The spirituality of ancient Egypt

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 22 Aug 2023

Zahi Hawass describes the funerary beliefs of the ancient Egyptians and their relationship to the Earth’s natural cycles

Zahi Hawass
Zahi Hawass


The natural world inspired the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, as the sun rose with light and warmth each morning and each evening set into a darkness that lasted until the next dawn, when the sun rose again. 

Every year, the Nile River flooded the land, and then it receded again, leaving the fields renewed with fresh mud that slowly dried out until the flood came again the next year. 

These daily and annual cycles provided models for the varied symbolism that the ancient Egyptians used to express their idea that human existence was much the same as the environment in which they lived. Death was not an end any more than the sunset was. This belief was a comfort for the ancient Egyptians, but it also made the afterlife important to them long before death and caused them to devote great attention to their tombs.

At death, the ancient Egyptians believed that a person’s existence fragmented into several different elements, which included the ka, the ba, and the akh. The ka was the individual’s life-force and protective “genius” or spirit. Present in life, it had the same needs as the living individual after death: Food, drink, and shelter. 

Thus, the ancient Egyptians built tombs for the ka as a dwelling place where the living could visit to present offerings. Usually depicted as a human-headed bird, the ba was a more mobile entity that could leave the tomb to travel not only among the living but also to the celestial regions and the underworld.

The ba had to find its way to the Judgement Hall of Osiris, lord of the underworld.

In the ancient Egyptian belief system, the god Osiris had been appointed king of all Egypt by his father, the god Atum, but Osiris’s envious brother, Set, slew him. Osiris’s sister-wife Isis found his corpse, bound it up, and, with the help of the jackal god Anubis and others, restored it to life. Upon his resurrection, Osiris retired from the world of the living to rule the underworld. 

Here, Osiris held court with 42 assessor gods. The ba had to convince these gods that the individual had not sinned during life. After this so-called “negative confession”, Anubis weighed the individual’s heart against the “feather of truth”, symbol of the goddess Maat, while Osiris, who appeared as a mummified king, looked on. Those who failed to pass the judgment were denied entry into the realm of Osiris and died a second and final time.

The focus of many ancient Egyptian funerary practices was to unite the ka and the ba after death. Once this was achieved, the deceased became an akh, a transfigured spirit whose place in the afterlife was assured. 

To accomplish this, the ka needed a “home base”, which was provided by the mummified corpse. To protect the body, and thus the ka as well, the ancient Egyptians developed elaborate tomb structures. The details of the architecture varied in time and place, but the tomb typically featured a niche in a wall or a false door that allowed the dead to emerge in order to receive offerings from the living.

Mummification: Evidence for such beliefs appears in the earliest phases of ancient Egyptian civilisation. 

In the Predynastic Period, a deceased male or female was laid in a shallow grave in the desert, their body covered with matting or animal skin and placed in a fetal position facing the rising sun. The ancient Egyptians noticed the benefit of the dry climate of the desert, where the hot sand dried and preserved the corpse in an almost lifelike form.

When new burial customs developed for the wealthy, who were interred encased in a wooden coffin, the desert could no longer naturally desiccate the body. Therefore, the ancient Egyptians began centuries of experimentation to recreate the end effect of the natural process. No later than the 2nd Dynasty, they had begun attempts to preserve the body artificially.

How the ancient Egyptians mummified bodies has been deduced from examination of the mummies themselves and other archaeological remains, ancient written sources, rare artistic representations, and modern experimentation. The details of the process varied over time and by what the deceased could afford, but in general the process of mummification for those of the upper levels of society was as follows.

After being washed, the body was brought to a workshop called the wabet wat, or “pure place”, or the per nefer, or the “good house”. Here the embalming process began. The lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines were removed through an incision typically made in the left abdomen. These organs were then dried with natron (naturally occurring hydrated sodium carbonate), wrapped, and either returned to the body cavity or placed in so-called “canopic” jars. 

The brain, which decays quickly, was extracted through a hole pierced through the nasal cavity. Embalmers left in place the heart, thought to be the source of human intelligence. These initial steps probably took about four days, after which the disemboweled body was packed with natron and resin to dry it out completely, a procedure that took another approximately 40 days.

Next the embalmers had to transform this emaciated corpse into something resembling its former, living self. Before the incision was sewn up, the internal cavity was filled with cloth and other materials that would maintain the shape of the body. Artificial eyes of stone, glass, or wood were sometimes inserted. Embalmers coated the skin with oils and resins.

Now the body was now ready for bandaging, an operation performed according to a lengthy ritual over the course of 15 days. Each finger and toe was wrapped individually and, in the case of royalty, covered with a gold stall. Arms were positioned, either straight or folded, at the chest, stomach, or beside the body. Legs were wrapped separately before being bound together. 

Metres of linen bandages, sealed with hot resin, enveloped the body and head. Protective jewelry and amulets, often of gold or semi-precious stones, were inserted at specific points in the wrappings. For royalty or the wealthy, a gold or gilded mask was placed over the head.

Mummification was as much a ritual as a practical procedure. Some of these procedures were performed by an embalmer wearing a jackal mask that covered his head and shoulders, so that he could assume the guise of the god Anubis, who had helped Isis resurrect Osiris. Other priests read aloud instructions and other texts, and performed rituals throughout the procedure. The finished mummy was now ready for the funeral rites.

In the New Kingdom, the whole process took 70 days, a period that may have been connected more with mythological ideas than with practical necessity. This was the same number of days for which the star Sirius (“Sothis” to the ancient Greeks and “Sopdet” to the ancient Egyptians) disappeared below the horizon before reappearing.

The ancient Egyptians were aware of this Sothic cycle and believed it to be a period when Sothis was renewed in the primeval waters (Nun) followed by rebirth.


Funerary rituals: The ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom “Story of Sinuhe” describes the mummy’s journey to the tomb in glowing terms.

 “A funeral procession is made for you on the day of the burial; the mummy case is of gold, its head of lapis lazuli. The sky is above you as you lie in the hearse, oxen drawing you, musicians going before you. The dance of the muu-dancers is done at the door of your tomb; the offering is read to you, sacrifice is made before your offering stone,” it says.

Relatives of the dead accompanied the procession. Women (either relatives or professional mourners) wailed, tore their clothes and hair, and sometimes collapsed from grief. Two women enacted the roles of Isis and Nephthys, the sister goddesses who found the body of Osiris. Ideally, the priest who performed rites at the entrance to the tomb was the eldest son of the deceased. He acted as a human representative of the god Horus, who had inherited the throne from his father, Osiris, after a struggle with his father’s murderer. 

By touching the mouth, eyes, and nose of the mummy with various implements in the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, the attendant priest restored the senses to the corpse and enabled the ba to return. Once the rituals were completed, the mummy, coffin, and grave goods were taken into the burial chamber. The tomb shaft was often filled up with stones and rubble to prevent robbery.

Relatives and other mourners enjoyed a funerary feast in which the deceased was expected to participate. At various times throughout the year, the family would return to the tomb chapel to share a meal with the dead, whom they considered to be part of the extended family. 

In return for regular food offerings, the dead ancestors were supposed to use their spirit powers to bring prosperity and ward off misfortune for the living. To ensure continued offerings, wealthy people would endow property, especially land, to support their cult and for the payment of a funerary priest, the hem-ka, or “servant of the ka.” 

The person appointed was very often one of the heirs, so the property remained within the family, while the dead were supplied with their needs.


Royal tombs: In the earliest Dynasties, two types of royal burials developed. 

At Abydos, the ancient Egyptian kings were buried in the desert in pits lined with bricks and covered with a mound of sand. This symbolised the primeval mound that, at the time of creation, arose from the watery chaos.

Another structure, nearer to the cultivated land, served as a funerary palace for the cult of the dead king. At Saqqara, tombs were flat-topped and rectangular mud-brick structures known today as mastabas. These buildings, which resembled palaces, served as dwellings for the dead.

The huge pyramids surrounded by elaborate complexes that developed in the 3rd Dynasty descended from these simpler tombs. For most of the next thousand years, kings and many of their queens were buried in pyramids that symbolised the primordial mound or benben. The largest of these arose at Giza, burial place of the kings of the 4th Dynasty. 

The pyramids of the Middle Kingdom were built mostly of mud brick and had extensive subterranean passageways constructed to resemble the tomb of the god Osiris or the “winding waterways” of the netherworld. In both the Old and Middle Kingdoms, royal tombs became a focal point of cemeteries that included members of the king’s family and those of non-royal birth.

They hoped to share in the king’s passage to the next life.

By the New Kingdom, ancient Egypt’s kings had realised the weaknesses of such monumental tombs as targets for thieves. So, instead they turned to the desert hills west of Thebes, the city that was the primary cult centre for the god of the state, Amun. 

Beginning with Hatshepsut (and possibly her father Tuthmosis I), the ancient Egyptian kings hid their burial chambers in the Valley of the Kings, which except during the reign of the “heretic king” Akhenaten, would remain the official royal necropolis until the 20th Dynasty.

Besides being secure, the Valley presented symbolism that was all-important to the ancient Egyptians. The entire Theban massif was seen as the land of the dead. The western mountains have roughly the shape of a recumbent cow and are thus linked with the great goddess Hathor who was long worshipped in the bay of cliffs at nearby Deir Al-Bahri. 

In the ancient Egyptian mythology, Hathor was thought to receive the setting sun so that she could carry him in her body, through which he would be reborn each morning. Furthermore, a pyramidal peak, known today as Al-Qurn, or “the Horn”, surmounts the Valley of the Kings. So, the kings continued to be buried in association with a representation of the primordial mound or benben.

The royal tombs cut into the desert hills were often elaborate, with ramps or steps, deep well shafts, and pillared halls. In the 18th Dynasty, the tomb plan was not straight but had turns and bends, a design perhaps descended from the underground mazes of the 12th Dynasty pyramids. 

Because the tombs were hidden, royal mortuary cults were celebrated in temples that were, like those of the Early Dynasty kings at Abydos, near the floodplain. Taken together, the mortuary temple and the tomb together created a “machine” that would achieve the resurrection and eternal life of the dead king.


Religious texts: By the 5th and 6th Dynasties, the royal pyramids had become smaller, but they now also had a new feature: the “Pyramid Texts”, or spells inscribed on interior walls to help the king’s soul ascend to the sky and traverse the perilous landscape of the afterlife. 

By the Middle Kingdom, these had evolved into the “Coffin Texts” that were often painted on the large wooden coffins of those wealthy enough for a good burial. The afterlife had thus been “democratised,” and anyone could aspire to become Osiris and to identify themselves with the sun god Re, privileges previously available only to the king.

The New Kingdom descendants of these spells appeared in what the ancient Egyptians called the “Book of Coming Forth by Day”, better known as the “Book of the Dead”. These spells were written on papyrus, tomb walls, objects, and later on coffins. They occurred in the context of royal tombs, but were also available to any who could afford them.

This was not true for all funerary texts, however. Some, elaborately illustrated, remained reserved exclusively for use in royal tombs. They depicted the nightly journey of the sun god Re. The dead king was thought to travel aboard Re’s boat as it passed through the 12 regions of the underworld, bringing light to the inhabitants there. Some of their modern titles are descriptive of how the ancient Egyptians envisioned the divisions of the netherworld: the “Book of Gates,” for example, and the “Book of Caverns”.

The Amduat, or “Book of What is in the Underworld”, outlines in great detail the journey of the sun god through the 12 hours of night. At the beginning of the first hour, the sun sets over the western horizon, paralleling the death of the king. During the succeeding hours, the sun god travels through the Duat (underworld) in his boat, accompanied by a select group of gods. 

His crew included many gods, including Sia, the personification of mind and thought; the jackal-headed Wepwawet, “The Opener of Ways”; the Mistresses of the Barque, a series of 12 goddess, one of whom appears in the form of Hathor or Isis in each hour; the destroyer god Nehes, who protects the boat from its enemies; and Hu, manifestation of the divine utterance.

For the first five hours, the god and his entourage descended deeper and deeper into the earth, encountering both friendly and inimical denizens of the Duat as they passed through the various landscapes of the underworld. In the sixth hour, the travelers reached the deepest, darkest part of the netherworld, where the sun god was united with Osiris and received the energy and magical power required for resurrection. 

The next hour was the moment of greatest danger when the snake Apophis would try to swallow the sun but would be defeated. During the remainder of the night, the solar barque would travel along in an upward arc until it reached the eastern horizon at the end of 12 hours. 

At this moment the sun would be reborn in the form of a scarab beetle and begin its daily journey through the daytime sky. At the same time, the deceased king would be resurrected and enter eternal life.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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