“What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? ”(Loy) The answer to the sphinx’s riddle is a man. We as people crawl on four legs, walk on two feet, and then walk with a cane. Birth. Life. Death. These are the three stages we as humans go through. We are born into this world, live it to the fullest and then die of old age. Death is inevitable. We try so hard to prolong and avoid death but eventually we all die and rot away. Depending on time, culture, and religion death has a different meaning.
In some places death is seen as the end of life and is feared, while in other places death is a new beginning and is welcomed with open arms. Death has journeyed far to what it means today. I would like to journey back in time to what death meant in the days of which Herodotus traveled.
Herodotus journeyed from his home, Greece, to the land of the Egyptians. There he looks at mummification, a death ritual in Egypt with a Greek perspective. I would like to examine the similarities and differences between the Greeks and Egyptian death rituals through comparing their meaning of death, processes of burial, and their journey through death.
Before we can look at burial rituals we first need to understand what death meant to the Egyptians and the Greeks. The Egyptians and Greeks both believed in eternal life. The Egyptians believed that death was only a process in life, not the end of it. They believed that death was only another stage into the life of the dead, where they would live forever. They believed that a person’s soul would journey through various tests to enter the afterlife. The Egyptians believed the soul of a person would continue to live in the body the person lived in during life.
So they went to great length to preserve their bodies from decay, through a process called mummification. (Egypt) The Greeks also believed in the concept of an afterlife. They believed that after death their souls would leave their body and journey to the land of the dead. They believed that they would journey to an eternal home based on the life they lived while they were alive. (Bergman) Both Egypt and Greece had elaborate burial procedures because of the importance of the afterlife. Since the Egyptians believed strongly that the ody had to be whole for them to enter the afterlife, the Egyptians went through a process of mummification. There were three different ways the Egyptians went through the process of mummification. All of them had similar end results but had different procedures and reflected upon on how much money one had. The most expensive way started with the extraction of the major organs of the body. The brain would be extracted through the nostrils and the internal organs but the heart would be removed through an incision of the body cavity. The heart was later needed in the journey to the underworld)Then the body cavity would be cleansed and filled with various aromatic substances and sewn up again. Then they would encase the body with natrum for seventy days. After the seventy day period the body would be washed and wrapped in linen and then glued. When the first way of mummification was too expensive, the embalmers would use a different treatment. Instead of extracting the organs from the body cavity they would inject oil of cedar through the anus and then pickle the body in natrum for seventy days.
After that they would drain the liquid from the body. As the liquid drained out, the stomach and intestines would also come out through a liquefied state and then the body was returned to the family. If the family was poor the embalmers would clear out the intestines with a purge and put the body in natrum for seventy days and then return the body to the family. The family would have a wooden casket prepared for the body and would encase the mummified body. The casket was important because it protected the body from intruders and the elements. Herodotus, p 127) After mummification a priest would perform the opening of the mouth ceremony. This was done so the body would be able to breathe and speak in the afterlife. In addition, various spells were cast to help them navigate through the underworld. These mummies were also entombed with various burial goods. These consisted of everyday objects to jewelry. These objects would serve function to them in the afterlife. So objects like food and bowls were entombed with the bodies.
The wealthy would also shabti figures in the tombs because they believed the figures would come to life in the afterlife and do the work of the deceased like a slave would of done. (Ancient) The Greeks, like the Egyptians, had burial rituals that would help them through their journey in the underworld after death. A proper burial was important because the Greeks believed if a burial was not performed for the person in question, their soul would end up wandering for eternity by the river Styx. After death, the body was washed and covered with oils.
Then the bodies went through three processes, the prosthesis, the ekphora, and the interment stage. In the first stage, prosthesis, relatives and friends were allowed to mourn for the dead. The Ekphora was the funeral procession. During this stage the body was moved to the burial ground and daily objects were placed in the ground. In addition, monumental earth mounds, tombs, and statues were erected around the grave so the dead wouldn’t be forgotten. Then in the final stage, the body was encased in the tomb made for the dead on a family lot. Bergman) After death the most crucial part in an Egyptian and Greek life unfolds, the journey to eternal life. For the Egyptians, the journey through the underworld was long and difficult. They had to overcome many obstacles and trials to reach their goal. But there was a guidebook to help them through this passage, the book of the dead. This book contained of instructions on how to get through and spells to overcome the trials and dangers. At the peak of the journey a soul would arrive at the hall of two truths.
There the soul was tested by the ruler of the underworld, Osiris, the head of the court of the dead, and 42 judges. In the hall of two truths their hearts were tested of the deeds the deceased when they were alive. Their heart would then be weighed with the feather of truth on a scale, which symbolized the goddess of justice. The only way a soul could pass the test was if their heart was light than the feather of truth. Then one would be able to enter the eternal afterlife. If one would fail they were devoured by the female demon, Amemit and thus denied to eternal life.
There were also charms which could help mask the lies of the dead, so even the sinful could obtain eternal life by masking their sins with the charms. (Underworld) In Greek culture once you die Hermes, the messenger of god comes to pick you up. He drops you at the river Styx, the river separating life and death. There a ferry man who comes and picks up the soul for a small tribute of gold which is placed underneath the dead body’s tongue during burial. Once crossed there is no returning back and then is judged by by Aeacus, Rhadamanthus and King Minos.
The soul is judged by the deeds of his former life and sent to the Elysian fields, Tartaros, or a neutral region of Hades. If the soul was good and devoid of sin it was sent to the Elysian fields, which was like a heaven. If the soul was full of sin it was sent to Tartaros, where they would be punished and tortured. If the soul was ordinary it would be sent to a neutral land in Hades. (Bergman) Both Egypt and Greece have varying customs, burial rituals, and beliefs in the way they perceive death but there surprisingly many similarities in the way they perceive the death.
In both cultures they believe in death as a way of passage, not they end and believe in the afterlife. We can also see that they both treat the body as a strong factor in death and go to good lengths to treat the body, although the methods they use were very different. Even their journey to the afterlife is significantly similar. They both had a difficult journey composed of tests and trials. In the end both cultures had to undergo a test of good and evil. They were both judged on their prior life and sent to either a good place or a bad place for eternity.
When you start analyzing the core aspects of these two cultures, one would say they are almost identical. One could assume, as Herodotus did, that the Greek gods were borrowed from the Egyptians. If so what made them so different? Herodotus explains how ethnographically Egypt different Egypt is from Greece. The fact that Egypt centered on the Nile River may be an explanation to that question, one may never know. Although this is only an assumption one can make it brings up interesting points to look about in history and pinpoint the origin of history.