Burial in Mythology
–Practices of the Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman Cultures–
Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman practices of preparing the deadfor the next cradle of humanity are very intriguing. These two cultures differ in amultitude of ways yet similarities can be noted in the domain of funerary services. In the realm of Egyptian afterlife, The Book of the Dead canprovide one with vital information concerning ritual entombment practicesand myths of the afterlife. The additional handouts I received fromTimothy Stoker also proved to be useful in trying uncover vital informationregarding the transition into another life.
Regarding the burial practicesof Greece and Rome, parts of Homer’s Odyssey are useful in the analysis ofproper interment methods. One particular method used by the Egyptians was an intricateprocess known as mummification. It was undoubtedly a very involved processspanning seventy days in some cases. First, all the internal organs wereremoved with one exception, the heart. If the body was not already West ofthe Nile it was transported across it, but not before the drying processwas initiated. Natron (a special salt) was extracted from the banks of theNile and was placed under the corpse, on the sides, on top, and bags of thesubstance were placed inside the body cavity to facilitate the process of dehydration. After thirty-five days the ancient embalmers would anoint thebody with oil and wrap it in fine linen. If the deceased was wealthyenough a priest donning a mask of Anubis would preside over the ceremoniesto ensure proper passage into the next realm. One of the practices overseen by the priest was the placing of aspecial funerary amulet over the heart. This was done in behest to secure asuccessful union with Osiris and their kas. The amulet made sure the heartdid not speak out against the individual at the scale of the goddess ofjustice and divine order, Maat. The priest also made use of a “peculiarritual instrument, a sort of chisel, with which he literally opened themouth of the deceased.” This was done to ensure that the deceased was ableto speak during their journeys in Duat.
Another practice used by the Egyptians to aid the departed soulinvolved mass human sacrifice. Many times if a prominent person passedaway the family and servants would willfully ingest poison to continuetheir servitude in the next world. The family members and religiousfigureheads of the community did just about everything in their power toaid the deceased in the transition to a new life. The community made sure the chamber was furnished with “everything necessary for the comfort and well-being of the occupants.” It wasbelieved that the individual would be able of accessing these items in thenext world. Some of the most important things that the deceased would needto have at his side were certain spells and incantations. A conglomerationof reading material ensured a successful passage; The Pyramid Texts, TheBook of the Dead, and the Coffin Texts all aided the lost soul in theirjourney through Duat into the Fields of the Blessed. “Besides all thesespells, charms, and magical tomb texts, the ancient practice of depositingin the tomb small wooden figures of servants was employed.”
These “Ushabistatuettes” as they are called, were essentially slaves of the deceased.If the deceased was called to work in the Elysian fields he would call uponone of the statues to take his place and perform the task for him. It wasnot unheard of for an individual to have a figure for every day of the yearto ensure an afterlife devoid of physical exertion. Just about every thingthe embalmers and burial practitioners did during the process was done forparticular reasons. Many of the funerary practices of the ancient Greco-Romans werealso done with a specific purpose in mind. Unlike the Egyptian’s theGreco-Roman cultures did not employ elaborate tombs but focused on the useof a simple pit in the ground. Right after death, not too dissimilar fromthe practices of the Egyptians, it was necessary for the persons tocarefully wash and prepare the corpse for his journey. It was vital forall persons to receive a proper burial and if they did not they were dammedto hover in a quasi-world, somewhat of a “limbo” between life and death. One Greco-Roman myth that illustrates this point is The Odyssey byHomer. There is a part in Book eleven of the work in which Homerspecifically addresses proper burial rites. When Odysseus wishes tocontact Tiresias, he comes across Elpenor, one of his soldiers. Thisparticular man fell (in a haphazard fashion) to his death on the island ofthe Kimmerians, but did not receive a proper burial and was stuck in limbo.Elpenor begged Odysseus and his men to return to the island and care forhis body. Consequently, they did return and Elpenor passed into the nextworld. Most likely he was buried in the same fashion other members of hissociety were; a pyre was probably constructed and the body placed upon it.Also placed on the pyre were items that the deceased held dear in life withthe hope that they would follow him into the next world.
In order tosurvive in the afterlife, the deceased “is also presented with a small coinwhich came to be known as the ferrying fee for Charon.” This can belikened to the Egyptian practice of introducing coinage into the tomb insome cases. Homer also speaks of the psyche, which slips out of man “at themoment of death and enters the house of Ais, also known as Aides, Aidoneus,and in Attic as Hades.” This idea can be compared to the concept of anindividual’s ba in ancient Egypt. When someone died, an eternal part ofthem (their ba) would also slip out and seek out the individuals spiritualtwin (their ka) in order to unite with it and facilitate a successfulpassage.
Many times in myth, the living desired to speak with the departed.When Odysseus wishes to speak with the Nekyia in Book eleven, goats must besacrificed and their blood was recognized as inspiring the deceased tospeak. The Egyptians also were concerned with the ability of the deceasedto speak in the next realm; this is exemplified in one of the mostimportant spells in The Book of the Dead, the opening of the mouth. When all the funerary rites had been done, the next step was tomark the spot of the deceased. “The grave is marked with a stone, thesign, sema.” This grave stone would have the name of the soul, and oftensome type of epigram in verse form. Invariably near the grave, some type ofguardian of the soul would be located. Lion and sphinx were found as gravemarkers and this idea is paralleled in the practices of the natives ofEgypt. A certain “cult image” was buried with the deceased in Egypt inorder to look after and more importantly protect one’s ba from beingdisturbed. It also acted as a type of “purge valve” for any ba which mayhave been unjustly disturbed in the tomb. Burial practices aside one can note an interesting difference between these two ancient civilizations. Differences can be observedconcerning how amicable the afterlife was. The Egyptians had a positiveoutlook. They believed that after one became Osirus, They would move intoa new world, which was nice, no one had to work, and everything was veryclean. One could compare their lives in the next world with the children’sclassic board game, Candyland. In this game all was fine and dandy, the”don’t worry be happy” attitude flourished, not distant from the life inthe Fields of the Blessed.
On the other hand, Greco-Roman afterlife was arather dismal place. The dead Achilles summed everything up by saying toOdysseus, “Do not try to make light of death to me, I would sooner be boundto the soil in the hire of another man, a man without lot and without muchto live on, than rule over all the perished dead.” Needless to say, theHomeric afterlife was no Candyland. Candyland or not, both cultures went to extremes in order toguarantee a successful voyage into the next world. The two ancientcivilizations hoped that through their intricate actions the individualwould be protected and prepared for their many experiences on “the otherside.” By looking at selections of Homer’s Odyssey and The Book of theDead, one can draw many similarities between the two cultures; however, differences are also apparent due to cultural differences concerning whatwould happen to the departed soul.