Greco-Roman Cultures Essay, Research Paper
Burial Practices of the Ancient Egyptian and
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Ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman practices of preparing the dead for the next cradle
of humanity are very intriguing. These two cultures differ in a multitude of ways yet
similarities can be noted in the domain of funerary services. In the realm of Egyptian
afterlife, The Book of the Dead can provide one with vital information concerning ritual
entombment practices and myths of the afterlife. The additional handouts I received
from Timothy Stoker also proved to be useful in trying uncover vital information
regarding the transition into another life. Regarding the burial practices of Greece and
Rome, parts of Homer’s Odyssey are useful in the analysis of proper interment methods.
One particular method used by the Egyptians was an intricate process known as
mummification. It was undoubtedly a very involved process spanning seventy days in
some cases. First, all the internal organs were removed with one exception, the heart.
If the body was not already West of the Nile it was transported across it, but not
before the drying process was initiated. Natron (a special salt) was extracted from the
banks of the Nile and was placed under the corpse, on the sides, on top, and bags of
the substance were placed inside the body cavity to facilitate the process of
dehydration. After thirty-five days the ancient embalmers would anoint the body with
oil and wrap it in fine linen. If the deceased was wealthy enough a priest donning a
mask of Anubis would preside over the ceremonies to ensure proper passage into the
One of the practices overseen by the priest was the placing of a special funerary
amulet over the heart. This was done in behest to secure a successful union with Osiris
and their kas. The amulet made sure the heart did not speak out against the individual
at the scale of the goddess of justice and divine order, Maat. The priest also made use
of a “peculiar ritual instrument, a sort of chisel, with which he literally opened the
mouth of the deceased.” This was done to ensure that the deceased was able to speak
during their journeys in Duat.
Another practice used by the Egyptians to aid the departed soul involved mass human
sacrifice. Many times if a prominent person passed away the family and servants would
willfully ingest poison to continue their servitude in the next world. The family members
and religious figureheads of the community did just about everything in their power to
aid the deceased in the transition to a new life.
The community made sure the chamber was furnished with “everything necessary for
the comfort and well-being of the occupants.” It was believed that the individual would
be able of accessing these items in the next world. Some of the most important things
that the deceased would need to have at his side were certain spells and incantations.
A conglomeration of reading material ensured a successful passage; The Pyramid Texts,
The Book of the Dead, and the Coffin Texts all aided the lost soul in their journey
through Duat into the Fields of the Blessed. “Besides all these spells, charms, and
magical tomb texts, the ancient practice of depositing in the tomb small wooden figures
of servants was employed.” These “Ushabi statuettes” as they are called, were
essentially slaves of the deceased. If the deceased was called to work in the Elysian
fields he would call upon one of the statues to take his place and perform the task for
him. It was not unheard of for an individual to have a figure for every day of the year
to ensure an afterlife devoid of physical exertion. Just about every thing the embalmers
and burial practitioners did during the process was done for particular reasons.
Many of the funerary practices of the ancient Greco-Romans were also done with a
specific purpose in mind. Unlike the Egyptian’s the Greco-Roman cultures did not employ
elaborate tombs but focused on the use of a simple pit in the ground. Right after death,
not too dissimilar from the practices of the Egyptians, it was necessary for the persons
to carefully wash and prepare the corpse for his journey. It was vital for all persons to
receive a proper burial and if they did not they were dammed to hover in a quasi-world,
somewhat of a “limbo” between life and death.
One Greco-Roman myth that illustrates this point is The Odyssey by Homer. There is a
part in Book eleven of the work in which Homer specifically addresses proper burial
rites. When Odysseus wishes to contact Tiresias, he comes across Elpenor, one of his
soldiers. This particular man fell (in a haphazard fashion) to his death on the island of
the Kimmerians, but did not receive a proper burial and was stuck in limbo. Elpenor
begged Odysseus and his men to return to the island and care for his body.
Consequently, they did return and Elpenor passed into the next world. Most likely he
was buried in the same fashion other members of his society were; a pyre was probably
constructed and the body placed upon it. Also placed on the pyre were items that the
deceased held dear in life with the hope that they would follow him into the next world.
In order to survive in the afterlife, the deceased “is also presented with a small coin
which came to be known as the ferrying fee for Charon.” This can be likened to the
Egyptian practice of introducing coinage into the tomb in some cases.
Homer also speaks of the psyche, which slips out of man “at the moment of death and
enters the house of Ais, also known as Aides, Aidoneus, and in Attic as Hades.” This
idea can be compared to the concept of an individual’s ba in ancient Egypt. When
someone died, an eternal part of them (their ba) would also slip out and seek out the
individuals spiritual twin (their ka) in order to unite with it and facilitate a successful
Many times in myth, the living desired to speak with the departed. When Odysseus
wishes to speak with the Nekyia in Book eleven, goats must be sacrificed and their
blood was recognized as inspiring the deceased to speak. The Egyptians also were
concerned with the ability of the deceased to speak in the next realm; this is
exemplified in one of the most important spells in The Book of the Dead, the opening of
When all the funerary rites had been done, the next step was to mark the spot of the
deceased. “The grave is marked with a stone, the sign, sema.” This grave stone would
have the name of the soul, and often some type of epigram in verse form. Invariably
near the grave, some type of guardian of the soul would be located. Lion and sphinx
were found as grave markers and this idea is paralleled in the practices of the natives
of Egypt. A certain “cult image” was buried with the deceased in Egypt in order to look
after and more importantly protect one’s ba from being disturbed. It also acted as a
type of “purge valve” for any ba which may have been unjustly disturbed in the tomb.
Burial practices aside one can note an interesting difference between these two
ancient civilizations. Differences can be observed concerning how amicable the afterlife
was. The Egyptians had a positive outlook. They believed that after one became
Osirus, They would move into a new world, which was nice, no one had to work, and
everything was very clean. One could compare their lives in the next world with the
children’s classic board game, Candyland. In this game all was fine and dandy, the
“don’t worry be happy” attitude flourished, not distant from the life in the Fields of the
Blessed. On the other hand, Greco-Roman afterlife was a rather dismal place. The dead
Achilles summed everything up by saying to Odysseus, “Do not try to make light of
death to me, I would sooner be bound to the soil in the hire of another man, a man
without lot and without much to live on, than rule over all the perished dead.” Needless
to say, the Homeric afterlife was no Candyland.
Candyland or not, both cultures went to extremes in order to guarantee a successful
voyage into the next world. The two ancient civilizations hoped that through their
intricate actions the individual would be protected and prepared for their many
experiences on “the other side.” By looking at selections of Homer’s Odyssey and The
Book of the Dead, one can draw many similarities between the two cultures; however,
differences are also apparent due to cultural differences concerning what would happen
to the departed soul.