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The Egyptian Conception of Immortality by George Andrew Reisner 1911

 

VII. THE NEW EMPIRE

The New Empire (1600-1200 B.C.) was the great period of foreign conquest. The Hyksos, Asiatic invaders, had held Egypt for a century or more. The Theban princes who drove them out became kings of Egypt, and followed them into Asia. With an army trained in war by the long struggle with the Hyksos, the Egyptian kings, having tasted the sweetness of the spoils of war, entered on the conquest of western Asia and the Sudan. The plunder of both these regions poured into Egypt. Under Thothmes III an annual campaign was conducted into Syria to bring back the spoils and the tribute. Foreign slaves and the products of foreign handicraft were for sale in every market-place. The treasury was filled to overflowing. A large share was assigned to Amon, the god of the Theban family. Temples were built for him; estates established for the maintenance of his rites; thousands of priests enrolled for the service of his properties. The god became, in a material sense, the greatest god of Egypt, the national god; and his priesthood became the most powerful organization in the kingdom. The high priest of Amon usurped the power of the king and finally supplanted him. Such was the period in which the next great development of the Egyptian idea of immortality is to be noted— a period of priestly activity in the beginning and of priestly domination in the end.

The priests are the scribes, the men of learning. They have the lore of all magic, medicine, rules of conduct, religious rites. It is not mere chance, therefore, that the New Empire was marked by a great increase of magic in all its forms—texts and symbolic objects—and by a great development in the knowledge of the other world. In some of the texts the geography of the underworld, in which Osiris is king, is worked out in great detail. When the sun sets in the west, Ra in his boat enters the underworld and passes through it during the twelve hours of the night, bringing light and happiness to those who are in the underworld. In the effort to secure the tomb against plundering, the royal graves had been cut in the solid rock,—long and complicated passages with false leads and deceptive turns and the burial chamber in an unexpected place. The long walls of these rooms presented a great surface suitable to decoration, and they were utilized to depict scenes from the underworld and the passage of Ra through it, so that the tombs became in fact representations of the land of the dead, and were so considered. These royal tombs were at a distance from the cultivated land, hidden in valleys in the desert. Their funerary temples were built on the edge of the desert beside the temples of the gods of the place.

Such fantastical reconstructions of the other world, however, never found general favor and are confined to a few royal tombs. The priests and other prominent people have rolls of papyrus buried with them, bearing copies of books of the dead. These books of the dead are made up of a series of chapters, each complete in itself and each dealing with some phase of the future life. There is no set order of chapters. There is no fixed number of chapters. Each scribe seems to have selected the chapters which he considered useful. The general title is: Chapters of the going forth by day. The general character may be given by a paragraph attached to one of the chapters in the Book of Ani the Scribe [Edited by E. A. W. Budge, p. 26]: “If this book be known on earth and written on the coffin, it is my mouth. He shall come forth by day in any form he desires and he shall go into his place without being prevented. There shall be given to him bread and beer and meat upon the altar of Osiris. He shall enter in, in peace, to the field of Earu according to this decree of the one who is in the City of Dedu. There shall be given to him wheat and barley there. He shall flourish as he did upon earth. He shall do his desires like these nine Gods who are in the underworld, as found true millions of times. He is the Osiris: the Scribe Ani.”

There are chapters to overcome all the evil which a soul may encounter; there are words to greet all the gods whom the soul desires to visit. The Scribe Ani had an exceptional position on earth; he desires to do his desire in the other world; and in the names of Osiris he recites the magic words that bring him the power. He is Ani, but he calls himself Osiris; just as the priestly doctor mixes his dose of medicine and calls it “the eye of Horus tested and found true.”

In addition to magical texts, there are also magical, or symbolic, objects placed in the graves,—amulets of various kinds which were to be used in the other world. Some of these were simply the amulets used in daily life to guard against sickness, bite of snake, and other earthly evils which were also incident to the life after death. Other amulets, like the so-called Ushabtiu, were to meet special conditions of the other world. These Ushabtiu, or “answerers,” were little images of workmen bearing agricultural implements whose duty it was to take the place of the dead in the fields of Earu when Osiris as king called him to do his share of the field work. Even the king appears liable to this service, and for him thousands of these figures were made,—sometimes labeled each with the day of the year. In a few cases there was even a charm written on the figure to prevent it hearing the command of any one but its master.

Alongside these manifold manifestations of the belief in magic, other furniture—implements, weapons, and utensils—are still placed in the grave. The offering places are still maintained. All burials are now extended on the back and wrapped in bandages. Yet the common graves lack the receptacles for the viscera, lack magical texts, lack ushabtiu, and—in a word—lack all those things which are typical of the better-class graves of the period. The conception of the future life among the common people is apparently not essentially different from that of the Old Empire. But the books of the dead and the offering formulas show that the priests and high officials at death were called Osiris.

By the end of the Late Period the Osiris cult of the dead had come to be universal. No doubt political events had much to do with this. The absorption of the powers of the king by the priesthood of the national god Amon-Ra, the crushing of the nobility by a succession of foreign invaders, and the general uncertainty of life, had disturbed the old fixed relations. The hope of every Egyptian turned to a glorified future life as Osiris.

The tendency to use magical texts and symbolic objects reached its height. About 700 B.C. a revival of national life, brought about by the establishment of the Egyptian kings of Sais as kings of Egypt, led to a renaissance of Egyptian art. The old monuments were copied and imitated, the old funerary texts and offering formulas were sought out in the older graves. Even the pyramid texts reappear after one thousand years of practical oblivion. The value of master words was so firmly fixed in the Egyptian mind that misunderstood texts of all sorts were copied out and placed in the graves to secure to the dead some vague benefit in the other world.

The process of mummification was at its height. The bodies were no longer preserved. The process was merely the creation of a simulacrum of the dead Osiris So-and-So. All the perishable parts of the body were removed or destroyed by chemicals. Only the skin, bones, hair, and teeth remained to be padded with mud and resin, wrapped in cloths, covered with a painted and gilded cartonnage to represent the glorified Osiris mummy.

VIII. THE PTOLEMAIC-ROMAN PERIOD