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The Egyptian Conception of Immortality by George Andrew Reisner 1911

 

VIII. THE PTOLEMAIC-ROMAN PERIOD

In the Ptolemaic-Roman period we see the final stage of the Osiris cult. Every dead man is laid in his grave without furniture, prepared as a simulacrum of Osiris. The wealthiest people have gilded and painted mummy cases with amulets and funerary papyrus. The poorer are merely bundles of wrappings. Every dead man is Osiris, and no doubt carried with him words learned on earth to gain his way to a place in the kingdom of Osiris. The offering places above the grave are still made and offerings are still brought.

To gain some idea of the way in which these two conceptions of the living dead were worked out in actual life, one has only to turn to the funerary customs of the modern Egyptians. In the case of both Christians and Moslems, the grave rites are similar; but with those of the Moslems I am more familiar. The grave consists still of the two parts, the burying place and the offering place. The swathed body is laid on the right side, with the right hand under the cheek and the face towards Mecca. At the burial the confession of the faith is recited over and over, lest the dead forget it.

Korans are sometimes placed in the graves; and I have even seen a confession of the faith written on paper and placed on a twig before the face of the dead. At the appointed seasons— especially at the great Feast of Sacrifice—offerings are brought to the grave. The family party passes through the cemetery, the women bearing baskets of bread and bottles of water, the men turning the head to the right and to the left and reciting the fatha in propitiation of the spirits. The party enters the offering inclosure of the grave of their relative. The wives greet the dead—“Peace unto thee, oh, my husband, oh, my father, we have wept until we have watered the earth with our tears on thy account.” The offerings are laid before the tomb. A scribe is called and recites or reads some chapter of the Koran over and over, one hundred, one hundred and fifty, five hundred, one thousand times, and concludes: “I have read this for thee, oh, such and such a one.” Or, “I have transferred the merit of this to thee.” When you question these people as to the particulars of their belief, you find their ideas vague and indefinite. Among the men a dispute quickly starts,—the people who have been found good by the examining angels on the night of the burial are there, but the bad are somewhere else. No, says another, they are all in their graves, but the bad suffer torment. Still another maintains that the good have already passed to the lowest heaven. These are all mere remnants of theological discussions caught from the sheikhs. The women stolidly maintain that the dead are in their tombs and the offerings must be brought. When you inquire which are the good and which are the bad, there is again a great divergence of opinion; but it is clear that every man believes in his heart that a knowledge of the prayers and forms of the Moslem religion is absolutely essential and entirely sufficient to gain a desirable future life. The great master word is the confession of faith—there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.

So it must have been in the last stage of the Osiris cult. Immortality, a glorified future existence as an Osiris in the kingdom of Osiris, with all the pleasures and comforts of life, was secured to him who was buried with the proper rites and knew the magic words. And yet the old feeling was never lost that the dead was somehow in the grave and might suffer hunger and thirst.

When Christianity came into Egypt, all the gaudy apparatus of the Osiris religion was swept out of existence. The body was to rise again and might not be mutilated. Mummification, which destroyed the body in order to preserve a conventional simulacrum, ceased abruptly. Grave furniture was of course unthinkable. But the use of charms did not cease. Crosses were embroidered in the gravecloths; or small crosses of metal or wood placed on the breast or arm; the gravestone bore a simple prayer to the Holy Spirit for the peaceful rest of the soul. But the offering place was still maintained; prayers were recited on the feast days; lamps were allowed to remain at the grave; food was brought, but given to the poor.

In all periods there are thousands of graves of poor people without a single thing to secure their future life,—people who were probably content simply to lay down the burdens of life. In the Christian period these thousands of unnamed dead all have one mark. They are laid with their feet to the east. Each one was a Christian and secure in his future life, according to his faith and his life on earth.

IX. SUMMARY