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The Egyptian Conception of Immortality by George Andrew Reisner 1911



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.