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Mummies Excavation Egyptian Afterlife Activities Teaching Links

Other Burial Artifacts

Amulets | Canopic Jars | Ushebtis | Book of the Dead

We see the ancient world as one that, while certainly having a romantic element, was fraught with dangers that we would consider insurmountable. Famine, plague, disease, and the endless cycle of drought and flood constantly reminded the Egyptians that perhaps only in the afterlife could one find relief. It should always be remembered, though, that this journey was one in which death was but the first step.

Paramount to any concern of the afterlife was appeasement of the gods and goddesses one would meet there. As with most polytheistic societies of antiquity, the Egyptians populated the heavens with those who helped explain the natural world. The representation of gods with the head of a jackal, or as a hippopotamus, or winged like a falcon indicates how close Egyptians were to a world that remained essentially wild. Gods and goddesses were metaphors and mentors, so that while they embodied the world for the Egyptians, they also guided them through it.

There are hundreds of different gods and goddesses, and there can never be an authoritative or exhaustive list of them all. Why? Simply because there were as many gods as were needed; i.e., not every god was worshipped everywhere throughout the kingdom. For instance, Khnum, a creator, held sway at Elephantine, but was not so fervently adored elsewhere. His consort changes as well; it could be Heqet, Sati, or Neith, depending on where you were, and reflecting his importance.

The vast array of divinities led the Egyptians to meticulous preparations, for you never knew whom you might meet, "beyond." The death of the physical body did not carry with it a sense of finality in ancient Egypt. They would be accompanied to their tombs amid splendor and extravagance. It is important to remember that the afterlife was just that: a new life one began after ending the earthly one. If someone had the good fortune to be able to prepare for his funeral, then there were certain elements that were indispensable. It was important for that which gave pleasure in life to accompany the dead into the beyond. There is little wonder that these objects, while religious in nature, were as stunningly beautiful to their original owners as they are to the modern viewer.



amuletAmulets, as adornments and accessories, were natural tokens of status and happiness. Once the mummification of the body was complete, the embalmers chose exquisite linen in which to wrap the body. If an ancient Egyptian were lucky enough to be able to prepare for the afterlife, he chose the amulets that accompanied him inside the mummy case with the utmost care. Chief among the amulets were scarabs. Egyptians observed beetles rolling dung balls around and this became a metaphor for the daily path of the sun as propelled by Khepri, the sun god. Not as elegant or stately a metaphor as other cultures, perhaps, but it is with breathtaking ingenuity that the Egyptians managed to create such beautiful items. Amulets had as many shapes as they did purposes. Headrests were miniaturized copies of that upon which the Egyptian slept while alive. Charms inscribed on papyrus dangled from the neck of the corpse as protection in the next life. The wedjet eye had special significance, as it symbolized the gouged eye of Horus, as perpetrated by Seth. Since the doctor to the gods, Thoth, could not heal the eye fully, each amulet is incomplete, that is, missing some element. The primary goal of the afterlife - renewal - took shape in amulets by observation of the natural world. Lizards that regenerated tails, snakes that shed their skin, lotus blossoms that opened and closed regularly all became symbols to the Egyptian.

Canopic Jars

Canopic JarThe canopic jars that held the viscera of the dead secured protection from the gods assigned to each organ once it was removed and desiccated. So important were the organs that each jar containing the liver, the stomach, the intestines, and the lungs had dedicated protectors. (Respectively, they were Imsety, Duamutef, Qebehsenuef, and Hapy.) Each a son of Horus, who, as the avenging son of Isis and Osiris achieved embodiment in each new Pharaoh, the gods had different heads (human, jackal, falcon, and baboon) that served as models for the jar stoppers.


UshebtiNecessary to the burial of any prominent citizen during the Old Kingdom were small figurines, called shabtis, or ushebtis, in various poses of labor These were meant to perform any manual task that the body might be called upon to perform in the afterlife. The putative laborers held specific tools, reflecting how intricately layered Egyptian society was. By the time of the Middle Kingdom ushebtis replaced the working figurines. Conveying sacred text, such as extracts from the Book of Going Forth by Day, hieroglyphics wound around the figurine invoking gods, pledging servitude, and speaking of the great work before them. The ushebtis also acted as adjuncts to the Egyptian calendar. The number of shabtis and ushebtis accompanying the dead to the afterlife varied; there could be as few or several, or even hundreds. Some adhered to the number 401. This is one for every day of the year, plus 36 overseers. Ushebtis would also work the fields in lands given over to the region of the dead.

Book of the Dead

Book of the DeadPrimarily, the Book of the Dead was a codification of earlier texts that came to explain the religion of the Egyptians - a process that took many centuries. Consisting of spells and arcane references to the underworld, the Book of the Dead and the Amduat (essentially a tour guide) assisted the dead in their treacherous navigation of a world closed to mere mortals. Those that could afford to do so had personalized inscriptions made on coffins and other funerary objects. Protection from gods or goddesses with whom one had an affinity, or at whose temple one worshipped, was extra insurance, and coffin makers painted likeness on coffins, vases, and the like

Did you know?
Kheper means scarab beetle. The kheper sometimes lays its eggs inside a dung ball. Later, newborn beetles hatch from it as if magically created out of nothing. Ancient Egyptians believed that, like the beetle, the sun was reborn from death. Thus, the scarab beetle god Khepri became a symbol of the rising sun and rebirth.

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