Even when eternal life was opened to all, it was not guaranteed. At death, each person was judged on the scales of the goddess Ma’at.
The Egyptians believed that the soul lived in the heart. When a body was mummified, most internal organs were removed and placed in canopic jars. But the heart was returned to the body with a magic charm called the heart scarab.
Each dead person appeared in the Hall of Ma’at for judgement. Before an audience of gods and goddesses, the heart was placed on a balance. On the other side was the Feather of Ma’at. If the person had lived a good life of ma’at, his heart was light as the feather, and his spirit gained eternal life. If not, a fearsome monster (part crocodile, part hippo, part lion) immediately devoured him, and he was dead forever.
Once judged fit for eternal life, the spirit faced a dangerous journey through the underworld. To get past the gatekeepers and monsters, he had to recite magic spells from the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, or the Book of Going Forth by Day (also known as the Book of the Dead). Copies of these spells—illustrated scrolls for the wealthy, a few scraps of papyrus for the poor—were placed in tombs.
After death, the spirit took three different forms: ka, ba, and akh. The ka was the spirit of life. At the instant of death, ka and body were united. The ka stayed with the corpse. At the funeral, a ceremony called Opening of the Mouth magically activated the ka. The ka lived in the tomb, feeding on offerings of food and drink brought by the ka servant. In a pinch, the ka could magically activate food listed on menus in the tomb.
The ba was the spirit of personality, depicted as a human-headed bird. The ba could leave the body after death and roam the earth, visiting the dead person’s favorite places. The akh (which means “shining ghost”) was the spirit of immortality. Its brightness reflected the person’s accomplishments in life. Depending on the dead person’s beliefs, the akh shone in the sky as a star, traveled with the sun in the solar boat, or lived with Osiris in the Field of Reeds—a kind of paradise afterlife.
From Predynastic times, the Egyptians believed that eternal life required preservation of the body. As tombs became larger and fancier, they contained more and richer grave goods: clothing, furniture, jewelry, pottery, toys, weapons, food and drink, and more. This caused two problems the Egyptians never completely managed to solve: preservation of corpses, and tomb robbery.
At Home in the Afterlife
Much of what is known about Egyptian life comes from tombs: paintings, murals and carvings of everyday activities, statues of the tomb owner and his family and animals, food and drink, including “magical menus,” and household equipment and supplies. Detailed wooden models of typical home and farm scenes placed in the tomb—kitchens, breweries, workshops, gardens, and boats—could be magically activated as needed. The houses of the living were recreated in the houses of the dead.
During the Old Kingdom, the companions the king chose to accompany him in eternal life were not permitted to sail the skies with him in the solar boat. They were confined to their tombs, which is why they went to so much trouble and expense to store away plenty of food, drink, and luxury goods.