Death in Ancient Egypt

Here, Erik Hornung refutes the old cliché that ancient Egyptian religion was “death obsessed,” or that constructions like the pyramids are nothing more that huge tombs. In fact I can think of few religions both more anxious to deny death and affirm, somehow and some way, the continuation of life:  

For the Egyptians even death itself cannot call into question or abrogate living existence more than temporarily. It always brings with it a very great danger that existence may be extinguished, and this danger must be countered with extraordinary precautions; in this light Egyptian expenditures on mummification, burial, and grave goods becomes comprehensible. But from another point of view, as we have already seen in some detail, death means rejuvenation, renewal of all that exists, and the gateway to an enhanced life in the next world. So death in particular reveals the ambivalence of the nonexistent, which for Egyptians can be not just a reality but a positive and absolutely essential reality. Only through the nonexistent does creation become possible, so that the gods and the king are especially dependent on it for the perpetual renewal of their work of creation and for the avoidance of lifeless finality….

      Several writers have stressed quite correctly that no trace of mysticism can be found in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians never succumbed to the temptation to find in the transcendence of the existent release from all imperfection, dissolution of the self, or immersion in an union with the universe. They remained active and often, to us, startlingly matter-of-fact; any sort of ecstasy appears quite alien to their attitudes….

      Like men, the gods die, but they are not dead. Their existence—and all existence—is not an unchanging endlessness, but rather constant renewal. From an early period the “dead” are only the damned, that is, those who are condemned in the judgment after death, or hostile powers; to be dead is not the same as not to exist. Siegfried Morenz emphasized that “for the Egyptians constant regeneration was part of duration.” The blessed dead and the gods are rejuvenated in death and regenerate themselves at the wellsprings of their existence.

      Many passages in texts and, from the New Kingdom on, pictures show that from a very early period the Egyptians saw rejuvenation and regeneration as the true meaning of death. “You sleep that you may wake; you die that you may live,” as the Pyramid Texts formulate the hope with archaic brevity, and in this early collection of spells the deceased also becomes a small “young child with his finger in his mouth.”


– Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, tr. David Lorton, 182, 160