The Egyptian Afterlife and The Feather of Truth

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published on 18 January 2012

Is it possible to have a heart that is lighter than a feather? To the ancient Egyptians it was not only possible but highly desirable.

 The after-life of the ancient Egyptians was known as the Field of Reeds and was a land very much like one's life on earth save that there was no sickness, no disappointment and, of course, no death. One lived eternally by the streams and beneath the trees which one had loved so well in one's life on earth. An Egyptian tomb inscription from 1400 BCE, regarding one's afterlife, reads, "May I walk every day unceasing on the banks of my water, may my soul rest on the branches of the trees which I have planted, may I refresh myself in the shadow of my sycamore." To reach the eternal paradise of the Field of Reeds, however, one had to pass through the trial by Osiris, the judge of the dead, in the hall of truth.

The Hall of Truth

In The Egyptian Book of the Dead it is recorded that the soul would be lead before the god Osiris and recite the forty-two negative confessions beginning with the prayer, "I have not learnt the things which are not" meaning that the soul strove in life to devote itself to matters of lasting importance rather than the trivial matters of everyday life. The forty-two negative declarations which followed the opening prayer went to assure Osiris of the soul's purity and ended, in fact, with the statement, "I am pure" repeated a number of times. It was not the soul's claim to purity which would win over Osiris, however, but, instead, the weight of the soul's heart.

The Judgement of Osiris

The `heart' of the soul was handed over to Osiris who placed it on a great golden scale balanced against the white feather of Ma'at, the feather of truth, of harmony, on the other side. If the soul's heart was lighter than the feather then the soul was freely admitted into the bliss of the Field of Reeds. Should the heart prove heavier, however, it was thrown to the floor of the Hall of Truth where it was devoured by Amenti (a god with the face of a crocodile, front of a leopard and the back of a rhinoceros) and the individual soul then ceased to exist. There was no `hell' for the ancient Egyptians; their `fate worse than death' was non-existence.

The Field Of Reeds and Egyptian Love of Life

It is a popular misconception that the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death when, in reality, they were in love with life and so, naturally, wished it to continue on after bodily death. The Egyptians enjoyed singing, dancing, boating, hunting, fishing and family gatherings just as people enjoy them today. The elaborate funerary rites, mummification, the placement of Shabti dolls (dolls made of clay or wood which would do one's work for one in the afterlife) were not meant as tributes to the finality of life but to its continuance and the hope that the soul would win admittance to the Field of Reeds when the time came to stand before the scales of Osiris. Even so, not all the prayers nor all the hopes nor the most elaborate rites could help that soul whose heart was heavier than the white feather of Truth.

Contributor's Note:

This article was previously published on the site Suite 101. C. 2008 Joshua J. Mark



References

  • Faulkner, R.O.. The Egyptian Book of The Dead. , 1975.
  • Ikram, S.. Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt. , 2003.
  • Nardo, D.. Living In Ancient Egypt. , 2004.

The Egyptian Afterlife and The Feather of Truth Books

 

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