Cultural Rituals Surrounding Death: Egyptian Funerary Technology

Cultural Rituals Surrounding Death: Egyptian Funerary Technology

(Disclaimer: unable to Pic1 or Pic2 in their prospective locations)

Pic1. The Weighing of the Heart ritual, shown in the Book of the Dead of Sesostris

I believe our respect and reverence for life itself brings us, as Homo sapiens, to respect and revere death, not as an aspect of life, but rather, as its own entity; a new journey, an uncharted travel to a place no one has ventured before. Across Mother Earth we have found many cultures and ethnicities celebrate varying funerary practices with respect to their clan. We can look to early Greek narratives for insight into funerary practices, as they are the only “earliest” recorded narratives to have survived, for many reasons. They speak to the role of myth in the classical world; famous Greek heroes such as Gilgamesh, Herakles, and Theseus tackle “Classical Greek issues”, such as death and dying. The Greek Myths helped everyday Greeks understand the questions surrounding their lives; death, the most allusive of all ideologies.

As with the early Greeks, most individuals of that time period, CA. 2200 BCE—135 CE, saw death as an individual experience. With the advent of Christianity, arose the concept of an apocalypse; an all-consuming, world-wide event capable of destroying all of humanity. Even with this idea of Apocalypse, many cultures and ethnicities stood by their “individual death experience” and continue to follow “traditional” funerary practices; “traditional” for their people. This narrative will address one such “early” funerary practice or “technology”, which is depicted in the Egyptian “Book of the Dead”; a cryptic collection of instructions for prominent, “Royal” Egyptians to succeed in the afterlife, an afterlife travel guide if-you-will. The “Book of the Dead” (1) was not a mass-produced collective of funerary technology; but rather, a catalog of hymns, epithets and spells tailored exclusively to protect the owner, and his family, and magically assure their continued existence in the afterlife and unencumbered journey in the Underworld. Outside being written on papyrus scroll, these funerary directives, or texts, could also be found inscribed on the inner surfaces of coffins or tomb walls. (2) The “Book of the Dead” most often written in hieroglyphic script and illustrated with vignettes, was placed in the coffin or burial tomb.

Pic2. An authentic “Book of the Dead”, on display at the British Museum, Nov. 2010

Each individual “Book of the Dead”, contained spells, some to be spoken during the embalming or mummification of the body of the deceased; others to ensure their safety, and yet others allowing the deceased to engage in the world around him. Egyptian funerary technology of the time would have placed great emphasis on the process of mummification. Mummification was seen as a means of preserving the body of the deceased for future use in the afterlife. To stop decomposition of the body, the internal organs were remove and weighed, and the body cavity was washed with a mixture of palm wine and various spices. Next, the body cavity was dried with natron, a chemical much like today’s baking soda followed by returning the prepared internal organs to the body cavity. Natron would have been applied to the skin of the deceased; again, as a drying and preservation agent. Next, the body would have been wrapped with clean linen cloth; often, with spells written on them and finally sealed with resin. This same resin was then used to seal the coffin lid; protecting the deceased from insects.

Cites:

  1. Lopez-Ruiz, Carolina (2014). Gods, Heroes, and Monsters, New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Lichtheim, Miriam (1975). Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 1. London, England: Universitym of California Press.
  3. Dunn, Jimmy (22 August 2011). “An Overview of Mummification in Ancient Egypt”. Retrieved 9 November 2013.

Pic1. Detail from the book of the dead of Sesostris, 15th century b.c. (Vienna, Austria]).

Pic2. Robertson, Graema. The Guardian 2010. In Pictures: the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at           the British Museum.

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