The god Anubis attends to the mummy of a 19th dynasty cemetery worker in an illustration.

How ancient Egyptians—from kings to commoners—strived for eternal life

Pharaohs weren't the only ones mummified. Sacred rites and rituals could guide any Egyptian through the afterlife.

The god Anubis attends to the mummy of a 19th dynasty cemetery worker in an illustration.
Image courtesy of De Agostini/G. Dagli Orti/REX/Shutterstock

Death. No religion can avoid the subject, but the ancient Egyptians—who thrived between 3100 B.C. and 332 B.C.—built their faith around it. The worldly life, proclaimed the priests, was just a prelude to eternal life beyond the grave. The ancient Egyptians lived this life to the fullest, and expected to continue doing so upon death.

(Meet the mummies you've never heard of.)

But to ensure a flourishing afterlife, certain provisions were required, including a preserved body (aka a mummy), a stocked tomb, and animal companions. Even then, eternal life was not guaranteed, until the deceased found their way through the underworld, where they were tested by the god of judgment. Here are the specific steps the ancient Egyptians took to guarantee life ever after.

Bodywork

To arrive in the afterlife in one piece required a preserved body. To that end, most people wished to have their corpse mummified, which preserved the body in the most lifelike state. Depending on finances, there were different degrees of mummification. The poor were simply washed and placed directly into the desert sand. Some were packed in salt to help desiccation. Those of higher status might receive an enema of juniper oil to liquefy internal organs and scent the body before salting.

(Egypt’s audacious plan to build a new capital in the desert.)

The mummification process for the rich and royal, especially during the New Kingdom (ca 1539–1075 B.C.), took 70 days from start to finish and was carried out by special priests. The body was washed and purified. The blood was then drained and, to avoid putrefac­tion, most internal organs were removed and placed into special jars. Brains were pulled out through the nose with a hook and discarded. The heart, however, was left intact inside, for Egyptians believed it was the center of a person’s entire being.

The body was then packed with natron, a special salt found in dried lakebeds, and left on a table to dry. As the body dried out and shriveled, pieces of cloth strips were inserted to fill it out. Fake eyes, rouge, and other makeup were added for a more lifelike appearance. When the drying process was completed, the priests washed the body again, covered it with oils and resin, and bound it in hundreds of yards of linen. Finally, the whole wrapped package was boxed and returned to the family for delivery to the tomb.

(See what lies beneath the sarcophagus in this mummy interactive.)

A well-stocked tomb

The tombs of the elite were often prepared long before their death. When the time came, important individuals were placed in multiple coffins, some beautifully decorated. Some were then interred in elaborate stone sarcophagi. Confident that their tombs were the gateways to the next world, Egyptians stocked them with everything they would need: food, wine, clothing, furniture, and other essentials for the journey ahead. “Beautify your house in the Necropolis and enrich your place in the West,” said Prince Hordedef, a renowned sage of the 4th dynasty. “The house of death is for life.”

(Discover King Tut's treasures by the numbers.)

Animal mummies also accompanied ancient Egyptians in their tombs—shrews in boxes of carved limestone, rams covered with gilded and beaded casings, and ibises in bundles of intricate appliqués. Even tiny scarab beetles and the dung balls they ate have been found. Some of these animals were pets, pre­served so deceased humans would have com­panionship in eternity. Others, cut into portions, served as perpetual meals for the people they were buried with. Still others were votive offer­ings meant to carry prayers to the gods or were reverently laid to rest as the living representa­tive of a god.

(How was King Tut’s tomb discovered 100 years ago? Grit and luck.)

Magnificent treasures were buried with the rich and royalty, assuring a successful afterlife, like these gold, glass, and semiprecious stone earrings buried with Tut. Here are some of the glittering riches discovered in Egypt’s ancient tombs.
Magnificent treasures were buried with the rich and royalty, assuring a successful afterlife, like these gold, glass, and semiprecious stone earrings buried with Tut. Here are some of the glittering riches discovered in Egypt’s ancient tombs.
Image courtesy of CULTNAT, Dist. RMN-GP/Art Resource, NY

Judgment day

But even with all of this preparation, life everlasting was not yet guaranteed. The deceased first had to be judged for the life he had led. The ancient Egyptians believed everyone possesses the ka, or life force, and the ba, the soul. Upon death, the ka leaves the body first, wandering aimlessly. The ba remains in the body until burial. Then, the ba—guided by spells and images painted on the tomb walls and amulets attached to the body—would proceed on the journey through the underworld. The falcon-headed god Horus leads the ba through doorways of fire and cobras to the halls of judgment, where the deceased is tested.

Overseen by the jackal-headed god Anubis, his heart is weighed against a feather of ma’at, the goddess of truth and cosmic harmony. Part of this ritual is the “Negative Confession,” in which the deceased has to deny committing theft, murder, causing others distress, and other transgressions. Osiris, king of the underworld, and other gods watch as judges. If the deceased fails this test, a monster goddess named Ammut—part lion, part crocodile, and part hippopotamus—devours his soul, dooming the deceased to a perpetual coma.

Obtaining eternal life

But if the heart balances, the ba reunites with the ka (which had been wandering aimlessly), creating a spirit called akh. The spirit emerges in the bright realm ruled by the crowned Osiris, called the Field of Reeds, a land of beautiful mountains and rivers. Here, the deceased is reunited with his loved ones, including his pets. The utopian life is now his for eternity.

Being dead didn’t mean being gone for good, though. The deceased could also ethereally reenter the living world and enjoy its pleasures, including offerings of food, his wife’s life, and the attention of his servants.

(Who was King Tut?)

<div id="isPasted" style='margin: 0.25rem 1rem 0px 0px; padding: 0px; box-sizing: border-box; color: rgb(77, 77, 77); font-family: -apple-system, system-ui, "system-ui", "Segoe UI", Roboto, Oxygen-Sans, Ubuntu, Cantarell, "Helvetica Neue", sans-serif, "Apple Color Emoji", "Segoe UI Emoji", "Segoe UI Symbol", sans-serif; font-size: 13px; font-style: normal; font-variant-ligatures: normal; font-variant-caps: normal; font-weight: 400; letter-spacing: normal; orphans: 2; text-align: start; text-indent: 0px; text-transform: none; white-space: nowrap; widows: 2; word-spacing: 0px; -webkit-text-stroke-width: 0px; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255); text-decoration-thickness: initial; text-decoration-style: initial; text-decoration-color: initial; flex: 0 1 25%; min-width: 136px; line-height: 20px;'><div style="margin: 0px; padding: 0px; box-sizing: border-box; display: flex; cursor: pointer;">The series of paintings on the four walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb are a story—and a kind of map to help guide King Tut to the afterlife. Beginning with his funeral, they show his long journey and the gods and goddesses who will greet him along the way.</div></div>
The series of paintings on the four walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb are a story—and a kind of map to help guide King Tut to the afterlife. Beginning with his funeral, they show his long journey and the gods and goddesses who will greet him along the way.
Photograph by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images
Portions of this work have previously appeared in King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs by Ann R. Williams. Copyright © 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
To learn more, check out King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.

Read This Next

Can science help personalize your diet?
Hogs are running wild in the U.S.—and spreading disease
Salman Rushdie on the timeless beauty of the Taj Mahal

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet