Egyptian views of the afterlife

It’s fair to say that we know far more about Egyptian views of the afterlife than we do about the everyday lives of the living. In life, most people lived in mud-brick houses and had few possessions that survived to be found by Egyptologists. Well-to-do people, though, were buried in rock-cut tombs, often with a large array of grave goods, and paintings and inscriptions on the walls which give us a very good idea indeed of how they wanted to spend eternity.

Essentially, the afterlife was an idyllic version of Egypt, and the deceased would spend their days working (not too hard, of course) in an agricultural paradise. In this scene from the tomb of Sennedjem, a “worker in the place of truth” (ie one of the workmen who constructed the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings), the middle register shows Sennedjem and his wife, dressed in their best clothes, reaping the grain in their fields with a sickle, while in the lower register they are tying the grain into sheaves.

Sennedjem working in the fields

This aspiration for an idyllic agricultural life appears to have been shared by all members of society, from the highest to the lowest. In this scene from Medinet Habu, the funerary temple of Ramesses III, we see the king, wearing his starched formal kilt and the white crown of Upper Egypt, reaping grain and ploughing the fields with oxen – both activities which it’s reasonable to suppose did not feature heavily in his everyday duties as the king of Egypt!

Ramesses III ploughing and reaping

A comfortable home life was of course a priority in the afterlife, too. In this fragment of a wall scene from the tomb of Nebamun, now in the British Museum in London, we see his beautiful “garden of the west” – the “west” being the abode of the dead – with a pool containing fish, lotus flowers, and ducks, surrounded by trees to give welcome shade from the sun. In the upper right corner a tree goddess offers figs and jars of wine or beer.

Nebumun's garden of the west

While at home the deceased could enjoy banqueting with his friends and family, as this scene from Nebamun’s tomb shows:

A feast for Nebamun

The guests at the banquet would be entertained by dancers and musicians:

Musicians and dancers at Nebamun's banquet

Here we see a female musician playing an instrument resembling a double flute at Nebamun’s banquet, while her three companions clap the rhythm. Three dancers entertain the guests by dancing to the music.

Leisure activities were provided for, too, in the afterlife. In his tomb on the West Bank at Thebes, we see Userhat, whose titles were “Royal Scribe and Counter of Bread in Upper and Lower Egypt”, hunting antelope and other animals with bow and arrow from his chariot:

Userhat hunting

We also see him in the papyrus marshes (which in the real world were found in the Fayum, and in the Nile Delta to the North of Egypt) hunting birds with a throwing stick:

Userhat hunting birds with a throwing stick

and also spearing fish:

Userhat spearing fish

In both these scenes he is balancing in a papyrus boat, made simply by tying together bundles of papyrus reeds. His wife and daughter accompany him, as do a cat and dog!

Of course, although an idyllic agricultural life was envisaged, the deceased person certainly didn’t want to have to work too hard themselves. In Egypt, ordinary workers were obliged to spend part of each year working on state projects decreed by the king, and so naturally it was believed that the ruler of the land of the dead, the god Osiris, would require the deceased to participate in his own programme of public works. In order to avoid this duty, one of the most common grave goods found in tombs are servant figures, known as “shabtis” (the word means “listener”). These could be beautifully made, such as this faience shabti from the Late Period:

Faience shabti, Late Period

or more simply made, such as these painted wood shabtis from the tomb of Queen Nefertari:

Shabti figures from the tomb of Nefertari

or even crude figures made by pressing Nile mud into a mould:

Uninscribed mud shabti figures, 25th Dynasty

The physical form of the shabti didn’t matter, though. The important thing was the shabti spell, known to modern Egyptologists as spell 6 of the Book of the Dead, which would cause the shabti to listen for its owner to be summoned to do work, and “volunteer” to carry out the work in their place:

“Oh shabti, allotted to me, if I am summoned or if I am assigned to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead; if indeed obstacles are implanted for you therewith as a man at his duties, you shall substitute yourself for me on every occasion of making the fields arable, of flooding the river banks, or of carrying sand from east to west; ‘Here I am!’, you shall say. “

All things considered, the Egyptian view of the afterlife sounds like a very pleasant way to enjoy eternity, I think!

Note: All photographs in this article © Chris Marriott.

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