Religion, Mortuary Practices, and Magic in Ancient Egypt: Delving into the Afterlife

Death is, and has always been, an ambiguous, inevitable part of life. In many cultures, the ominous nature of death has led to the development of spiritual beliefs of an afterlife. While many cultures instigate a separation between life and death, the ancient Egyptians believed that death was a continuation of life in another means, and that spiritual connections could be made between this world and the next. While a comforting thought, the Egyptians still feared death and the consequences of their actions in life after they died. In order to ensure their success after passing into the afterlife, they developed very specific mortuary practices, both leading up to and following their deaths. For this research paper, I will be exploring the religious features of ancient Egypt, how their gods and goddesses impacted their lives, how their mortuary practices ensure their safe delivery to the afterlife, and the importance and taboo of magic in both life and death.

Mortuary texts depicted that the dead do not depart as dead, but as alive. After departing from this world, they would venture on as living beings to the land of the dead, known as the Duat. Once there, they would continue to live among the gods and goddesses, such as Osiris, the lord of the underworld. Tombs and mortuary artifacts we believed to allow the dead to interact with the world of the living. For example, shabtis (funerary sculptures of spirits) were placed so they might do work for the dead in this world. They believed that regardless of their status in the living world, they would achieve equality in the afterlife. However, Pharaohs were able to be deified after their deaths, and join the gods as protectors of the world of the living.

Ancient Egyptian theology also incorporated the belief of magic and the use of magic as a means of communication and connection to the world of the dead. Spells were often engraved in the walls of tombs, and were important at funerary gatherings to show praise and respect for the dead. Clement of Alexandria (3rd century, AD) referred to Egypt as, “the mother of magic.” The god of magic, Heka, was known as the source of magical knowledge and power. Incantations of spells and execution of magical practices were believed to be able to improve daily life, bring good fortune, and assist the dead in their passing over. However, with the existence of good magic, there were various forms of magic that were constituted as taboo. Ancient texts reveal warnings for some spells, such as one that warns against the use of a spell to ward off crocodiles. It is also hypothesized that there even may have been secret groups of magicians that delved in the dark practices of magic.

Death was a very important part of and continuation of life to the ancient Egyptians. In fact, life was often seen as a way to prepare for death. Construction of tombs, temples, and pyramids showed respect for the afterlife and ensure that those who passed would be prepared for the trials of the afterlife, and that they would be happy after their passing. My research paper will focus on the connections made between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and explore the important of religion in the everyday lives of the ancient Egyptians.

  • Teeter, Emily. 2011. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge University Press.
  • Assmann, J., Lorton, D. 2011. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Cornell University Press.
  • Hart, George. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Taylor & Francis Group.

4 thoughts on “Religion, Mortuary Practices, and Magic in Ancient Egypt: Delving into the Afterlife

  1. Emma, I am also writing my paper on mortuary archaeology but I have a slightly different focus. I am writing about the process of mummification as well as the broader context of Egyptian mortuary practices and how they relate to their overall belief system. Although this certain focus can seem all too popular amongst everyday knowledge of Ancient Egyptian history, I think it is important because it shows the values the guided the daily lives of ancient Egyptians. In my research for different sources I came across some that may also be helpful to you too! One source is a book that can be viewed at our library here. It is called “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” written by John H. Taylor. It focuses on rituals performed for the dead as well as the beliefs associated with the afterlife. Will you also be covering mummification? If so, the Smithsonian has a general overview of the process and meaning of mummification on their collection website that may be helpful to you. This is the link in case you want to check it out
    Another book that may be helpful in the religious aspect of death would be “Hieroglyphs and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt” by Werner Forman and Stephen Quirke. This book covers three important mortuary texts: the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead. These may offer some insight into what the ancient Egyptians actually had to say on the subject and I’m sure there will also be analyses into what they really mean.
    I wish you good luck on your paper, I’m sure it will be really interesting!

  2. Wow, you most certainly chose a very interesting topic for your research paper! I am confident that it will be very interesting for you to delve more deeply into this topic as you begin to write your paper.

    I noticed that you said that you would like to discuss the importance of the ancient Egyptian’s gods and goddesses on their lives. Are you going to do a brief overview of all, or just some of the major players, of the gods and goddesses? Or are you going to pick the gods and goddesses relating to death and the afterlife, such as Osiris and Anubis? While all the gods and goddesses, even the non-death and afterlife ones, play a huge role in the lives of all of the ancient Egyptians, since you are focusing on the mortuary side of their lives, I personally feel like it would make more sense for you to focus on how the gods such as Osiris and Anubis impact their lives due to their roles as mortuary gods.

    Another question I had was whether or not you were planning on discussing the role of mummification when it comes to the Ancient Egyptian’s mortuary practices. Mummification played a huge role in their lives, and it could be a very important thing to discuss in your final paper. I cannot remember the exact term for the jars, but the person’s vital organs were stored in these jars with the heads of various gods and goddesses on them. This hits both the religious and mortuary boxes that you would like to discuss in your paper. While I cannot recall if there is any magic involved with the process, if there is, it would be another reason to discuss mummification.

    This paper topic is very fascinating, and I wish you the best with writing your paper!

  3. I’m doing my paper on Egyptian burial practices, so I see a lot of parallels between our research. Ancient Egypt is interesting because death and the concept of an afterlife was such a central part to their culture. It’s interesting to note that, although death and life after death were such focal points in the ancient Egyptians’ lives, they still feared death. An in order to find comfort, they practiced elaborate and well thought out rituals to ensure that their loves ones were to be taken care of when their life on this earth ended. Some people may argue that, in this view, burial practices can be seen as a coping mechanism, a means by which to soften the pain. You mentioned the erection of tombs, temples, and pyramids physical manifestations of the death process. I am curious, what are you going to look at specifically to study the ancient Egyptian fascination with death and the afterlife? Will these include historical documents or a study of mummies? Will you focus on tombs, such as the pyramids? Or will you study the placement and inclusion of certain grave goods within the tombs? Your topic is an interesting one. Death was reflected various ways in ancient Egyptian society, and you may be able to learn different things depending on what you study. For example, the structures of the massive pyramids may tell you something different than a single mummy sarcophagus. Furthermore, the concept of death may be reflected differently in individuals with different social statuses.

  4. Looks like a lot of people are focusing on mortuary archaeology! I’m also focusing on mortuary practice, but in a different way. I think that in this, you should really make sure to discuss mummification in detail. It was something so so important to the continuation of life, and in itself was highly ritualized. It has heavy connections to the afterlife and their beliefs.
    Also, make sure to mention how important mortuary architecture was to the Egyptians. They constructed such incredible structures to ensure immortality, and even though some things like pyramids don’t always stay fully formed, they still represent it. One could even argue that since the pyramids represent the Mound of Creation, that those that eroded to look like mounds of rock might represent it even more clearly. Also, talking about the switch from pyramids to the Valley of Kings would be a great conversation. While they in a way still represent the same thing like we talked about in class on Thursday with that natural Mound of Creation, it still holds a ideology shift that would be interesting to discuss.
    In terms of mortuary texts, I would think about discussing the Book of the Dead. Even though it’s technically a congregation of pyramid texts and other magical texts, it sort of wraps it up into one piece? Might be a good way to look at everything all together from a unified source. Plus, this can lead to a smooth transition to just how real the afterlife was for them. They so firmly believed in this continuation of life that they would sacrifice animals to have mummified and buried with them. They had, in some cases, lavish goods to allow for comfort. Talking about just how much religion influenced the life of the Egyptians is essential. It may also be interesting to look into how their beliefs changed after the beginning of the Ptolemaic period. A very different ruling class affects the people. It doesn’t have to be a large amount, but should still be touched on!

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