Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.02.01

Jan Assmann, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Translated from the German by David Lorton, abridged and updated by the author.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2005.  Pp. 490.  ISBN 978-0-8014-4241-4.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Barry Powell, University of Wisconsin, Madison (
Word count: 3847 words

Table of Contents

In this book Jan Assmann attempts to establish the thesis that "death is the center of culture," supported by evidence from ancient Egypt. For the fact of death, unknown to animals, forces humans to generate their own world of value, cast in relationship to death's inevitability.

The Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans envisioned the land of the dead as a dismal place, bereft of the joys of living: there the dead were really dead. But the Egyptians, though they could share this view, imagined the dead as living in an Elysium. Only the radical monotheism of Akhenaten denied the realm of the happy dead, confining the living to the land under the sun, where the dead could invisibly visit the temples of the sun from their graves. In response to Akhenaten's enlightenment, determined priests of the reformation created the several "books" of the underworld that decorated exclusively the tombs of later pharaohs.

A. describes the relation of the myth of Osiris, never told in Egyptian sources as a story, as funerary ritual. The body of the dead, as that of Osiris, has been broken into parts, but through the agency of his sister Isis is made to conceive the child Horus. Some have even seen the Egyptians as a "dissecting" people, who saw the body as a marionette of separable parts; rather, they were an "embalming" people, who saw the heart and the blood it pumped as the unifying force that held the body together and gave it life. Hence Osiris, god of the dead, was "weary of heart."

The reintegration of the body, figuratively dismembered by death, was brought about by the spells pronounced during the embalming ritual, thought of as "crossing the lake." The disiecta membra of the corpse were identified with a plethora of gods, even as a lover thinks of the parts of his beloved. Isis, who loved Osiris, through her love and her spells guarantees the crossing to the new life. By contrast, Horus, the male, brings the dead back to his place in the social world through affirming the dead person's identity as his own father, king Osiris "lord of the West." Horus reestablishes the dead person/Osiris in his or her social relationships. The deceased father (Osiris) is now the ka of Horus (his essence). Father and son depend on one another, one being the ruler of this world (Horus) and the other of that world (Osiris). Filial piety literally flows through Horus' heart. Father to son, son to father, each to the other is akh, "effective," a difficult word.

The tomb inscription is the beginning of Egyptian ethics, because there the deceased celebrated his life lived in accordance with maat, "justice, truth, righteousness," the principle of social connectivity. No man lives of himself, but only through his harmonious connections with others, and the son's speaking of the dead father's name reintegrates him into the social order. Salvation from death follows from "social connectivity," as many texts prove.

Death is never natural, but comes from the enemy, who in myth is Seth. Isis and her sister Nephthys restore the dead king's body; Horus restores his role in society. The trial of Seth and the vindication of Osiris pay back the enemy what he fully deserves; so is death overcome, even for all, and the kingship is made strong. But the deceased will face a second death at the tribunal of Osiris, if he fails to prove that he is not guilty of moral infractions. From plaintiff equated with Osiris against Seth, who has murdered him, the dead man has become the defendant before Osiris. Fortunately Horus, Thoth, and Anubis combine to prove his innocence and save him from the monstrous devourer. Now he is an akh, a "transfigured spirit." His defense, a catalogue of things he has not done but can be presumed to have done, is a form of the moral literature famous through the Egyptian "Admonitions" (of which Hesiod was a latter-day heir). Egypt's confidence (not shared by the Hebrews) in victory over death though vindication before a tribunal on grounds of moral excellence entered Christian theology at an early time and, of course, is strong today.

The Egyptian had no word for "person," but in funerary cult nonetheless seemed preoccupied with something like what we mean by "person," finding it made up of a surprising array of parts, including the dead body, the mummy, two forms of the heart, the shadow, the ba, the ka, even other things. The ba and the body appear to belong to the physical sphere, whereas the social aspect of any individual is made up of the ka and the mummy. Spells and ritual disassociate the ba from the mummy at the burial, allowing it to fly free, but only so that it may return to the mummy as the sun returns each day to the eastern horizon. Notions of the ka are inconsistent, but as concerns the burial, the ka has nothing to do with mobility and nothing to do with the corpse. The ba joins the corpse, once it has been freed from it (hence made into a mobile being); the ka is the vehicle for the restoration of social standing: status, prestige, honor. Gods have kas too, and they, even as the justified dead, "go to their ka," and they join the kas of those who have gone before. In this respect the ka is rather like the Roman genius.

Death is dissociation, dismemberment, but through ritual and spells the parts can be reassembled. The heart plays a special role: it remains within the chest of the mummy. If devoured because of an adverse judgment, the dead would disappear forever. Many spells bring together the heart and the body. The need to reintegrate and bring together underlies the elaborate decoration of the corpse, which through likeness affirms the wholeness of the dead person. The same hieroglyph goes with the word for "depiction" and with the word for "corpse," the first standing up, the second lying down.

Death is a separation, when the dead person will never again be seen. Isis, with her feminine emotion, can reawaken her dead husband Osiris through lament, but he remains in the other world. Images of Mary and Jesus descend directly from this religion; in the mythical Pietà, Mary Magdalene assists Mary, as Nephthys helped Isis, a family gathering. Horus never laments, because he belongs to the public sphere where status and sovereignty are at stake.

Until the early Eighteenth Dynasty only good things are said about the West, where the dead dwell, but after the Amarna episode tomb inscriptions allow Isis to describe her sorrow and the darkness of the other world. Likewise after Amarna first appears the harpers' songs that extol the land of the living and deprecate the death in the tomb. In the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, Siduri the beer maid gives the same advice. Nonetheless, the Judgment of the Dead can lead to salvation and a transition to the land of light, while other spells prevent one from having to devour one's own excrement there and provide instead delicious bread and beer. In the form of a goose he or she may soar across the waters and come to the land of eternal life. In a unique chapter of the Book of the Dead, the deceased is not promised food, clothing, and sex, but rather a condition of transfiguration and peace of heart.

In the land of the dead, everything is inverted, rather as in Egyptian "lamentation" literature that complains how all social relations and values have been turned upside down. Oddly, the great inversion, the desired inversion, is when death is turned into life. Such salvation by inversion takes place in the Old Kingdom when pharaoh ascends from the earth to the sky to be identified with the sun god.

After the Middle Kingdom, the other world itself has both sky and netherworld. In that mirror other world many souls are truly dead (those in the mirror netherworld), but he who is justified is truly alive. The soul of the deceased travels to the court of Osiris to be judged according to his moral behavior in earthly life. Osiris holds a curious ambivalence, therefore, in being both the god who can save the deceased, and lord of all the dead, who can damn the deceased. In the Old Kingdom the soul of pharaoh was distinguished from the souls of ordinary people, but by the Middle Kingdom the terms of Egyptian religion were extended to other social classes. Now Seth, and his monstrous cohorts, threaten the dead, while Osiris, and his equally fearsome henchmen, protect him (if justified) from death itself.

In the Old Kingdom, pharaoh joins the sun and the imperishable stars and so conquers death. After the Middle Kingdom, when the ruling class expropriated the religion of pharaoh, the dead left death behind through judgment before Osiris. In the Judgment Hall the dead is recognized as the child of Osiris, transcendent over the shadows and monsters that inhabit the underworld. The Goddess of the West receives him in her arms and gives him new birth, so the dead is both child of Osiris and of the Goddess of the West. All mourning is left behind in a land of peaceful silence. Death is a transition from the everyday world, called the Isle of Flame, through Lightland, an intermediate realm, to the regulated realm of Osiris. A corpus of "letters to the dead" reveals intimate communications between the living and the glorified dead who inhabit the realm of Osiris, and requests for assistance from that other world.

Death is the enemy, overcome through victory in the Hall of Judgment, but death is also return, return to the womb of the Great Mother, called usually Nut, who is the coffin that embraces the deceased in preparation for a new birth. The image of rebirth through the coffin/Nut is astonishingly consistent throughout Egyptian civilization and appears grounded even in the fetal posture of the predynastic dead.

The images of death as enemy to be overcome and as return to the womb are seemingly contradictory, but brought together into a unified version of resurrected life. Over one (death as enemy) Osiris presides, who through his tribunal frees the deceased from the threat of extinction in the maw of the "devourer"; over the other (death as return) presides the sun, whose certain cycle of return imparts the surety of resurrection to one identified with the solar cycle. The Osirian strain is paternal (moral and social), the other is maternal (regeneration through the fecund womb). By immersion in the underworld, which shares in the primeval fecundity of the original undifferentiated waters, the deceased is reborn into the new life in his enveloping tomb, in Egypt the land of his birth.

The tomb embodies contradictory functions, on the one hand to commemorate the dead person, and on the other to surround the deceased in mystery. The two functions are nicely separated in New Kingdom royal architecture, where the public, commemorative mortuary temple was built on the edge of the western cultivation in Thebes; but the body was concealed in the dark, heavily guarded, never-entered grandiose tombs of the Valley of the Kings, whose walls portrayed the journey of the sun through the netherworld, his defeat of the evil serpent Apophis, and pharaoh's mysterious renewal by attachment to the sun's circular course and by the generative powers of Nut, the Great Mother.

Death is a mystery. In the other world the deceased must pass through a sequence of gates to reach the mysterious presence of the Weary One (Osiris). This passage is symbolized in New Kingdom tombs as a game of zenet, "passage." The monsters that guard the gates of the netherworld in fact serve good, driving away the enemies of rebirth. The decoration of the tombs of the nobles reflects the tomb's function as a kind of temple to the glorified spirit of the deceased/Osiris. The tomb is mysterious and the place where the divine spirit resides. Was there initiation into the "mysteries" in ancient Egypt, as consistently maintained by Greek writers? Most think no, but Assman sees in the underworld books of the New Kingdom not just a map, a guide, and a vade mecum for the deceased, but a symbolic course that the living might have followed and acted out in crypts archaeologically attested. The underworld books probably stand behind the Greek-inscribed gold plates found in Italy that describe the journey that lies before the sanctified dead.

The most long-lasting of all Egyptian funerary devices, the false door, disappears after the Amarna Period, but the goal of the dead remains easy communication between the two worlds, a "going forth by day" (the actual title of the so-called Book of the Dead). With the help of proper spells, the ba can take any form and visit the world of the living and the festivals of the gods, then return to the mummy, unlike the divinized royal dead of the Old Kingdom, whose course united with the stars and the sun. In the New Kingdom the other world became "this-worldly," that is, the ba of the dead came forth from the tomb to live in the land of the living, which in turn the ba's presence sacralized. In the Amarna period all notions of an other world in the sky or under the earth succumbed to "this-worldliness": at night the dead slept, at day they accompanied the royal family to the temple of the Aten, where they reaped the god's benefice. The New Kingdom "this-worldly" vision of the other world allowed the dead to participate in the very many festivals celebrated at Thebes, Abydos, and Memphis, a procedure that had the reverse effect of sacralizing the everyday and making of all Egypt a mysterious land where the gods dwell among us, just as the Greeks perceived it to be.

A. distinguishes between "mortuary liturgy," spells to be pronounced in the context of the funerary cult, and "mortuary literature," the texts written on the walls of tombs, beginning with the Pyramid Texts of the Sixth Dynasty. The liturgy texts are easier to understand, because they come in a sequence (do not stand alone) and, to some extent, we can recreate the form of the ritual they accompanied, assisted by vignettes that accompany the liturgies, in the Book of the Dead and on tomb walls. Such liturgies were read aloud from papyri by "lector-priests"; the writing annotated what the priest said. Mortuary literature, by contrast, was not read aloud, but through inscription on walls and steles created magical effects, the glorification and transfiguration of the dead. Such mortuary texts are much elaborated in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom, which much expand spells found in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, and number five times as many as found in the New Kingdom Book of the Dead. Striking is that from the New Kingdom collection have disappeared all spells found engraved on the pyramids.

A skillful literary and comparative analysis of spells pertaining to the Judgment of the Dead show that in origin the purpose of the judgment was to vindicate the dead person against his enemy, death or Seth, and only later, in the New Kingdom, did this vital group of spells assume a moral dimension: now the deceased was to be vindicated, before the court of Osiris, against all charges of immoral behavior. We can view this shift in "sacramental explanation" as reflecting changed social conditions in Egypt, an aspect of the "demotization" of Egyptian religion.

From scattered references we can reconstruct the wake, or funerary feast, that took place before the burial. Death as the enemy is to be overcome by the ritual of embalming and a cycle of spells pronounced at the wake. To some extent we can reconstruct the details of the funeral itself from the many illustrations in tombs, although some features of these representations are conventional and traditional. In the New Kingdom, however, they increasingly reflected what actually happened: the crossing of the river, the seventy days of embalming, the procession to the tomb, the mourning and dancing and feasting, the ceremony of the opening of the mouth by means of the ritual adze and the foreleg of a living calf (and sometimes heart) severed while the mourning mother cow looks on.

The principal form of mortuary ritual was the offering formula, but the food and drink given to the dead were explained "sacramentally" as substances that exalted the deceased from the land of the dead, where feces and urine are the only nourishment, to the realm of the gods and their heavenly nourishment. From another point of view, the transfigured dead are thought of as summoned back to this world, which they enter through the false door, a permeable divider between the two worlds. The dead will want a new body, but not the mummified body, whose constriction makes it unable to "stride forth" into a new day. The new body will be one glorified by the life-endowing provisions, as much symbolic representations as they were ever real.

A. takes the Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus, which tells of the coronation ritual of Senwosret I from the Middle Kingdom, as a basis for understanding how the Egyptians attached a sacramental explanation to what we might think of as an ordinary event. For the world works on two levels, the human and mundane, and the divine and eternal. In such documents, then, we find the statement of some ritual performed, then the symbolic or allegorical meaning of each element of the ritual (the "sacramental explanation"), which like an initiate into a secret society the practitioner will know. Hence the water poured out in libations is "sacramentally" explained as "the discharge of Osiris," the mysterious effluent from the lord of resurrection.

A. claims for the Egyptians a dual concept of time, the neheh time, in which things are renewed, embodied in Re, and the djet time, in which things are remembered, where the dead is justified by the moral life, embodied in Osiris. The "perfectivity" of something, that is something in its aspect of having been completed, combines with the "pastness" of something in an Egyptian grammatical tense that A. calls "resultativity." Such neologisms rarely improve understanding, I'm afraid, nor does A.'s efforts to attach this grammatical tense to the Egyptian concept of the afterlife meet with perfect success. Yet everything he says is interesting. The tomb, made of stone and richly embellished, while the living of all classes lived in sparely furnished houses made of mud brick, is an example of resultativity, the external, tangible sign that its inhabitant led so moral a life that people still speak of his moral perfection.

Egyptian writing served the need to create a permanent remembrance of the past. For this reason in tombs pictorial hieroglyphs were normal, and remained intelligible over three thousand years, although spoken Egyptian changed greatly, as do all spoken languages. In this perennially intelligible system of visible thought the tomb owner became author of his own biography, telling who he is and what he did. The tomb owner is an artist who through literature and literary tradition insures his own eternal survival.

Such theories about death and salvation were not reached without reflection and disagreement, as shown by the perplexing "Dialogue of a man with his ba," from the First Intermediate Period. In this difficult, even desperate text a man preparing suicide argues with his ba about his decision. Here the ba takes the surprising position of the Mesopotamian Siduri and denounces as illusory the power of the tomb and its associated ritual to guarantee a continuance in the other world of the life lived here. At the end, the man appears to accept the ba's argument (and hence to renounce suicide). Similar philosophies of "eat, drink, and be merry" appear in several "harper's songs," too, inscribed in tombs and on papyrus, where the harper dismisses as foolish traditions of tomb and cult.

In the Old Kingdom, Elysium, realm off the blessed dead, was where Pharaoh went; all others were simply dead. The Greek word Elysium, here taken as a category in the history of religion and not an element of Greek myth, appears to descend from the Egyptian name, the "Field of Reeds." A thousand years after the Old Kingdom others earned the right to enter Elysium in a "demotization" of Egyptian religion. With demotization entered the concept of the judgment, hence the moralization of Egyptian hopes for the afterlife, which survives conspicuously in popular Christianity.

But Elysium was never a place separate from the dwelling place of the silent sleeping dead, as in Greek myth, or from those who had failed the moral examination. As we learn from the New Kingdom funerary books of "what is in the Underworld," the damned, the cursed, and the punished, and the silent dead, stand on either side, in separate registers, from the triumphant central course of the glorified dead, identified with the sun's course nightly through the underworld. In religion only the Egyptians identified the solar course with the place where the dead reside; ordinarily the Underworld is where the sun never appears, the dark sheol of the Hebrews or Hades of the Greeks. Become one with the eternal cycle of the sun, armed with fearful knowledge of mighty spells, the dead do not die but, granted grace by Osiris who himself once died and by Nut, the mother of all, they become a glorified spirit, an akh.

In an afterword A. compares the Egyptian views on the afterlife and the judgment there with the Hebrew, Mesopotamian, and Greek notions of payment and reward as confined to this world, and to the experience of human history. Christianity, by contrast, was to adopt many features of Egyptian eschatology, including the Judgment of the Dead and the paradisiacal continued existence of those justified by following the commandments of God.

Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt is not an easy book to read, because its topic is highly complex and the data bearing upon it are diverse and open to different interpretations. In fact Egyptian religion is a difficult topic and poorly understood, but in his book A. astounds the reader with his deep knowledge of religious texts from all periods of Egyptian civilization and from the Greeks and Romans too. He is equally familiar with evidence from art and architecture. He does not hesitate to refer to modern commentators (a German bias is hardly surprising). In a curiously discursive style he leads the reader through the maddeningly opaque pronouncements of Egyptian intellectuals about the nature of death, its origin, its meaning, its importance. Every page shines a fresh light on a topic that fascinates us all, but leaves us puzzled. A.'s book will take its place as classic study and shows again why he is justly regarded as one of the great Egyptologists writing today. A. never forgets that, though we have changed since the days of Pharaoh, we too must die.

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