The concept of the afterlife is important in the cultural and religious tradition of Ancient Egypt. Many of the artifacts, and most of the texts, that survive are associated with the rites surrounding the burial of the dead not only the enormous tombs and pyramids built to contain the remains of important leaders, but also small grave goods for the comfort of the dead on the otherworld journey. The Egyptians also cultivated the notion of the soul (particularly the ba and ka parts) as a distinct part of the individual that survived death.
Discussions of hell from a JudeoChristian perspective often exclude the Egyptian hell because it was not a permanent place of punishment. It was instead a place of annihilation and destruction where the dead might be condemned after judgment. However, the perspective we have taken here is much broader than the Judeo-Christian, and, in fact, a clear understanding of the nature of even Judeo-Christian hell is diminished by neglecting this very early tradition rich in fire, restraining and dismemberment, but especially judgment. It is also perilous to ignore the possible influence of Egyptian notions on the Christian literature of hell that developed later in this region among the Copts, and which may certainly have had a significant impact on Christian writings as far away as Ireland.
The Egyptian period covers approximately 18 dynasties and over 1700 years (c. 27051070 BCE), so there is considerable development and variation over the course of this history on the subject of hell. In addition, there are only a limited number of written sources that have survived. These are generally inscriptions on royal tombs and sarcophagi and on papyrus scroll fragments, but in fact inscriptions also survive on masks, chests, statues and standing stones (stelae). Few of these treat the nature of hell. Reticence on hell derives from the fact that most of the surviving texts were written to help the soul navigate through the afterlife and avoid hell. One way was to avoid, at all costs, invoking its name, so in the surviving texts many of them charms to use on the afterlife journey the very mention of hell is taboo.
Death and Journey of the Soul
As burial in ancient Egypt developed from pre-dynastic corporal desiccation and simple sand holes, mud-brick underground chambers, or rock-cut cliff chambers to mummification and to dynastic coffins, sarcophagi and tombs, the story of the journey of the soul in the afterlife developed as well, but this is a development that is hard to trace with any certainty because of the nature of the texts and how they have been transmitted to the modern era. (See Egyptian Texts.)
This journey takes place in Tuat or Duat, the land of the dead, a circular region that surrounds the known world. The journey of the soul in its quest to enter the kingdom of Osiris to enjoy eternal life mirrors the daily journey of the sun as it seeks to unite itself to Ra. This journey is depicted and described as a boat trip along a river, segmented by gates (usually eight), which only let the righteous through. During this journey, however, even the righteous dead, by arming themselves with spells and incantations, must avoid falling into the power of the forces of destruction.
Judgment of the Soul
By the time of the Middle Kingdom (c. 19911668 BCE), forty-two divine judges form a tribunal that sits in judgment on all who pass into Tuat. The soul makes a negative confession before them listing all the wrongs it has not committed. Thoth, the ibis-headed god of writing and knowledge, records the soul’s testimony. At this stage the soul can also defend itself using magic, spells and charms to ward off a negative judgment.
There is however a second judgment that is often depicted in the tombs. Here the judges are Ma'at, the goddess of truth, and Anubis, the god of embalming, who listen to the testimony of Meskhenet and Renenutet on the character of the deceased. A scale balances the deceased’s heart, symbol of the intellect and emotions, against a feather, symbol of truth. If the two do not balance each other, the heart is thrown to the devourer and the deceased is condemned to destruction and annihilation.
Sins and Punishment
Transgressions against the cult or sins against the gods will bring about condemnation, but, contrary to a broadly held opinion, impiety is not the only sin. The dead are also judged on moral grounds for their behavior toward their fellow beings. According to some texts, the different punishments in Tuat are linked to the sins committed.
What are the characteristics of the place of annihilation and destruction the Egyptian hell? In the earliest periods for which we have records, the fate of the condemned was to walk upside-down, and this punishment in depicted in several texts and which seems to signify that the deceased is beneath the earth and separated forever from the sun, of Ra. In other texts the motionless, senseless body decays and passes away. Later texts are more descriptive and sketch a dark shadowy underground realm not all that different from the Hebrew Sheol or Greek and Roman Hades. It is, needless to say, a dangerous place a river divided into burning regions, which include sinister caves, a pool or lake of hell-fire, cauldrons or basins bubbling over fire, or pods full of flames.
In this region the enemies of Ra and those who have sinned against Osiris are delivered up to punishments. There are serpents and devouring demons who carry out the punishments. But the righteous also engage in destroying the condemned, who are seized and fettered to mooring posts or restrained on slaughtering blocks, where they are cut, scorched by branding irons, burned, decapitated and finally slaughtered, executed and destroyed. The result is that the condemned no longer exist.
Although the punishments themselves are not eternal they do not continue unendingly they are eternal in that they are irrevocable.