Through the Twelve Chambers of Hell: The Afterlife in Ancient Egypt
Death, the ancient Egyptians believed, was not the end of our struggles. They believed in an afterlife and that the worthy would go on to paradise, but their dead didn’t simply pass over to the other side. If they wanted eternal life, they would have to fight for it.
The souls of dead Egyptians had to battle their way through the twelve chambers of hell, overcoming demons and monsters, crossing over lakes of fire, and finding their way past gates guarded by fire-breathing serpents. The path through the afterlife was violent, brutal, and dangerous. They could be killed in hell, and a death there meant an eternity in oblivion.
If they made it through unscathed, they would meet their judgement day. They would stand trial before the gods, who weigh their hearts against the weight of a feather. The worthy might go on to paradise, or even become a god – but the unworthy would have their hearts cast to the demons, torn to shreds, and devoured.
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The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani. At left, Ani and his wife Tutu enter the assemblage of gods. At center, Anubis weighs Ani's heart against the feather of Maat. At right, the monster Ammut, who will devour Ani's soul if he is unworthy, awaits the verdict, while the god Thoth prepares to record it. On top, gods are acting as judges. ( Public Domain )
The Egyptian vision of the afterlife was incredibly complex. We’ve seen the decaying remains of their fixation on death: the massive pyramid tombs that dwarfed their cities and the mummified bodies buried inside. But these were more than just monuments to the vanity of kings – they were gateways that got them ready for the afterlife, where priests prepared their souls for an incredible journey unlike anything they’d experienced in life.
A Soul Split in Two
When the body died, the Egyptians believed, two parts of the soul would split apart. The life essence that made up a man’s spark and energy would get up and move, free to roam around its tomb and to make its journey up into the afterlife. But the other part of the soul, the part that carried the personality, was left behind, trapped in the lifeless and motionless body that stayed on the earth.
The dead’s only hope for eternal life and a reunited soul was to travel through hell and face judgement. If the essence of their soul could make its way through Duat, the Egyptian netherworld, and pass judgement before the gods, their souls would be reunited – but this was no simple journey, and the clock was ticking. If the body crumbled into decay before their essence made it through the netherworld, the part of the soul trapped inside would die. It would all be for nothing.
Mummy of an upper-class Egyptian male from the Saite period. (Keith Schengili-Roberts /CC BY SA 2.5 )
Preserving A Dying Soul
Egyptians were mummified to keep their souls alive. Their bodies needed to stay preserved or else their chance at eternal life would be lost. And so Egyptian embalmers would pull out their vital organs and their brains, leaving only the heart, the home of the soul, inside. They would drain their liquids until their bodies were completely dry, leaving them in a state that could be preserved for thousands of years.
Even after death, though, the soul trapped inside the body needed to eat. It could still starve – and so a sorcerer would have to call on the gods to open its own mouth. After the body was buried, priests would perform a long and complicated ritual, pulling open the mouth on the statue made in the image of the dead, begging the gods to let them eat, and leaving sacrificed animals at its foot so that the soul could feed.
The mummy of Hunefer is shown supported by the god Anubis (or a priest wearing a jackal mask). Hunefer's wife and daughter mourn and three priests perform rituals including the Opening of the Mouth ritual. The lower scene has a table bearing the various implements needed for the ritual and animals being led to sacrifice. ( Public Domain )
The rituals gave them a fighting chance at eternal life, but this procedure was expensive. The pharaohs and the wealthy could get a tomb and an embalmer to help them earn their second life, but there was no protection offered to the souls of the poor. Their only option was to carry their dead out into the desert and bury them in a shallow grave in the hopes that the dry air would dehydrate their bodies long enough to reach paradise.