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The Egyptian Conception of Immortality by George Andrew Reisner 1911



Another change comes in the Fourth Dynasty, and is to be noted first in the royal tombs, as is always the case. The Egyptians had now learned to cut stone and build with it. The burial chambers hollowed in the solid rock were necessarily smaller than the old chambers dug in the gravel and no longer sufficient to contain the great mass of furniture gathered by a king for his grave. On the other hand, the chapels with the increase in architectural skill could be build of great size. Corresponding to these technical conditions we find a great increase in the importance of the chapel. It becomes a great temple, whose magazines were filled with all those objects which had formerly been placed in the burial chamber and were so necessary to the life of the spirit. The temples of the third pyramid, for example, contained nearly two thousand stone vessels. Great estates were set aside by will, and the income appointed to the support of certain persons who on their side were obliged to keep up the temple, to make the offerings and to recite the magical formulas which would provide the spirit with all its necessities.

Following closely the growth in importance of the royal chapels, the private offering places assumed a greater importance. The custom of periodic offerings and the use of magical texts grew until it reached its highest point in the Fifth Dynasty. At this time there is a burial chamber deep underground where the dead was laid securely in ancient traditional attitude, with his clothing and a few personal ornaments. As a rule, it is only the women, always conservative, that have anything more. Above this grave, there is a solid rectangular structure, with a chapel or offering place on the side towards the valley. The offering place is always there, no matter how poor or small the tomb. But to understand just what the Egyptian thought, we must turn to the better tombs. The walls are of limestone carved with reliefs representing the important processes of daily life,—sowing, reaping, cattle-herding, hunting, pot-making, weaving,—all those actions which furnish the daily supplies. The dead man is represented overseeing all this. Finally, near the offering niche, he is represented seated, usually with his wife at a table bearing loaves of the traditional ta bread. Beside him are represented heaps of provisions—meat, cakes, vegetables, wine and beer. A list of objects is never missing, marked with numbers,—a thousand loaves of bread, a thousand head of cattle, a thousand jars of wine, a thousand garments, and so on. We know from latter inscriptions that these words, properly recited, created for the spirit a store of spirit objects in equal numbers. Below the niche is an altar for receiving actual offerings of food and drink. It is clear that the living, coming to this offering place with or without material offerings, could, by proper recitation, secure to the spirit of the dead all its daily needs. This offering niche is the door of the other world —symbolically and actually. In many graves the niche is carved to represent a door—sometimes opening in, and sometimes opening out. Moreover, in several cases the figure of the dead is carved half emerging from the opening door—a figure in all ways like the figure of the dead as he is represented in the scenes from life. Beyond this door lives the spirit of the dead.

In many offering chambers there is a small hole in the wall, either in the offering niche or in another place. If this hole be properly lighted and the space beyond has not been changed by decay or violation, the light falls on the face of a statue of the dead looking forth to the world of the living. For behind the wall is another chamber, closed except for this small hole. This hidden chamber contains statues of the dead often accompanied by statues of his family and his servants. These statues of the dead are labeled with his name, and are said to be the abode of his spirit, his ka, as the Egyptians called it. Moreover, all the offering formulas named the ka as the recipient of the food and drink. The duplicate spirit of the man is his ka. In these statues we have, then, a simulacrum of the man provided for use of his ka—perhaps to assist the ka to the persistence of his earthly form, and to the remembrance of his name. But what were the uses of the subsidiary statues? What spirit resided in them? The man's son in his turn died, and a similar room was made for him with his statue and his subsidiary statues. Did his ka live both in the statue placed with his father's statue and also in the statue in his own grave? We have no answer. Probably the Egyptian mind never formulated the difficulty.

But the new idea is clearly expressed. It is no longer necessary to fill the burial chamber with a mass of household furniture for the use of the dead. All these things can be carved on the wall of the burial chamber and so made effective for his use. It was in any case necessary to supply his food by means of the offerings, and it was quite as easy to supply all his other necessities in the same way. In other words, there is a distinct growth in the use of magic to benefit the dead. At the same time, we find the growth of the custom of supplying a special abode for the ka—a simulacrum of the man, which assisted the ka to retain the form of the living man and to remember his identity.

The tendency of this period is then to place a greater dependence on magic than on food, drink, and grave furniture. It is, therefore, not surprising to find introduced, for the first time, the use of magical texts in the burial chamber,—the so-called Pyramid Texts. In the burial chamber in the pyramid of Unas, last king of the Fifth Dynasty, and in the pyramids of the kings of the Sixth Dynasty, the walls are covered with long magical texts or chapters—the oldest form of the so-called book of the dead or “book of the going forth by day.” The texts were probably somewhat older, but are now used for the first time in this manner, no doubt owing to the increased facility in carving stone. In these the various powers of the other world are invoked by the incidents of the Osiris-Isis legend, to preserve the dead body, to feed the ka, and to assist the other spirit, the ba, in its struggles with supernatural powers.

The pyramid texts introduce us to three important ideas,—(1) a curious plurality of the spirit existence, (2) a condition of immortality better than that of the old underworld or Earu, and (3) most important of all, the identification of the king with Osiris according to the terms of the Osiris-Isis legend.

In all the older offering formulas it is only the ka spirit which is mentioned. Here is the body perishable and destructible; here is the life, the ka which fills every limb and vessel of the body and must, therefore, have the same form. When death comes, the ka spirit, the image of the man, remains near the body, and this spirit it was which was the object of the rites and offerings in the funerary chapel. But besides this ka, it appears for the first time that the king at any rate possesses also a soul called a ba. In later times we see that every man possessed a ba, and we learn that each god possessed several ba's. But it is in the pyramid texts that we learn for the first time of the ba of a man, and that man is a king. When death comes, the ba takes flight in the form of a bird or whatever form it wills. All seems confused. The ka was near the body, the ka was in the field of Earu, under the earth ploughing and sowing; the ba is fluttering on the branches of the tree on earth, the ba has fled like a falcon to the heavens, and has been set as a star among the stars. The dead king lives with the gods and is fed by them. The goddesses give him the breast. He lives in the Island of Food. He lives in Earu, the Underworld, a land like Egypt, with fields and canals and flood and harvest. He shares with the gods in the offerings made in the great temples on earth.

It is quite clear that all this is an expression of dissatisfaction with the old belief in the simple duplicate world, the world of Earu under the earth. It is noteworthy that this first appears in royal tombs. These texts are written for kings alone. It is only many centuries later that the texts of the book of the dead showed similar possibilities open to the common man. This is the usual course of all advances in Egypt,— architecture, sculpture, writing, whatever gain in skill or knowledge there is, appears first in the service of the royal family. Thus, even in the conception of immortality, the new ideas, the better immortality was first thought out for the benefit of the king. The basis for this lay simply in the life on earth. The king had come early to have a sort of divinity ascribed to him. His chief name was the Horus name. Menes was the Horus Aha; Cheops was the Horus Mejeru; Pepy II was the Horus Netery-khau. But he was also the son of Ra, the sun-god, endued with life forever. The king was a god, and it could only be that in his future life he shared the life of the gods. Thus, all is no more confused or mysterious than is the conception of the life of the gods themselves.

But the texts go even further than this and identify the dead god-man, who as Horus was king on earth, with the father of Horus, the dead god of the earth, Osiris. This identification of the dead man with the dead god Osiris was later enlarged to include all men, and became in the Ptolemaic period the most characteristic feature of the Egyptian conception of life after death.

The Osiris story as it can be pieced together from the pyramid texts [See A. Erman: Die Aegyptische Religion, p. 38 ff.] was briefly thus: Keb, the earth-god, and Nut, the goddess of the sky, had four children,—Osiris and Isis, Seth and Nephthys,— who were thus paired in marriage. Keb gave Osiris his dominion, the earth, and made him the god of the earth, and he ruled justly and powerfully. Seth, his brother, was jealous, and by treachery enticed Osiris into a box, which he closed and threw into the water. Isis sought for the body of her husband until she found it, and Isis and Nephthys, her sister, sat at his head and feet and bewailed him. Re, the greatest of the gods, heard Isis's complaint; his heart was touched, and he sent Anubis to bury Osiris. Anubis re-joined his separated bones, bound him with cloths, and prepared him for burial,—that is, mummified him. This is the form in which Osiris is represented,—as a mummy. Isis then fanned her wings, and the air from her wings caused the mummy to live. His life on earth, however, was over, could not be recalled, so that his new life could only be passed in the other world, the world of the dead. Here Osiris became king, as he had been king on earth. But Isis conceived from the dead-living Osiris, bore a child in secret, and suckled him, hidden in a swamp. When the child, the sun-god Horus, grew up, he fought against Seth to recover his father's kingdom, and to avenge his death. Both gods were injured in the fight. Horus lost an eye. But Thoth intervened, separated the fighters, and healed their wounds. Thoth spat upon the eye of Horus and it became whole. Horus, however, gave his eye to Osiris to eat, and thereby Osiris became endowed with life, soul, and power (i.e. in the underworld). But Seth disputed the legitimacy of the birth of Horus, and the great gods held a court in the house of Keb. In this court, justice was done, the truth of Horus's claims was established, and he was placed on the throne of his father. Osiris became the ruler in the land of the dead, Horus in the land of the living.

The kernel of the story appears to be this: Osiris is the god of the earth, and his life is the life of the vegetation, dying and reviving with the course of the seasons, mourned by his wife Isis and succeeded by his son Horus, the sun-god. It is apparently a form of the common Tammuz or Adonis story of the Semites. This fact brings with it a suggestion which requires consideration.

The racial connection of the Egyptians may seem to have little to do with immortality. But I beg a moment's consideration. The two great dominating ideas of immortality are those held by the Christians and by the Mohammedans, and these are essentially the same idea. Both these religions are creations of the Semitic race. It is, therefore, decidedly of importance to find that the Egyptian race, the creator of a third great religion, has also a large Semitic strain. In fact, the investigations of the last ten years appear to show that this Semitic strain it was which gave the Egyptian race its creative power and made possible the development of the Egyptian civilization.

The Egyptian language furnishes us with indisputable proof of the Semitic affinity, as Professor Adolf Erman showed years ago. The anatomical examination by Professor Elliot Smith of a large number of skeletons, dated by careful excavations, has given us a further clue. There is a prehistoric race found in the earliest cemeteries—neither Negroid nor Asiatic in characteristics. In the late predynastic and the early dynastic periods, when the great development began, this primitive race had become modified by an infiltration of broad-headed people from the north. In the Old Empire, this broad-headed people had become predominant, and remain so throughout all Lower and Middle Egypt until the present day. This intruding race, whose advent marks the beginning of Egyptian civilization, I believe to have been Semitic.

Remember this—the texts show clearly older ideas in conflict with the Osiris belief. The primitive race was not, I believe, a race of Osiris followers. Professor Erman has stated that the Osiris belief is as early as 4200 B.C. That I am certain is absolutely untenable. It is a question of Egyptian chronology in which I beg to differ radically both from Eduard Meyer and Professor Erman. In the formal calendar year of three hundred and sixty-five days, there are twelve months of thirty days and five intercalary days. These intercalary days are called the birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys—the five most important figures in the Osiris myth. According to Professor Meyer and Professor Erman, this formal calendar was introduced in 4200 B.C., one of the occasions when the heliacal rising of the star Sothis fell on the first of the month Thoth of the calendar. However, if we accept with them the date 3300 B.C. as the date of the First dynasty, then in 4200 B.C. the Egyptians were just emerging from a neolithic state. They were culturally incapable of making a formal calendar and could have no possible use for one. Either the calendar did not originate in Egypt, or it was introduced in 2780 B.C., when again the heliacal rising Sothis fell on the first of Thoth. At this time the Osiris story was dominant, in the religion. We have a race almost certainly Semitic, fusing the primitive race during the period 3500-3000, and a few centuries later we have a new religious idea dominating the fused race. When we examine this new idea, the Osiris belief, we find its earliest form nothing more nor less than the common tammuz or Adonis story of the Semites. The conclusion lies very near at hand, that the Osiris story is in fact the Tammuz story, brought into Egypt by the earliest Semitic tribes. In any case it was a race with a large Semitic mixture which utilized this story in working out a theory of immortality; and in all probability we have in the Osiris-Isis religion a third great religion due to the Semitic race.

However this may be, it is clear that the craving of the king for a special immortality, for an exalted future life, found its justification through the Osiris-Isis myth. Horus was the successor of Osiris as lord of the earth and the living. The kings of Egypt were the successors of Horus. The chief name of the king was his Horus name; Menes was the Horus Aha, Cheops the Horus Mejeru. When the king died, he became Osiris, and passed to the kingdom of Osiris. He passed through the underworld with the sun-god, abode there as Osiris, the god-king, or sped to the heavens to the celestial gods. Thus comes the entering wedge of a great change in the conception of immortality—an ordinary immortality for the common man, a special divine immortality for the divine man, the king. [It appears probable that the deification of the king and the assumption of a divine immortality for him was prior in time to the statement of these beliefs in the terms of the Osiris story.] Even at this early age, it was, of course, clearly stated that the king must be righteous, morally satisfactory in the eyes of the world and of the gods. The gods, as always, were on the side of the moral code, and especially on the side of the organized religion. It is perhaps significant that the chief sins of the kings of the Fourth dynasty, so execrated by the Egyptian priests in the Ptolemaic period, were sins against the great gods. The other charges are for the most part plainly slanders. In practice every king whose family remained in power was justified before gods and men, and took his place among the gods in the islands of the blessed in the northern part of the heavens.

The dead body was laid in the grave, supplied with all these magic texts which were to restore and revive the soul and guide it across waters and through dangers to the place of Osiris. But the chapel was not wanting, the cult of the ka was maintained, the statues were placed in the hidden room, the food and drink were brought daily to the door of the grave. Thus, while a special immortality was evolved for the king, the funeral customs continue to show the same service of the ka as in the earlier period.

In the Sixth Dynasty, there is a return to the older practice of placing objects in the grave itself. At present we are unable to point out the reasons for this. Possibly experience had taught men that endowments and craved walls left to the care of descendants were insecure supports for a life after death which was to last forever. At any rate, the custom arose of making small models in wood or stone or metal of those scenes and objects which were carved in relief on the walls of the chapel, —models of houses, granaries, of kitchens, of brickyards; models of herds and servants and soldiers; models of boats and ships; models of dance-halls with the man seated drinking wine, around him musicians, before him dancing girls; models of swords, of vessels, of implements. Poorer people must be contented with poorer things, down to the peasant who is buried with the few little necessary pots and pans of his daily life. But always, in every grave, the chapel, small or great, is there. The endowment of funerary priests continues. Every man, I suppose, however poor, had some one to make at least one offering at his grave. And so it was down to the New Empire.