Interpretation of the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians held a profound belief in the afterlife, and it deeply influenced their culture, religious practices, and burial customs.

Papyrus of Ani: some of the 42 Judges of Maat are visible, seated and in small size

In the article below, World History Edu takes a look at their perception of the afterlife and its impact on their burial traditions:

Perception of the Afterlife

Egyptians believed that life on Earth was only a small part of an eternal journey. The afterlife, known as the “Field of Reeds” or “A’aru,” was seen as a mirror of one’s life on Earth, where the deceased could live eternally in a state of peace and contentment if they passed certain trials.


As the god of the afterlife and resurrection, Osiris represented the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, which was intricately tied to the process of mummification.

Upon death, the soul, or “ka,” of the deceased would be judged by Osiris, the god of the dead, and other deities in the Hall of Truth. The heart of the deceased would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of order and truth. If the heart was lighter than the feather, indicating a righteous life, the soul would be granted access to the afterlife. If not, the heart would be consumed by Ammit, a demon with parts of a lion, hippopotamus, and crocodile, thus ending the soul’s chance at eternal life.

A heart that does not balance in the scale of truth (i.e. the scale of Ma’at) was instantly gulped up by the fierce creature Ammit. It means the soul went extinct forever. Image: Ammit and Anubis at the scale of truth (Ma’at). Image: The Weighing of the Heart in the Hall of Maat as depicted in the Papyrus of Hunefer (19th Dynasty, c. 1300 BC)

Various deities, including Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification, and Thoth, the ibis-headed god of wisdom, played roles in the journey and protection of the soul.

Anubis and mummification

A painting of Anubis attending to a corpse during the mummification process

READ MORE: How does Anubis Role Differ from Osiris in the Underworld?

Influence on Burial Practices

  1. Mummification: To ensure that the deceased’s body remained intact for the afterlife, the Egyptians developed the process of mummification. This involved removing the internal organs, drying the body, and then wrapping it in linen bandages. Organs were preserved in canopic jars.
  2. Tombs: The dead were buried in tombs that were meant to serve as homes for the “ka.” The more affluent and powerful an individual was, the more elaborate the tomb. Pharaohs and high officials were buried in monumental structures like pyramids and later in the hidden tombs of the Valley of the Kings.
  3. Grave Goods: The deceased were buried with a variety of goods, such as food, jewelry, furniture, and even pets, believed to be useful in the afterlife.
  4. Book of the Dead: This was a collection of spells and instructions designed to guide and protect the soul on its journey through the underworld. Copies or excerpts of the Book of the Dead were often placed in tombs.
  5. Stelae and Wall Paintings: Tombs were decorated with stelae (stone or wooden slabs) and wall paintings depicting the deceased’s accomplishments and daily Egyptian life, ensuring a continuity between life and the afterlife.
  6. Curses: To deter tomb robbers from disturbing the deceased’s journey to the afterlife, curses were sometimes inscribed on tombs, warning of dire consequences for desecrators.

Depiction of the “Field of Reeds” within the Papyrus of Ani, currently at the British Museum.


The Ancient Egyptians’ belief in the afterlife was central to their culture and was intricately linked to their burial practices. The elaborate preparations and rituals associated with death were all aimed at ensuring a safe passage and a contented existence in the next world.

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