With the exception of certain mythological explanations supplied by the
inscriptions and reliefs in the temples, our knowledge of Egyptian ideas
in regard to the future life is based on funerary customs as revealed by
excavations and on the funerary texts found in the tombs. These tombs
always show the same essential functions through all changes of form,—the
protection of the burial against decay and spoliation, and the provision
of a meeting-place where the living may bring offerings to the dead.
Correspondingly, there are two sets of customs,—burial customs and
offering customs. The texts follow the same division. For the offering
place, the texts are magical formulas which, properly recited by the
living, provide material benefit for the dead. For the burial place, the
texts are magical formulas to be used by the spirit for its own benefit in
the difficulties of the spirit life. These texts from the burial chambers
are found in only a few graves,—those of the very great,—and their
contents show us that they were intended only for people whose earthly
position was exceptional.
From the funerary customs and the offering texts, a clear view is
obtained of the general conception, the ordinary practice. We see what was
regarded as absolutely essential to the belief of the common man. From the
texts found in the burial chambers we get the point of view of the
educated or powerful man, the things that might be done to gain for him an
exceptional place in the other world. Both of these classes of material
must be considered, in order to gain a true idea of the practical beliefs.
For it must be emphasized from the beginning that we have in Egypt several
apparently conflicting conceptions of immortality. Nor are we anywhere
near obtaining in the case of the texts the clearness necessary to
understand fully all the differing views held by the priestly classes
during a period of over two thousand years.