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The Egyptian Conception of Immortality by George Andrew Reisner 1911

 

VI. THE MIDDLE EMPIRE

During the Middle Empire, the burial and offering customs show the persistence of the old belief in life after death as on earth. Pots, vessels, tools, weapons, ornaments, clothing, and models of scenes from life, continue to be placed in the burial chamber. The walls of the offering chambers of the nobles, at this time cut in the rock, still bear representations from life carved in relief. The symbolical doors and the offering formulas still mark the spot where the dead receive the necessities of life from the living. All graves of every class testify to the faith in a life after death similar to life on earth. Yet certain modifications are apparent which are significant for the future development of the conception of immortality: (1) the pyramid texts are used by the provincial nobles for their own benefit; (2) Abydos assumes a great importance as the burial place of Osiris; (3) the swathed mummy comes into general use in burials.

The first identification of the king with Osiris in the pyramid texts marks the conception of a better immortality for him. So, as the possibility of a better immortality was claimed by wider and wider circles of men, the use of the pyramid texts, or similar texts, also became wider. In the Middle Empire, texts practically identical with the pyramid texts, but furnished with illustrations somewhat like those of the later books of the dead, are found in the coffins of provincial nobles.

The power of the monarchy had been weakening during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, partly owing to the dissipation of national resources by royal extravagance, partly owing to other causes. After the Sixth Dynasty, the country was clearly in a period of economic depression; and the government was broken up into a series of nearly independent baronies corresponding roughly to the later division into provinces or nomes. Our material is scanty. The tombs of very few great men have been found. But when in the Twelfth Dynasty an abundance of material is at hand, we see, alongside the old forms of the burial customs, the use of the pyramid texts on the inside walls of the coffins of the great man. It was now possible for the ba of the great landed noble to seek refuge with the gods in the northwest heavens and share their life.

The increasing importance of Abydos as the burial place of Osiris is of still greater significance. The tomb of a king of the First Dynasty was identified by the priests as the actual burial place of Osiris. Many great people made graves for themselves in the same field; or, if they lived at a distance, built empty cenotaphs there. A great temple of Osiris stood near by, and became the centre of the celebration of mysteries illustrating the death and revival of Osiris. Fortunately, a certain high official named I-kher-nofret has left us an account of the Osiris passion-play as performed under his oversight in the nineteenth year of Sesostris III, nearly two thousand years before Christ [See Schafer's article, “Die Osiris-mysterien,” in Sethe's Untersuchungen zur Geshichte Aegyptens, IV, 2, pp 1-42.]. The play began by the procession of the statue of the jackal-god Wep-wawet (the road-opener) going forth to help his father Osiris. Then the statue of Osiris himself in the Neshemet boat came forth as triumphant king of the earth. Sham battles took place referring to the conquest of the earth by Osiris. These processions were only introductory. The principal procession took place on the following day (or days), when Osiris went forth to his death at Nedit. The actual death scene certainly took place in secret. But when the dead body was found, the multitude joined in the wailing and the lamentations. The god Thoth went forth in a boat and brought back the body of Osiris. The body was prepared for burial and taken in funeral procession to the grave at Peker. Osiris was avenged on his enemies in a great battle on the water at Nedit. Finally, the god, his life revived, comes from Peker in triumphant procession and enters his temple at Abydos.

Osiris mysteries were celebrated at other places, at least in later times and perhaps even in the Middle Empire; but it is not easy to discern the part these mysteries played in the Middle Empire in the beliefs of the common people regarding their immortality. The Osiris story was one of the most widespread in Egypt, and, powerful in its effect on the feelings of all classes, was certain, sooner or later, to prepare the way for a general belief in a better immortality; but if we may judge from the burial customs, the great mass of the people still believed merely in an underworld, Earu, a duplicate of the earthly life, but with greater possibilities of danger and evil.

During the course of Egyptian history the position in which the body is buried undergoes a series of remarkable changes. During the early pre-dynastic period, the body, loosely enfolded in cloths and skins, is laid in the grave double up on the left side, usually with the head south (i.e. upstream). This position becomes the custom, with very few exceptions, during the late predynastic period and the first three dynasties. Throughout the Fourth to Sixth Dynasties, the body was in the same position, but with the head north, loosely covered with shawls and garments. The crouching position, with some slight modifications, continues to be used for the poorest class down to the New Empire. Among the Nubians, it is universal to the New Empire and customary even later in unmixed Nubian communities. The swathed extended burials begin in Egypt in the Fourth Dynasty, so far as remains are preserved. Some members of the royal family of Cheops were buried in swathed wrapping, lying extended on the left side with the knees bent. During the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties this extended position on the side becomes customary for the better classes; and during the Middle Empire it becomes almost universal.

The final burial position, the swathed mummy lying extended on the back, does not become general until the New Empire, about 1600 B.C. although it is the position hitherto regarded as the characteristic Egyptian burial position. A few isolated cases, some of them perhaps accidental, occur as early as the Old Empire; but in the New Empire the extended burial on the back is practically the only one to be observed. In other words, beginning in the predynastic period with a burial position which may be called natural and primitive, the Egyptian gradually adopted a position which imitated the form of the dead Osiris, the god of the dead. Each new change is first adopted by the royal family, and is taken up by the other classes in turn until it becomes universal. In the final form, the mummy was a simulacrum of the dead as Osiris.

Alongside these changes in the burial position progressed the art of preserving the body. The earliest attempts were made on the body of the king; and the knowledge of embalming gained in preserving his body was gradually utilized for the higher classes and finally for all but the poorest. It seems indisputable that the royal personages of the Fourth and Sixth Dynasties were mummified—i.e., the entrails were drawn, the body prepared with spices and resins and wrapped tightly in cloths smeared with resin. But the mummies of the nobles, even of this period, show no trace of such treatment. The receptacles for the viscera are sometimes found in their graves in the Sixth Dynasty, but are, as a rule, empty, being mere dummy vases. Even in the Middle Empire, the preservation of the bodies of the better classes was extremely imperfect. The bundles of wrappings have kept their form to the present day and it seems as if the mummy were still intact; but an examination of the interior shows only loose bones. Successful mummification appears among better-class people in the New Empire for the first time and becomes a general custom in the Late Period. The processes of successful mummification necessitated the practical destruction of the body.

In the Middle Empire, which is the period under discussion, the process of mummification had reached a middle stage, and, while we are unable to explain exactly the causal relationship, it is clear that this advance in the treatment of the body accompanied a spread of the belief in the Osirian immortality.

VII. THE NEW EMPIRE