Ancient Egypt and the Quest for Immortality

Me at the Pyramid of Zoser, Saqqara (first pyramid ever)

Me at the Pyramid of Zoser, Saqqara (first pyramid ever)

Last night I watched the second and final episode of Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings hosted by Dr Joann Fletcher. You can read my review of episode one here. In this episode, we learned about the preparations that Kha and Meryt took towards burial as well as the story of the modern archaeologists who found their tomb intact in 1906. And this is what ancient Egypt is most famous for.

After being mummified not by being dried out entirely as we usually learn of it but, rather, being basically pickled with all their organs intact, Kha and Meryt were buried in their tomb near their home village of Deir El-Medina. Meryt died first and was buried in a sarcophagus that looks to have been built originally for Kha. First, however, rites were performed at their funerary chapel. The gilt sarcophagus would have been set on its bottom and then a seventy-step ceremony would have been conducted to revivify the senses of the ka of Kha — that is, his spirit. There would also have been professional mourners — of course.

Most ancient Egyptians would locate their tomb directly beneath their funerary chapel. However, after 2000 years of tomb raiding, people like Kha got smart. He built his lovely funerary chapel at the edge of Deir El-Medina, but located his tomb nearby down through a steep-sided hole in the cliff face beside the village. Thus no one found it until 1906.

The tomb was sealed up and hidden by rubble. Once Kha and Meryt were within, the remaining rites would be performed at the funerary chapel. In the tomb they had most of their earthly goods, including make-up and perfume, jewellery, food, and other things necessary for the afterlife — including little, carved slaves called shabti.

Entombed with them was one of the longest, intact Books of the Dead we have. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, contrary to what viewers of The Mummy in 1999 may think, is not a big, black book bound along one edge full of magical spells that can raise the dead. It is a long, papyrus scroll full of magical spells to assist the deceased in his passage to paradise and the green-faced god Osiris.

One of the concerns that we see played out both in the Book of the Dead as well as some tomb walls and in every papyrus shoppe in Cairo is the judgement of the heart (that is, soul) of the deceased, weighed on scales by Anubis and a god who escapes my memory. If the life of the deceased was not true, was not holy enough, the heart is thrown to a beast that devours it. Thus, one of the objects included in a mummy’s wrappings is a heart scarab, that weighs down the heart to prevent it from speaking ill of the deceased at the judgement.

You can see the appeal of this scene of judgement to a modern Egyptian Muslim.

Immortality is something that people long for. Thus, we have Pliny discussing the idea of immortality through art, as I’ve blogged before. Or Cicero’s scheme to erect a shrine in honour of his dead daughter, hoping to deify her. Or that episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where an entrepreneur determines that death happens because our cells get bored, so he develops a device that can keep them from boredom.

A friend of mine once read a book arguing that all religion stems from our fear of death and desire for immortality. I disagree — I think it comes from a reading of all religion through the modernist distortion of Christianity as simply a ‘Get into Heaven (or out of Hell) free card’. But, certainly, the fear of death and the desire for immortality — or, perhaps, a sense that the soul of the deceased does not simply cease to exist at bodily death — are aspects of many religions and philosophies.

Egyptian pyramids and funerary temples or chapels are certainly religious testimonies, along with the Book of the Dead. The last phrase of the Apostles’ Creed is a belief in the life of the world to come. Hindus believe in immortality through reincarnation. Romans believed that people could possibly become gods and that ancestral spirits were present in their homes — and they had rites as a result of these beliefs..

Today, people scoff at such beliefs. But neuroscience will never fully explain everything about the human soul. We may be psychosomatic unities, but that does not mean that when the soma, the body, dies, the psyche, the soul or mind, dies with it.

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