Ancient Egyptian Burial Customs
Mummies Preserved Egyptian Souls
The Ancient Egyptians possessed an elaborate set of burial rituals, believed to ensure immortality in the afterlife.
These included mummification, the casting of spells and burial goods, including furniture, weapons, make-up and food.
The Egyptian Soul
The Egyptians claimed that it was important to preserve as much of a person’s body following death as possible. They asserted that a person’s corporeal remains must be conserved in order to preserve a person’s ka and ba, the soul and personality. Upon death, the ka and ba combined with the akh, the ghostly representation of the deceased’s physical body to form a complete person once again. However, this could only be accomplished if the physical body was intact. If it was not, the Egyptians believed that the ka and ba would wander the underworld forever, searching for the akh.
Evidence of Mummification
The first evidence of mummification appeared during the Old Kingdom, early in Egypt’s recorded history. Mummification remained one of the principle practices of Egyptian burials all the way until the end of the Ptolmeic Period in the year 30 BC. However, the technique was not perfected until the beginning of the New Kingdom.
Mortuary services were available to anyone who could pay for them. However, due to its complexity and time consuming nature, mummification was restricted to the very wealthy, the nobility and the royal family. The mummification of a high ranking member of Egyptian society, such as the pharaoh could take as long as 70 days.
The Egyptian Mummification Process
No primary sources describing the complete human embalming process survive, but Herodotus’ description of the mummification of the Apis bull, combined with detailed forensic studies of mummified remains, has allowed Egyptologists to reconstruct the Egyptian mummification process.
The basic technique involved laying the body on a flat surface. A priest then cut an opening in the abdominal cavity. Following this, the internal organs were removed. The only organ left in the body was the heart. This was because the Egyptians believed that the heart contained a person`s essence and was the centre of intelligence. In more elaborate rituals, such as the mummification of a pharaoh, the priest would wear a jackal mask. This was a symbolic representation of Anubis, the Egyptian god of death, mummification, and the ruler of the underworld.
The Egyptians believed that the brain had no purpose and accelerated the decomposition process. They removed the brain by first breaking the thin bone that separated the cranial and nasal cavities. They then inserted a long rod with a hook on the end and stirred the brain tissue until it became liquid. It was then drained out through the nasal passage.
The body was washed inside and out with water and palm wine. The body and the internal organs were then packed in a special salt called natron for 40 days. This was done to dry out the body and prevent it from decomposing, as well as to stop the growth of bacteria.
At the end of this 40 day period, the body and internal organs were wrapped in linen strips sealed with resin. Hidden in the wrappings of the body were numerous magical amulets. These were meant to protect the body on its journey to the underworld.
The mummified body was then delivered to the family of the deceased for burial.
Egyptian Burial Traditions
After the mummy was prepared a symbolic ritual called the Opening of the Mouth was performed. A priest would touch each part of the mummy’s body with a ceremonial adze, thus restoring sight, touch, taste and movement to the mummy for its journey to the underworld. It was also common for mummies to be provided with funerary literature. This consisted of lists of spells meant to help the individual ward off evil spirits.
Taylor, John. 2001. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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