I’m on the tail end of a three week tour de Egypt. The desert, the dining and the dancing are a few of the exceptional aspects of the Egyptian culture, but what has fascinated me most is the Ancient Egyptians’ obsession with the afterlife.
TL;DT (too long, didn’t travel): is it possible that the belief in the afterlife was a means of Pharaonic self-indulgence? And in modern society, is our egosim really that different from the Ancient Egyptians’?
Belief in the afterlife — or the belief in rebirth after physical life — was a facet of Ancient Egyptian religion. Funerary practices and customs were developed around the preservation of the body and spirit for safe transition into the afterlife.
The most famous association with the afterlife are the pyramids. There are the three Pyramids of Giza known as the King’s pyramids — the tombs of Pharaohs Grandfather, Father and Son of the same family, Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure. (Fun fact: Grandpa Khufu’s Great Pyramid perimeter ÷ height = 2π). Six Queen’s pyramids were found adjacently, for Khufu and Menkaure’s wives and sisters. As of now, ~120 pyramids have been discovered across Egypt.
It’s no secret that tomb building was an arduous task — pyramids were staples of the Old Kingdom and took over 20 years to build. While the New Kingdom saw tombs built in the Valley of the Kings that took more than 10 years of labour and are hidden in rock formations near the Nile — e.g., tombs of Ramses II, Tutankhamun and at least 62 others.
Tombs were reserved for royalty and selected skilled workers. There are many theories for why pyramid tombs were built, most of them around honouring the sun or aiding simple divine passage to the afterlife. The Ancient Egyptians believed that praising the gods would ensure their safe transition to the afterlife, thus some feel the sloping sides of a pyramid indicate a ladder of sorts to the sky (like ‘heaven’) or a connection with the gods. Others argue the angles represent the rays of the sun — the Egyptian religion praised the divine gods Horus (rising sun), Ra (noon sun) and Osiris (god of the dead).
One could simply argue the desire for holy absolution, closeness with gods etc. is enough to deserve such drastic funerary measures; but my alternate theory is that the investment in the afterlife was an exploitation of regal hedonism. And although today we don’t see much tomb construction or even burials, a parallel can be drawn between the Egyptian desire to self-gratify in the afterlife and today’s engrossment with personal, digital worlds. I’ll come back to this.
From birth, royal families began planning their journeys into the afterlife — often prioritizing afterlife preparation over political action or social welfare. They believed the body died but the soul didn’t, and that after judgement, the soul would return to the body, as a god. It’s hard to ignore this egocentricity. As if the power to employ thousands of workers to build feats of engineering and artistry wasn’t enough, the Pharaohs craved holy resurrection.
Queen Hatshepsut is a good example of this. A widow of her half-brother King Thutmose II, she stole the thrown from her step-son who was too young to rule. Despite public knowledge of her unorthodox coronation (only half-royal and female), she was accepted as the Pharaoh(ess). To seal the deal, Hatshepsut fabricated a story of her conception, claiming her mother had a relationship with the god Amun Ra (an evolved sun god), and that she was the result. In essence, she leveraged hypothetical nepotism to proclaim her godly future. With gusto, she then went on to build a temple in her name (Temple of Hatshepsut), dedicated to her ‘father’ Amun Ra. As proof of her so-called divinity, hieroglyphics telling her fable of conception were engraved in the temple, and she had tens of statues portraying herself as a king or sphinx to confirm her strength. Furthermore, she dedicated a wing to Anubis (god of burial and mummification) and built her tomb behind the temple. Her yearning for power was undeniable, and even more so was her greed for divine acceptance in the afterlife.
Along similar lines of self-preservation, the contents of Pharaonic tombs prove a desire to preserve status. Each tomb had an *abundance* of gold, silver and gems in the forms of jewellery, masks and accessories, that were supposed to represent actual possessions and wealth. Typically it was your things that were placed in the tomb, but King Tut died so young (18yrs) and had few belongings, so they filled his tomb with others’ royal goods. His sarcophagus was also found in seven giant coffins made of gold like a Russian nesting doll.
Why would the Ancient Egyptians choose to hide away their prized possessions, instead of saving them for the riches of future generations? Alternatively, who would give up their riches for a boy-king’s tomb?
Perhaps as the land was gold rich, classic supply and demand, abundance of the good reduced its value, and there was no need to save the precious metals? Maybe, but this seems unlikely as gold was not a common good, was highly valuable and was reserved for royalty, it had yet to become a currency for barter.
Many Egyptologists otherwise suggest gold signified the powers of the sun god. The Great Pyramid was originally topped with a smaller pyramid made of solid gold (later stolen), so that sunlight could be reflected onto the surrounding area, Cairo. The Temple of Kom Ombo nicknamed the “Mountain of Gold” was built to honour Horus (rising sun) and Sobek (crocodile god), and also pointed in the direction of the gold mines nearby. Ra (noon sun) was also often labeled as the “Mountain of Gold”, and a Pharaoh was sometimes referred to as “Golden Horus” — the puzzle pieces fit, gold equals sun.
This myth of the sun god aiding transition into the afterlife seems like a legitimate motivator, but what about everything else hoarded in the tomb? Is it possible that the Pharaohs wanted to *ensure* their stature in their phase II of living? The comfort, wealth and prosperity on Earth, shot into the afterlife? Some sort of ego eternality?
In addition to precious metals and jewels, other contents of the tombs included more practical items such as dinnerware and furniture. Did I mention the kings lunch prepped too? Some Pharaohs were buried with marble lunch boxes — I assume in case afterlife airplane food was bad, you can’t always trust domestic flights.
As the soul was expected to take a journey, many tombs also contained small boats. The Ancient Egyptians believed that in the afterlife, the soul would return to the body and in order to do so, it might need a boat to cross the Nile to the west bank known as the “Land of the Dead”.
Really, all imaginable tools for survival were placed in the tombs. It wasn’t only about the power of gold to ensure secure holy connection but about guaranteeing the existing calibre of material living was maintained, in the afterlife.
Likewise, rolls and rolls of papyrus were found in the burial sites, on which scribes had written about the King’s daily activities and successes. Presumably, these were placed here to sync any personal information and minimize time-to-learning of activities that the King was already familiar with in the physical world. More cynically, by safekeeping these texts were the Pharaohs attempting to maintain their existing reputation in the afterlife? I’m torn. Public recognition for political feats would be satisfying, but even more so would be the promise of first-mover advantage in afterlife empire building. Did they believe that scripture of their successes would assure continued win, win, wins? Was the afterlife a clear lake that reflected epiphanies of past? Narcissus is that you?
Inside the pyramids, canals to the tombs were also lined floor to ceiling with hieroglyphics, depicting the Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead or more accurately titled “Spells for Going Forth by Day”, is a guide on how to navigate life, in the afterlife. The funerary text tells the story of the Pharaoh’s travels out of the physical world, receiving judgement from the gods, and rebirth in the afterlife, as a god. It was also believed to hold magical powers to deter evil spirits and ensure preservation of the body’s essence. It was biblical scripture for the Pharaohs that would ensure their holy metamorphosis. Again, the Pharaoh’s self-identification as a god is hard to ignore, this was a singular decision.
We should also take note of the permanence of the texts. They weren’t just written on papyrus but also engraved in stone. This permanence is important.
The Egyptians chose to display stories either as reminders of their humble offerings to gods or as self-fufilling prophecies of their divinity, in stone.
For example, as most temples, the Temple of Edfu contains hieroglyphics portraying a Pharaoh’s transition to the afterlife. One particular chamber was devoted to perfume making, painting the process from plant to perfume, like the step by step, in-flight instructions on how to put on an oxygen mask. The art concluded with an offering of the perfume to the god Horus, to (let’s say it together), ensure safe passage to the afterlife.
Pharaohs and deities were also often portrayed holding an Ankh. Always holding a staff, a cup or a hand, and an Ankh. Archaeologists believe it represents the key to life or conception, once again ensuring prosperous rebirth in the afterlife.
The temple took 180 years to build, obviously surpassing the lifespan of any Pharaoh that was honoured. Yet the permanence of the images suggests *insurance* that the Pharaoh would remain holy throughout the afterlife. They gave the offering, and don’t you forget it.
Of course, the upside of this was knowledge transfer — the Ancient Egyptians invented medical tools, the calendar and pillars of mathematics amongst others. But it’s questionable how much of this was intended for enrichment of future generations, as the Egyptians went to great lengths to keep the tombs hidden or booby trapped. Another fun fact: excavations in the Valley of Kings continue to this day — so far 64 tombs have been discovered. The latest pyramid was also found in 2017.
The last piece of evidence of Pharaonic self-indulgence in the afterlife are the physical self-preservation techniques: enter mummies.
The mummifying techniques used in the Pharaonic eras are still bewildering to this day. Bone structure, nails and the linen are preserved — you can even see the corpse’s red, henna-dyed hair. But what really takes the cake is that prior to burial, all organs and eyeballs were removed and put into marble containers (canopic jars), except for the heart. The heart was considered the centre of one’s being and was responsible for judgement and feeling, hence would still be necessary in the afterlife. ❤
This relates directly to spell #125 of the Book of the Dead, whereby the heart and soul are judged in order for Osiris (god of the dead) to open the door to the afterlife. The Ancient Egyptians believed that after exiting the physical being, the soul needed to recognize the corpse (its mummy and its heart) to safely return to its body, so it could unpause and lead a more devout sequel of life.
In other words, this obsession with the afterlife was a preoccupation with immortality, yet with an acute awareness of physical fatality. It sounds crazy, this idea of royal, immortal divinity in 2560 BC…and yet in 2018 AD are we that far off?
Thinking about today’s society’s physical preservation, egoism and self-eternality, it’s digital. Sure we engage on social media for present validation, but a main value proposition of *the cloud* storage, is longevity. Even for crypto.
The self-determination of transparency on blockchains enables open detail about user data and accounts that could lead to financial ego building. The immutability of blockchain transactions promises accuracy forever, as if set in stone.
We sometimes worry about that from a privacy perspective, but we’re all but trying to stop the record keeping. Instagram is an artistic rolodex of memories, Twitter a sacrosanct, permanent stream of consciousness; all depicting the what, when, where and why of physical life, and accessible to all, after life.
Social media platforms and digital libraries are temples and tombs. It’s easy to argue that digital memorabilia is for personal reflection and databases of scientific data or intellectual capital are to advance future teachings — but aren’t we also craving the Van Gogh effect? Never appreciated in our own time?
Even more convincing is existing digital self-proclamation. Is this any different than hieroglyphics depicting Pharaonic transition into a god?
The potential rebirth remains arguable, and human cloning is not yet ‘a thing’; but artificial intelligence is a means for similar recreation. Various projects have already taken on the challenge of developing ‘digital surrogates’. Resurgence as a god or data on a usb stick are synonymous when information from the previous life is used to rebuild the being. Although recent focus has been aiding grieving processes, people could eventually choose AI as a chance at a second life, after life.
Speaking of Second Life, primitive self-duplication programs already exist today. To an extent chat bots and even Decentraland (tokenized virtual real estate), can be used as means to fulfill the ego and esteem needs of Maslow’s hierarchy. I can’t tell the difference between building a virtual world where one could surely be *anything* and building a temple for divinity — other than the physical burden.
Moreover, why are we saving our embarassing puberty Facebook photo albums from 2007, if not to be discovered by a friend post-mortum? The opportunity cost of (digital) hoarding is significantly lower than 3,000 years ago — Apple even gives you 5GB for free!
Although power structures have changed since Ancient Egypt, you can’t help but think that the need for self-preservation prevails. As well, the tools of the internet create a network effect, enabling fulfillment of the same desires of friends, colleagues and virtual strangers. As it seems, we are in the same game of self-indulgence as our ancestors, desiring to sustain legacy, after life.
Gurupriyan is a Software Engineer and a technology enthusiast, he’s been working on the field for the last 6 years. Currently focusing on mobile app development and IoT.