Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt

Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt

Translated from the German by DAVID LORTON
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 504
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt
    Book Description:

    "Human beings," the acclaimed Egyptologist Jan Assmann writes, "are the animals that have to live with the knowledge of their death, and culture is the world they create so they can live with that knowledge." In his new book, Assmann explores images of death and of death rites in ancient Egypt to provide startling new insights into the particular character of the civilization as a whole. Drawing on the unfamiliar genre of the death liturgy, he arrives at a remarkably comprehensive view of the religion of death in ancient Egypt. Assmann describes in detail nine different images of death: death as the body being torn apart, as social isolation, the notion of the court of the dead, the dead body, the mummy, the soul and ancestral spirit of the dead, death as separation and transition, as homecoming, and as secret. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt also includes a fascinating discussion of rites that reflect beliefs about death through language and ritual.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6480-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Translator’s Note
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Death and Culture
    (pp. 1-20)

    The thesis that underlies this book can be reduced to an extremely simple formula: death is the origin and the center of culture. My aim is to illustrate this thesis employing ancient Egyptian culture as my example. When it comes to the importance of death, this culture is admittedly an extreme example. But this has largely to do with the fact that we view ancient Egypt from the standpoint of a culture that is equally extreme, but in the opposite direction. From the point of view of comparative anthropology, it is we, not the ancient Egyptians, who are the exception....

  5. Part One. Images of Death

    • {CHAPTER ONE} Death as Dismemberment
      (pp. 23-38)

      In ancient Egyptian tradition, at least as it is preserved to us, the Osiris myth was never recounted as a coherent whole; rather, it served as a source of allusions for a large number of religious texts. We may, indeed we must, conclude from these allusions and circumstances, that it was not a coherent story but rather a sequence of scenes that was unmistakably rooted in the mortuary cult. The only texts that furnish us with a continuous narrative are written in Greek, by Diodorus¹ and especially by Plutarch.² But in the coherence of their narratives, in their care about...

    • {CHAPTER TWO} Death as Social Isolation
      (pp. 39-63)

      Just as the image of death as dismemberment arises from the image of the body as a marionette brought to life as a unity by the heart and blood as a connective medium, so the image of death as isolation is inferred from the image of life as social connectivity. This image of life can best be reconstructed from two maxims already mentioned at the outset of this book. One of them reads, “One lives, if another guides him” and refers above all to life before death. The other is, “One lives, if his name is mentioned,”¹ and it refers...

    • {CHAPTER THREE} Death as Enemy
      (pp. 64-86)

      The image of death as enemy¹ finds Osiris confronted by Seth, his murderer. It is also closely connected with the second image of death, that of social isolation and the activities of the son. But the contending of Osiris with his murderer constitutes a constellation of its own, one that came to acquire an especially central status during the course of the history of Egyptian mortuary religion. In the narrative unfolding of the mythic events, these three images of death are arranged into successive stages in the action. The first stage is the finding of and care for the body...

    • {CHAPTER FOUR} Death as Dissociation: The Person of the Deceased and Its Constituent Elements
      (pp. 87-112)

      The concept of the person played an important role in the three preceding chapters. Concerns about managing death and restoring life were not just concentrated on the body and the soul but also on the person of the deceased, which included other, in particular social, aspects such as rank, status, and honor. As I use it here, the concept of the person is a modern one, and there is nothing in the ancient Egyptian language that corresponds to it. I mean by it a collection of individual aspects of a human being for which ancient Egyptian expressions do in fact...

    • {CHAPTER FIVE} Death as Separation and Reversal
      (pp. 113-140)

      Death as separation is the most natural and the most widespread form in which death is experienced, out of sight of those left behind. We thus encounter this image of death most often in the dirges that accompany scenes of mourning in private tombs. Such representations and captions are attested as early as the Old Kingdom.

      In the earlier tomb inscriptions, the words attributed to the pallbearers and mourning women refer mostly to the procession to the tomb, which they depict as a crossing over to the “beautiful West” and accompany with exclamations such as “Welcome to the presence of...

    • {CHAPTER SIX} Death as Transition
      (pp. 141-163)

      Death as transition, as passage: this image of death had its influence even on tomb architecture. The Theban tombs of the Middle Kingdom are laid out in the form of a long passageway leading westward into the mountain to the cult chamber. This corridor symbolizes the transition from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. In the New Kingdom, a transverse chamber was placed in front of the corridor; scenes from the life of the tomb owner, and especially scenes of a banquet that he enjoyed in the company of his family, were placed on the...

    • {CHAPTER SEVEN} Death as Return
      (pp. 164-185)

      The images of death considered to this point—dismemberment, isolation, enemy, dissociation, transition, and reversal—have revealed the ambivalence of Egyptian concepts regarding death and the afterlife. They portray death as a destructive attack on the continuity of life, while at the same time, they depict counterimages of salvation and restoration. They depict the realm of death as a place of loneliness and darkness, in which all life is extinguished, while at the same time, they point the way to an Elysian realm in which the individual is forever redeemed from death and becomes a living god. These images derive...

    • {CHAPTER EIGHT} Death as Mystery
      (pp. 186-208)

      The image of death as return has led us to the mystery of the circuit of the sun god and his nightly renewal in the depths of the world. He is able to join the end to the beginning, so that each morning, he emerges from the realm of the dead rejuvenated and glorious, as on the “first occasion.” That this renewal is a mystery, and perhaps even the deepest mystery in Egyptian religion, is assured by the texts and representations that depict it. Unlike the images of death treated to this point, which occur in all the mortuary texts...

    • {CHAPTER NINE} Going Forth by Day
      (pp. 209-234)

      All eight images of death considered to this point have centered on the transition from the condition of death to a new, higher form of life, transition from the realm of death to Elysium, and transition from the destruction wrought by physical death to a healthful restoration of body and person. This transition was accompanied by rituals whose purpose was to transform the deceased into a “transfigured ancestral spirit.” But the mortuary rituals did not all end with the funeral; quite the contrary, there now began the offering cult at or in the tomb, a cult that was potentially supposed...

  6. Part Two. Rituals and Recitations

    • {CHAPTER TEN} Mortuary Liturgies and Mortuary Literature
      (pp. 237-259)

      The images of death treated in Part One of this book underlay a number of actions whose purpose was to treat death in the way an illness is treated. The function of such images was to lead to action, opening up a horizon of meaningful possibilities for such action, a horizon in which a person could deal with and overcome the problems of existence by means of subjectively and intersubjectively meaningful action. By far the most important, and the central, medium of this treatment of death was language. In Part Two of this book, we shall use selected examples to...

    • {CHAPTER ELEVEN} In the Sign of the Enemy: The Protective Wake in the Place of Embalming
      (pp. 260-279)

      Of all the contexts in which mortuary liturgies were performed, the most important was the embalming ritual. Important information about this ritual is supplied by several inscriptions of the Middle Kingdom:

      Further, I have contractually obligated (ḫtm) the chief lector priest Jnj-jtj=f, son of Nj-sw-Mnṯw, son of Jnj-jtj=f, son of Ṯtw, to perform the liturgy in the place of embalming (r jr.t jr.t m wʿb.t) and to read (šd.t) the festival roll (ḥ’̧b.t) for my majesty at the month festival and the mid-month festival, that my name might be beautiful and that recollection of me might endure to the present...

    • {CHAPTER TWELVE} The Night of Vindication
      (pp. 280-298)

      The Osirian liturgy of the “Divine Night,” which we cited in the previous chapter, recounts the carrying out of a wake for Osiris:

      When this misfortune struck the first time,

      an embalming place was set up for you in Busiris,

      to mummify you and make your scent pleasant.

      For you, Anubis was enacted

      carrying out his rituals in the pure place.

      I and my sister Nephthys lit the torch

      at the entrance to the embalming chamber,

      so as to drive Seth into the darkness.

      Anubis emerged from the area of the house of embalming

      to smite all your enemies.


    • {CHAPTER THIRTEEN} Rituals of Transition from Home to Tomb
      (pp. 299-329)

      Almost no Egyptian ritual was depicted as often or as richly as that of the funeral. Representations of rites clearly connected with the funeral are to be found in tombs from the Old Kingdom down to the latest periods of Egyptian history, as well as on Book of the Dead papyri and coffins.¹ We thus have the impression of being well informed regarding these matters, but it quickly emerges that the multitude of representations yield scarcely any insight into what actually happened. The depictions present us with a picture, sanctified by tradition, of something that might actually have occurred at...

    • {CHAPTER FOURTEEN} Provisioning the Dead
      (pp. 330-348)

      There were two important frameworks for the recitation of mortuary liturgies: the rites in the embalming chamber during the night before the funeral and the offering service in the cult place in the tomb. The Egyptian expression for “mortuary offering,” translated literally into English, is “coming out at the voice.”¹ The idea was that at the sound of the mortuary priest’s voice, the ba of the deceased would “come out” from the netherworld, the sky, or wherever it was conceived of as being, and receive the offering. The term for making an offering is w’,ḥ jḫ.t, literally, “to set things...

    • {CHAPTER FIFTEEN} Sacramental Explanation
      (pp. 349-368)

      The practice of loading an offering item with so much meaning in its accompanying spell that it not only supplied the recipient with food and drink, and anointed and clothed him, and so forth, but also endowed him with freedom of movement, ascent to the sky, the affection of the gods, and more besides, dominated the mortuary cult and that of the gods as well. But it seems to have originated in the mortuary cult, for only there was the distinction between this realm and the next one, and of the transition from the one to the other, of such...

    • {CHAPTER SIXTEEN} Freedom from the Yoke of Transitoriness: Resultativity and Continuance
      (pp. 369-388)

      The Egyptians’ hopes for freedom from the yoke of transitoriness ran in two very different directions that we must take care to distinguish, though they themselves perceived a connection between them, one that is difficult for us to understand. I wish to call one of these directions “continuance,” and the other immortality. Continuance is focused on this world, and immortality on the next. Continuance was something in human existence, a prospect, realizable within the framework of human possibilities, of surviving death and somehow continuing to exist. Immortality was a privilege of the gods, something withheld from “mortals”: one had to...

    • {CHAPTER SEVENTEEN} Freedom from the Yoke of Transitoriness: Immortality
      (pp. 389-406)

      One of the most important results of our review of the various images of death in ancient Egypt is the discovery that the Egyptians had a concept of a realm of death in which the dead were just dead, and that they depicted this state of death in the darkest colors of deprivation and reversal of all the order and beauty of life. Until now, scholars have known that there were some “heretical” voices that dared to question the wisdom of the official mortuary texts—the harpers’ songs and the laments of widows—but these have been taken to be...

  7. AFTERWORD: Egypt and the History of Death
    (pp. 407-417)

    Like scarcely any other religion, we may view that of ancient Egypt as the antithesis of our own cultural experience. On this point, the Bible is correct: to renounce cosmotheism and adopt monotheism, it is necessary to leave Egypt. With our belief in a single god who excludes all others and says of himself “I am who I am,” we became who we are, giving up our symbiotic relationship to a deified “World.” To the religious concept of monotheism, there corresponds a “monotheism” of the consciousness, of the autonomous, centered, and homogeneous Self. The “Mosaic distinction,” which introduced a boundary...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 418-478)
  9. Index
    (pp. 479-490)