Death Rite or Ritual

Egyptian Death Rituals

Ancient Egyptian death and burial rituals have been among the most elaborate in history. Even today, having uncovered many of the mysteries behind the rituals and mummification process, scholars cannot claim to know everything about the reasons behind every ritual and pyramid text. However, it might be assumed that, at the heart of most of these, lies the common human dread of complete annihilation. Believing in an afterlife, a divinity, and a reality beyond the physical is a basic human need that it might be assumed was as alive in ancient Egypt as it is today. Algthough scholars today cannot claim to understand the precise paradigms behind ancient Egypt and its people, we might use the psychological perspectives of our own time to find meaning in these rituals. The four psychological approaches of the psychodynamic model, cognitive-behavioral model, stress and coping model, and family systems model could, for example be applied to these rituals to create a sense of meaning in them.

The Psychodynamic Model

This view of human beings recognizes the interrelationship among factors such as cognition, emotion, and motivation that lies behind the formation of personality. Although these complex interrelationships creates an advantage for human beings in terms of securing and managing their basic needs, the very struggle of this effort, as well as the awareness of their own mortality, creates anxiety. This anxiety can then also be said to behind many of the death and religious rituals we have today. It can also be applied to the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Egyptians.

The anxiety created by the knowledge of one's own physical demise must be managed for the human being to live a productive and happy life. Hence, the struggle to survive and the management of anxiety related to death work together in the manifestation of the death ritual. For the ancient Egyptians, this translated to elaborate beliefs related to the role of the gods, the Pharaoh, and the role of these relationships after death.

According to O'Brien (1999), life for Egyptian society was secured by the fertility created by the Nile River. This was therefore central to their religious beliefs and rituals. After death, the ancient Egyptians believed that life after death was simply a continuation of the existence they enjoyed before death. For this reason, a number of provisions were to be made for the continuance of this life, such as the preservation of the physical body, crafts, food, and the scenes painted on the walls.

When seen in terms of the anxiety created by the idea of death, the belief of simply continuing on after death creates a soothing effect, especially in terms of being buried with familiar items and provisions. The ancient Egyptians, and especially those who were privileged in terms of social class and funding, made elaborate provisions in terms of food, art, and even pets. Great pains were taken to ensure that the departed person would be comfortable for his or her journey after death.

Interestingly, a kind of afterlife was indeed ensured for the ancient Egyptians, in terms of creating an endless sense of fascination about them in the generations to follow. This has kept their collective memory alive for centuries after the civilization and its practices ended. Furthermore, an investigation of the burial tombs have created a very thorough record of the way in which ancient Egyptians lived and died, indeed creating a type of mental afterlife for them.

The Cognitive-Behavioral Model

This model is a combination of two basic approaches in psychology; the cognitive and behavioral. Although the cognitive model arose during the 1920s, and the behavioral model ony 40 years later, the two were merged in recognition of the fact that internal thought processes were often responsible for behavioral abberrations. This recognition led to the understanding that there is a link between thought and behavior in all persons; not only in the aberrant. Indeed, the behavior that could be observed is often an indication of the cognitive processes behind this behavior. There are three major assumptions inherent in this psychological model. These include that 1) cognition affects emotion and behavior; 2) cognition can be monitored and changed; and 3) emotional and behavioral change can be effected when cognitions are changed.

When applying this to the human knowledge of the certainty of death, death rituals themselves might be seen as a manifestation of the cognitive processes related to the human and cultural understanding of death. Once again, for this reason, evidence of ancient Egyptian rituals that relate to death can be used towards a greater understanding of the culture and thought processes of the time.

According to Knight (2001, p. 1), one such assumption is that the ancient Egyptians were preoccupied with death. The most well-known of ancient Egyptian rituals is mummification. Knight, however, contends that these rituals indicate not so much a preoccupation with death as with life. The elaborate rituals they created to ensure life after death was a behavioral indication of the fact that the Egyptians loved life so much that they would go to any lengths to ensure that it continued after physical death. Indeed, this, and the enhancement of the afterlife, lay at the basis of many of their rituals.

As mentioned briefly, the Egyptians mummified not only human beings, but also certain animals (Knight, 2009, p. 3). In addition to pets, they also mummified sacred animals such as the Apis bull. Pets were often mummified along with elaborate art work depicting these pets and their name on the walls of tombs. While Egyptians from general society were often too poor to have the bodies of their pets mummified, the artistic depictions were believed to be sufficient to ensure their afterlife with their masters. The wealthiest members of society, however, went to elaborate lengths to mummify their pets and ensure their continued existence in the afterlife.

Many of these pets were cats. From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, this can be said to indicate not only the love of the ancient Egyptians for their pets, but also the ritual importance they attached to animals as manifestations of their deities. Particularly, the cat was seen as representative of the goddess Bast. Animals that are considered as food items such as ducks, beef, and sheep were also found in tombs, with the assumption that the demised person would be able to enjoy the food for eternity. Finally, votive mummies were small animals that were mummified and sold to pilgrims. This is believed to indicate the assumption that these mummies would be able to deliver the messages and prayers of pilgrims to the gods. This signified a strong belief in the ability of human beings to communicate with the gods and to join the gods in the afterlife by means of mummification. Votive animals would include ibises, cats, and the like.

According to Knight (2009, p. 4), funerary texts also played an important part in ancient Egyptian funeral rights, particularly throughout the dynastic period. The existence and elaborate nature of these texts signified the cognitive belief in the power of words. Words were inscribed in tombs or on funeral documents as a basis of communication for the dead. The oldest of these texts are the Pyramid Texts collected in the pyramid of Unas, who was the last ruler of the Fifth Dynasty. These texts include descriptions of the properties of the gods, and the similarities of Unas to the gods in terms of these properties. It also describes Unas as empowered like the gods in the afterlife, and sitting on the "throne of Osiris."

In the new Kingdom, the most famous funerary text is The Book of Going Forth by Day, or the Book of the Dead. The most famous copy of this book belonged to Ani and is now housed in the British museum. The contents of the book include a number of important spells the dead could use to gain entrance into the afterlife. Once entrance has been gained, further spells ensured the most enjoyment in the afterlife.

Another element that might be found in the ancient Egyptian tomb is the asuhabtis, which were funerary figurines in the shape of mummies. These were to serve as assistants and servants in the afterlife. In addition to the names of the deceased, these figurines, especially in their later manifestations, carried implements such as baskets, hoes, hammers, picks, brick molds, chisels, etc. This indicated the importance, in the Egyptian mind, of agricultural servants and craftsmen. The Book of the Dead also contained instructions for these figurines to carry out their duties.

From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, it is therefore clear that he ancient Egyptians regarded the afterlife as an extension and enhancement of everything they enjoyed in their current lives. The expected the same, and better, physical comforts and enjoyments that their lives involved during their physical existence. Hence, Knight's assertion that the elaborate funeral rituals were an indication of the Egyptian love for life rather than obsession with death seems to hold a…