What is the first thing that pops into your head when you think about the ancient Egyptians? Is it a pyramid in the desert, some hieroglyphs etched into a block of stone, or a fearsome pharaoh?
Maybe it is some of those things. Maybe it is none of those things. Maybe what you think about is something that has been dead for thousands of years! A mummy is a dead body that has been intentionally preserved. There are lots of different ways to preserve a corpse, but nobody did it as well as the ancient Egyptians. They had special techniques that they perfected over centuries. The ancient Egyptians were so good at the practice of mummification, that we are still discovering their mummies today.
There are many different religions in the world. All of these religions have beliefs and rituals that are associated with death.
Some religions believe in a life after death, in heaven or hell. Others believe in reincarnation. There are people who don’t practice any religion who believe that the life you live on earth is the only life you will ever have.
Different religions also have different rituals that they practice when someone dies. For example, Islam requires that Muslims be buried with their heads pointing toward Mecca. Mecca is the birthplace of the prophet Mohammad.
Traditionally, Jews believe that the body is the property of God and that it should not be defaced in any way. For this reason, Jews usually do not cremate or embalm their dead. Cremate means to burn a body after death. Embalm means to use chemicals to temporarily preserve the body so it can be shown at a funeral.
Hindus and Buddhists prefer cremation. They believe that the burning of the body focuses the attention of the living on just how short and temporary life really is.
You can see that religious beliefs about what happens to a person after death, determines what happens to the body at the time of death. Knowing this will help you understand why the ancient Egyptians practiced mummification.
Ancient Egyptian Religion
Like all civilizations, the ancient Egyptians held strong religious beliefs. They believed that all people had a ka and a ba. The ka is the life-force. Everybody’s ka is exactly the same. The ba is like your conscience or personality. It is made up of the good and the bad that you do during your life. The combination of the ba and the ka is similar to the Christian idea of a soul.
The ancient Egyptians believed that after a person died, the ka would leave the body and go to live with the gods. In order for the ka to be able to do this, it needed food and drink. This is why the ancient Egyptians buried their dead with jugs of wine and bowls of food.
But what is the role of the ba? The picture on the right gives you a clue. The ancient Egyptians believed that the ba left the body during the day to be united with the ka, but at night it had to return.
Because the ba rested inside of the deceased body, the body itself had to preserved. This is why the ancient Egyptians practiced mummification. If nothing was done to the body after death, it would naturally decay. And if there was no body, where would the ba go to rest? The picture above shows the ba returning to the mummy to rest.
The ancient Egyptians, just like religious people today, had reasons for practicing the rituals that they did. To us, some of these may seem very unusual. But just imagine how odd a Christmas tree or the practice of yoga may seem to an ancient Egyptian!