In Ancient Egypt, what was the afterlife?

As part of our 'History Extra explains' series, leading historians answer the burning questions you were too afraid to ask...

Embalming in Ancient Egypt. © Lanmas / Alamy

In Ancient Egypt, what was the afterlife?

The Ancient Egyptians believed it was possible to live again after death. However, the afterlife took different forms, depending on the social status of the deceased.

Funerary texts – writings for the tomb designed to help the dead achieve an appropriate afterlife – explain the expectations of Egypt’s deceased. A dead king, having passed through a series of ordeals, was more or less guaranteed an afterlife away from the tomb. He might twinkle in the night sky as a star, descend to the underworld to become one with the god Osiris, or ascend into the sky to sail in the sun boat of the god Re.

Throughout the Old Kingdom (c2686–2125 BCE) Egypt’s elite, too, expected to live beyond death, but they were trapped inside the tomb and could not leave. Eventually the kingdom of Osiris was opened to anyone who could afford the proper rituals: mummification, a funeral, and a set of funerary texts.

The elite, who could afford all these things, now expected that one of their three spirits, the akh (the immortality of the deceased), would embark on the perilous journey to the afterlife. Their other two spirits, the ba (personality) and the ka (life-force), would remain closer to the corpse.

Dr Joyce Tyldesley is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester, where she writes and teaches a number of Egyptology courses.

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