For this KRT we are discussing various ideas regarding the afterlife both then and now. The Egyptian realm of the dead, often referred to as the Duat (and sometimes as the Dat or Dwat) was a complicated place filled with all sorts of weird beings. The biggest hurdle to really understanding the Duat is that, like many cultures or religions that span multiple centuries, the Egyptians had shifting views on what happened after you died – including where exactly you went after death, as well as death practices that changes over the centuries. So in order to tackle the concept of the afterlife, we must take a look at how views on the afterlife shifted over the centuries of Egyptian history and then see how that influences modern Kemetic ideas about the afterlife.
Please note: you could easily write books about Egyptian concepts of the afterlife (see resources at the bottom). This post is going to be a general overview of some ideas and concepts that were present throughout the history of Egypt and should not be considered an exhaustive discussion of Egyptian views of the afterlife.
The Afterlife: Then
“It should be pointed out that the Egyptians did not necessarily hold a single view of the next world at any one time, but… were quite capable of maintaining two or more conflicting opinions at once. This is already apparent in the Pyramid Texts, in which the views expressed concerning the afterlife of the king vary considerably in different spells, depending on whether they were early or more recent in origin.”
— Death in Ancient Egypt by A.J. Spencer
We are not entirely sure what the earliest Egyptians believed in regards to the afterlife. Due to a lack of written records and minimal archeological records, it can be difficult to figure out what their exact religious beliefs were. We do know that early Egyptians did appear to have ritualized death practices that included specific burial methods and interring the dead with different amenities and provisions, likely for the afterlife. However, our knowledge of what they believed pretty much ends there.
The Old Kingdom is when we really start to see the Egyptians come into their own regarding funerary practices and beliefs. It was during this 500 year period that the Egyptians began to experiment with mud brick mastabas and then commissioning large scale building projects in the form of limestone lined pyramid and mortuary complexes. These complexes could be incredibly large, and it was not uncommon for the king to have two tombs- one in Upper Egypt and one in Lower Egypt. The process for mummification was still experimental at this point in time, and there was an emphasis on ka statues as opposed to mummies to help you achieve immortality in the underworld.
It seems to be generally regarded that during the OK, everything regarding the afterlife was centered around the king. Many Egyptologists posit the idea that the Egyptians wanted to be as close to the king as possible, because the best route to any sort of salvation was through him. This manifested in nobles wanting to place their tombs in close proximity to the king’s tomb/s, and that one of the only ways to really get a nice mortuary complex made for you was through receiving favor from the king. At this time, only the king had large mortuary complexes or had the ability to commission a pyramid or line the walls with various reliefs from the Pyramid Texts. That being said, there are some Egyptologists who have suggested that certain texts were available to nobles or high ranking Egyptians that worked for or with the king, or that perhaps there was more oral tradition amongst common people that we no longer have a record of. Unfortunately, we don’t really know at this time, and its generally regarded that funerary religious practices in the OK revolved pretty much around the king.
It is during the OK that the pyramid texts make their first appearance, and the general idea during this time was that the Duat resided in the sky or resided within Nut or the Celestial Cow (who goes by many names). Most of the texts talk about moving up into the sky and joining the imperishable stars. The imperishable stars were where akhu, or blessed dead were said to reside. These stars were in the northern sky, and were said to be imperishable because they never dipped below the horizon- they were always there, looking down upon Egypt. And that was where everyone wanted to end up- amongst the akhu in the sky.
As the centralized government fell apart and the Old Kingdom shifted into the First Intermediate Period, religious practices experienced what is often called the ‘democratization process’. That is to say that funerary practices quit being all about the king or only for the king. As nomarchs (regional rulers) got to experience their first taste of leadership and power, they decided that they would commission their own tombs with their own texts and inscriptions because there was no king or authority to stop them from doing so. Because of the decline in wealth for these nomarchs, as well as the newly given access to afterlife provisions to the common people, we also see a trend in having ornate coffins (as opposed to sarcophagi shoved into stone tombs) for your resting place. These coffins had their own texts written on them, which are commonly referred to as the “Coffin Texts” (because we’re really original with our naming).
It was by this time that the Osirian cult began to really gain a foothold in ancient Egypt, and this influenced the content of the inscriptions. Unlike the Pyramid Texts (PT) which focused largely on the Duat being in the sky, the Coffin Texts (CT) placed the Duat in the ground, as being a sort of subterranean existence. You can definitely see parallels between the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts, and it’s very obvious that one influenced the other.
This would inevitably influence the Middle Kingdom which saw intricate tombs for both the king and nobility alike, as well as a further democratization of funerary practices. It’s during this entire era (First Intermediate Period, Middle Kingdom, Second Intermediate Period) that you start to see the elements of the Egyptian afterlife that are the most well known to us. You begin to see descriptions of traveling through the Duat, elements of having your heart weighed in the Hall of Two Truths, and of course, Osiris being the supreme Overlord of the Duat.
The New Kingdom is, in my opinion, when funerary literature explodes all over the place. It is during the NK that we see all sorts of new texts created and distributed at all levels of Egyptian society. The most popular of these is, of course, the Book of the Dead. The Osirian cult becomes increasingly popular during this era, and by this point in time, salvation is possible for everyone, not just the king – provided you have access to the texts and cheat codes that will get you through the Duat safely. The initial ideas about traveling through the Duat, the weighing of the heart, and the various obstacles you could meet while traveling there have been fully fleshed out by the time, which is likely a reflection of the growing influence of Osiris’ cult.
Much like with the Coffin Texts, the Book of the Dead (and other supporting texts of the era) often place the Duat in the ground, or some sort of subterranean location (which is sometimes said to be inside of Sokar). There is a sort of dichotomy during this era, though, because there are also texts that discuss traveling through Nut’s body as a means of renewal and rebirth- so in this era, the Duat could be seen as being inside of a cavernous location as well as inside of the sky. It is my personal opinion that the Duat has multiple levels of location, and could exist simultaneously in many places all at once.
The popular tomb-style for the New Kingdom is rock cut tombs, and the royal necropolis moves down to Deir el Medina, or the Vally of the Kings/Queens. Tombs become even bigger and grander than in previous generations as each king tries to out perform his predecessors. It has been noted that New Kingdom tomb reliefs are much more somber than previous eras, and that there is a sort of seriousness that is lacking in previous tombs. Some believe that this is a backlash to the Amarna Heresy, though there is no real way to prove it either way.
Because I rarely study anything about Egypt beyond the New Kingdom, I won’t attempt to give information about funerary practices for the later periods of Egypt.
The Afterlife: Now
If you ask 3 Kemetics what they think the afterlife is like, you’ll often get 5 responses back. Modern Kemetics are honestly not very unified in their approach or ideas about what the afterlife contains or could hold for us when we die. I think this is due to a number of reasons: conflicts due to our cultural upbringing (since none of us was likely born into Kemeticism via our parents) and having 3,000+ years of Egyptian history to pour through in order to create our own ideas about the afterlife. I think that there can be such a thing as too much information- and sometimes I think that having so much information about how the Egyptians viewed stuff can make it difficult to draw your own conclusions.
When I first got involved with Kemeticism, I never actually cared about funerary texts or the Duat. I remember trying to read the Book of the Dead before I had ever picked up a basic Egypt 101 book, and realizing that I didn’t really understand what was going on, and that I didn’t really care to understand what was going on. I always have taken the approach that I can’t change where I go when I die, and so I don’t really care about worrying about the Duat or funerary practices.
I still adhere to that, actually. The work I do with the Duat is more or less unrelated to “what happens when I die” and is more tied to “Osiris won’t leave me alone unless I do the thing”. I personally don’t see any point in fretting excessively about where we go when we die, because it’s largely (in my opinion) out of our control. And my current opinion on where we go when we die is simply “it depends”.
I think it can be based upon your religious beliefs when you were alive, combined with the rules of whatever afterlife you’d typically be admitted into, as well as your own preferences about where you go when you die. For example, if you really really like earth, I expect that you’d get to wherever your designated afterlife area is (in this case, the Duat) and you’d tell your deities that you want to come back here, and they’d get the paperwork in order to get you back on earth. Or if you’re like me, you may arrive at your afterlife of choice (Duat) and you’d tell your gods “I don’t want back on that rock again” and they’d try to figure out the paperwork to make it happen. Of course, if I don’t meet the criteria to even enter the Duat (and therefore would get eaten by Ammit), I may not get the option to do anything.
So I feel like there are lots of possibilities and options about where you go when you die, and the options that are present to you are largely going to depend upon your religion while alive, the rules of that plane, and your own personal preferences, etc. I don’t really believe in a static afterlife.
That being said, I’m not overly impressed with the Duat. I’ve gone there to do work for Osiris, as anyone who has been with this blog for any amount of time knows, and I really wouldn’t want to live there permanently. It’s not my cup of tea. However, I will say that having a general knowledge of what is contained inside of funerary texts, as well as an understanding of the basic geography of the Duat is useful if you intend on doing any work there while still alive. But like I said above, I don’t work in the Duat out of some concern regarding the afterlife. Beyond the fact that I am there all the time, the afterlife technically plays a very small role in my practice. Which seems very contradictory, but there it is. Generally speaking, I don’t worry about the afterlife because I feel there is very little I can do about it.
To read other responses to this topic, check out the KRT Master List
Further Reading and Relevant Posts:
- My Heart My Mother by Roberts
- Living with the Dead by Harrington
- AE Books of the Afterlife by Hornung
- Egyptian Mythology by Geraldine Pinch
- The Literature of Ancient Egypt by Simpson
- Lichtheim’s series
- AE Books of the Earth by Roberson
- How to Read the BotD by Kemp
- Guide to the Duat by Nicolls
- Duat tag
- Afterlife tag