Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
The Weighing of the Heart—From the Papyrus of
Reproduced from the Facsimile by Permission of the Director of the British Museum
Although there does not appear to have been a portion of the Duat specially reserved for the wicked, they were sufficiently tormented in many ways to render their existence a punishment for any misdeeds committed during life. At one end of this region were pits of fire where grisly deities presided, superintending the destruction of the bodies of the deceased and hacking them to pieces before they were burned. Their punishment was, however, mitigated by the appearance of Ra-Osiris on his nightly journey, for as he advanced their torments ceased for the time being.
The deities who inflicted punishment upon the damned were the enemies of Ra-Osiris—personifications of darkness, night, fog, mist, vapour, tempest, wind, and so forth, and these were destroyed daily by the fiery beams of the luminary. These were pictured in human form, and the scenes of their destruction by fire have often been mistakenly supposed to represent the burning of the souls of the doomed. This evil host was renewed with every revolution of the sun, so that a fresh phalanx of enemies appeared to attack Ra each night and morning. It was during the interval between dawn and sunrise that they were discomfited and punished. The souls of the doomed were in no wise enabled to hinder the progress of Ra, but in later times these were in some measure identified with the enemies of Ra, with whom they dwelt and whom they assisted to attack the sun-god. In the strife which ensued they were pierced by the fiery sun-rays, symbolized as darts or spears, and the knives which hacked their bodies in pieces were typical of the flames of fire emanating from the body of Ra. The lakes and pits of fire in which they were submerged typified the appearance of the eastern heavens at sunrise.
There was nothing in the Egyptian creed to justify the belief in everlasting punishment, and such a view is unsupported by the material of the texts. There is, in fact, no parallel in the Egyptian religion to the Gehenna of the Hebrews, or the Purgatory and Hell of medieval Europe. The Egyptian idea of death did not include the conception of the resurrection of a second physical body in the underworld, but, should the physical body be destroyed, they considered that the ka or double, the shadow and spirit of man, might also perish. It is strange, all the same, to observe that the Egyptian idea of temporary punishment after death[Pg 124] appears to have coloured the medieval Christian conception of that state through Coptic sources. Indeed, the Coptic Christians of Egypt appear to have borrowed the idea of punishment in the Duat almost entire from their pagan ancestors or contemporaries. Amélineau cites a Coptic work in which a dead Egyptian tells how at the hour of dissolution avenging angels collected around him with knives and other weapons, which they thrust through and through him. Other spirits tore his soul from his body and, securing it to the back of a black horse, galloped off with it to Amentet. On arrival there he was first tortured in a place filled with noisome reptiles, and was then thrust into outer darkness. He fell into another pit at least two hundred feet deep, in which were assembled reptiles of every description, each having seven heads, and here he was given over to a serpent which had teeth like iron stakes. From Monday to Friday of each week this monster gnawed and tore at the doomed wretch, who rested only from this torment on Saturday and Sunday. In the circumstance that it does not posit eternal punishment, the region of torment, if so it can be named, differs from similar ideas in other mythologies; but in the essence concerning the nature of the punishment meted out, the cutting with knives, stabbing with spears, burning with fire, and so forth, it is practically at one with the underworlds of other faiths. The scenery of the Egyptian infernal regions also closely resembles that of its equivalents in other mythologies. It was not to be supposed that the Egyptians, with their elaborate precautions against bodily attack after death, should believe in eternal punishment. They may have believed in punishment for each other, but it is highly improbable that any Egyptian who had devoted any time to the study of the Book of the Dead[Pg 125] believed that he himself was doomed. His whole future, according to that book, hung upon his knowledge of the words of power written therein, and surely no one with such a comparatively easy means of escape could have been so foolish as to neglect it.
As has been said, the exact position of heaven does not appear to have been located, but it may be said in a general sense that the Egyptians believed it to be placed somewhere above the sky. They called it Pet, which expression they used in contradistinction to the word Nu, meaning sky. The heavens and the sky they regarded as a slab, each end of which rested on a support formed of the two mountains Bakhau and Manu, the mountains of sunrise and sunset. In primitive times heaven was conceived as consisting of two portions, the east and the west; but later it was divided into four parts, each of which was placed under the sovereignty of a god. This region was supported by four pillars, each of which again was under the direction of a deity, and at a comparatively late period an extra pillar was added to support the middle. In one myth we find the heavens spoken of as representing a human head, the sun and moon forming the eyes, and the supports of heaven being formed by the hair. The gods of the four quarters who guarded the original pillars were those deities known as Canopic (see p. 28), or otherwise called the Children of Horus.
In heaven dwelt the great god Ra, who sat upon a metal throne, the sides of which were embossed with the faces of lions and the hoofs of bulls. His train or company surrounded him, and was in its turn encircled by the lesser companies of deities. Each of the gods who presided over the world and the Duat had also[Pg 126] his own place in heaven. Beneath the lesser gods again came beings who might well be described as angelical. First among these were the Shemsu-heru, or followers of Horus, who waited upon the sun-god, and, if necessary, came to his protection. They were regarded as being essential to his welfare. Next came the Ashemu, the attributes of which are unknown, and after those the Henmemet, perhaps souls who were to become human beings, but their status is by no means clear. They were supposed to live upon grain and herbs. There were also beings called Utennu and Afa, regarding the characteristics of which absolutely nothing is known. Following these came an innumerable host of spirits, souls and so forth, chiefly of those who had once dwelt upon the earth, and who were known collectively as 'the living ones.' The Egyptians thought these might wander about the earth and return to heaven at certain fixed times, the idea arising probably because they wished to provide a future for the body as well as for the soul and spirit. As explained previously, the gods of heaven had their complements or doubles on earth, and man in some degree was supposed to partake of this dual nature. The Egyptian conception of heaven altered slowly throughout the centuries. An examination of the earliest records available shows that the idea of existence after death was a sort of shadowy extension of the life of this world. Such an idea is common to all primitive races. As they progressed, however, this conception became entirely changed and a more spiritual one took its place. The soul, ba, and the spirit,