Egyptian Ideas of the Afterlife

Egyptian Ideas of the Afterlife

by E. A. Wallis Budge, Ernest A. Budge

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Noted Egyptologist offers concise, learned exposition of central Egyptian concept of immortality. Belief in Osiris, god of resurrection, other "gods" of Egyptians, judgment of the dead, more. 8 illustrations.
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Noted Egyptologist offers concise, learned exposition of central Egyptian concept of immortality. Belief in Osiris, god of resurrection, other "gods" of Egyptians, judgment of the dead, more. 8 illustrations.

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Reprint of a volume originally published in 1908, which itself was the third edition of a work originally published in 1899 by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., London under the title Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life, as the first volume in the series Books on Egypt and Chaldaea. Drawing on religious works including The Book of the Dead, the former keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities at the British Museum offers authoritative insights into the meaning of immortality to the ancient Egyptians and its ramifications for Egyptian society. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Dover Publications
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Egypt Series
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5.38(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.46(d)

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Egyptian Ideas of the Afterlife

By E. A. Wallis Budge

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1995 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15867-9



A STUDY of ancient Egyptian religious texts will convince the reader that the Egyptians believed in One God, who was self-existent, immortal, invisible, eternal, omniscient, almighty, and inscrutable; the maker of the heavens, earth, and underworld; the creator of the sky and the sea, men and women, animals and birds, fish and creeping things, trees and plants, and the incorporeal beings who were the messengers that fulfilled his wish and word. It is necessary to place this definition of the first part of the belief of the Egyptian at the beginning of the first chapter of this brief account of the principal religious ideas which he held, for the whole of his theology and religion was based upon it; and it is also necessary to add that, however far back we follow his literature, we never seem to approach a time when he was without this remarkable belief. It is true that he also developed polytheistic ideas and beliefs, and that he cultivated them at certain periods of his history with diligence, and to such a degree that the nations around, and even the stranger in his country, were misled by his actions, and described him as a polytheistic idolater. But notwithstanding all such departures from observances, the keeping of which befitted those who believed in God and his unity, this sublime idea was never lost sight of; on the contrary, it is reproduced in the religious literature of all periods. Whence came this remarkable characteristic of the Egyptian religion no man can say, and there is no evidence whatsoever to guide us in formulating the theory that it was brought into Egypt by immigrants from the East, as some have said, or that it was a natural product of the indigenous peoples who formed the population of the valley of the Nile some ten thousand years ago, according to the opinion of others. All that is known is that it existed there at a period so remote that it is useless to attempt to measure by years the interval of time which has elapsed since it grew up and established itself in the minds of men, and that it is exceedingly doubtful if we shall ever have any very definite knowledge on this interesting point.

But though we know nothing about the period of the origin in Egypt of the belief in the existence of an almighty God who was One, the inscriptions show us that this Being was called by a name which was something like Neter, the picture sign for which was an axe-head, made probably of stone, let into a long wooden handle. The coloured picture character shews that the axe-head was fastened into the handle by thongs of leather or string, and judging by the general look of the object it must have been a formidable weapon in strong, skilled hands. A theory has recently been put forward to the effect that the picture character represents a stick with a bit of coloured rag tied to the top, but it will hardly commend itself to any archaeologist. The lines which cross the side of the axe-head represent string or strips of leather, and indicate that it was made of stone which, being brittle, was liable to crack; the picture characters which delineate the object in the latter dynasties shew that metal took the place of the stone axe-head, and being tough the new substance needed no support. The mightiest man in the prehistoric days was he who had the best weapon, and knew how to wield it with the greatest effect; when the prehistoric hero of many fights and victories passed to his rest, his own or a similar weapon was buried with him to enable him to wage war successfully in the next world. The mightiest man had the largest axe, and the axe thus became the symbol of the mightiest man. As he, by reason of the oft-told narrative of his doughty deeds at the prehistoric camp fire at eventide, in course of time passed from the rank of a hero to that of a god, the axe likewise passed from being the symbol of a hero to that of a god. Far away back in the early dawn of civilization in Egypt, the object which I identify as an axe may have had some other signification, but if it had, it was lost long before the period of the rule of the dynasties in that country.

Passing now to the consideration of the meaning of the name for God, neter, we find that great diversity of opinion exists among Egyptologists on the subject. Some, taking the view that the equivalent of the word exists in Coptic, under the form of Nuti, and because Coptic is an ancient Egyptian dialect, have sought to deduce its meaning by seeking in that language for the root from which the word may be derived. But all such attempts have had no good result, because the word Nuti stands by itself, and instead of being derived from a Coptic root is itself the equivalent of the Egyptian neter, and was taken over by the translators of the Holy Scriptures from that language to express the words "God" and "Lord." The Coptic root nomti cannot in any way be connected with nuti, and the attempt to prove that the two are related was only made with the view of helping to explain the fundamentals of the Egyptian religion by means of Sanskrit and other Aryan analogies. It is quite possible that the word neter means "strength," "power," and the like, but these are only some of its derived meanings, and we have to look in the hieroglyphic inscriptions for help in order to determine its most probable meaning. The eminent French Egyptologist, E. de Rougé, connected the name of God, neter, with the other word neter, "renewal" or "renovation," and it would, according to his view, seem as if the fundamental idea of God was that of the Being who had the power to renew himself perpetually—or in other words, "self-existence." The late Dr. H. Brugsch partly accepted this view, for he defined neter as being "the active power which produces and creates things in regular recurrence; which bestows new life upon them, and gives back to them their youthful vigour." There seems to be no doubt that, inasmuch as it is impossible to find any one word which will render neter adequately and satisfactorily, "self existence" and "possessing the power to renew life indefinitely," may together be taken as the equivalent of neter in our own tongue. M. Maspero combats rightly the attempt to make "strong" the meaning ofneter (masc.), or neterit (fem.) in these words: "In the expressions 'a town neterit 'an arm neteri,' ... is it certain that 'a strong city,' 'a strong arm,' give us the primitive sense of neter? When among ourselves one says 'divine music,' 'a piece of divine poetry,' 'the divine taste of a peach,' 'the divine beauty of a woman,' [the word] divine is a hyperbole, but it would be a mistake to declare that it originally meant 'exquisite' because in the phrases which I have imagined one could apply it as 'exquisite music,' 'a piece of exquisite poetry,' 'the exquisite taste of a peach,' 'the exquisite beauty of a woman.' Similarly, in Egyptian, 'a town neterit' is 'a divine town;' 'an arm neteri' is 'a divine arm,' and neteri is employed metaphorically in Egyptian as is [the word] 'divine' in French, without its being any more necessary to attribute to [the word] neteri the primitive meaning of 'strong,' than it is to attribute to [the word] 'divine' the primitive meaning of 'exquisite.'" It may be, of course, that neter had another meaning which is now lost, but it seems that the great difference between God and his messengers and created things is that he is the Being who is self-existent and immortal, whilst they are not self-existent and are mortal.

Here it will be objected by those who declare that the ancient Egyptian idea of God is on a level with that evolved by peoples and tribes who stand comparatively little removed from very intelligent animals, that such high conceptions as self-existence and immortality belong to a people who are already on a high grade of development and civilization. This is precisely the case with the Egyptians when we first know them. As a matter of fact, we know nothing of their ideas of God before they developed sufficiently to build the monuments which we know they built, and before they possessed the religion, and civilization, and complex social system which their writings have revealed to us. In the remotest prehistoric times it is probable that their views about God and the future life were little better than those of the savage tribes, now living, with whom some have compared them. The primitive god was an essential feature of the family, and the fortunes of the god varied with the fortunes of the family; the god of the city in which a man lived was regarded as the ruler of the city, and the people of that city no more thought of neglecting to provide him with what they considered to be due to his rank and position than they thought of neglecting to supply their own wants. In fact the god of the city became the centre of the social fabric of that city, and every inhabitant thereof inherited automatically certain duties, the neglect of which brought stated pains and penalties upon him. The remarkable peculiarity of the Egyptian religion is that the primitive idea of the god of the city is always cropping up in it, and that is the reason why we find semi-savage ideas of God side by side with some of the most sublime conceptions, and it of course underlies all the legends of the gods wherein they possess all the attributes of men and women. The Egyptian in his semi-savage state was neither better nor worse than any other man in the same stage of civilization, but he stands easily first among the nations in his capacity for development, and in his ability for evolving conceptions concerning God and the future life, which are claimed as the peculiar product of the cultured nations of our time.

We must now, however, see how the word for God, neter, is employed in religious texts and in works which contain moral precepts. In the text of Unas, a king who reigned about B.C. 3300, we find the passages:—"That which is sent by thy ka cometh to thee, that which is sent by thy father cometh to thee, that which is sent by R cometh to thee, and it arriveth in the train of thy R. Thou art pure, thy bones are the gods and the goddesses of heaven, thou existest at the side of God, thou art unfastened, thou comest forth towards thy soul, for every evil word (or thing) which hath been written in the name of Unas hath been done away." And, again, in the text of Teta, in the passage which refers to the place in the eastern part of heaven "where the gods give birth unto themselves, where that to which they give birth is born, and where they renew their youth," it is said of this king, "Teta standeth up in the form of the star ... he weigheth words (or trieth deeds), and behold God hearkeneth unto that which he saith." Elsewhere in the same text we read," Behold, Teta hath arrived in the height of heaven, and the henmemet beings have seen him; the Semketet boat knoweth him, and it is Teta who saileth it, and the Mntchet boat calleth unto him, and it is Teta who bringeth it to a standstill. Teta hath seen his body in the Semketet boat, he knoweth the uraeus which is in the Mntchet boat, and God hath called him in his name ... and hath taken him in to R." And again we have: "Thou hast received the form (or attribute) of God, and thou hast become great therewith before the gods"; and of Pepi I., who reigned about B.C. 3000, it is said, "This Pepi is God, the son of God."

Now in these passages the allusion is to the supreme Being in the next world, the Being who has the power to invoke and to obtain a favourable reception for the deceased king by R, the Sun-god, the type and symbol of God. It may, of course, be urged that the word neter here refers to Osiris, but it is not customary to speak of this god in such a way in the texts; and even if we admit that it does, it only shows that the powers of God have been attributed to Osiris, and that he was believed to occupy the position in respect of R and the deceased which the supreme Being himself occupied. In the last two extracts given above we might read "a god" instead of "God," but there is no object in the king receiving the form or attribute of a nameless god; and unless Pepi becomes the son of God, the honour which the writer of that text intends to ascribe to the king becomes little and even ridiculous.

Passing from religious texts to works containing moral precepts, we find much light thrown upon the idea of God by the writings of the early sages of Egypt. First and foremost among these are the "Precepts of Kaqemna" and the "Precepts of Ptah-hetep," works which were composed as far back as B.C. 3000. The oldest copy of them which we possess is, unfortunately, not older than B.C. 2500, but this fact in no way affects our argument. These "precepts" are intended to form a work of direction and guidance for a young man in the performance of his duty towards the society in which he lived and towards his God. It is only fair to say that the reader will look in vain in them for the advice which is found in writings of a similar character composed at a later period; but as a work intended to demonstrate the "whole duty of man" to the youth of the time when the Great Pyramid was still a new building, these "precepts" are very remarkable. The idea of God held by Ptah-hetep is illustrated by the following passages:—

1. "Thou shalt make neither man nor woman to be afraid, for God is opposed thereto; and if any man shall say that he will live thereby, He will make him to want bread."

2. "As for the nobleman who possesseth abundance of goods, he may act according to his own dictates; and he may do with himself that which he pleaseth; if he will do nothing at all, that also is as he pleaseth. The nobleman by merely stretching out his hand doeth that which mankind (or a person) cannot attain to; but inasmuch as the eating of bread is according to the plan of God, this cannot be gainsaid."

3. "If thou hast ground to till, labour in the field which God hath given thee; rather than fill thy mouth with that which belongeth to thy neighbours it is better to terrify him that hath possessions [to give them unto thee]."

4. "If thou abasest thyself in the service of a perfect man, thy conduct shall be fair before God."

5. "If thou wouldst be a wise man, make thou thy son to be pleasing unto God."

6. "Satisfy those who depend upon thee as far as thou art able so to do; this should be done by those whom God hath favoured."

7. "If, having been of no account, thou hast become great; and if, having been poor, thou hast become rich: and if thou hast become governor of the city, be not hard-hearted on account of thy advancement, because thou hast become merely the guardian of the things which God hath provided."

8 "What is loved of God is obedience; God hateth disobedience."

9. "Verily a good son is of the gifts of God."

The same idea of God, but considerably amplified in some respects, may be found in the Maxims of Khensu-hetep, a work which was probably composed during the XVIIIth dynasty. This work has been studied in detail by a number of eminent Egyptologists, and though considerable difference of opinion has existed among them in respect of details and grammatical niceties, the general sense of the maxims has been clearly established. To illustrate the use of the word neter, the following passages have been chosen from it:—

1. "God magnifieth his name."

2. "What the house of God hateth is much speaking. Pray thou with a loving heart all the petitions which are in secret. He will perform thy business, he will hear that which thou sayest and will accept thine offerings."

3. "God decreeth the right."

4. "When thou makest an offering unto thy God, guard thou against the things which are an abomination unto him. Behold thou his plans with thine eye, and devote thyself to the adoration of his name. He giveth souls unto millions of forms, and him that magnifieth him doth he magnify."

5. "If thy mother raise her hands to God he will hear her prayers [and rebuke thee]."

7. "Give thyself to God, and keep thou thyself daily for God."


Excerpted from Egyptian Ideas of the Afterlife by E. A. Wallis Budge. Copyright © 1995 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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