Burial Practices Of The Ancient Egyptian And Greco-Roman Cultures Essay

Burial Practices of the Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman Cultures
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.

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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.

“Deathblow: When someone tries to blow you up, not because of who you
are, but because of different reasons altogether.” –Kramer


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