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The Egyptian Conception of Immortality by George Andrew Reisner 1911

 

IX. SUMMARY

To sum up, the essential idea of the Egyptian conception of immortality was that the ghost or spirit of the man preserved the personality and the form of the man in the existence after death; that this spirit had the same desires, the same pleasures, the same necessities, and the same fears as on earth. Life after death was a duplicate of life on earth. On earth life depended on work, on getting food from the fields and the herds, on forming stone and metal, hide and vegetable fibre, into useful objects. In other words, life depended on human power over the natural materials of the earth. At the same time there were many things which could not be controlled by power over the earth and its elements,—the sting of the scorpion, the bite of the adder, the rise of the Nile, sickness, the sudden onslaught of the enemy, the straying of cattle, the disfavor of the god. For these evils man's only hope was magic,—the set words spoken in the proper manner which have power over all unseen influence. So in the case of life after death, all which human strength can provide of stores of grain and drink and garments must be secured for his use; but he must also be provided with the magic words to meet the chance evils of the future life.

It is not surprising that the unknown future presented to the imagination many evils unknown on earth. The spirit might forget its name, it might lose its heart, it might be bound fast by evil powers in the grave and unable to come forth by day. The mummy might decay; the spirit might forget its form. So, as time went on, the use of magic words became of greater and greater importance, until, to modern eyes, it seemed to overshadow all else in the Egyptian conception of life after death.

As a part of the magical provisions of the dead, the Osiris myth, probably built up in explanation of old rites, was drawn into the belief in a future life, and apparently at the beginning solely for the benefit of the king, for the benefit of those who claimed a certain divinity on earth. The earth-god Osiris, god of the living, had died and had been brought to life as god of the dead. So, also, the earth-king, the Horus, the son of Ra, must die, but he also would live again in the other world and share the throne of Osiris. More than this even, he became Osiris. He was admitted to the life of the gods. Of course the ideas of the existence of the gods were never clear and consistent. They lived in secret places, their whole life was mysterious as well as powerful. These are the field of knowledge which the Egyptian mind could not oversee with any satisfaction to itself. The most it could do was to formulate the magic words, invoking the names of the gods and conjuring them by the events in the Osiris myth to accept this king as Osiris. The exceptional man, the super-man, must have an exceptional future life; but to obtain it, he must have the knowledge of the names and words necessary to force the powers of the other world.

Thus the idea of an exceptional future life, a heaven, was brought into the Egyptian conception of life after death. Admission to it depended on the exceptional position on earth of those admitted. As even this exceptional position was only of avail when combined with the knowledge of certain formulas, it is not difficult to see how the knowledge of these formulas might be considered sufficient to obtain the better future life, even for others than the king. When in the depression that followed the extravagance of the pyramid age the central monarchy lost its power, Egypt broke up into a series of tribal baronies (nomes). In each was a ruler almost independent of the king, a man who might presume with the proper knowledge to claim a glorified future life similar to that of the king. And, indeed, we find from the burial inscriptions of the Middle Empire that such was the result. Feudalism extended the possibilities of heaven to the great nobles. In the New Empire, the royal power was gradually absorbed by the priestly organization of the national religion— the religion of Amon-Ra; and the principle comes into practice that any priest having the necessary knowledge could obtain for himself an exceptional place in the future life. The Osirian burial customs spread even among the people. The swathed body extended on the back becomes universal, even though true mummification was still only for the rich.

In the Ptolemaic period, the preparation of all the apparatus of the Osiris burial was divided up into trades. Factories, one may say, turned out mummy cases of various kinds, with a scale of prices to fit every purse. Other factories turned out amulets and charms. Magical texts, the preparation of the body, the construction of the grave—all things were done by regular crafts. The cheapening of the apparatus is most striking. At the same time all but the poorest burials bear direct evidence of their character as Osiris burials.

On the side of the moral requirement we must not look too closely. There were powerful words which could compel even the great judges of the dead to return a favorable verdict. There were magic hearts of stone which might be worn in place of the heart, and, laid in the scales by Anubis, weigh heavier than the truth. One might by words compel Anubis to accept this stone heart instead of the real heart.

In general, one may say that the hope of immortality had little influence on the moral life of the ordinary Egyptian. The moral code was simple and sound and not greatly different from other primitive codes,—forbidding all those things which the body of men regard as unpleasant in others, commanding the plain virtues which were found pleasant in others. Here, again, I think we may well look to modern Egypt for a picture of ancient Egypt. We must not exaggerate the influence of the belief in immortality on general morality. We must not think too well of the life of the people—nor, on the other hand, too evil. They had their sins and their virtues. The common herd was driven by necessity and lived as it could. They clung to the belief in a life in the grave. The greater people had leisure to learn and to provide the magic necessary to secure a comfortable future life. They loved life and hated death.

Thus it was when the priests of the Osiris-Isis religion made their bid to the classical world. They offered immortality by initiation. Learn the proper rites, learn the master words, and secure eternal life among the great gods. It was a religion for the exceptional man down to the last; it required training and knowledge. Even in its most popular form in the Ptolemaic period, a specially instructed class was required, who sold for money the benefits of their knowledge, and men took rank in their security of future life according to their means.

Not until Christianity came, offering eternal life free and without price, did the common people find at last a road open to equal immortality with the great men of the earth.

END