The idea of the Afterlife first appears in ancient literature in ancient Kemet. In the Maatian tradition of ancient Egypt (Kemet), the afterlife played a central role; the people of Kemet called it wHm anx (wehem ankh), repeating life. It was considered a spiritual and ethical goal and a reward for a righteous life on Earth—in a word, the divine gift of immortality. Moreover, a theology of “coming forth” evolved, which contains several basic concepts and is found in various sources, including funerary texts and autobiographical texts. The funerary or mortuary texts that provide a vivid portrait of the Maatian afterlife include the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts (The Book of Vindication), and the Book of the Coming Forth by Day, commonly called in Egyptology The Book of the Dead. Other sources include the more esoteric texts such as Books of the Underworld.
The Maatian concept of afterlife or immortality and the theology that undergirds and informs it can be discussed under five headings: (1) resurrection, (2) ascension, (3) judgment, (4) acceptance, and (5) transformation. This entry describes each of those phases.
The concept of resurrection is rooted in the tenet that everyone will rise from the dead and be judged worthy or unworthy of eternal life. This evolves from the narrative of Osiris, the divine spirit, who was unjustly murdered, raised from the dead, and, because of his righteousness, given eternal life. Through this spiritual act, each person was given the possibility and promise of resurrection and immortality through righteousness.
Thus, in the Book of Vindication, the resurrected one declares, “I die and I live for I am Osiris.” Moreover, the texts say, “O' seeker of vindication, the earth opens its mouth for you; it opens its jaws on your behalf.” Also, the Pyramid Texts say, “Rise up O' vindicated one. Take hold of your head. Gather together your bones; collect your limbs and shake the dust from your flesh.”
Next, the concept of repeating life involves ascension. Whereas resurrection is rising from the dead or “waking up,” ascension suggests rising into the heavens. Indeed, the Book of Vindication says, “Hail vindicated one. Come that you may rise up in the heavens.” Or again, it says “the doors of heaven are opened [to you] because of your virtue. May you ascend and see Hathor [Divinity of Love, Divine Mother].” Several modes of ascension emerge from its depiction in the texts.
The first is rising as a spirit. Thus, in The Book of the Dead, it says, “You ascend into the heavens, you cross [the firmament].” Other means are ascending by “lifting up” or via a ladder or stairway that is placed for the departed to ascend into the heavens. The Book of the Dead says, “You are lifted up into the heavens … you rise … on the path to everlastingness on the way to eternity.” The Book of Vindication says, “For you, a ladder to the heavens shall be assembled and Nut [Heaven personified] shall extend her hand to you.”
Also, in the Pyramid Texts, it says, “I place the stairway. I set up the ladder and those in Amenta [paradise, heaven, place of afterlife] take hold up my hand … [and lift me up into the heavens].” Or again the text says, the divine spirits in heaven, “Take hold of the hand of this vindicated one and carry him to heaven that he may not die among men and women.” Finally, a fourth way that a risen person ascends is through flying up into the heavens. Thus, the Pyramid Texts say, “Lo, the flier flies, O' men and women [of earth]. I [rise] and fly away from you.”
The third and most essential concept in the theology of afterlife or immortality is the notion of judgment. It is one of Kemet's and ancient Africa's most important contributions to the development of the moral and spiritual thought of humankind because it introduced and led to the concepts of personal responsibility, free will, determinism, reward, and punishment in the next life for everyone. It also determined the afterlife possibilities of the wealthy, powerful, and the ordinary person, thus offering a kind of moral restraint on those who otherwise might be less inclined.
Central to the idea of judgment is the aspiration for immortality through living a righteous or Maatian life. The concept of Maat is polysemic, but includes such meanings as truth, justice, righteousness, and order; essentially, it means Tightness in the realm of the Divine, natural, and social. It thus requires right relations with God or the Divine, nature, and other humans. This inclusive requirement is found in the Declarations of Innocence by Pharaoh Unas in his Pyramid Text, in which he states that he “wished to be judged by what he has done” and that he has done Maat (the good, the right) and has not done isfet (the evil and wrong). He concludes saying that no divinity, man, woman, beast, or bird accuses him, reflecting his concern for being justified before the Divine, nature, and humanity.
The Book of the Dead, chapter 125, provides a clear and elaborate picture of the process of judgment and justification. The time of judgment is called “the Day of Assessing Characters” and the “Day of Great Reckoning.” This reflects focus on character as a means of living and judging a Maatian life. It involves first coming into the Hall of Maat, declaring that one brings Maat and has done away with evil. Second, one declares oneself innocent of 36 and 42 offenses against the Divine, nature, and humans before 42 judges. These include declaring one has not mistreated people, lied, killed, ordered killing, injured others, blasphemed, stolen, turned a blind eye to injustice, had illicit sex, harmed the vulnerable, misused nature, slandered or cheated, coveted, or caused strife. These are called the Declarations of Innocence, but were mistakenly called the Negative Confessions due to the phrasing, which begins, “I have not….” They are not confessions of wrong, but rather declarations of innocence. For example, “I have not done isfet to people” is the first Declaration of Innocence required. In a word, one confesses wrong, but declares innocence.
After declaring innocence, one's heart is weighed in the Divine Balance of Ra, God, which measures righteousness. A person's heart is weighed against the feather of Maat; if one's good deeds outweigh one's bad deeds, one receives eternal life; if not, one is consumed into nonexistence by a being called Ammut (literally consumer of the dead). In the Husia, in the Book of Merikara, it says, “A person endures after death and his deeds are set beside him as a portion. As for one who reaches them [the judges] without having done evil, he will exist there as a divine power, striding forth freely like the lords of eternity.” It reminds its readers that “one day is a donation to eternity, and [even] one hour is a contribution to the future.”
The fourth phase of the process of vindication for eternal life is being declared mAa xrw—maa kheru, that is, true of voice, innocent, vindicated, and victorious. If one is vindicated, the Djehuti, the divinity of justice, law, and reckoning, records and announces the verdict, saying, Hear this word of truth. I have judged the heart of Osiris [X]. His soul stands as witness for him. His conduct is righteous according to the Great Scales.
And no fault has been found in him. In The Book of the Dead, the Great Nine Divinities respond by saying, “What you have said is true. The Osiris X is maa kheru [justified] and might…. Ammut shall not be permitted to have power over him.”
Having been judged maa kheru, one becomes an Osiris and, like Osiris, gains immortality and is welcomed in the afterlife. After weighing and judgment, then, the Osiris X is led by Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, before Osiris. Horus reports to Osiris, saying, “I have come before you ‘O Wennofer [Good Being], having brought you Osiris X. His heart is righteous [Maatian], having come forth from the Balance … Djehuti has recorded it in writing…. And Maat the Great has witnessed it.” (Maat here is the divinity that personifies truth, justice, etc.) After this, the Osiris speaks again declaring his or her Maatian character and then says, “Grant that I may be like those in your following. …” He or she then kneels before Osiris, presents his offerings, and is received into the afterlife and otherworld (Amenta). The Book of the Dead contains this prayer for acceptance, “May the Lords of the sacred land receive and give me three-fold praise in peace. May they make a seat for me besides the Elders of the Council.” Again, it says, “Let it be said to me ‘welcome, come in peace’ by those who shall see me.”
In addition to immortality in the heavens, the ancient Egyptians sought immortality on Earth and in the hearts and minds of the people. One writer wrote in his autobiography, May Ra put love of me in the hearts of the people so that all may be fond of me. May he make my name last like the stars of heaven and my monument last like those of his followers. May my Ka [divine essence] be remembered in His temple day and night. May I renew my youth like the moon and may my name not be forgotten in the years that come after.
Finally, the process leading to the afterlife or immortality involves transformation into a living and eternal spirit. A prayer in The Book of the Dead asks, “May I assume whatever form I want in whatever place my spirit wishes to be.” Here the vindicated is transformed into various powerful and glorious spiritual forms or Axw—akhu. Indeed, in the Book of Vindication, it is said of the vindicated one, “I am transformed into one whose spirits are mighty. I am one with Ra, Lord of His Two Lands [Kemet] and am she [he] who is placed behind Him.” In an autobiographical text, it says that the vindicated has been found maa kheru, “therefore may you welcome and transfigure him as a reward for his virtue.” The conclusion of this process can be summed up in the following passage from the Pyramid Texts: “Ra has received me unto himself, to heaven … as this star which lights up heaven … Never again will the heavens be void of me or the earth empty of my presence.”
- Foster, J. L. (2001). Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Karenga, M. (1984). Selections From the Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
- Karenga, M. (2006). Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.