Monday, January 3, 2011

The Real Reason Ancient Egyptians Stuffed their Tombs with Food

What were in those small cases anyway?
When the Tut exhibit came to Atlanta a couple of years ago, I lingered over the exquisite black and white photos of Howard Carter's discoveries at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory, where I am a docent.

I always paused at the photo of the tomb's antechamber, with its jumble of dismantled chariots and gilded couches pushed haphazardly against the wall.

What was in all those small mummy cases stuffed under the gilded lion couch? Oh man, I thought, please tell me that they are not stuffed with the bodies of small children sent along with the pharaoh into the afterlife!

They were not, thank goodness. Instead, they contained sides of mummified beef. So, you know, if the pharaoh wanted a steak, his servants needed only to travel to the antechamber instead of slaughtering one in the parallel world of eternal life sometimes called the Field of Reeds.

Not everyone was rich enough to stuff a tomb with food. (In fact, not everyone was rich enough to have a tomb at all. By the Ptolemaic era, folks were standing their mummified relatives in the corners of rooms. But that's a different post.)

It turns out that in the Field of Reeds, rich and poor alike got equal plots of fertile land--and presumably farm animals--that would sustain them forever. Everyone tilled their own plots.

But the rich would consider no such thing. (Work? What's that?) So they stuffed their tombs with food and beer. Because they could. And because they didn't want to dirty their hands by actually working. They must have figured that between what they brought with them and the offerings made to them by grieving family members, they'd be flush for eternity.

Fascinating right? But here's the thing that almost slipped right by me. The Egyptian afterworld gave everyone an equal plot of land, no matter their class or station. It was a democratic afterworld! (Starting from the New Kingdom on, anyway.)

It didn't matter whether you were a poor peasant or a rich noble, everyone got the same amount of fertile land to call his or her own. The rich, of course, tried to make themselves "more equal" by finding ways to avoid tilling their fields.

Still, what a remarkable thing--a democratic afterlife! Was this he first instance of an afterworld conceived as such? Why would a people so rigid, hierarchical and conservative--with their rule-by-kings politics--imagine an afterworld where everyone had equal resources? Where they influenced by other cultures? Which ones? Whom did they influence in turn?

If I had all the time in the world, I would throw myself into trying to find answers to these questions. But I don't (carpool starts tomorrow!). And my WIP is calling. Plus, I have to get the word out about my current and upcoming books. 

But if anyone knows more about this unique detail of Egyptian afterlife, I'd love to hear it!

Source: Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt by R. David.


Trisha said...

This may be a bit odd, but I was laughing so hard at the mummified children comment because the thought crossed my mind as well! The Egyptian nobles sure liked to bring people with them on their trip to the afterlife.

It is odd that the afterlife would be so democratic when their reality was so hierarchical. So contradictory. Then again, maybe it was a way to maintain the hierarchy; some sort of puritanical, suffer now for rewards later idea?

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Mmmmm, mummy steak. Just makes my mouth... go YUCK! {8-P e

Narukami said...

I think Trisha is quite right -- it was a way of controlling the masses. "Yes, life is tough now, but come the Eternity and you will enjoy a bountiful afterlife equal in full measure to even the richest person in this life. So work hard now, and behave."

In the same way the Romans chose Christianity as the state religion -- it's rigid hierarchical structure neatly mirrored that of the Roman Empire with the emperor at the very pinnacle and no one contesting or competing to usurp him. (Unlike Jove who was constantly fighting with his brothers, murdered his father, etc.)

The Emperor Julian (the Apostate) tried to return Rome to its more "liberal" polytheistic roots, but to no avail. Perhaps if he had lived longer his efforts might have met with more success.

See: God Against The Gods by Jonathan Kirsch c2004
ISBN: 0-670-03286-7

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Trisha, the "suffer now for rewards later" idea makes a lot of sense. It's really hard for us to imagine just how much the peasant classes suffered in ancient times!

E: you better not eat jim slims then! ;-)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...


I'd forgotten about Kirsch's book--excellent, though it's been a while since I read it. I'm sure you and Trisha are right about it being used to control the masses. And really, the pharaoh continued in the afterlife as the pinnacle since he "joined" the gods in fighting the forces of chaos so that everyone else could enjoy eternity.

vicki leon, said...

Vic, happy New Year! loved your Egyptian afterlife food frolic and the "a plot of land in every pot" discussion. Grave goods and what various cultures thought it was important to put in them is a fascinating topic. Cheers, Vic with a I

Karen Strong said...

Very interesting that they also mummified the beef.

And I don't think I would like having a mummifed relative in my house. But then again, I grew up with Southern wakes, which required the casket to be in the house so...LOL.

Gail said...

Vicky: Maybe the afterlife wasn't democratic, maybe it was the beginning of communism or socialism. Hmmm.... As for those bitty caskets, I'm betting at least one was filled with Mentos and Coca Cola (or the ancient Egyptian equivalent) so there were fireworks in the afterlife!!!!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I didn't know the Egyptian afterworld was so democratic. Live and learn, lol.

But it makes sense. Afterworlds (except that dreary ol' Hades) tend to promise good things, Houris, lots of beer, singing with the angels... whatever a culture likes.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh, and re. mummy steak, I know a restaurant where you can get those. :(

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Happy New Year to you, Vicki with an "eye!"

Karen, now I'm scared of Southern wakes (lol!).

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Gabriele, it is interesting, isn't it? And grumpy ol' Hades turns out to be the exception to these afterworld meccas.

Anonymous said...

I think your query about who influenced the Egyptians is quite interesting. I think we minimize how much travel and cultural exchange has always happened among people!