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Essay/Term paper: Burial practices of the ancient egyptian and greco-roman cultures

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Humanities Essays

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Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman practices of preparing the dead for the

next cradle of humanity are very intriguing. These two cultures differ in a

multitude of ways yet similarities can be noted in the domain of funerary

services. In the realm of Egyptian afterlife, The Book of the Dead can

provide one with vital information concerning ritual entombment practices

and myths of the afterlife. The additional handouts I received from

Timothy Stoker also proved to be useful in trying uncover vital information

regarding the transition into another life. Regarding the burial practices

of Greece and Rome, parts of Homer's Odyssey are useful in the analysis of

proper interment methods.

One particular method used by the Egyptians was an intricate

process known as mummification. It was undoubtedly a very involved process

spanning seventy days in some cases. First, all the internal organs were

removed with one exception, the heart. If the body was not already West of

the Nile it was transported across it, but not before the drying process

was initiated. Natron (a special salt) was extracted from the banks of the

Nile and was placed under the corpse, on the sides, on top, and bags of the

substance were placed inside the body cavity to facilitate the process of

dehydration. After thirty-five days the ancient embalmers would anoint the

body with oil and wrap it in fine linen. If the deceased was wealthy

enough a priest donning a mask of Anubis would preside over the ceremonies

to ensure proper passage into the next realm.

One of the practices overseen by the priest was the placing of a

special funerary amulet over the heart. This was done in behest to secure a

successful union with Osiris and their kas. The amulet made sure the heart

did not speak out against the individual at the scale of the goddess of

justice and divine order, Maat. The priest also made use of a "peculiar

ritual instrument, a sort of chisel, with which he literally opened the

mouth of the deceased." This was done to ensure that the deceased was able

to speak during their journeys in Duat.

Another practice used by the Egyptians to aid the departed soul

involved mass human sacrifice. Many times if a prominent person passed

away the family and servants would willfully ingest poison to continue

their servitude in the next world. The family members and religious

figureheads of the community did just about everything in their power to

aid 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 was

believed that the individual would be able of accessing these items in the

next world. Some of the most important things that the deceased would need

to have at his side were certain spells and incantations. A conglomeration

of reading material ensured a successful passage; The Pyramid Texts, The

Book of the Dead, and the Coffin Texts all aided the lost soul in their

journey through Duat into the Fields of the Blessed. "Besides all these

spells, charms, and magical tomb texts, the ancient practice of depositing

in the tomb small wooden figures of servants was employed." These "Ushabi

statuettes" as they are called, were essentially slaves of the deceased.

If the deceased was called to work in the Elysian fields he would call upon

one of the statues to take his place and perform the task for him. It was

not unheard of for an individual to have a figure for every day of the year

to ensure an afterlife devoid of physical exertion. Just about every thing

the embalmers and burial practitioners did during the process was done for

particular reasons.

Many of the funerary practices of the ancient Greco-Romans were

also done with a specific purpose in mind. Unlike the Egyptian's the

Greco-Roman cultures did not employ elaborate tombs but focused on the use

of a simple pit in the ground. Right after death, not too dissimilar from

the practices of the Egyptians, it was necessary for the persons to

carefully wash and prepare the corpse for his journey. It was vital for

all persons to receive a proper burial and if they did not they were dammed

to hover in a quasi-world, somewhat of a "limbo" between life and death.

One Greco-Roman myth that illustrates this point is The Odyssey by

Homer. There is a part in Book eleven of the work in which Homer

specifically addresses proper burial rites. When Odysseus wishes to

contact Tiresias, he comes across Elpenor, one of his soldiers. This

particular man fell (in a haphazard fashion) to his death on the island of

the 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 for

his body.

Consequently, they did return and Elpenor passed into the next

world. Most likely he was buried in the same fashion other members of his

society 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 with

the hope that they would follow him into the next world. In order to

survive in the afterlife, the deceased "is also presented with a small coin

which came to be known as the ferrying fee for Charon." This can be

likened to the Egyptian practice of introducing coinage into the tomb in

some cases.

Homer also speaks of the psyche, which slips out of man "at the

moment 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 an

individual's ba in ancient Egypt. When someone died, an eternal part of

them (their ba) would also slip out and seek out the individuals spiritual

twin (their ka) in order to unite with it and facilitate a successful


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 be

sacrificed and their blood was recognized as inspiring the deceased to

speak. The Egyptians also were concerned with the ability of the deceased

to speak in the next realm; this is exemplified in one of the most

important spells in The Book of the Dead, the opening of the mouth.

When all the funerary rites had been done, the next step was to

mark the spot of the deceased. "The grave is marked with a stone, the

sign, sema." This grave stone would have the name of the soul, and often

some type of epigram in verse form. Invariably near the grave, some type of

guardian of the soul would be located. Lion and sphinx were found as grave

markers and this idea is paralleled in the practices of the natives of

Egypt. A certain "cult image" was buried with the deceased in Egypt in

order to look after and more importantly protect one's ba from being

disturbed. It also acted as a type of "purge valve" for any ba which may

have been unjustly disturbed in the tomb.

Burial practices aside one can note an interesting difference

between these two ancient civilizations. Differences can be observed

concerning how amicable the afterlife was. The Egyptians had a positive

outlook. They believed that after one became Osirus, They would move into

a new world, which was nice, no one had to work, and everything was very

clean. One could compare their lives in the next world with the children's

classic board game, Candyland. In this game all was fine and dandy, the

"don't worry be happy" attitude flourished, not distant from the life in

the Fields of the Blessed. On the other hand, Greco-Roman afterlife was a

rather dismal place. The dead Achilles summed everything up by saying to

Odysseus, "Do not try to make light of death to me, I would sooner be bound

to the soil in the hire of another man, a man without lot and without much

to live on, than rule over all the perished dead." Needless to say, the

Homeric afterlife was no Candyland.

Candyland or not, both cultures went to extremes in order to

guarantee a successful voyage into the next world. The two ancient

civilizations hoped that through their intricate actions the individual

would be protected and prepared for their many experiences on "the other

side." By looking at selections of Homer's Odyssey and The Book of the

Dead, one can draw many similarities between the two cultures; however,

differences are also apparent due to cultural differences concerning what

would happen to the departed soul. 

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