The Hell of Ancient Egypt

The Hell of Ancient Egypt

by John Watson

Hell, in our modern religions and in the ancient Egyptian religion, always inspired visions of fire and torture

God, during civilization's early years, was not much of a public figure. Indeed, prior to Moses, even the Jew's appear to have worshipped pagan gods, and apparently, prior to the handing down of the Ten Commandments, he was "unpublished". In fact, most scholars believe that, only much later, were the earliest books of the Bible provided to mankind. Early on, God seems to have revealed himself to specific individuals, but not necessarily to his creations in general.

Therefore, the Christian, Jewish and Islamic visions of the afterlife are relatively new ones, including their concept of hell. In fact, hell may very well have been invented by the ancient Egyptians, at least as a public reference. To put the whole of this more simply, the recorded concept of hell in ancient Egypt predates the recorded concept of hell in our modern religions.

The principal sources for our knowledge of the Egyptian concept of hell are the Books of the Netherworld which are found inscribed on the walls of the royal tombs of the New Kingdom in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes, and then later on papyrus and other funerary objects belonging to commoners.

The concept of hell in the ancient Egyptian religion is very similar to those of our modern religions. Those who were judged unfavorably faced a very similar fate to our modern concept of hell, and perhaps even more specifically to the more Middle Age concept of it as a specific region beneath the earth. For the damned, the entire, uncontrollable rage of the deity was directed against those who were condemned through their evils. They were tortured in every imaginable way and "destroyed", thus being consigned to nonexistence. They were deprived of their sense organs, were required to walk on their heads and eat their own excrement. They were burned in ovens and cauldrons and were forced to swim in their own blood, which Shezmu, the god of the wine press, squeezed out of them.

One difference between our modern concept of heaven and the ancient Egyptian one is that even the blessed faced perilous obstacles in the Netherworld, such as demons that guarded the gates of the netherworld, which required a knowledge of spells to overcome. It sometimes appear that they had to travel through the same hell of the damned, but conceptually, at least, they occupied a very different space.

A depiction from the Book of the Dead depicting the judgement of the dead

This nocturnal journey of the blessed, along with the sun god through the underworld was not a prominent theme in the oldest royal mortuary literature, the Pyramid Text and the descriptions of hell are therefore absent from these spells. By contrast, the concept that emerges from the Books of the Netherworld is reflected in the non-royal funerary spells found in the Coffin Text and the Book of the Dead (The Book of Coming Forth by Day), even though these do not contain elaborate descriptions of hell either. That is not very surprising, considering that these spells take for granted that their owners will not be judged favorably in the weighing of their hearts in the afterlife. Spells that mention the dangers of the world of the damned, which the blessed dead pass on their nightly journey are plentiful, but these spells are aimed principally at steering clear of such dangers, and the subject of the fate of the damned is therefore usually avoided as well.

From the Netherworld Book of the Earth, depicted on the south wall of Ramesses VI's burial chamber, the enemies of Re are bound and then annhilated

On the other hand, the role of the dead king is different. During his life he was required, as the incarnation and representative of the sun god, to maintain the cosmic and social order (ma'at) established by the god of creation. He had to repel the forces of chaos which constantly threatened the order of the world. After his death, the king united with the sun disk and his divine body merged with his creator. In this new role he continued to perform the task of subduing the powers of chaos. This active role of the king and sun god necessitated a detailed description of the punishment of the damned, who represent the forces of evil. Their fate is therefore described in terms similar to those used for earthly adversaries of the king and of Egypt. They became enemies who are "reckoned with," "overthrown," "repelled," and "felled". The precise nature of the deeds that bought them to this fate are never stipulated, nor is there a direct relationship between their punishment and the crimes that they committed during their lives. There are no separate areas in hell for different categories of evildoers, nor is there any sort of Purgatory, where sinners can repent and be admitted to the company of the followers of Re at a later stage.
The Opening of the Mouth   Ritual
The crimes of those who are condemned to hell consist of nothing more and nothing less than having acted against the divine world order established at the beginning of creation. Hence, they have excluded themselves from ma'at, while at the same time revealing themselves as agents of chaos. After death, they became forever reduced to a state of nonbeing., which was the chaotic state of the cosmos before creation. For them, there is no renewal and no regeneration of life, but only a second, definitive death. Rather than being the followers of Re, they are the "gang of Seth." Seth is the god who brought death into the world by murdering Osiris. They might also be referred to as the "children of Nut." Nut was the mother of Seth, and therefore of the first generation of mankind who rebelled against Re.

In every respect, the fate of the damned is the opposite of that of the blessed. When the righteous died and were mummified and buried with the proper rites, they could expect to start a new life in the company of Re and Osiris.

The ritual known as the Opening of the Mouth ensured that they would regain control over their senses. Their bodies rest in their tombs until sunrise, when Re is reborn form the underworld in the east. Then, their ba-souls leave the tomb unhindered and join the sun god. They spend a wonderful time in the Field of Rushes (paradise), where they have abundant cool air, food, drink and even sexual pleasures. At night, when Re once more enters the underworld in the west and unites with Osiris, they return to their mummified bodies.

However, when the damned died, their flesh was torn away by demons and their mummy wrappings were removed so that their bodies were left to decompose. In the underworld that the blessed successfully navigate, their order of things is reversed, even to the extent that the damned have to walk upside down, eat their own excrement and drink their own urine. Their hands are tied behind their backs, often around stakes. Their heads and limbs are severed from their bodies and their flesh is cut off their bones. Their hearts are removed and their ba-souls are separated from their bodies, forever unable to return to them. They even loose their shadows, which were considered an important part of the ancient Egyptian being. They have no air and suffer from hunger and thirst, as they receive no funerary offerings. Worst of all, they are denied the reviving light of the sun god, who ignores them, even as they cry out load and wail when he passes them in the underworld at night.

An Egyptian Demon of the Netherworld.

Hence, they are excluded from the eternal cosmic cycle of renewal and are instead assigned to the "outer darkness, the primeval chaotic world before creation, which is situated in the deepest recesses of the underworld, outside the created world. They are continuously punished by demons, who are the representatives of chaos. Indeed, the demons are often recruited from the ranks of the damned themselves, so that they torture and kill one another. They are subjected to knives and swords and to the fire of hell, often kindled by fire spitting snakes.

These horrible punishments were carried out in the "slaughtering place" or "place of destruction", and presided over by the fierce goddess Sekhmet, whose butchers hack their victims to pieces and burn them with inextinguishable fire, sometimes in deep pits or in cauldrons in which they are scorched, cooked and reduced to ashes. Demons feed on their entrails and drink their blood.

The four baboons that surround the Lake of Fire in the Netherworld

Another location was the Lake of Fire, which was first mentioned in the Book of Two Ways in the Coffin Text (Spell 1054/1166) and illustrated in the Book of the Dead (Chapter 126). Like the "outer darkness," it is a place of regeneration for the sun god and his blessed followers, to whom it provides nourishment and cool water, but a place of destruction for the damned. Birds even fly away from it when they experience the burning, bloody water and small the stench of putrefaction which rises from it. In chapter 126 of the Book of the Dead, its shores are guarded by four baboons who sit at the bow of the barque of Re and who are usually connected to the sunrise. There, they act as judges of the divine tribunal in order to decide who might be granted access through "the secret portals of the West" and who will be delivered to the hellhound, who, according to another spell, is in charge of this place. That demon is the "Swallower of Millions," responsible for devouring corpses, or their shadows, snatching hearts and inflicting injury without being seen.

Judgment of the Dead from the Book of the Dead

Judgment of the Dead from the Book of the Dead

By the end of the 18th Dynasty, a similar demon appears in chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead that depicts the judgment of the deceased before the divine tribunal. This is the better known judgment of the dead in which the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of Ma'at on a scale. In many cases, the Lake of Fire in Chapter 126 is also shown in this chapter. A late, Demontic text tells us that if the deceased's "evil deeds outnumber his good deeds he is delivered to the Swallower....; his soul as well as his body are destroyed and never will he breath again." In the vignette this monster is called the "Swallower of the Damned". The demon (Ammit) is represented with the head of a crocodile, the forelegs and body of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. The demon might also sometimes be referred to as the "beast of destiny". She usually sits near the balance, ready to devour her victim. However, since the owner of the Book of the Dead in question is naturally supposed to survive the judgment, the Swallower is almost never shown grabbing her victim.

Chapter 125 from the Book of the Dead in the Papyrus of Ani

Chapter 125 from the Book of the Dead in the Papyrus of Ani

There are, however, a few late instances dating to Roman times that do show the demon's wrath. In one instance, the monster is sitting beside a fiery cauldron into which the emaciated bodies of the damned, stripped of their mummy wrappings, are thrown. At this late period, Egyptian concepts began to be influenced by images from elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, as is illustrated by a representation of the Swallower that is very reminiscent of the Greek Sphinx, who was also a demon of fate and death.

In turn, later Egyptian representations of the Christian hell, from Coptic and other early Christian texts, may well have influenced medieval European descriptions and depictions of the Inferno.






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