Mortuary Practice: Nourishing the Dead

The great pyramids of Egypt were built by citizens of the Egyptian empire for their monarchs beginning in the 4th dynasty. We saw in class that the pyramid-shaped mortuary complex is a further development of mastabas that served as superstructures to earlier (and some contemporaneous) royal burials (Watrall 2012). Earlier structures included storage complexes for inclusion of foods and other grave goods. Small niches in the outside and later interior offering chambers allowed the living to continue honoring the dead by providing sustenance.

Bard (2008) suggests that the akh was the part of the deceased which could come back and cause trouble for the living – not only would leaving an offering have indicated respect for tradition and for one’s ancestors, but must have provided a preventative measure against ghost-related troubles. The massive importance of the pharaoh meant that this process was institutionalized in the Cults of the Pharaoh, who continued these practices for centuries. As a sacred space, access to the pyramids was restricted, so priests of some kind would be a fitting caretaker – the descendants of the deceased pharaohs were otherwise occupied and would not have been able to sufficiently provide for their predecessors.

Although the ideological linkages with the ka, ba, and akh are evident (Bard 2008:151-152), the importance of sustenance is found throughout ancient Egyptian culture. The need for and ability to provide food to the deceased rather than store or sell it for/to the living, occurs in a region with agricultural surplus. To avoid any determinism, it should be noted that rare luxury items, and generally items of higher quality than used in daily life (such as pottery and cosmetic palettes) were included as grave goods.

Would such a practice be less likely if this culture did not enjoy an agricultural surplus?




1 thought on “Mortuary Practice: Nourishing the Dead

  1. You asked if it would be likely for a culture to “nourish the dead” if the society in question did not have an agricultural surplus. I would say that it depends on how important providing for the deceased was viewed by the community. Would providing for the deceased effectively be more important than providing for the living?

    On the one hand, there are examples of societies who “throw away” food even those persons in the society need it. The United States is one example. Working in a restaurant, I know that if we take food out of the kitchen, but the customer is not happy with it, we have to throw it away, even if it is perfectly edible. Meanwhile, soup kitchens and other groups that give food to the hungry constantly have a shortage of food. Rarely has food ever been evenly distributed in history.

    You mention that this practice involved leaving food and other grave goods for the deceased as a way to avoid “ghost-related troubles”. So, if Ancient Egyptians feared these troubles enough, it may have been entirely possible for them to give up enough food and goods to avoid them, even at the cost of the living. However, there is a negative consequence of this. There is the possibility that they realized that feeding the ghosts instead of the people would result in people starving and dying, leading to even more ghosts than before. And thus, more food would be needed to avoid ghost-issues.

    Personally, I think they would have continued a practice of appeasing the dead while still taking care of the living. They might not have left food, but something else that they believed would have allowed the dead to rest in peace.

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