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x Death Rituals – the Funeral Procession

The Funeral procession was an element of the death rituals in Ancient Egypt. After 70 days following the death of a person, an elaborate funeral procession headed towards the designated tomb of the deceased. These large processions must have been quite dramatic and would have provided the deceased with a spectacular memorial before burial. The mummy was placed in a coffin on a bier protected by effigies of gods. Oxen pull the sledge through the desert following the musicians who headed the procession. Milk was poured in front of it to make it easier for the sled to move smoothly. A curious object that forms part of the procession from the Middle Kingdom onwards is the tekenu .In the Middle Kingdom, it appears to be a wrapped figure that is either crouching or in the fetal position, with only the head showing. In the New Kingdom, the tekenu is shown as an entirely wrapped bundle, or with the head and sometimes an arm exposed. However, the role of the tekenu in the funerary ritual is enigmatic. Wailing mourners followed the procession accompanied by priests, some of whom wore animal masks. The jackal-masked impersonator of the god Anubis was a key figure in these death rituals. Servants or slaves followed carrying the items that would be buried with the mummy in the tomb. The possessions of the deceased included furniture, clothes, jewelry and cosmetics. A fresh foreleg of a sacrificial calf, poultry, meat and vegetables were also taken for the death sacrifices. The procession terminated when the location of the tomb was reached and the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ritual commenced. This rite was one of the most important death rituals of the Ancient Egyptians. They hold the belief that the death rituals performed during these ceremonies revived the mummified senses of the deceased so that he could eat, drink and speak in the next world. The mysterious Opening of the Mouth death rituals were performed using the main tools of the embalmer and the coffin maker. A priest touched the mouth, eyes, ears and nose with an adze in order to awaken the senses of the deceased and could accept the food sacrifices. A close member of the family burned incense. Garlands of flowers were sometimes draped around the neck of the coffin. Cosmetics were applied to the likeness painted on the anthropoid coffin. When the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony and the other death rituals had been completed, the coffin was finally placed in a sarcophagus and sealed in the tomb. The Ancient Egyptian death rituals often ended with a feast and a celebration as the deceased had started his/her journey into the glorious afterlife. Many mummies were provided with some form of funerary literature to take with them to the afterlife. Most funerary literature consists of lists of spells and instructions for navigating the afterlife. During the Old Kingdom, only the pharaoh had access to this material, which scholars refer to as the Pyramid Texts. The Pyramid Texts are a collection of spells to help the pharaoh in the afterlife. Pharaoh Unas was the first to use this collection of spells, as he and a few subsequent pharaohs had them carved on the walls of their pyramids. In the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, some of the Pyramid Text spells also were found in burial chambers of high officials and on many coffins, where they begin to evolve into what scholars call the Coffin Texts. In this period, the noblemen and many non-royal Egyptians began to have access to funerary literature, which later evolved into the well-known Book of the Dead. By the time of the New Kingdom, any Egyptian who could afford a Book of the Dead was able to take along to the afterlife a list of spells and instructions that would ensure safe passage.

 

 

 

Priests were dressed in a certain way, as they enchanted magic spells and hymns, made offerings, and burnt incenses for the deceased. In the procession, too, were porters bearing gifts to be placed in the tomb. These mortuary accouterments believed essential for a happy afterlife might be furniture, weapons, jewelry, food, linens – any or all of those things that were made to provide comfort and happiness to the deceased in the earthly life. Other people were dressed in dark blue and they wailed for the deceased. The Egyptians had such a love for life that it was important for them to continue that enjoyment even after death. That is why elaborate burials were part of the acceptance of death. People were not preoccupied with death, but they did spend much time preparing for the time when their life on this earth would cease and they would enter the afterlife. When all the rituals were complete, the mummy was sealed within the coffin then placed in the burial chamber then the tomb was sealed. Special sacred dances were also probably performed as part of the funerary ritual. The most famous of these is the ‘MWW’ dance. This dance is associated with the sacred city of Buto in the Delta, the site of an important shrine. The dancers, wearing tall openwork reed headdresses, went through a ritual dance that would help maintain the deceased soul in the Hereafter.

 

 Rituals on the Day of Burial


After the process of mummification is complete, the deceased’s relatives took the mummy from the embalmers. The Day of Burial was the occasion for a series of acts and rituals which correspond to the modern notion of the “funeral”. Funerary processions are pictured on the walls of several tombs , and are alluded to in ancient texts including a description found in the Tomb of Djehuty. Additionally, this is described and illustrated in many tombs and funerary papyri, particularly those of the New Kingdom. Some have interpreted such depictions as incorporating episodes which would in reality have happened at other times. That is, they believed that they refer to the transportation of the body to the embalmer’s workshop or to the symbolic journeys to places of pilgrimage, such as Abydos. The funeral was a highly-ritualized procedure. The mummy in the coffin was taken from the deceased’s house either carried by servants or put in a shrine-shaped catafalque. This was mounted on a boat-shaped base, the whole edifice resting on a sledge drawn either by oxen or by male friends of the deceased. At the funeral of kings, the catafalque was pulled by high officials. Sometimes, the coffin was transported on a wheeled cart. The catafalque, adorned with floral bouquets, was generally the focus of the procession. The deceased’s relatives and friends taking part in the procession observed the formality of the mourning which began immediately after death. At the burial of a man of wealth, there would be also professional mourners. In addition to these groups, there were sometimes two women who personified Isis and Nephthys, the mourners of Osiris. Also present at the procession were the embalmer and various priests, headed by a lector priest carrying a scroll, from where the appropriate incantations were read out. Servants brought the burial good, particular attention being given to the Canopic container, which was dragged on a sledge. Since most tombs were on the West Bank (Luxor), it was usually necessary to cross the Nile. At the river the coffin was placed on a boat, towed by rowing boats. The coffin was laid beneath a canopy in the middle, with the two principal lamenting women on the prow and the stern. Crossing the river, the boat reached the West Bank, where it was received into the ‘Wabt’. The Wabt (perhaps the same in which embalming took place) was the place where the mummy was subjected to purifying rituals, before resuming the journey to the tomb. At the tomb, a further series of rituals took place. Dancers performed a ritual dance wearing tall headdresses made of vegetal material. Brief processions were made representing journeys to different cult centers in Egypt, which were represented by chapels. This included a visit to Sais, with rituals believed to be driven from the ceremonies enacted at the burials of the Pre-Dynastic rulers of Buto in Lower Egypt. Finally, both the tekenu and the canopic container were brought to the tomb’s entrance. 

 

  –   The Opening of the Mouth

Reaching the tomb which is considered the threshold of the next world, the sakhu rituals were performed to bring about the transfiguration of the deceased. This was the moment for the most important funerary rites, namely, the Opening of the Mouth, the basic purpose of which was to re-animate the mummy. This originated as a ritual to endow statues with the capacity to support the living Ka, and so to receive offerings. By the Old Kingdom, it had been adapted from a statue-rite to a one performed on the mummy, its purpose being to restore to the dead the use of mouth, eyes, ears and nose enabling him to see, hear, breathe. This will help the deceased receive nourishment to sustain his Ka, Ba and other none physical aspects during the seventy-day interval between death and burial. Possibly, the activity of his senses was imagined to be suspended until the mummification process was complete. The Opening of the Mouth, however, renewed the relationship between these aspects and the corpse. Depictions of the ritual from the New Kingdom show the mummy placed upright on a patch of clean sand at the entrance to the tomb. The liturgy was recited while the appropriate acts were varied out. Purifications and offerings similar to those performed in temple rites were enacted. The most important episodes were those adapted from original statue-ritual, involving the priest touching the mouth of the mummy-mask with chisel, an adze and other implements, including a bifurcate object called pesesh-kef, by which the faculties are symbolically renewed. The ritual was directed by an official called the Sem-Priest. This individual, originally the eldest son of the king, acted as the intermediary between the deceased and the Netherworld. Through his filial relationship to the deceased, like that of Horus to Osiris, the identification of the dead man with the resurrected god was strengthened. From the New Kingdom onwards, this role was often conceived as being carried out by Anubis; at least, he is often depicted taking a part, either holding the mummy upright while the ritual is performed or bending over the mummy on its bier, holding the adze and actually carrying out the ritual himself. The Pyramid Texts contained the words that were uttered at the Opening of the Mouth ritual. In the New Kingdom, a revised version of the ritual was produced, illustrated with seventy five individual scenes, copies of which are found in several tombs, notably that of Seti I (c. 1294-1279 BC). In the Valley of the Kings, the main elements of the revised version were purification, the sacrifice of the bull, the mouth opening itself and the representation of the offerings. The ritual ended with an invocation to the gods at the placing of the mummy or a statue inside the tomb. Because of the importance of the Opening of the Mouth rituals, some tombs were sometimes supplied with a set of implements which enable the deceased to perform the ritual for himself should the need arise. In the Old Kingdom, these implements were usually models, set into stone slabs with receptacles specially cut to receive them. More elaborate models of some of the implements and vessels are known from the New Kingdom, and some of the tombs have also been found to contain groups of objects related to the ritual. The Tomb of Tjanehebu (XXVI Dynasty) at Saqqara contained a group of implements, including a sekhem scepter, the ram-headed serpent rods called wer-hekau instruments, and models of vessels in faience, calcite and wood.

 

  –   The Offering Ritual

The Offering Ritual allows the deceased receive nourishment for eternity. It was performed for the first time immediately after the Opening of the Mouth, and, like the later, it involved several individual rituals: purifications, libations, burning of incense, and the presentation of food and drink. Actual food and drink were placed on the offering table of the chapel, and the “Htp-di-nsw” Formula was pronounced. This was the most important ritual in long term, since it was the one to ensure the continued survival of the deceased. For this reason, it was repeated after the burial.

 

  –   The Burial

The last procedure in the burial rituals is the actual burial. The body, along with its funerary goods, was placed in the tomb and the entrance to the burial chamber was sealed. Cattle were slaughtered, and the choicest parts of the animal were offered to the dead. The remainder was consumed by the relatives and mourners at a feast. The remnants of this banquet were sometimes ritually buried. From a deposit found in the Valley of the Kings, we know that the guests at Tutankhamen’s funeral feast consumed beef, sheep or goat, duck and goose. Then the participants withdrew, returning to their homes, while final rituals to protect the tomb were performed.

 

    Mourners and Their Importance

On the Day of Burial, the deceased’s relatives and friends taking part in the procession observed the formality of the mourning which began immediately after death. Herodotus describes how the female relatives of the deceased repeatedly smear their head with dust and sometimes also the face, then leave the corpse in the house and themselves wander through the town beating their breasts with garments girt up and revealing their breasts. Male mourners beat their breasts separately, also with their garments girt up. Old kingdom scenes show men and women segregating in mourning: women stayed indoors while men went outside. At the burial of a man of wealth, there would be also professional mourners. The deceased was accompanied on the way to burial by two female mourners (usually from the family of the deceased), one at his head and the other at his feet, personifying goddesses Isis and Nephthys, the mourners of Osiris. In the New Kingdom, depictions of the dead man’s widow are often shown kneeling beside the mummy, at the foot of the coffin. Scenes showing the officiating priest to be male were also common at this era. New Kingdom scenes depict women as the most conspicuous mourners: they are shown involved in lamentation, with disheveled hair, exposed breasts, open mouths, and contorted postures. This conveyed a highly specific ‘semaphore’ of grief. In many cases female mourners outnumbered the male ones, and it is possible that in addition to members of the family, there were also professional female mourners. Stele from Deir el-Medina was dedicated by a women and her daughter who both use mourner as a title, suggesting that this was their occupation. On the other hand, Herodotus says that men generally adopted a less dramatic pose, squatting on the ground with their faces downcast. In a gesture described in the story of Sinuhe, the courtiers who lament the death of the king sit ‘head-on-knee’. In depiction, there are countless examples of scenes showing groups of mourners accompanying the procession, which attest the importance of the role they played over times in Ancient Egypt. Details from the wall paintings in the Tomb of Ramose depict groups of hired, professional women in blue (the prescribed color for mourning dresses), mourning the death of the tomb’s owner. In the Pyramid Texts, some detailed descriptions of the lamentation for Osiris and the role of mourners read: “They beat their flesh for you, they smite their hands for you, they dishevel their hair for you”.

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