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Mummification and the Underworld

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The funerary beliefs manifest in the Valley of the Kings derive from two myths, concerning Re and Osiris. In that of Re, the sun-god descended into the underworld and voyaged through the hours of night, emerging at dawn to sail his barque across the heavens until sunset, when the cycle began anew. Osiris, king of the underworld, offered hope of survival in the afterlife through his death and resurrection.

Mummification and burial

To attain the afterlife, it was necessary that the deceased’s name (ren) and body continued to exist, sustaining the ka or cosmic double that was born with every person and inhabited their mummy after death. Mummification techniques evolved over millennia, reaching their zenith by the New Kingdom, when embalmers offered three levels of mummification. The deluxe version entailed removing the brain (which was discarded) and the viscera (which were preserved in canopic jars); dehydrating the cadaver in natron salts for about forty days; packing it to reproduce lifelike contours, inserting artificial eyes and painting the face or entire body red (for men) or yellow (for women); then wrapping it in gum-coated linen bandages, and finally cocooning it in mummiform coffins. On the chest of the mummy and its coffin were placed heart scarabs, designed to prevent the deceased’s heart from bearing witness against him during the judgement of Osiris.

Royal burials were elaborate affairs. Escorted by priests, mourners and musicians, the coffin was dragged on a sledge to the Valley of the Kings, where the sarcophagus was already occupied by a sem (death) priest, who performed the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, touching the lips of the mummy with an adze and reciting spells. As the mummy was lowered into its sarcophagus, priests slashed the forelegs of sacrificial animals, whose limbs were burned as the tomb was sealed. The tomb’s contents (intended to satisfy the needs of the pharaoh’s ka in the afterlife) included food, drink, clothing, furniture, weapons and dozens of shabti figures to perform any task that the gods might require. Then the doors were walled up, plastered over and stamped with the royal seal and that of the Necropolis. To thwart robbers, royal tombs featured deadfalls and false burial chambers; however, none of these devices seems to have succeeded in protecting them.

The journey through the underworld and judgement of Osiris

Funerary artwork dwelt on the journey through the underworld, whose pictorial representation inverted the normal order, so that each register was topped by sand instead of sky. The descent into the underworld (Duat) echoed that of a sarcophagus into its tomb, involving ramps, ropes and gateways. Each of the twelve gates was personified as a goddess and guarded by ferocious deities. In the darkness between them lay twelve caverns inhabited by beings such as the jackal-headed gods who fed on rottenness or the wailing goddesses with bloody axes.

It was Maat’s Feather of Truth that was weighed against the deceased’s heart (believed to be the seat of intelligence) during the Judgement of Osiris. With Anubis operating the scales and Thoth waiting to record the verdict, the deceased had to recite the negative confession before a tribunal of 42 assessor gods, each attuned to a sin. While the hearts of the guilty were devoured by crocodile-headed Ammut, the righteous were pronounced “true of voice” and led into the presence of Osiris to begin their resurrection, which paralleled Re’s passage through the underworld. Voyaging through the twelve decans (hours or “divisions”) of the night in his solar barque, Re had to overcome the serpent Apopis and other lesser denizens of primeval chaos, which threatened the righteous order personified by the goddess Maat. Re, helped by Anubis, Isis and Nephthys (often shown as serpents), Aker the earth-god (whose back bore Re’s barque) and Khepri the scarab beetle, achieves rebirth in the fifth hour, and is fully restored to life by the tenth. Here the two myths part company, for whereas Re emerges from the body of the sky-goddess Nut to travel the heavens again, the Osirian journey (that of the righteous deceased) concludes by passing through the reedy Fields of Yaru (an Ancient Egyptian metaphor for death, also synonymous with fertility).

Since many of the scenes were supplemented by papyri buried with the mummy, funerary artwork is categorized in literary terms. The Book of the Dead is the name now given to the compendium of Old and Middle Kingdom Pyramid Texts and Spells, known in the New Kingdom as the Book of Coming Forth. Other texts associated with the New Kingdom include the Book of Gates, Book of Caverns, Book of Hours, Book of Day and Night and Book of Amduat (That which is in the Underworld).

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