Mummification Was the Only Really Important Part of Death in Ancient Egypt Essay

Mummification is perhaps the most famous part of ancient Egyptian burials, but it is certainly not the most important. It was just a facet of their beliefs, which were centred on the after life. While mummification was essential to aid their journey to the after life, there are many areas that are equally important. (El Mahdy, C. 1989) Rituals like the opening of the mouth and the weighing of the heart were significant and there were many jobs that revolved around mummification. Tombs and coffins were also part of the Ancient Egyptian beliefs. These rituals and beliefs make up the most important part of death in ancient Egypt, the after life.

Mummification was an important part of death in Ancient Egypt which stretched back to very early Egyptian history. Very early in Egyptian history, people were buried in shallow graves in the desert. The hot desert sands would preserve the body before it decomposed. Mastaba tombs came along around 3100 BC. The word “mastaba” is Arabic for “bench”, which refers to the appearance of the tombs. They had an underground chamber, with the sarcophagus inside and a funerary “chapel” on top. These tombs included false doors in attempts to stop grave robbers.

Discovery Channel, 2010) They discovered that their bodies decayed when they were not preserved by the desert. To the Egyptians this was terrible, as they believed the body had to be recognizable in order for a person to reach the afterlife. It is because of this that mummification was introduced. The frequency of finding mummified remains shows that mummification was considered important. Archaeology supports the idea that the purpose of mummification is to preserve the identity of the person. Some mummies that have been found, were dated back to the old Kingdom (2686- 2181 BC.

These mummies had their features preserved in plaster and paint, but the body was left to decay underneath. (Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P. ) Mummification in itself was not the single most important part of death, as it was simply serving a purpose in their beliefs. According to Egyptian tradition mummification was based on acts of their gods, this made it very important. The mummification process was “not only a technical process but also a ritualized one, the whole act seeking to repeat the stages in the making of the original mummy, that of Osiris. ” (Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P. Herodotus was a Greek historian who wrote about the mummification process. He had the most accurate and un-biased account.

He describes that there are different types of mummification available for wealthy and poor people. The amount of emphasis placed on the varieties of mummification available show that the ancient Egyptians had put a considerable amount of thought and time into creating their techniques. The most expensive method of mummification was reserved for Pharaoh’s, government officials and people of wealth. It involved removing the brains and all the other organs, apart from the heart and the kidneys.

They were dried and put into canopic jars. The body was wrapped in Natron for 40 days, this is a type of gum which dried out the body and preserved it. The body could lose up to 75 % of their body mass in this process. To keep the life-like presentation they would often insert objects into the body. One such example is the seeds that were placed inside Ramses 2 to preserve the shape of his nose. Fake eyes and cosmetics were occasionally added. The processes that the embalmers took to prepare the body for presentation were a significant part of mummification. Before the body was wrapped, it was coated with resin.

This was to keep their colouring dark. The word “mummy” comes from this practise as the Arabs mistook it for bitumen. From their word “mummiya” we have our modern translation of the word mummy. The body was wrapped in linen that was often made out of old clothes. Amulets and charms to protect the body were placed in the layers. The placing and purpose of such amulets were dictated by the book of the dead. Wrapping the body would take up to 15 days. (Shaw, I and Nicholson, P. ) Even if a family could not afford the more expensive mummification they still had to have some form of it.

This shows just how essential it was considered to be. The cheaper burials involved removing all the internal organs and preserving it but not wrapping it. They would simply prepare the body, so that it would not rot and then gave it back to the family. Egyptians believed that if the body decayed beyond recognition, then the person wouldn’t be able to find their body in the after life. While mummification was necessary other rituals were as well. One example is the actual funeral. When it was time for a burial to take place, family and friends would sail across the River Nile to the western side.

The funeral procession included priests, professional mourners and relatives. There were also Muu dancers who would perform ritualistic dances. There were both male and female dancers, although some of the dances were only performed by men. (A Burial in ancient Egypt, Date unknown) Professional mourners were often women. These people would cry and beat at their chests, pull out their hair and act in a generally bereaved way, as if the person was their nearest and dearest friend. It as believed that the body needed to have been mourned properly to aid its journey to the after life. Women in ancient Egypt, 2 December 2004) The act of mummification was vital but there were many people who were involved who were essential to the Egyptian beliefs as well. Priests are the most important part of the funeral procession. They held grand titles, and were in charge of the country. Priests were important but, Pharaoh was seen as God, although he could not perform duties all over the country. To do this he appointed priests. If a person was not buried properly, without food and sustenance, then they had no hope of surviving in the after life.

The priests performed the rituals that gave the person back their ability to see, touch, taste, smell and hear. The journey to the burial site is important but like mummification it is not the most important part of Egyptian burials. It however, symbolizes the journey to the after life, which is the most important part of death in ancient Egypt. It is part of a process, in which it is just another step, similar to mummification. One aspect of the ancient Egyptian beliefs that was just as noteworthy as mummification is the burials. Funerals and graves were always on the western side of the Nile.

This is because the sun sets in the west and the Egyptians associated it with death. The trip to the western side was traditionally taken on boats. This is similar to their belief that the Egyptian sun god Ra moved across the sky in a boat each day. (El Mahdy, C. 1989). Mummification was essentially a fundamental ceremony but there were others that are just as important. Among the ceremonies performed at the burial, the most important one was the opening of the mouth ceremony. It was to re- animate the body allowing the person to gain sustenance in the after life.

This was performed by the priests who would hold objects, to the mouth of the mummy. These objects were sometimes fingers, iron wood-working adzes and the foreleg of a bull. Each item represented a different part of re-animated. For instance, the leg of the bull was used to re-animate the person’s sexual activity in the afterlife. (Parsons, M. 1999) Even though mummification was crucial to the Egyptians it only dealt with the physical aspects of their beliefs. The Egyptians believed in three parts of a person. The ka, was the life force or literally ‘spiritual twin’.

This moved straight into the journey to the after life at death and they believed it needed a body to survive in. The ba, was the person’s character and this was released after death. The last part was the akh, this was the immortality of the person which lived in the heavens. The opening of the mouth ceremony was to enable the ka to come back to the body to gain sustenance. It was very important as without it the ka would starve in the after life. However the ceremony itself was not the single most important part of burial.

As part of their beliefs people were mummified and then they were placed in sarcophagi, the purchase of a coffin was one of the most important objects an Egyptian could buy. When you died you were mummified and placed in your coffin. The coffin then was placed in the sarcophagus in your tomb. The Greek word for sarcophagus literally means “flesh eater”. This is however not how the Egyptians saw it. The word can be roughly translated as “possessor of life” or “to beget”. The second translation gives the idea that the ancient Egyptians believed that from the sarcophagus the person would be reborn.

The ancient Egyptians loved word play and the same word that they used to describe this belief is also their word for egg. Hence the origins of eggs at Easter time. (Monet, J. 1999) Another aspect of death in ancient Egypt that was significant like mummification is the coffins. Coffins were made of wood, metal or pottery, often depending on the wealth of the family. One obvious difference between the burials of the wealthy and the poor is that royalty would have treasures buried with them. The peasants however did not possess those and painted pictures on the walls of their tombs and on the coffins themselves.

One particular piece of evidence that is restricted to the 11th dynasty is where coffins were always placed in a north-south position. The eastern side of the coffin was painted with eyes and lists of offerings. This also included a false door so the person could leave. The western side of the coffin was painted with pictures of the burial scene and pleas for a beautiful burial. (Monet, J. 1999) While mummification was of critical importance coffins were not overly significant. The coffin and sarcophagus were sometimes excluded in peasant burials in later Egypt.

One such example of this is the mummies found at Baharlya oasis. They were buried in a mass tomb and each without a coffin. 207 of the mummies they found at the Valley of golden Mummies did not have coffins so obviously they were not essential to aid the journey to the after life. (Redford, D. 2001) Coffins and sarcophagi did show more respect for the dead person in wanting to protect their body. The importance of mummification was reflected by funeral masks. Among the items included on the person for their burial were funeral masks. Probably the most famous of these is the solid gold mask of Tutankhamen.

Their masks were made out of many materials such as plaster, paper mache, wood and gold. These again depended on the wealth of that person. The purpose of a funerary mask is similar to that of mummification. It was to enable the person’s spirit to recognise their body and to enable them to get to the after life. Another less crucial belief than that of mummification was Ushabti. Ushabti were part of a religious tradition, they were statues of people included in the tomb who would magically come to life in the after life solely to do the person’s bidding. The word literally means “the one who answers”.

The figurines were carved individually and often with tools to help them do their work. The deceased person’s name would be written on the figure so that in the after life only that person could command them. Towards the later dynasties Ushabti or “shabti” as they came to be known also played the role of protector and body guard. Possibly the most infamous finding of Ushabti was in Tutankhamen’s tomb. He had 413 Ushabti, 365 workers for each day of the year and 48 overseers. (Mendham, T. 2004) Ushabti were not essential to aid a person to the after life.

They were certainly important part of burials in ancient Egypt, they were there because the deceased could live lives of total relaxation. There was a lot of emphasis placed on mummification but there was just as much placed on the tombs of Egyptians. The tombs themselves ranged from small holes in the desert right through to massive Pyramids. With death being such an integral part of life and the belief system in ancient Egypt, the places where the body resided were considered of much importance. To ensure a profitable after life one’s tomb had to be properly tended and sacrifices had to be made.

Pharaohs wanted to ensure that they were never forgotten. Especially as new Pharaoh’s had a habit of stealing the deceased Pharaohs accomplishments and claiming that they were theirs. To this aid larger and more impressive tombs were built. They changed from mastabas, which were very common by 2780 BC, which was when the first pyramid was built. It is called the staircase to the sun because of its shape. Tomb robbers, however put an end to pyramids. Instead the wealth, power and excellence of the Pharaoh’s were hidden away in places like the Valley of the Kings.

There were many important parts to mummification just as there are to the ancient Egyptian tombs. Tombs traditionally included hieroglyphs which would contain passages from the “Book of the Dead”. The writings and pictures depicted can be generally classified into three different groups. There were pictures of daily life. These included scenes and memories from the individual. For instance, the Pharaohs had pictures of the battles they had won. The second group are the paintings that relate to the journey to the after life. They included the names of the gods, the testing undertaken and offerings they gave.

Also the spells to stop tomb robbers are included here. The final group were the ones that would provide sustenance in the after life. These were pictures of funerary gifts that the deceased could use. (The evolution of tombs in Ancient Egypt, Date unknown) While a tomb was important, I do not believe it was the only important aspect of an Egyptian burial. I would place it ‘on par’ with mummification, in its purpose of helping the dead to find the after life. The aspect of Egyptian death that I consider to be the most important is their belief in the journey to the after life. I believe this to be more important that mummification.

Getting to the after life was a journey that started at death and ended in a land the same as Egypt for ever. The Egyptians saw death as the beginning of eternity. It was believed that only those who had lived a moral life would have any chance at entering. The first test that you had to pass in order to reach the after life was where you were asked questions by Osiris, the god of the dead. The questions were a moral and ritual test. It was believed that Osiris and 42 judges would test you to see of you could move on. The second test was the all important “weighing of the heart ceremony”.

In this your heart was weighed against a feather. A feather is the symbol of truth and is related to the Egyptian God Ma’at. If your heart balanced with the feather you were free to go to the after life. If it did not, however you were cast in to hellish pits, tortured and fed to Amit. To the Egyptians this would be absolutely horrible as it would be the end of their life. They spent their mortal life trying to avoid this fate. (Redford, D. 2001) Mummification ended after the 70 days but the after life stretched on for ever. The journey to the after life could only be navigated with the book of the dead and magic.

Magic was used to defeat the monsters and the numerous dangers on the way and the book of the dead was the map. Having negotiated the danger and arriving safely in the after life, the deceased person would then have an idyllic life of total bliss. The Egyptians did not want anything different, their after life was exactly the same as the place they had just left. For those who had lived a good life they now had to opportunity to spend the rest of eternity in peace. This is such a big part of all of Ancient Egypt. Their whole lives were dedicated to achieving this aim.

The after life is the most important part of death in Ancient Egypt. (Redford, D. 2001) Mummification, the pyramids, pulling the brains out through the nose and the pharaohs are all very famous and important aspects of Ancient Egyptian lifestyles. In my opinion, I think that the only aspect of Egyptian deaths that affected a whole life was the after life. The other things, while they may seem more impressive and grand did not start as soon as you were old enough to talk. The journey to the after life encompassed all of Egyptian life, death and their rebirth and consequent after life.

The after life is the most important and mummification is only a facet of that belief. All the rituals were used to achieve the aim of entering the after life. This is the most important part of death in ancient Egypt but all aspects including mummification are important and were needed to achieve this goal.

 Works Referenced in Essay

1. El Mahdy, C. 1989, “Mummies, Myth and Magic in Ancient Egypt”, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, pg 100-150. 2. Discovery channel, 2010 “Mastaba” Retrieved March 27, 2010 from http://www. yourdiscovery. com/egypt/monuments/mastabas/index. html 3. Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P. “Mastaba” British Museum dictionary of ancient Egypt pg 172-173 4. Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P. “Mummification” British Museum dictionary of ancient Egypt pg 190-192 5. Author unknown, Date unknown, “A burial in ancient Egypt” Retrieved April 12, 2010 from http://ib205. tripod. com/burial. html 6. Author unknown, 2 December 2004, “Women in Ancient Egypt” Retrieved April 12, 2010 from http://www. mediterraneas. org/article. php3? id_article=61, 7. Parsons, M. 1999, “The Opening of the mouth ritual” Retrieved April 12, 2010 from http://www. touregypt. et/featurestories/open. htm 8. Monet, J. 1999, “The coffins of Ancient Egypt” Retrieved April 13, 2010 from http://www. touregypt. net/featurestories/coffins. htm 9. “Egypt beyond the Pyramids: Death and the journey to the after life”, 2001, DVD, Dr. Donald Redford Bibliography Books El Mahdy, C. 1989, “Mummies, Myth and Magic in Ancient Egypt”, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, pg 100-150. Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P. “Mastaba” British Museum dictionary of ancient Egypt pg 172-173 Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P. “Mummification” British Museum dictionary of ancient Egypt pg 190-192 Internet sites

Author unknown, Date unknown, “A burial in ancient Egypt” Retrieved April 12, 2010 from http://ib205. tripod. com/burial. html Author unknown, Date unknown, “Priests and Priestesses” Retrieved April 12, 2010 from http://www. crystalinks. com/egyptpriests. html Author unkown, Date unknown, “The evolution of tombs in Ancient Egypt” Retrieved April 13 from http://ib205. tripod. com/tombs. html Author unknown, 2 December 2004, “Women in Ancient Egypt” Retrieved April 12, 2010 from http://www. mediterraneas. org/article. php3? id_article=61, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 1990. Life in Ancient Egypt” Retrieved April 13, 2010 from http://www. carnegiemnh. org/exhibitions/egypt/guide. htm Discovery channel, 2010 “Mastaba”

Retrieved March 27, 2010 from http://www. yourdiscovery. com/egypt/monuments/mastabas/index. shtml Mendham, T. 2004, “Ushabti” Retrieved April 13, 2010 from http://www. wyrdology. com/other/ushabti. html Monet, J. 1999, “The coffins of Ancient Egypt” Retrieved April 13, 2010 from http://www. touregypt. net/featurestories/coffins. htm Parsons, M. 1999, “The Opening of the mouth ritual” Retrieved April 12, 2010 from http://www. touregypt. et/featurestories/open. htm Wikipedia, 2010, “Mastaba” Retrieved March 25, 2010 from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Mastaba Class handouts “Art in Ancient Egypt” Received March 15, 2010, Mr. Moyle “Aspects of Egyptian Religion” Received March 22, 2010, Mr. Moyle “Early Egyptian History” Received March 15, 2010, Mr. Moyle “List of Egyptian gods” Received March 18, 2010, Mr. Moyle “Lives of non-royal women” Received March 22, 2010, Mr. Moyle “Pyramids” Received March 17, 2010, Mr. Moyle Class Movies “Egypt beyond the Pyramids: Death and the journey to the after life”, 2001, DVD, Dr. Donald Redford

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