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The tomb and the mythology

The tomb had always carried a great deal of significance in ancient Egyptian society.

The tomb and the mythology of death in Ancient Egypt

The tomb had always carried a great deal of significance in ancient Egyptian society. It also plays a key role in the study of ancient Egyptian culture, Egyptology, because the sources of most of what we know about ancient Egypt originate from these tombs: richly decorated coffins and sarcophagi, jewels, amulets, figurines, urns and death masks skillfully crafted in precious materials, and papyrus rolls with beautiful vignettes and hieroglyphs. Just as impressive are the mummies themselves, which after months of careful preparation also became works of art. Archeologists have discovered all of this in the Egyptian tombs, and this is now the main theme of this exhibit.

There are two main reasons why these fantastic cultural treasures have survived. First, the climate in the underground burial chambers in the desert mountains helped preserve the tomb goods. The tombs protected the objects from harmful light. The humidity and temperature are close to what is considered ideal by modern conservators to preserve organic material.

This goes a long way in explaining how this wealth of material could be preserved for 4000 years, but not why it was put there in the first place. Why did the ancient Egyptians invest such great resources in carving out elaborate burial chambers in the solid rock, building beautiful temples for the dead, filling the graves with priceless treasures, and keeping the death cults going for generations through monthly rituals and offerings?

What beliefs and ideas could entice an average Egyptian official to start building his own grave while he was still in his early thirties, thus embarking on a financial project that would last him the rest of his life? What was it that this religion promised that induced an entire people to build monuments such as the great pyramids at Giza, the Valley of the Kings, or the temples on the west bank of Thebes dedicated to their dead kings? Why did every corpse need to be treated for several months–first dried in large amounts of natron, and afterward oiled, bandaged, ornamented, and treated as if he or she were divine? The answers lie in the world view of the ancient Egyptians–their religion and their understanding of the powers of the cosmos.

Beliefs about life and death

Amulet of the lotus god Nefertem.
C42060
Photo: Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty

Various texts and images convey much of this world of ideas to us today. Not in the kind of complete and coherent stories that we are familiar with in our own culture, but in small fragments that come together in a jigsaw puzzle of dazzling complexity. It is as if the complete myths and narratives of the Egyptians were reserved for the oral tradition. Texts and images only provide clues–references to a tale that is expected to be familiar. However, so many of these «clues» or «references» have survived, that when pieced together correctly, the ancient myths and beliefs begin to take form.

The Creation Myth tells that in the beginning there was nothing but water. In this churning, bubbling chaos–personified by the god Nun–the elements begin to separate and take form. The process culminates with the emergence of a hill of dry land from the sea. On this mound of earth, a lotus flower grows, and from this lotus flower arises the god Atum as the first sunrise. It is clear from the ancient texts that it is the sun god Atum himself who starts the entire process by miraculously creating himself. The sun’s first journey across the sky brings light; order emerges from where chaos once reigned. It is also said that the sun god’s daughter Ma’at, the goddess of truth, righteousness and universal order, is born at the same time as her father.

After creating himself, Atum also creates the rest of the world. He spat out Shu and sneezed out Tefnut 2, a pair of deities who represent different aspects of air and time. From their union, the world as we know it begins to take shape. The third generation of deities is made up of Geb and Nut, who represent the earth and sky respectively. Geb and Nut procreate with vigor, but their father Shu steps between them, checking their passion. This intervention results in the separation of earth from the heavens. But before the strict father separates them, Nut is able to give birth to the moon and all the stars as well as the four gods Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.

The Myth of the Sun is a continuation of the creation myth, and tells how the sun recreates the creation miracle every morning. It was believed that the sun god–or Ra, which became a more common name for him–sails over the sky in a great ship called the Sun Barque. When he sails behind the mountains in the western horizon, he ascends in the underworld, where he provides light and life to the dead. Since the underworld is the realm of the dead, this myth implies that the sun god also dies every night, to rise again in the morning.

Bildet kan inneholde: hånd, væpne, har, menneskekroppen, kjeve.The Myth of Osiris is also a continuation of the creation myth because it continues the story of the last four gods in the creation: Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. Osiris was once a powerful and good king in Egypt. Along with his sister and wife, Isis, he governed over a united kingdom that blossomed under his skillful rule. Their brother Seth, the god of chaos and destruction, is jealous of the king. Finally Seth manages to kill Osiris and usurp the throne. Isis is beside herself with grief, but does not give up hope. With help from her sister Nephthys and the jackal-headed god Anubis, she magically revives Osiris, just long enough to make her pregnant. Osiris then returns to the kingdom of the dead where he is to rule for all eternity. Isis gives birth to their son Horus, and gives him to the mother goddess Hathor, who nurses and raises him in the thickets of the delta, protecting him from his evil uncle Seth. Horus grows up to become a strong man, and eventually sets out on a quest to avenge his father. The battle between Seth and Horus rages for a long time, but finally Horus is victorious. Horus is crowned king by the council of gods, and the usurper and fratricide Seth was expelled to his right element, the desert.

Bildet kan inneholde: statue, gest, skulptur, kunst, skrift.
Isis with the miracle child Horus (Harpocrates) on her lap. C47109
Photo: Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty

The Myth of the King, which in many aspects resembles what we today call ideology of the state, describes the pharaoh’s divinity and legitimizes his place, exalted over all other people on earth. The pharaoh is Horus, the living manifestation of the sun god Ra on earth. As bearer of the name Horus, he is also the miracle child conceived when the breath of Isis brought life to Osiris. As a child, the king is Horus the child or Harpocrates, a deity who embodies the promise of a better future. This myth also legitimized the power of the kings who inherited the throne at a very young age.

As an adult, he is the full-grown warrior Horus, who battles chaos and re-establishes peace and order (Ma’at). But Horus the child and Horus the Elder are not the only gods the pharaoh is identified with. Whereas pharaoh was Horus on earth, he became one with his father Osiris, the king of the underworld, when he died. Thus the pharaoh was ensured royal power for eternity, given that he had ruled justly and in line with the principles of Ma’at, in the same way that Osiris had done. If, on the other hand, he had ruled like Seth, he would be expelled from the orderly world, and would have to spend eternity in disorder and chaos.

The Myths Coverge

The myths are tightly interwoven. The gods in the myth of Osiris were the children of Geb and Nut from the creation myth. The sun god was also the creator, and at night he is found in the underworld, which is the kingdom of Osiris. The pharaoh is Horus, the living god on earth and the son of Osiris and Isis. He is the offspring of the sun god Ra, and becomes one with his father Osiris, the king of the underworld, when he dies.

The myths have probably never been entirely separate, but they seem to become more enmeshed over time. Starting in the period of the New Kingdom they are interwoven at so many levels that it becomes impossible to speak of them as separate myths. The myths become part of one large, cohesive world of ideas that gave the Egyptians the ideological foundation for one of history’s most impressive cultures. Together they also shed light on humanity’s greatest mystery: death.

Bildet kan inneholde: tre, kunst, farger og nyanser, symmetri, sirkel.
The sun god before dawn. The merging with Osiris has taken place, and the powers of chaos have been defeated. From coffin C47714. Photo: Ellen C. Holte

The creation myth was used more actively in Ancient Egypt than what we are used to from Jewish, Christian, or Islamic tradition. The creation was not an event that was considered long since over, but was rather the prototype of the creation that takes place every day. Each morning when the sun rises and touches the earth with its life-bringing rays, the cycle of creation is repeated. Just as the sun once miraculously arose from the dark waters of chaos Nun, the sun rises every morning from the darkness of night and brings light, order, and renewed life. The world is born again each time the god of creation rises to the heavens. It can be said that the existence of the world was seen as an eternal repetition of the creation.

The creation myths were also reenacted in the celebration of the new year, when the Nile began to rise again, and before the new pharaoh was crowned. Likewise, the building of a new temple and the birth of a new baby were seen as new «creations.» The analogies are the same. All new creation was seen as a beginning with a renewed potential for life and growth. This is why the creation myth, and images that refer to it, were also used extensively in a funereal context. Death was perceived as a birth. As in so many other religions, it was thought that there had to be some kind of life after death, and birth was used as an image of how this new existence came into being. Birth marked the beginning of earthly life, which was not entirely unlike the next.

And it is precisely these themes, birth and creation, or rather recreation and regeneration, of people, animals, and plants that were the realm of Osiris, god of the underworld. He was the god of everything that was recreated in the great cycle of life, precisely because he himself had risen from the dead. In addition to being a god of everything that dies, he was the god of all natural phenomena that were cyclical. He was associated with the Nile–whose waters swelled to powerful and life-giving floods every year, only to recede and start a new cycle of growth the next year. He was associated with the moon, which likewise waxed and waned, and with the sun and stars, which were gone half the day, only to rise in the sky in the other half. Osiris is not only a god of death, but also of eternal recreation. He is the god of eternal life.

Bildet kan inneholde: tre, skrift, murstein, kunst, vegg.
The central figure is the sun god Amon-Ra merged with Osiris in the Underworld. The ram’s head represented the nocturnal form of the sun god, and the mummified body is the image of Osiris. From coffin C47714. Photo: Anders Bettum

The text and images on papyrus and in murals in the royal tombs from the New Kingdom narrate the mythological unity of Osiris and Ra. Egyptologists call these types of collections of texts and images «books»–regardless of whether they are painted on the walls or inscribed on papyrus. The Book of Gates describes the sun god’s nightly journey through the underworld. For each of the twelve hours of night, he must pass through a gateway and ward off threats from the powers of chaos. In the last hour, the sun god reaches the throne room of Osiris, where the two gods merge and become united in a single body. By uniting with Osiris, the sun god takes part in the resurrection of the king of the underworld and can thus rise in the east and complete yet another cycle of life. For Osiris, the encounter with the god of sun and creation provides the same divine spark (Heka) that revives him in the Osiris myth. Thus each of the gods can rise again through union with the other.

When the pharaoh died, it was thought that he made the same journey as the sun god when he sank into the west. Thus the dead pharaoh had to pass through the same gates and face the same trials as the god. Parallel with the sun’s resurrection in the east, the pharaoh, after a number of trials, would be reborn to his new existence as akh. An akh was a blessed dead person, a «being of light» that had faced all the trials and been found worthy of the eternal and blessed life among the gods and ancestors.

In time, the myths of the pharaoh’s death and unification with Osiris and the Sun God were adopted by the common people. As described earlier, the Old Kingdom was eventually split into a number of petty kingdoms. Each and every one of these petty kings applied the established king ideology to himself. Suddenly there was not just one person who would be deified at death, but many. And the spread of these ideas continued to filter down through all layers of society. Eventually, the entire population shared the goal of deification and union with Osiris and the sun god after death.

The key is the sun’s union with Osiris. This is the core of the mystery, and the explanation for the complex burial rituals and all of the other apparently absurd aspects of the Egyptian religion. This was the truth about life, the world, and the cosmos. Ra is life, and Osiris is death. But one cannot exist without the other. The two are one. Their union is the divine spark that sets the world in motion every single day. The day that Amon-Ra is not able to
defend himself against the powers of chaos on his journey through the underworld, and the union with Osiris does not take place, will be the end of the world–and the dark, watery chaos of Nun will again rule.

People, with their death and resurrection in the kingdom of Osiris, are a significant part of the world order. An important premise for deification after death was that one had to have led a good and just life on earth, in line with the principles of Ma’at. To protect oneself from the demons and tribulations to be faced on the way to Osiris’s throne room, one had to make sure one was buried with all the necessary rituals and magic aids prescribed by the priests.
Successfully passing all the tests guaranteed a place at the Sun God’s side for all eternity. The blessed dead became a part of the Sun God’s army that would spend eternity battling the powers of chaos in order to ensure that the sun would rise again the following morning.

On earth, people worked hard to achieve the same. In the final hour before sunrise, offerings were made to the sun god in all of his temples throughout Egypt, and incantations were read to protect the sun against his enemies. The goal of the Egyptians was not simply to ensure the salvation of the individual soul, but to also ensure the continuation of existence.

Published Jan. 29, 2021 9:23 AM - Last modified Jan. 29, 2021 11:43 AM