The Egyptian Conception of Immortality
George Andrew Reisner


E-text prepared by Aaron G. Wells

Formatting notes: Footnotes are in [square brackets] and embedded in the
e-text at the location of the superscript number in
the original text. Words and phrases in italics are
surrounded with _underlines_. Everything that appears
in all-caps in this e-text was in all-caps in the
original text.


The Ingersoll Lecture, 1911




Extract from the will of Miss Caroline Haskell Ingersoll, who
died in Keene, County of Cheshire, New Hampshire, Jan. 26, 1893.

First. In carrying out the wishes of my late beloved father,
George Goldthwait Ingersoll, as declared by him in his last will
and testament, I give and bequeath to Harvard University in
Cambridge, Mass., where my late father was graduated, and which
he always held in love and honor, the sum of Five thousand
dollars ($5,000) as a fund for the establishment of a Lectureship
on a plan somewhat similar to that of the Dudleian lecture, that
is--one lecture to be delivered each year, on any convenient
day between the last of May and the first day of December, on
this subject, "the Immortality of Man," said lecture not to form
a part of the usual college course, nor to be delivered by any
Professor or Tutor as part of his usual routine of instruction,
though any such Professor or Tutor may be appointed to such
service. The choice of said lecturer is not to be limited to any
one religious denomination, nor to any one profession, but may be
that of either clergyman or layman, the appointment to take place
at least six months before the delivery of said lecture. The
above sum to be safely invested and three fourths of the annual
interest thereof to be paid to the lecturer for his services and
the remaining fourth to be expended in the publishment and
gratuitous distribution of the lecture, a copy of which is always
to be furnished by the lecturer for such purpose. The same
lecture to be named and known as the "the Ingersoll lecture on
the Immortality of Man."


I. Introduction
II. Sources of the Material
III. The Ideas of the Primitive Race
IV. The Early Dynastic Period
V. The Old Empire
VI. The Middle Empire
VII. The New Empire
VIII. The Ptolemaic-Roman Period
IX. Summary


Of the nations which have contributed to the direct stream of
civilization, Egypt and Mesopotamia are at present believed to be
the oldest. The chronological dispute as to the relative
antiquity of the two countries is of minor importance; for while
in Babylonia the historical material is almost entirely
inscriptional, in Egypt we know the handicrafts, the weapons, the
arts, and, to a certain extent, the religious beliefs of the race
up to a period when it was just emerging from the Stone Age. In a
word, Egypt presents the most ancient race whose manner of life
is known to man. From the beginning of its history--that is,
from about 4500 B.C.--we can trace the development of a
religion one of whose most prominent elements was a promise of a
life after death. It was still a great religion when the
Christian doctrine of immortality was enunciated. In the early
centuries of the Christian era, it seemed almost possible that
the worship of Osiris and Isis might become the religion of the
classical world; and the last stand made by civilized paganism
against Christianity was in the temple of Isis at Philae in the
sixth century after Christ.

It is clear that a religion of such duration must have offered
some of those consolations to man that have marked all great
religions, chief of which is the faith in a spirit, in something
that preserves the personality of the man and does not perish
with the body. This faith was, in fact, one of the chief elements
in the Egyptian religion--the element best known to us through
the endless cemeteries which fill the desert from one end of
Egypt to the other, and through the funerary inscriptions.

It is necessary, however, to correct the prevailing impression
that religion played the greatest part in Egyptian life or even a
greater part than it does in Moslem Egypt. The mistaken belief
that death and the well-being of the dead overshadowed the
existence of the living, is due to the fact that the physical
character of the country has preserved for us the cemeteries and
the funerary temples better than all the other monuments. The
narrow strip of fat black land along the Nile produces generally
its three crops a year. It is much too valuable to use as a
cemetery. But more than that, it is subject to periodic
saturation with water during the inundation, and is, therefore,
unsuitable for the burials of a nation which wished to preserve
the contents of the graves. On the other hand, the desert, which
bounds this fertile strip so closely that a dozen steps will
usually carry one from the black land to the gray,--the desert
offers a dry preserving soil with absolutely no value to the
living. Thus all the funerary monuments were erected on the
desert, and except where intentionally destroyed they are
preserved to the present day. The palaces, the towns, the farms,
and many of the great temples which were erected on the black
soil, have been pulled down for building material or buried deep
under the steadily rising deposits of the Nile. The tombs of six
thousand years of dead have accumulated on the desert edge.

Moreover, our impression of these tombs has been formed from the
monuments erected by kings, princes, priests, and the great and
wealthy men of the kingdom. The multitude of plain unadorned
burial-places which the scientific excavator records by the
thousands have escaped the attention of scholars interested in
Egypt from the point of view of a comparison of religions. It has
also been overlooked that the strikingly colored mummies and the
glaring burial apparatus of the late period cost very little to
prepare. The manufacture of mummies was a regular trade in the
Ptolemaic period at least. Mummy cases were prepared in advance
with blank spaces for the names. I do not think that any more
expense was incurred in Egyptian funerals in the dynastic period
than is the case among the modern Egyptians. The importance of
the funerary rites to the living must, therefore, not be


With the exception of certain mythological explanations supplied
by the inscriptions and reliefs in the temples, our knowledge of
Egyptian ideas in regard to the future life is based on funerary
customs as revealed by excavations and on the funerary texts
found in the tombs. These tombs always show the same essential
functions through all changes of form,--the protection of the
burial against decay and spoliation, and the provision of a
meeting-place where the living may bring offerings to the dead.
Correspondingly, there are two sets of customs,--burial customs
and offering customs. The texts follow the same division. For the
offering place, the texts are magical formulas which, properly
recited by the living, provide material benefit for the dead. For
the burial place, the texts are magical formulas to be used by
the spirit for its own benefit in the difficulties of the spirit
life. These texts from the burial chambers are found in only a
few graves,--those of the very great,--and their contents
show us that they were intended only for people whose earthly
position was exceptional.

From the funerary customs and the offering texts, a clear view is
obtained of the general conception, the ordinary practice. We see
what was regarded as absolutely essential to the belief of the
common man. From the texts found in the burial chambers we get
the point of view of the educated or powerful man, the things
that might be done to gain for him an exceptional place in the
other world. Both of these classes of material must be
considered, in order to gain a true idea of the practical
beliefs. For it must be emphasized from the beginning that we
have in Egypt several apparently conflicting conceptions of
immortality. Nor are we anywhere near obtaining in the case of
the texts the clearness necessary to understand fully all the
differing views held by the priestly classes during a period of
over two thousand years.


The earliest belief in immortality is that which is shown to us
by the burial customs of the primitive race,--the prehistoric
Egyptian race.

About 4500 B.C. we find the Egyptian race was just emerging from
the Stone Age. All the implements and weapons found are of flint
or other stone. The men of that time were ignorant of writing,
but show a certain facility in line drawings of men, plants, and
animals. We have found thousands of their graves which all show
the same idea of death. Each person was buried with implements,
weapons, ornaments,--no doubt those actually used in life,--
with a full outfit of household pots and pans, and with a supply
of food. The man was dead, but he still needed the same things he
used in ordinary life. By a fortunate chance we have even
recovered bodies accidentally desiccated and preserved intact in
the dry soil. These bodies do not show any trace of mutilation,
mummification, or any other preparation for the grave except
probably washing. The dead body was simply laid on a mat in the
grave, covered with a cloth and a mat or a skin, and then with
clean gravel. But with it was placed all those things which the
man might need if his life were to go on in some mysterious,
unseen way, as life went on among those on earth. Possibly his
relations as in later times brought offerings of food to the
grave, but here even the dry soil of Egypt fails to furnish
positive evidence. All this shows a plain simple belief in the
persistence of the life of a man as distinguished from the body
--a belief widely prevalent among primitive people. It contains
nothing unusual, and is probably perfectly explicable psychologically
by means of dreams.

There is little or no change in this underlying belief to be
observed in the burial customs of the Egyptians during the late
predynastic period. Copper weapons and implements succeed stone
in the graves. All those objects in whose manufacture the new
tools are used show changes of technique and form. It is even
curious to note that some of the older stone and flint objects,
some of the older pots and pans, are still made as a matter of
tradition. The importance of this is not to be overlooked. For
centuries men had used flint knives and they had baked their
bread in flat mud saucers set in the ashes. For the centuries
these flint knives and these cakes with their saucers had been
placed in the graves. Gradually metal knives and better bread
pans displaced these more primitive objects in daily life; but
the older primitive objects were still placed in the graves as a
matter of tradition.

It must be remembered, of course, that these traditional objects
were also in use in ancient traditional ceremonies on earth. The
sacrificial animals were still slaughtered with flint knives. The
old-style cakes were still offered in the holy places. In other
words, life on earth now consisted of ordinary material life and
a traditional life--a life that clung to the forms of a more
primitive civilization as somehow more effective with the divine
powers. This view is closely reflected in the grave furniture;
here, too, were the practical objects and the traditional
ceremonial objects. Life after death is still always the same as
life on earth--with the same physical needs, with the same need
of help from supernatural powers or against supernatural powers.
The spirit of the man needed the spirit of the copper axe to
swing in battle; but just as much he needed the spirit of the
flint knife to make the first cut across the throat of the spirit
bull of sacrifice. Remember this--the other world, in which
lived the spirit of the dead, was filled with the spirits or
ghosts of all things and animals. The other, the unseen, was a
duplicate of this world; all things which have shape were there
--even to the black fields and the broad river of Egypt. This is
the foundation of the Egyptian conception of immortality. Through
all the modifications and accretions of the following three
thousand years, this foundation idea is always clearly visible.
All the statues, the carved and painted tombs, all the curious
little model boats and workshops, all the painted mummies, all
the amulets, the scarabs, the little funerary statuettes,--all
this mummery which seems to be so characteristic and so
essential, is only the means to an end, and an ever changing
means to secure a successful comfortable existence of the spirit
in the life after death,--in the ghostly duplicate of life on


It is clear that the effort to attain an immortality which is
merely a ghostly continuation of life on earth must reflect the
general development of Egyptian culture,--especially the
advance in arts and crafts. One of the most striking examples of
this fact is the introduction of metal working mentioned above
and the consequent placing of both flint and copper in the grave,
--the division of grave furniture into practical objects and
ceremonial objects, which is the foundation for the use of
symbolic objects in later times.

The advance in arts and crafts not only suggests new ideas of the
necessities of the spirit, but it provides the necessary
technical skill for the more effective satisfaction of all the
needs of the dead. This takes, first of all, the form of
supplying a place for the burial, which furnishes greater
security to the body and a better communication between the
living and the dead.

From the First Dynasty, say from 3300 B.C. down, as soon as the
Egyptian had mastered the use of mud-brick and wood, we gain the
certainty of an idea which could only be guessed at in the
primitive period. A place is provided above the grave at which
the living could meet the spirit of the dead with _periodical_
offerings of food and other necessities. In the life after death,
spirit food and drink, once used, ceased to be, just as in life
on earth, and had to be renewed from day to day, lest the spirit
of the dead suffer from hunger and thirst. One of the great
developments of the first six dynasties looked to the provision
of these daily necessities.

The invention of writing was immediately utilized. About the
beginning of the First Dynasty writing was invented for
administrative and other practical purposes. Gravestones, bearing
in relief the name of the dead, were set up in the offering
places of the kings and court people. These were probably
reminders for use in some simple formula recited in presenting
the periodical offerings. As the Egyptians became more familiar
with the use of writing, the offering formula was written out in
full, enlarged and modified.

Sculptures, both relief and statuary, in every stage of their
development, were used as magical accessories to the offering

So, also, the whole history of Egyptian architecture was
reflected in the tomb; for every advance brought about some
change in the form or structure. In fact, the whole development
of the form of the Egyptian tomb depended on the development of
technical skill. The same funerary functions are served
throughout. As all the great artisans were at the command of the
king, all the great technical discoveries and inventions were
first made in his service. But every permanent gain in knowledge
was a benefit to the race and utilized by the common people. So,
for example, the skill acquired in stone-cutting, during the
construction of the great pyramids, was utilized a little later
in producing rock-cut tombs from one end of Egypt to the other.

The functions of the grave remained the same. Yet with the
changes in form resulting from the growth of skill, modifications
in the funerary customs crept in.

The mud-brick tombs of the early part of the First Dynasty, like
the pre-dynastic graves, had only one chamber, limited in size by
the length of logs obtainable to form the roof. The growing
desire for ostentation found a way to enlarge the tombs by
building them with a number of chambers. The burial was placed in
the central chamber and the burial furniture in the additional
chambers. In this way the separation of the furniture and the
actual burial was brought about.


Another change comes in the Fourth Dynasty, and is to be noted
first in the royal tombs, as is always the case. The Egyptians
had now learned to cut stone and build with it. The burial
chambers hollowed in the solid rock were necessarily smaller than
the old chambers dug in the gravel and no longer sufficient to
contain the great mass of furniture gathered by a king for his
grave. On the other hand, the chapels with the increase in
architectural skill could be build of great size. Corresponding
to these technical conditions we find a great increase in the
importance of the chapel. It becomes a great temple, whose
magazines were filled with all those objects which had formerly
been placed in the burial chamber and were so necessary to the
life of the spirit. The temples of the third pyramid, for
example, contained nearly two thousand stone vessels. Great
estates were set aside by will, and the income appointed to the
support of certain persons who on their side were obliged to keep
up the temple, to make the offerings and to recite the magical
formulas which would provide the spirit with all its necessities.

Following closely the growth in importance of the royal chapels,
the private offering places assumed a greater importance. The
custom of periodic offerings and the use of magical texts grew
until it reached its highest point in the Fifth Dynasty. At this
time there is a burial chamber deep underground where the dead
was laid securely in ancient traditional attitude, with his
clothing and a few personal ornaments. As a rule, it is only the
women, always conservative, that have anything more. Above this
grave, there is a solid rectangular structure, with a chapel or
offering place on the side towards the valley. The offering place
is always there, no matter how poor or small the tomb. But to
understand just what the Egyptian thought, we must turn to the
better tombs. The walls are of limestone carved with reliefs
representing the important processes of daily life,--sowing,
reaping, cattle-herding, hunting, pot-making, weaving,--all
those actions which furnish the daily supplies. The dead man is
represented overseeing all this. Finally, near the offering
niche, he is represented seated, usually with his wife at a table
bearing loaves of the traditional _ta_ bread. Beside him are
represented heaps of provisions--meat, cakes, vegetables, wine
and beer. A list of objects is never missing, marked with
numbers,--a thousand loaves of bread, a thousand head of
cattle, a thousand jars of wine, a thousand garments, and so on.
We know from latter inscriptions that these words, properly
recited, created for the spirit a store of spirit objects in
equal numbers. Below the niche is an altar for receiving actual
offerings of food and drink. It is clear that the living, coming
to this offering place with or without material offerings, could,
by proper recitation, secure to the spirit of the dead all its
daily needs. This offering niche is the door of the other world
--symbolically and actually. In many graves the niche is carved
to represent a door--sometimes opening in, and sometimes
opening out. Moreover, in several cases the figure of the dead is
carved half emerging from the opening door--a figure in all
ways like the figure of the dead as he is represented in the
scenes from life. Beyond this door lives the spirit of the dead.

In many offering chambers there is a small hole in the wall,
either in the offering niche or in another place. If this hole be
properly lighted and the space beyond has not been changed by
decay or violation, the light falls on the face of a statue of
the dead looking forth to the world of the living. For behind the
wall is another chamber, closed except for this small hole. This
hidden chamber contains statues of the dead often accompanied by
statues of his family and his servants. These statues of the dead
are labeled with his name, and are said to be the abode of his
spirit, his _ka_, as the Egyptians called it. Moreover, all the
offering formulas named the _ka_ as the recipient of the food and
drink. The duplicate spirit of the man is his _ka_. In these
statues we have, then, a simulacrum of the man provided for use
of his _ka_--perhaps to assist the _ka_ to the persistence of
his earthly form, and to the remembrance of his name. But what
were the uses of the subsidiary statues? What spirit resided in
them? The man's son in his turn died, and a similar room was made
for him with his statue and his subsidiary statues. Did his _ka_
live both in the statue placed with his father's statue and also
in the statue in his own grave? We have no answer. Probably the
Egyptian mind never formulated the difficulty.

But the new idea is clearly expressed. It is no longer necessary
to fill the burial chamber with a mass of household furniture for
the use of the dead. All these things can be carved on the wall
of the burial chamber and so made effective for his use. It was
in any case necessary to supply his food by means of the
offerings, and it was quite as easy to supply all his other
necessities in the same way. In other words, there is a distinct
growth in the use of magic to benefit the dead. At the same time,
we find the growth of the custom of supplying a special abode for
the _ka_--a simulacrum of the man, which assisted the _ka_ to
retain the form of the living man and to remember his identity.

The tendency of this period is then to place a greater dependence
on magic than on food, drink, and grave furniture. It is,
therefore, not surprising to find introduced, for the first time,
the use of magical texts in the burial chamber,--the so-called
Pyramid Texts. In the burial chamber in the pyramid of Unas, last
king of the Fifth Dynasty, and in the pyramids of the kings of
the Sixth Dynasty, the walls are covered with long magical texts
or chapters--the oldest form of the so-called book of the dead
or "book of the going forth by day." The texts were probably
somewhat older, but are now used for the first time in this
manner, no doubt owing to the increased facility in carving
stone. In these the various powers of the other world are invoked
by the incidents of the Osiris-Isis legend, to preserve the dead
body, to feed the _ka_, and to assist the other spirit, the _ba_,
in its struggles with supernatural powers.

The pyramid texts introduce us to three important ideas,--(1) a
curious plurality of the spirit existence, (2) a condition of
immortality better than that of the old underworld or Earu, and
(3) most important of all, the identification of the king with
Osiris according to the terms of the Osiris-Isis legend.

In all the older offering formulas it is only the _ka_ spirit
which is mentioned. Here is the body perishable and destructible;
here is the life, the _ka_ which fills every limb and vessel of
the body and must, therefore, have the same form. When death
comes, the _ka_ spirit, the image of the man, remains near the
body, and this spirit it was which was the object of the rites
and offerings in the funerary chapel. But besides this _ka_, it
appears for the first time that the king at any rate possesses
also a soul called a _ba_. In later times we see that every man
possessed a _ba_, and we learn that each god possessed several
_ba's_. But it is in the pyramid texts that we learn for the
first time of the _ba_ of a man, and that man is a king. When
death comes, the _ba_ takes flight in the form of a bird or
whatever form it wills. All seems confused. The _ka_ was near the
body, the _ka_ was in the field of Earu, under the earth
ploughing and sowing; the _ba_ is fluttering on the branches of
the tree on earth, the _ba_ has fled like a falcon to the
heavens, and has been set as a star among the stars. The dead
king lives with the gods and is fed by them. The goddesses give
him the breast. He lives in the Island of Food. He lives in Earu,
the Underworld, a land like Egypt, with fields and canals and
flood and harvest. He shares with the gods in the offerings made
in the great temples on earth.

It is quite clear that all this is an expression of
dissatisfaction with the old belief in the simple duplicate
world, the world of Earu under the earth. It is noteworthy that
this first appears in royal tombs. These texts are written for
kings alone. It is only many centuries later that the texts of
the book of the dead showed similar possibilities open to the
common man. This is the usual course of all advances in Egypt,--
architecture, sculpture, writing, whatever gain in skill or
knowledge there is, appears first in the service of the royal
family. Thus, even in the conception of immortality, the new
ideas, the better immortality was first thought out for the
benefit of the king. The basis for this lay simply in the life on
earth. The king had come early to have a sort of divinity
ascribed to him. His chief name was the Horus name. Menes was the
Horus Aha; Cheops was the Horus Mejeru; Pepy II was the Horus
Netery-khau. But he was also the son of Ra, the sun-god, endued
with life forever. The king was a god, and it could only be that
in his future life he shared the life of the gods. Thus, all is
no more confused or mysterious than is the conception of the life
of the gods themselves.

But the texts go even further than this and identify the dead
god-man, who as Horus was king on earth, with the father of
Horus, the dead god of the earth, Osiris. This identification of
the dead man with the dead god Osiris was later enlarged to
include all men, and became in the Ptolemaic period the most
characteristic feature of the Egyptian conception of life after

The Osiris story as it can be pieced together from the pyramid
texts [See A. Erman: _Die Aegyptische Religion_, p. 38 ff.] was
briefly thus: Keb, the earth-god, and Nut, the goddess of the
sky, had four children,--Osiris and Isis, Seth and Nephthys,--
who were thus paired in marriage. Keb gave Osiris his dominion,
the earth, and made him the god of the earth, and he ruled justly
and powerfully. Seth, his brother, was jealous, and by treachery
enticed Osiris into a box, which he closed and threw into the
water. Isis sought for the body of her husband until she found it,
and Isis and Nephthys, her sister, sat at his head and feet and
bewailed him. Re, the greatest of the gods, heard Isis's
complaint; his heart was touched, and he sent Anubis to bury
Osiris. Anubis re-joined his separated bones, bound him with
cloths, and prepared him for burial,--that is, mummified him.
This is the form in which Osiris is represented,--as a mummy.
Isis then fanned her wings, and the air from her wings caused the
mummy to live. His life on earth, however, was over, could not be
recalled, so that his new life could only be passed in the other
world, the world of the dead. Here Osiris became king, as he had
been king on earth. But Isis conceived from the dead-living
Osiris, bore a child in secret, and suckled him, hidden in a
swamp. When the child, the sun-god Horus, grew up, he fought
against Seth to recover his father's kingdom, and to avenge his
death. Both gods were injured in the fight. Horus lost an eye.
But Thoth intervened, separated the fighters, and healed their
wounds. Thoth spat upon the eye of Horus and it became whole.
Horus, however, gave his eye to Osiris to eat, and thereby Osiris
became endowed with life, soul, and power (i.e. in the underworld).
But Seth disputed the legitimacy of the birth of Horus, and the
great gods held a court in the house of Keb. In this court,
justice was done, the truth of Horus's claims was established,
and he was placed on the throne of his father. Osiris became
the ruler in the land of the dead, Horus in the land of the

The kernel of the story appears to be this: Osiris is the god of
the earth, and his life is the life of the vegetation, dying and
reviving with the course of the seasons, mourned by his wife Isis
and succeeded by his son Horus, the sun-god. It is apparently a
form of the common Tammuz or Adonis story of the Semites. This
fact brings with it a suggestion which requires consideration.

The racial connection of the Egyptians may seem to have little to
do with immortality. But I beg a moment's consideration. The two
great dominating ideas of immortality are those held by the
Christians and by the Mohammedans, and these are essentially the
same idea. Both these religions are creations of the Semitic
race. It is, therefore, decidedly of importance to find that the
Egyptian race, the creator of a third great religion, has also a
large Semitic strain. In fact, the investigations of the last ten
years appear to show that this Semitic strain it was which gave
the Egyptian race its creative power and made possible the
development of the Egyptian civilization.

The Egyptian language furnishes us with indisputable proof of the
Semitic affinity, as Professor Adolf Erman showed years ago. The
anatomical examination by Professor Elliot Smith of a large
number of skeletons, dated by careful excavations, has given us a
further clue. There is a prehistoric race found in the earliest
cemeteries--neither Negroid nor Asiatic in characteristics. In
the late predynastic and the early dynastic periods, when the
great development began, this primitive race had become modified
by an infiltration of broad-headed people from the north. In the
Old Empire, this broad-headed people had become predominant, and
remain so throughout all Lower and Middle Egypt until the present
day. This intruding race, whose advent marks the beginning of
Egyptian civilization, I believe to have been Semitic.

Remember this--the texts show clearly older ideas in conflict
with the Osiris belief. The primitive race was not, I believe, a
race of Osiris followers. Professor Erman has stated that the
Osiris belief is as early as 4200 B.C. That I am certain is
absolutely untenable. It is a question of Egyptian chronology in
which I beg to differ radically both from Eduard Meyer and
Professor Erman. In the formal calendar year of three hundred and
sixty-five days, there are twelve months of thirty days and five
intercalary days. These intercalary days are called the birthdays
of Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys--the five most
important figures in the Osiris myth. According to Professor
Meyer and Professor Erman, this formal calendar was introduced in
4200 B.C., one of the occasions when the heliacal rising of the
star Sothis fell on the first of the month Thoth of the calendar.
However, if we accept with them the date 3300 B.C. as the date of
the First dynasty, then in 4200 B.C. the Egyptians were just
emerging from a neolithic state. They were culturally incapable
of making a formal calendar and could have no possible use for
one. Either the calendar did not originate in Egypt, or it was
introduced in 2780 B.C., when again the heliacal rising Sothis
fell on the first of Thoth. At this time the Osiris story was
dominant, in the religion. We have a race almost certainly
Semitic, fusing the primitive race during the period 3500-3000,
and a few centuries later we have a new religious idea dominating
the fused race. When we examine this new idea, the Osiris belief,
we find its earliest form nothing more nor less than the common
tammuz or Adonis story of the Semites. The conclusion lies very
near at hand, that the Osiris story is in fact the Tammuz story,
brought into Egypt by the earliest Semitic tribes. In any case it
was a race with a large Semitic mixture which utilized this story
in working out a theory of immortality; and in all probability we
have in the Osiris-Isis religion a third great religion due to
the Semitic race.

However this may be, it is clear that the craving of the king for
a special immortality, for an exalted future life, found its
justification through the Osiris-Isis myth. Horus was the
successor of Osiris as lord of the earth and the living. The
kings of Egypt were the successors of Horus. The chief name of
the king was his Horus name; Menes was the Horus Aha, Cheops the
Horus Mejeru. When the king died, he became Osiris, and passed to
the kingdom of Osiris. He passed through the underworld with the
sun-god, abode there as Osiris, the god-king, or sped to the
heavens to the celestial gods. Thus comes the entering wedge
of a great change in the conception of immortality--an ordinary
immortality for the common man, a special divine immortality
for the divine man, the king. [It appears probable that the
deification of the king and the assumption of a divine immortality
for him was prior in time to the statement of these beliefs in
the terms of the Osiris story.] Even at this early age, it
was, of course, clearly stated that the king must be righteous,
morally satisfactory in the eyes of the world and of the gods.
The gods, as always, were on the side of the moral code, and
especially on the side of the organized religion. It is
perhaps significant that the chief sins of the kings of the
Fourth dynasty, so execrated by the Egyptian priests in the
Ptolemaic period, were sins against the great gods. The other
charges are for the most part plainly slanders. In practice every
king whose family remained in power was justified before gods and
men, and took his place among the gods in the islands of the
blessed in the northern part of the heavens.

The dead body was laid in the grave, supplied with all these
magic texts which were to restore and revive the soul and guide
it across waters and through dangers to the place of Osiris. But
the chapel was not wanting, the cult of the _ka_ was maintained,
the statues were placed in the hidden room, the food and drink
were brought daily to the door of the grave. Thus, while a
special immortality was evolved for the king, the funeral customs
continue to show the same service of the _ka_ as in the earlier

In the Sixth Dynasty, there is a return to the older practice of
placing objects in the grave itself. At present we are unable to
point out the reasons for this. Possibly experience had taught
men that endowments and craved walls left to the care of
descendants were insecure supports for a life after death which
was to last forever. At any rate, the custom arose of making
small models in wood or stone or metal of those scenes and
objects which were carved in relief on the walls of the chapel,
--models of houses, granaries, of kitchens, of brickyards;
models of herds and servants and soldiers; models of boats and
ships; models of dance-halls with the man seated drinking wine,
around him musicians, before him dancing girls; models of swords,
of vessels, of implements. Poorer people must be contented with
poorer things, down to the peasant who is buried with the few
little necessary pots and pans of his daily life. But always, in
every grave, the chapel, small or great, is there. The endowment
of funerary priests continues. Every man, I suppose, however
poor, had some one to make at least one offering at his grave.
And so it was down to the New Empire.


During the Middle Empire, the burial and offering customs show
the persistence of the old belief in life after death as on
earth. Pots, vessels, tools, weapons, ornaments, clothing, and
models of scenes from life, continue to be placed in the burial
chamber. The walls of the offering chambers of the nobles, at
this time cut in the rock, still bear representations from life
carved in relief. The symbolical doors and the offering formulas
still mark the spot where the dead receive the necessities of
life from the living. All graves of every class testify to the
faith in a life after death similar to life on earth. Yet certain
modifications are apparent which are significant for the future
development of the conception of immortality: (1) the pyramid
texts are used by the provincial nobles for their own benefit;
(2) Abydos assumes a great importance as the burial place of
Osiris; (3) the swathed mummy comes into general use in burials.

The first identification of the king with Osiris in the pyramid
texts marks the conception of a better immortality for him. So,
as the possibility of a better immortality was claimed by wider
and wider circles of men, the use of the pyramid texts, or
similar texts, also became wider. In the Middle Empire, texts
practically identical with the pyramid texts, but furnished with
illustrations somewhat like those of the later books of the dead,
are found in the coffins of provincial nobles.

The power of the monarchy had been weakening during the Fifth and
Sixth Dynasties, partly owing to the dissipation of national
resources by royal extravagance, partly owing to other causes.
After the Sixth Dynasty, the country was clearly in a period of
economic depression; and the government was broken up into a
series of nearly independent baronies corresponding roughly to
the later division into provinces or nomes. Our material is
scanty. The tombs of very few great men have been found. But when
in the Twelfth Dynasty an abundance of material is at hand, we
see, alongside the old forms of the burial customs, the use of
the pyramid texts on the inside walls of the coffins of the great
man. It was now possible for the _ba_ of the great landed noble
to seek refuge with the gods in the northwest heavens and share
their life.

The increasing importance of Abydos as the burial place of Osiris
is of still greater significance. The tomb of a king of the First
Dynasty was identified by the priests as the actual burial place
of Osiris. Many great people made graves for themselves in the
same field; or, if they lived at a distance, built empty
cenotaphs there. A great temple of Osiris stood near by, and
became the centre of the celebration of mysteries illustrating
the death and revival of Osiris. Fortunately, a certain high
official named I-kher-nofret has left us an account of the Osiris
passion-play as performed under his oversight in the nineteenth
year of Sesostris III, nearly two thousand years before Christ
[See Schafer's article, "Die Osiris-mysterien," in Sethe's
_Untersuchungen zur Geshichte Aegyptens_, IV, 2, pp 1-42.]. The
play began by the procession of the statue of the jackal-god
Wep-wawet (the road-opener) going forth to help his father
Osiris. Then the statue of Osiris himself in the Neshemet boat
came forth as triumphant king of the earth. Sham battles took
place referring to the conquest of the earth by Osiris. These
processions were only introductory. The principal procession took
place on the following day (or days), when Osiris went forth to
his death at Nedit. The actual death scene certainly took place
in secret. But when the dead body was found, the multitude joined
in the wailing and the lamentations. The god Thoth went forth in
a boat and brought back the body of Osiris. The body was prepared
for burial and taken in funeral procession to the grave at Peker.
Osiris was avenged on his enemies in a great battle on the water
at Nedit. Finally, the god, his life revived, comes from Peker in
triumphant procession and enters his temple at Abydos.

Osiris mysteries were celebrated at other places, at least in
later times and perhaps even in the Middle Empire; but it is not
easy to discern the part these mysteries played in the Middle
Empire in the beliefs of the common people regarding their
immortality. The Osiris story was one of the most widespread in
Egypt, and, powerful in its effect on the feelings of all
classes, was certain, sooner or later, to prepare the way for a
general belief in a better immortality; but if we may judge from
the burial customs, the great mass of the people still believed
merely in an underworld, Earu, a duplicate of the earthly life,
but with greater possibilities of danger and evil.

During the course of Egyptian history the position in which the
body is buried undergoes a series of remarkable changes. During
the early pre-dynastic period, the body, loosely enfolded in
cloths and skins, is laid in the grave double up on the left
side, _usually_ with the head south (i.e. upstream). This
position becomes the custom, with very few exceptions, during the
late predynastic period and the first three dynasties. Throughout
the Fourth to Sixth Dynasties, the body was in the same position,
but with the head north, loosely covered with shawls and
garments. The crouching position, with some slight modifications,
continues to be used for the poorest class down to the New
Empire. Among the Nubians, it is universal to the New Empire and
customary even later in unmixed Nubian communities. The swathed
extended burials begin in Egypt in the Fourth Dynasty, so far as
remains are preserved. Some members of the royal family of Cheops
were buried in swathed wrapping, lying extended on the left side
with the knees bent. During the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties this
extended position on the side becomes customary for the better
classes; and during the Middle Empire it becomes almost

The final burial position, the swathed mummy lying extended on
the back, does not become general until the New Empire, about
1600 B.C. although it is the position hitherto regarded as the
characteristic Egyptian burial position. A few isolated cases,
some of them perhaps accidental, occur as early as the Old
Empire; but in the New Empire the extended burial on the back is
practically the only one to be observed. In other words,
beginning in the predynastic period with a burial position which
may be called natural and primitive, the Egyptian gradually
adopted a position which imitated the form of the dead Osiris,
the god of the dead. Each new change is first adopted by the
royal family, and is taken up by the other classes in turn until
it becomes universal. In the final form, the mummy was a
simulacrum of the dead as Osiris.

Alongside these changes in the burial position progressed the art
of preserving the body. The earliest attempts were made on the
body of the king; and the knowledge of embalming gained in
preserving his body was gradually utilized for the higher classes
and finally for all but the poorest. It seems indisputable that
the royal personages of the Fourth and Sixth Dynasties were
mummified--i.e., the entrails were drawn, the body prepared
with spices and resins and wrapped tightly in cloths smeared with
resin. But the mummies of the nobles, even of this period, show
no trace of such treatment. The receptacles for the viscera are
sometimes found in their graves in the Sixth Dynasty, but are, as
a rule, empty, being mere dummy vases. Even in the Middle Empire,
the preservation of the bodies of the better classes was
extremely imperfect. The bundles of wrappings have kept their
form to the present day and it seems as if the mummy were still
intact; but an examination of the interior shows only loose
bones. Successful mummification appears among better-class people
in the New Empire for the first time and becomes a general custom
in the Late Period. The processes of successful mummification
necessitated the practical destruction of the body.

In the Middle Empire, which is the period under discussion, the
process of mummification had reached a middle stage, and, while
we are unable to explain exactly the causal relationship, it is
clear that this advance in the treatment of the body accompanied
a spread of the belief in the Osirian immortality.


The New Empire (1600-1200 B.C.) was the great period of foreign
conquest. The Hyksos, Asiatic invaders, had held Egypt for a
century or more. The Theban princes who drove them out became
kings of Egypt, and followed them into Asia. With an army trained
in war by the long struggle with the Hyksos, the Egyptian kings,
having tasted the sweetness of the spoils of war, entered on the
conquest of western Asia and the Sudan. The plunder of both these
regions poured into Egypt. Under Thothmes III an annual campaign
was conducted into Syria to bring back the spoils and the
tribute. Foreign slaves and the products of foreign handicraft
were for sale in every market-place. The treasury was filled to
overflowing. A large share was assigned to Amon, the god of the
Theban family. Temples were built for him; estates established
for the maintenance of his rites; thousands of priests enrolled
for the service of his properties. The god became, in a material
sense, the greatest god of Egypt, the national god; and his
priesthood became the most powerful organization in the kingdom.
The high priest of Amon usurped the power of the king and finally
supplanted him. Such was the period in which the next great
development of the Egyptian idea of immortality is to be noted--
a period of priestly activity in the beginning and of priestly
domination in the end.

The priests are the scribes, the men of learning. They have the
lore of all magic, medicine, rules of conduct, religious rites.
It is not mere chance, therefore, that the New Empire was marked
by a great increase of magic in all its forms--texts and
symbolic objects--and by a great development in the knowledge
of the other world. In some of the texts the geography of the
underworld, in which Osiris is king, is worked out in great
detail. When the sun sets in the west, Ra in his boat enters the
underworld and passes through it during the twelve hours of the
night, bringing light and happiness to those who are in the
underworld. In the effort to secure the tomb against plundering,
the royal graves had been cut in the solid rock,--long and
complicated passages with false leads and deceptive turns and the
burial chamber in an unexpected place. The long walls of these
rooms presented a great surface suitable to decoration, and they
were utilized to depict scenes from the underworld and the
passage of Ra through it, so that the tombs became in fact
representations of the land of the dead, and were so considered.
These royal tombs were at a distance from the cultivated land,
hidden in valleys in the desert. Their funerary temples were
built on the edge of the desert beside the temples of the gods of
the place.

Such fantastical reconstructions of the other world, however,
never found general favor and are confined to a few royal tombs.
The priests and other prominent people have rolls of papyrus
buried with them, bearing copies of books of the dead. These
books of the dead are made up of a series of chapters, each
complete in itself and each dealing with some phase of the future
life. There is no set order of chapters. There is no fixed number
of chapters. Each scribe seems to have selected the chapters
which he considered useful. The general title is: Chapters of the
going forth by day. The general character may be given by a
paragraph attached to one of the chapters in the Book of Ani the
Scribe [Edited by E. A. W. Budge, p. 26]: "If this book be known
on earth and written on the coffin, it is my mouth. He shall come
forth by day in any form he desires and he shall go into his
place without being prevented. There shall be given to him bread
and beer and meat upon the altar of Osiris. He shall enter in, in
peace, to the field of Earu according to this decree of the one
who is in the City of Dedu. There shall be given to him wheat and
barley there. He shall flourish as he did upon earth. He shall do
his desires like these nine Gods who are in the underworld, as
found true millions of times. He is the Osiris: the Scribe Ani."

There are chapters to overcome all the evil which a soul may
encounter; there are words to greet all the gods whom the soul
desires to visit. The Scribe Ani had an exceptional position on
earth; he desires to do his desire in the other world; and in the
names of Osiris he recites the magic words that bring him the
power. He is Ani, but he calls himself Osiris; just as the
priestly doctor mixes his dose of medicine and calls it "the eye
of Horus tested and found true."

In addition to magical texts, there are also magical, or
symbolic, objects placed in the graves,--amulets of various
kinds which were to be used in the other world. Some of these
were simply the amulets used in daily life to guard against
sickness, bite of snake, and other earthly evils which were also
incident to the life after death. Other amulets, like the
so-called _Ushabtiu_, were to meet special conditions of the
other world. These _Ushabtiu_, or "answerers," were little images
of workmen bearing agricultural implements whose duty it was to
take the place of the dead in the fields of Earu when Osiris as
king called him to do his share of the field work. Even the king
appears liable to this service, and for him thousands of these
figures were made,--sometimes labeled each with the day of the
year. In a few cases there was even a charm written on the figure
to prevent it hearing the command of any one but its master.

Alongside these manifold manifestations of the belief in magic,
other furniture--implements, weapons, and utensils--are still
placed in the grave. The offering places are still maintained.
All burials are now extended on the back and wrapped in bandages.
Yet the common graves lack the receptacles for the viscera, lack
magical texts, lack ushabtiu, and--in a word--lack all those
things which are typical of the better-class graves of the
period. The conception of the future life among the common people
is apparently not essentially different from that of the Old
Empire. But the books of the dead and the offering formulas show
that the priests and high officials at death were called Osiris.

By the end of the Late Period the Osiris cult of the dead had
come to be universal. No doubt political events had much to do
with this. The absorption of the powers of the king by the
priesthood of the national god Amon-Ra, the crushing of the
nobility by a succession of foreign invaders, and the general
uncertainty of life, had disturbed the old fixed relations. The
hope of every Egyptian turned to a glorified future life as

The tendency to use magical texts and symbolic objects reached
its height. About 700 B.C. a revival of national life, brought
about by the establishment of the Egyptian kings of Sais as kings
of Egypt, led to a renaissance of Egyptian art. The old monuments
were copied and imitated, the old funerary texts and offering
formulas were sought out in the older graves. Even the pyramid
texts reappear after one thousand years of practical oblivion.
The value of master words was so firmly fixed in the Egyptian
mind that misunderstood texts of all sorts were copied out and
placed in the graves to secure to the dead some vague benefit in
the other world.

The process of mummification was at its height. The bodies were
no longer preserved. The process was merely the creation of a
simulacrum of the dead Osiris So-and-So. All the perishable parts
of the body were removed or destroyed by chemicals. Only the
skin, bones, hair, and teeth remained to be padded with mud and
resin, wrapped in cloths, covered with a painted and gilded
_cartonnage_ to represent the glorified Osiris mummy.


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.


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.


Back to Full Books