Egyptian Underworld

The ancient Egyptians believed that a person was composed of five elements: the ka, ba, akh, name and shadow. At death these elements separate and in order for the person to attain eternal life they must be successfully reunited through funerary rituals and the dead person's actions. This is because the dead person was thought to have travelled to the underworld during the night following their death, a perilous journey for which guides were provided in the form of scenes painted onto tomb walls, their sarcophagus or papyrus scrolls. The journey echoes the journey made by the sun, which 'dies' every night and travels through the underworld, in a boat on the underground Nile, and is regenerated during that journey before being 'born' each morning.

After death Pharoah takes the same journey as the sun through the twelve hours of the night - through temporally defined realms which echo the myth of Osiris, who was murdered, hacked into pieces, thrown into the Nile, but collected by his devoted wife, Isis, who brought him back to life:

Hour 1: the sun god enters the western horizon.

Hours 2 and 3: a watery realm called 'Wennes' or the 'Waters of Osiris'.

Hour 4: the desert realm of Sokar (the underworld hawk deity), where the solar boat travels on narrow, stepped, canals (top left).

Hour 5: the tomb of Osiris, built upon a lake of fire.

Hour 6: the ba of the sun god unites with his own body and the regeneration process begins (second left).

Hour 7: the sun god must overcome his adversary Apep (Apophis).
Hour 8: the sun god opens the doors of the tomb,

Hour 9: the sun god leaves the desert realm, rowing vigorously back into Wennes.

Hour 10: the regeneration process continues through immersion in the 'Waters of Osiris' (third left).

Hour 11: the sun god's eyes (a symbol for his health and well being) are fully regenerated (fourth left).

Hour 12: the sun god (as a scarab beetle) enters the eastern horizon ready to be reborn as the new day's sun (fifth left).

 An ordinary person, rather than Pharoah, does not want to be reborn as the sun god, but wants to be reborn at the same time as the sun god and then 'live happily ever after' in the afterlife. Their journey is, therefore, slightly different, although they still have to avoid monsters and be able to sustain themselves, as well as managing to be judged worthy of an afterlife of luxury in a rural idyll ('The Field of Reeds', Sekhet-Hetepet). Managing all this was of paramount importance and a large number of spells are recorded in order to help the dead person acheive their aim.

One of the fullest expositions is that of the 'Papyrus of Ani' (c. 1400BC), now in the British Museum and on which several sites about the Egyptian afterlife are based (the American artist, Richard Deurer has quite a good site with links to translations, but for those seeking more detail Catherine Seawright's article and links or the visual journey through the underworld using tomb paintings).

The contents cover:
  • The deceased entering the tomb, descending to the underworld, and the body regaining its powers of movement and speech.
  • An explanation of the mythic origin of the gods and places, which makes plausible the deceased being made to live again and arising, re-born, with the morning sun.
  • The deceased travelling across the sky in the sun's barque (boat) as one of the blessed dead.
  • In the evening, the deceased travelling to the underworld and - only if passing successfully through the 'Hall of Ma'at' or 'Hall of Judgement' appearing before Osiris.
  • The deceased assuming power in the universe as one of the gods.