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Ghosts in ancient Egyptian culture

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Ghosts in ancient Egyptian culture

Akh glyph – The soul and spirit re-united after death

There was widespread belief in ghosts in ancient Egyptian culture in the sense of the continued existence of the soul and spirit after death, with the ability to assist or harm the living, and the possibility of a second death. Over a period of more than 2,500 years, Egyptian beliefs about the nature of the afterlife evolved constantly. Many of these beliefs were recorded in inscriptions, papyrus scrolls and tomb paintings. The Egyptian Book of the Dead compiles some of the beliefs from different periods of ancient Egyptian history. In modern times, the fanciful concept of a mummy's coming back to life and wreaking vengeance when disturbed has spawned a whole genre of horror stories and movies.

Concept of the soul

In the early period of ancient Egypt, the concept of the Khu or luminous part of man emerged, part of the human but also a separate entity. Khu was the soul, symbolized by the crested ibis. The Ba, or soul, of later Egypt was its direct descendant. It was only in the decadent Greek and Roman periods that Khu became seen as a malignant ghost that entered the bodies of the living to torture them.[1]

In later periods, the Egyptians developed the idea of five components of the soul representing the heart (the seat of thought and emotion), the shadow, the name, the soul ba and the spirit (Ka). The Ba is everything that makes a person unique, a concept similar to "personality", while the Ka gives life. Death occurs when the Ka leaves the body. After death, the Ba and Ka are reunited to form the Akh, represented by a bird-like hieroglyph.

If the proper funeral rites were executed and followed by constant offerings, the Akh could later be reanimated. The Akh is close to the western cultural concept of a ghost or spirit, since the Egyptian believed that the akh could reach beyond the tomb to have positive or negative effects on the living. The Akh even developed into a sort of ghost or roaming "dead being" during the Ramesside Period (when the tomb was not in order any more). An Akh could do either harm or good to persons still living, depending on the circumstances, such as causing nightmares, feelings of guilt or sickness.[2]

Similar concepts have been observed in Indonesia and in the Solomon Islands, possibly transferred by travellers in the ancient world.[3]


The idea of total death was unthinkable to the Egyptians. The ghost would live on in the tomb to which the body was consigned. A belief grew up of a tomb world, a subterranean world where the ghosts still lived and could communicate with each other. The ghosts of rich men would need servants to attend them. In the first dynasty, the bodies of the Pharaoh's dead slaves were buried around his tomb chamber at Abydos.[4]

From the New Kingdom onwards, people were buried with models that resembled them called ushabtis. These could do any menial work required in the afterlife in place of a dead person.[5] Large amounts of food were also stored in the tomb to support the ghost in the afterlife.[4]

When a person of importance died, a collection of hymns, spells, and instructions to allow the deceased to pass through obstacles in the afterlife was placed in the coffin or burial chamber. The texts evolved over time starting with the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom through the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom to The Book of Breathings in the Late Period. A selection of these writings titled the The Book of the Dead was published by scholar Karl Richard Lepsius in 1842.[6]

Middle Kingdom sarcophagus with the Coffin Texts painted on its panels

The Pyramid texts, dating to between 2400–2300 BCE, were reserved for the Pharaoh. They were carved on the walls and sarcophagi of the pyramids at Saqqara during the 5th and 6th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom.[7]

The spells are concerned with protecting the pharaoh's remains, reanimating his body after death, and helping him ascend to the heavens. The spells delineate all of the ways the pharaoh could travel, including the use of ramps, stairs, ladders, and most importantly flying. The spells could also be used to call the gods to help, even threatening them if they did not comply.[8]

The Coffin Texts were written on coffins beginning in the First Intermediate Period. The texts are derived in part from the Pyramid Texts but contain new material related to everyday desires since the texts were now used by the common people.[9] Where the Pyramid Texts focus on the celestial realm, the Coffin Texts emphasize the subterranean elements of the afterlife ruled by Osiris, in a place called the Duat. The subterranean realm is described as being filled with threatening beings, traps, and snares with which the deceased must contend. The spells in the Coffin Texts allow the deceased to protect themselves against these dangers and "dying a second death".

The first and second Book of Breathing were developed later, dating to the Greco-Roman period, and were placed in coffins to assist the dead in the afterlife. The first was supposed to have been written by Isis for Osiris, and the second to have been copied by Thoth. The books stress the importance of breath for the deceased, prolonging the existence of their name and preventing the second death of damnation.[10]

The survivors of the dead thought that the spirits (Akhs) of their ancestors had acquired divine powers but were still interested in their families and could intercede in response to prayers or "letters to the dead", which have been preserved on pottery bowls, linen and papyrus.[11]

"The Ghost of Akhenaten"

The Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled from 1353–1335 BCE, was a follower of the god Aten, the sun god, and declared that he and his wife Nefertiti were Aten's sole representatives on Earth. He dismantled the elaborate religious structure of Ancient Egypt that was based on Amun and many other gods, abolishing its worship, dismissing priests and demolishing temples. After Akhenaten's death the old religion revived, and it is said that the priests cursed him to wander as a ghost for the rest of time. To this day people still claim to have met Akhenaten's ghost in the deserts of Egypt.[12]

In modern popular culture

The careful preservation of mummified bodies in Egypt, often in elaborate tombs, combined with the concept of an ancient belief, has led to many modern books and movies based on the idea of the disturbed ghost wreaking vengeance.

The Mummy is a 1932 horror film from Universal Studios directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff as a revived ancient Egyptian priest.[13] It was followed by many other films on the same vein, such as The Mummy's Hand (1940), The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy (1959), The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001). Doctor Who episode The Rings of Akhaten[14] was named after the Pharaoh Akhenaten.

See also


  1. ^ Archibald Henry Sayce. The Religion of Ancient Egypt. Adamant Media Corporation. p. 26.  
  2. ^ "The "ka", the "ba" the "akh" and the body embalmed". EgyptologyOnline. Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  3. ^ W. H. R. Rivers (1999). Psychology and Ethnology. Routledge. p. 118.  
  4. ^ a b L. W. King, H. R. Hall (2008). History of Egypt Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria in the Light of Recent Discovery. Echo Library. p. 47ff.  
  5. ^ "Ushabti Figure". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 28 May 2011. 
  6. ^ Goelet, Ogden (1998). A Commentary on the Corpus of Literature and Tradition which constitutes the Book of Going Forth By Day. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. pp. 139–170. 
  7. ^ Allen, James. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts.  
  8. ^ Allen, James P. (2000). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press.  
  9. ^ Lichtheim, Miriam (1975). Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 1. University of California Press.  
  10. ^ Erik Hornung, David Lorton (1999). The ancient Egyptian books of the afterlife. Cornell University Press. p. 24.  
  11. ^ David P. Silverman (2003). Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press US. p. 142.  
  12. ^ Moyra Caldecott (2003). The Ghost of Akhenaten. Mushroom Publishing. p. 1.  
  13. ^ The Mummy at the Internet Movie Database
  14. ^ The Rings of Akhaten at the Internet Movie Database
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