Why the Ancient Egyptians Built Pyramids - A matter of Religion

About Egyptian Pyramids

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston


>> Pyramid Index Religion


We see Egypt's ancient pyramids as monumental structures that inspire our imagination with awe and wonder. They were monumental tombs for the kings, but why did the Egyptians go to so much trouble, toiling sometimes over many years in order to build them? In fact, while tombs indeed, the great pyramids were also fundamental to their religious beliefs.



The Nile once flooded right up to the Great Pyramids at Giza in Egypt



A part of ancient Egyptian life was the Nile inundation. As rains fell during the spring in the Ethiopian highlands the level of the Nile River in Egypt rose above its banks, flooding the Nile Valley between June and October. This turned much of the valley into large lakes, but as the waters receded, they left behind fertile silt from which new life would emerge, at first on the highest mounds of earth.


It was almost certainly this annual experience that the Egyptians linked to their concept of creation. One of their earliest creation myths envisioned the first place in the world as a mound of earth emerging from the waters of a universal ocean. Here the first life form was seen as a lily, growing on the peak of the primeval mound. To the Egyptians, the lily was connected with a god named Nefertum, whose name means "perfect and complete". Nefertum was honored as a harbinger of the sun, which rose from the lily's petals to bring life to the newly created world. Even the mound itself was deified as a god named Tatjenen, meaning "the emerging land".



The Ruined pyramid of Snefru standing at Meidum seems to rise above a primeval sea



It seems that the earliest temples of Egypt, particularly in the north, sometimes incorporated a mound of earth as a symbol of the original site of all life. The earliest such mounds may have been a small hill of earth or sand, but the icon eventually took the form of a small pyramid carved from a single block of stone, known as a bnbn (benben). This name comes from the root, bn, which means to "sell up" or "swell forth". The benben also, because of the sun's part in creation, came to be an icon of both the primeval mound as well as the sun which rose from it. In fact, the Egyptian word for the rising sun is wbn, which comes from the same root as benben.


Thus, from the outset, the pyramid shape represented the idea of new life, emerging from a mound of earth to be bathed in the light and warmth of the sun. However, to the ancient Egyptians, the benben was more than just an image. Like the primeval mound itself, the Egyptians thought that it somehow incorporated the very power of life itself and even the force that made it possible for new life to emerge after a period of dormancy.


Hence, it is not at all surprising that the Egyptians sought the power of the benben in their funerary monuments. In the ancient Egyptian mind, death was not an end of life but rather the beginning of a new form of existence, particularly for the king. Basically, to the ancient Egyptians, each human was made up of various elements. Among these were the body, the ba and the ka. The body was the physical form that the living being inhabited. The ba was similar to our modern notion of the soul. It was the unique essence of each individual, while the ka was the energy of life itself, a force that was transferred from the creator to each living person. In fact, death occurred when this force was separated from the ka and its body, but after death, the ba and the ka were thought to reunite. This union allowed the individual to continue living, but in a spiritual rather than physical form. This new form of life, called akh, was more or less eternal, though the Egyptians did believe in an end of time.



The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara



Thus, the benben was incorporated within the structure of the tomb and provided the power for the spiritual rebirth to take place. The tombs of early rulers, and later on, officials, were usually surmounted by a rectangular structure of mud brick known as a mastaba, but mounds of earth have also been found within these buildings above the burial chamber. However, the mastaba itself may have been seen as symbolizing the primeval mound. The first known pyramid, that of the 3rd Dynasty King, Djoser, began as a mastaba but was made into a pyramid of six steps by the construction of five successively smaller mastabas on top of one another. This seems to have been a progression in the visualization of the primeval mound. In fact, this step structure can actually be found within earlier mastabas at Saqqara.


The true pyramids that began to be built in the 4th Dynasty wee derived from the original step shape by filling in the steps to create four smooth faces, thus being large scale representations of the more common pyramidal benben. In fact, some recently discovered tombs of officials from the same period to the south of the three Great Pyramids of Giza were surmounted by conical mounds that almost certainly served the same purpose of the monumental royal pyramids.


Outside of their power to give new life to the deceased, not much is known about the role that the earliest pyramids were thought to play in the afterlife. Nevertheless, there were successive changes to these structures and new innovations in their architecture and plan that suggest an evolution in Egyptian funerary theology. However, by the 5th Dynasty, the layout of the chambers within the royal pyramid became standardized in a form that reflects a vision of the afterlife that characterized Egyptian thought from then on.


At this point, the typical interior plan of these later Old Kingdom pyramids consisted of three main elements. These elements consisted of an antechamber beneath the apex of the pyramid, connected to the outside by an entrance corridor that opens into the pyramid's north face; a burial chamber to the west of the antechamber; and a stone sarcophagus at the west end of the burial chamber.



Layout of the Mastaba Tomb of King Shepseskafat Saqqara in Egypt



Initially, all three of these elements are first found in the 4th Dynasty tomb of King Shepseskaf, though his was, for the first time in 150 years, not a pyramid. He built instead a mastaba, perhaps designed to reflect those of Egypt's first kings at Abydos in Southern Egypt. Abydos was a cult center for Osiris, the Egyptian god most closely associated with the afterlife in Egyptian mythology. Like the primeval mound, Osiris represented the force of new life. At first, he was probably more of a fertility god, with power over the transmission of life from one generation to the next and in the growth of new plants out of seemingly dormant seeds. However, he came to be integral to the Egyptian understanding of the daily solar cycle, and was thus closely connected to the sun god. Each night the sun sank, or to the ancient Egyptians, died in the west, yet in the morning it emerged again into the world, reborn to live once more. To the ancient Egyptians, this could only be possible if there were a force that regenerated the sun.



The Mastaba Tomb of King Shepseskafat Saqqara in Egypt


There were actually two different myths that coexisted to explain this process. In one, the sun reentered the womb of Nut, the goddess of the sky, in the evening and was born again in the morning. However, in the other myth the sun sank into a netherworld, know as the Duat, where in the middle of the night, it merged with the mummy of Osiris. From this union it received the ability to come once again to life. While two different myths, together they combined the role of mother and father in the production of new life. And both of these concepts are reflected in the standardized layout of the interior chambers that were introduced by King Shepseskaf and adopted in the pyramids of his successors of the 5th and 6th Dynasties.



The night sky reprsented as the goddess Nut from the tomb of Ramesses VI

The night sky represented as the goddess Nut from the tomb of Ramesses VI


We know this because of the Pyramid Texts, a collection of funerary rituals and spells first inscribed on the walls of the interior chambers in the Pyramid of Unas. They were also inscribed on his sarcophagi. Unas was the last king of the 5th Dynasty, and these texts show that the king's afterlife was thought to parallel the daily solar cycle.


Each night, as the sun once again reentered the body of Nut and the netherworld, the king's spirit would come back to the interior of his tomb. The stone sarcophagus in the west end of the burial chamber was an analogue of Nut's womb. Within the sarcophagus, the king's mummy was both a fetus and an analogue of the mummy of Osiris lying in the Duat. The Pyramid Texts refer to the burial chamber itself as the Duat, and the spells inscribed on the walls of this room refer to the king not only by his own name, but also as Osiris. As the sun united with the mummy of Osiris in the Duat, the king's spirit was thought to join with his own mummy in the Duat of his tomb and, like the sun, receive through this union the power of new life.



A sample of Pyamid Text



In the burial chamber, the texts describe two funeral rituals. They begin with a ritual of offerings, always inscribed on the north wall of the burial chamber. The priests would repeat this spell each day in the mortuary temple attached to the pyramid, which would therefore continue to provide the king's ba with the necessities of daily life. The second ritual was for resurrection, intended to release the king's ba from its attachment to the body so that it could rejoin its ka and enjoy life once again. It begins by assuring the king that "you have not gone away dead: you have gone away alive," and then encourages him to "go and follow your sun...and be beside the god, and leave your house to your son of your begetting". It ends by reassuring the king that "you shall not perish, you shall not end: your identity will remain among the people even as it comes to be among the gods".


As the sun left the womb of Nut and the Duat, the king's spirit, now revitalized, proceeded from the pyramid's burial chamber to the antechamber. To the ancient Egyptians, this room corresponded to the Akhet, a zone between the netherworld and the day sky. In practical terms, this zone was an explanation of why the sun's light appears in the morning before the sun itself has risen above the horizon. The name Akhet means "place of becoming effective" and refers to the process through which, both the sun and the deceased, take on new life.



Later books of the afterlife would depict some of the king's problematic journey through the netherworld



While the texts within the burial chamber were meant to be repeated by the living priests on behalf of the king, the texts within the antechamber were mostly intended to be recited by the king himself, now once again alive. They provided him with the magical spells to overcome the hazards of his journey between the Duat and the world of the living. Various spells would help him overcome physical obstacles, to control and vanquish those entities that would stop him, to persuade the celestial ferryman to accept him as a passenger, and to encourage the gods to accept him in their company.



Now, the texts no longer identify the king with Osiris, but only by his royal name. After Nut gives birth to the morning sun, the king's akh leaves his tomb. In the earliest pyramids, apparently he was thought to do so through the long corridor connecting the antechamber to the outside on the north of the pyramid, which seems to be an analogue of the birth canal. However, from the 4th Dynasty onward, the pyramid complex included a mortuary temple on the east side of the pyramid with a false door adjacent to the pyramid through which the akh of the king could emerge in the direction of the rising sun to the east. Either way, the king was then able to enjoy life once again, journeying across the sky with the sun and visiting the world of the living.


A recreation of a  depiction of Re with Osiris in the Netherworld, assisted by the  GoddessesIsis and Nephthys



Therefore, from at least the time of King Shepseskaf, we believe that the ancient Egyptians thought of the afterlife as a daily cycle of spiritual rebirth. The kings of the 5th and 6th Dynasties reverted back to the pyramid shape of tomb, but kept Shepseskaf's layout of the interior chambers. They were, in effect, creating a strong magic that combined both the powers of Osiris and that of the primeval mound.


While there are many mysteries yet to be solved about Egypt's ancient pyramids, it is clear that they were not simply monumental tombs, at least in the eyes of the Egyptian kings. They were also, and more fundamentally, resurrection machines, designed to produce and ensure eternal life.









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