried with each man’s body, those who could afford it. Here was listed all the magic incantations to repel monsters, answers to satisfy the questioning gods, advice on submitting the heart scarab to be balanced. Carrying it on his journey and referring to it when needed, the man would survive his ordeal and enter the garden of eternal life. Each scroll was unique: there was no standard Scroll of the Dead. Each one was created especially for the buyer under priestly consultation.
It’s easy to be cynical about other people’s beliefs. How could anyone know, I thought, what happened after death, especially in such exact detail? Wasn’t it obviously to the advantage of the priests of the gods to retail such a belief system? After all, they made a lot of money from it. It reminded me of the sale of indulgences in medieval Europe, whereby the faithful then believed they could buy an exemption of punishment time in Purgatory after death. It seemed to make sin and punishment a type of double entry book keeping and was very profitable for a while for the Catholic Church, though spiritually null.
However, one can only sympathise, and share, the Egyptians’ fear of mortality and total extinction. The faithful believed; and the growing legion of tomb robbers became more cynical.
Bearing in mind that 95% of everything from the past has vanished without a trace and that remarks about what remain are only possibilities, there are a number of points about the Scroll of the Dead that make its contents unique.
• It is the first surviving prayer book (ever thought of your prayers as spells?)
• It has the first known mention of the soul
• the first known mention of the last judgement
• The earliest conception of Paradise (the word is from a Persian word for ‘garden’)
• Paradise is very like the idea some people have today, material bodies in a life as on earth
• The soul answers interrogations of the gods, called the “negative confessions”, similar to the Ten Commandments minus the “thou shalt not”s.
This latter point suggests a connection with Moses, who has an Egyptian name, usually –mose, “–born”, as in Thutmose (Thothborn). This might mean there was a Jewish tradition that about 1500 BC (the date of Moses and of the earliest scrolls) an Egyptian priest instructed Jewish converts in one aspect of Egyptian religion at least.
Could this Scroll of the Dead and its associated beliefs have influenced the development of other religions? I have deliberately exaggerated the importance of Egypt in the history of religion here, just because it is often overlooked altogether.
In 70 AD one of the major religions of the Middle East, Judaism, was destroyed, and the Jewish people annihilated. The armies of Rome had finally retaliated against the Jews for their continual rebellions. Judaism had been a religion of sacrifice, and the holocaust of animal victims, which burnt at the Temple altars at Jerusalem night and day, was meant to suggest the pillar of fire which guided the Israelites to the Promised Land. Destroyed with the city and the Temple was an heretical sect of Jews who followed a rabbi called Joshua, or Jesus, crucified for preaching religious reform and the coming end of days and final judgement, the Romans seeing this as mere fomenting civil unrest. This year was a watershed in religious history.
What happened next was unprecedented. Judaism reincarnated itself as a different kind of religion entirely, a religion of the book. Ancient scriptures were re-examined, revised and reorganised. An influx of refugees came to the great cities of Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria. In Egypt they found a version of the scriptures in Greek (later known as the Septuagint) said to have been made about 200 years earlier. The Jews took this document and made it their Tanakh, the centre of their religion wherever it was practised all over the ancient world.
Meanwhile, a Hellenised Jew called Paul had formed a new faith based, not on the teachings, but on the death of the crucified rabbi Joshua. He did this by taking a theology from the Greek mystery religions, which were popular in his city of Tarsus, in which a god had died to bring salvation to mankind, an idea at least 4000 years old and spread all over the ancient Near and Middle East.
It was a time when people looked to the next life for salvation, an unprecedented phenomenon in the ancient world, whose religions had usually emphasised an ethical and moral life on earth. Now there was need of a saviour. The Jews looked to the Messiah, the Christians to the Christ.
Not only Jewish scholars were gathered in Egypt. The Christian Fathers, who hammered out a considered theology for Paul’s new and popular faith, were there also. Clement, Origen, Athanasius and Cyril came from Alexandria, Tertullian and Cyprian from Carthage and Augustin from Hippo.
Both Jews and Christians found a flourishing faith in Egypt, that of Isis and Horus, the mother and child who provided salvation and entrance to the afterlife for believers. The faith was not unlike that glimpsed in the Scroll of the Dead. God and his holy mother, depicted in thousands of images, statues and paintings; the saviour Osiris who died for the sins of the world; concepts new to Judaism and Christianity, such as the soul, heaven, the last judgement and eternal life. The religion of Isis was the most widespread in the ancient world at this time. Unlike later Judaism and Christianity, it was not repugnant to the Roman conquerers. The followers of Isis were willing to worship a deified Emperor because they had already been doing it for millennia.
Egypt was a melting pot. An ancient religion of the afterlife as known from the Scroll of the Dead; a flourishing faith which provided salvation for believers in the religion of Isis; a trinity of gods, Ra/Osiris/Horus; refugees from Jerusalem forging their faith anew; and Christians creating a theology for the new faith of Christianity.
The most beautiful of preserved manuscripts of the Scroll of the Dead belongs to Ani, a scribe who lived, and died, about 1250 BC in Thebes, or Waset (modern Luxor). His wife Tutu seems to have died slightly before him. Painted by a most gifted priest, the scroll is comparable to the Book of Kells, an Irish masterpiece of calligraphy from Kells in county Meath created about 800 AD, a transcription of the four Gospels.
Ani’s scroll begins with a prayer to Ra, creator of the gods:
May Ra have glory, and power, and truth-speaking, and appearance as a living soul so that he may gaze upon the Scribe Ani, who speaks truth before Osiris. Thoth and the goddess Maat mark out thy course for thee day by day. Thine enemy the Serpent hath been given over to the fire. The Serpent- fiend Sebau hath fallen headlong, his forelegs are bound in chains, and his hind legs hath Ra carried away from him. The Sons of Revolt shall never more rise up.
Then comes a hymn to Osiris:
Praise to Osiris Un-Nefer, the great god who dwelleth in Abt, the king of eternity, the lord of everlastingness, who traverseth millions of years in his existence. Thou art the King (Ati) of gods [and] men.
Then comes prayers for Ani. Thoth speaks for him:
Thoth saith: Hear ye this judgment. The heart of Osiris [Ani] hath in very truth been weighed, and his Heart-soul hath borne testimony on his behalf; his heart hath been found right by the trial in the Great Balance. There hath not been found any wickedness in him; he hath not wasted the offerings which have been made in the temples; he hath not committed any evil act; and he hath not set his mouth in motion with words of evil whilst he was upon earth.
Then comes the naming of the gods, including the door keepers, and the spells which will gain Ani passage through each door. Ani is given power and facilities to act in the underworld (beginning with a mouth with which to speak). He also wears a false beard, like the gods, to signify his divine aspect. Then another prayer to Ra, and to Osiris:
Homage to thee, O thou who art Ra when thou risest, and who art Tem when thou settest in beauty. Thou stridest over the heavens, being glad at heart. The gods of the South, the gods of the North, the gods of the West, and the gods of the East praise thee, O thou Divine Substance, from whom all living things came into being. Thou didst send forth the word when the earth was submerged with silence, O thou Only One, who didst dwell in heaven before ever the earth and the mountains came into being. Shine thou with the rays of light upon my body day by day, upon me, Osiris [Ani] the scribe, the assessor of the divine offerings of all the gods, the overseer of the granary of the Lords of Abydos, the royal scribe who loveth thee, Ani, whose word is truth, in peace.
Weighing of the heart against a feather of Ma’at
Towards the end of the scroll come the negative confessions. There are 42 of them, apparently addressed to gods of the districts of Thebes. You can almost hear the god talking, though it’s not in the text:
[Fenti: Thou shall not steal]
Hail, Fenti, who comest forth from Khemenu, I have not stolen.
[Am-khaibit: Thou shall not kill]
Hail, Am-khaibit, who comest forth from Qernet, I have not slain men and women.
[Qerrti: Thou shall not commit adultery]
Hail, Qerrti, who comest forth from Amentet, I have not committed adultery.
[Tutu: Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s wife]
Hail, Tutu, who comest forth from Ati, I have not debauched the wife of any man.
Finally comes a prayer to Ra:
Homage to thee, O Ra, the Lord of Truth, the Only One, the Lord of Eternity and Maker of Everlastingness. I have come before thee, O my Lord Ra.
And to Osiris:
Hail, my Lord Osiris, who dost hasten through eternity, whose existence is for ever, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Sovereign, God of the Gods, who live in their shrines. May this god give the power to enter in and to come forth from Khert-Neter, without repulse, at any door of the Tuat, to the soul of the Osiris Ani.
Condensed from the translation of E. A. Wallis Budge (1895) at http://hermetic.com/texts/ani.html.
There is debate on whether ideas are copied from one another in early civilisations, or arise independently in each one. Engaged in all the more because it can never be settled. I think ideas that drive the great religions either work or not. If they do they are adopted with no-one realising where they came from. You can see much in common in all living faiths, and sometimes in what survives of dead ones. For the ancient Egyptians there was faith in the gods, danger of eternal destruction, moral behaviour, divine guidance, final judgement and entry to paradise. I know I understand Ani, his concern for eternity and his fear that all he loved would be lost at death. His journey is one we all have to make.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.