The Hungry Dead: food and drink in the afterlife

When we think of food and drinks, the usual association is life and a full stomach. However, ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures, took the quotidian practice of satisfying our hunger and thirst a step farther, believing that it remained a fundamental aspect of our well being even in the afterlife. Despite sharing the practice of offering foodstuff to the dead, The Greeks and Egyptians came to this practice through a different set of beliefs and reasons, which this presentation will attempt to explain.

In discussing the evidence of feeding the dead, I will be adopting a functionalist approach in conjunction with the theory of energy expenditure as put forward by Tainter. Many of the practices that evolved around feeing the dead have string mythological roots. By applying functionalist methodology to these beliefs, their purpose within society can be better understood in terms of their practical role, such as what social, economic or spiritual gain, if any, was to be had through the act of feeding the deceased. Tying into this, the theory of energy expenditure as representative of status, wealth and or power, is relevant in discussing how feeding the dead could have an impact on the social environment of the performer of the act.

The practice of providing offerings of food and drinks for the deceased was a fundamental part of ancient Egyptian society, tied to a conviction that the person continued to exist in a substantial spiritual form after their bodies failed. The Egyptians believed that without nourishment, much as in life, one could “die” in the afterlife. To understand this, one must consider that life and death are not viewed as intrinsically separate states of being. Different from the perspective many of us take today, the ancient Egyptian beliefs, considered that actions on our physical form, even following death, had a direct and significant effect on you in the afterlife as the spiritual and physical inseparably connected.

Food for the dead in ancient Egypt was not only important in its function of sustenance; it also played a powerful role in the society of the living. Offerings were often made at the burial sites following the actual interment as well as being placed within the burials themselves prior to them being sealed. In tombs from early Egypt and some later pyramids such as Djoser’s, niches were present in the walls, in which relatives, friends or any person, could present an offering through the priests. The U-J tomb at Abydos provides an excellent example of some of the foodstuff that was placed within the tombs.  Oils and wine are the predominant offering, with the latter being imported, an extra cost which could possible demonstrate that the quality of the offerings, were an indicator of the social status tomb’s occupant. Cooking utensils were also among the items found during excavation. This seems to indicate the very “real” perception of food in the afterlife held by the Egyptians. While other cultures followed similar practices of offering food in tombs, the everyday and practical nature of these items, demonstrate the very close connection between life and death and sense of continuity between them, which was captured in the practice of feeding the deceased and providing tools that demonstrate an expectance that the food will be consumed.

The opening of the mouth ceremony was done by priests, who would “open” the mouth on a statue representing a specific dead person with a spoon shaped tool called a peseshkaf, and feed it food and water.

Reinforcing the social role that feeding the dead had for ancient Egyptians, are the post burial offerings. On the outside of larger tombs, mortuary temples or niches were constructed. These spaces were where the living could connect to the dead, often through representative “doorways”, often slabs of stone in an indent n the wall. Priests would make regular food offerings, especially at the tombs of royals. This practice highlights the influence feeding of the dead had on Egyptian society. Pharaohs were viewed as divine beings, and following their deaths, were worshipped in temple complexes built around their tombs. In comparison to other cultures, such as the Greeks, the effort expended on ensuring that the deceased had nourishment was much greater and more regularized and ingrained as a necessary action in Egypt. The fixing of food into Egyptian funerary culture is exemplified in the “opening of the mouth” ceremony, in which priests would “open” the mouth of a statue and feed it. The food offered in the ceremony was believed to go to the dead person being represented in the statue.

In contrast to the Egyptian practice of feeding the dead, the Greeks had an equally ceremonial yet less functional set of customs. Greek mortuary offerings of consumable things had a far more colloquial or honorary nature, when compared to their Egyptian counterparts. Ancient Greeks did not believe that you required earthly food or any food for that matter to survive in the underworld. The role of offering sustenance to the deceased was far more symbolic, not necessarily executing the function of allaying hunger. Instead, offerings were generally manifested as, libations (post death), and quite commonly lekythos, all of which were given not to literally feed but as a gesture of recognition of the deceased’s achievements in life and their passing to the afterlife. The bleak nature of the Greek underworld meant that many of these offerings, served as a form of comfort for the dead, reminding them of the joys of life.

The main form of food offering in Greek mortuary cultures was libations. These were a liquid offering poured over the grave, often right into the soil, where, it was believed that through running down into the dirt, it would reach the underworld. This custom can be seen depicted on the vase image, where the individuals are pouring a mixture (this mixture was usually a combination of wine, water, blood and honey) onto the tomb stone. Contrary to Egyptian practices which provided a more regular offering, which consisted not only of liquids but also solid food, the Greek libations were generally only done once a year, and were often done by priests who had been paid to perform the service. The outsourcing of the libations to a third party with no personal relations to the dead, demonstrates the far more colloquial approach the Greeks had towards the practice of feeding the dead; it was more of a duty than a necessity.

The images on the vase depict a libation, most likely wine mixed with ether wine, honey, water, or a combination of such. The libation was meant to seep into the ground where it could reach the dead in the underworld.

The role of food in Greek culture of death was not of a shallow nature though. Their mythology provides ample evidence for food acting as a bridge between the underworld and real world where the living resided. In the odyssey, when Odysseus goes to the gates of the underworld, he must make a sacrifice of blood and wine to summon the dead. Furthermore, until the dead he has summoned have drunk from the offering they are unable to communicate with him. So here we observe how foodstuff functions as a medium through which the dead can interact with the living, since they are consuming a piece of the living world. This ceremony executed by Odysseus is the same as the libations commonly performed by the Greeks, since in both cases liquids are being poured in order to create a connection between both worlds. This relationship is also valid in the other direction, as demonstrated in the story of Persephone. On being released from the underworld, Hades convinces her to eat a single pomegranate seed. This binds her to the underworld, forcing her to return there once every year for a period of several months, creating winter as her mother mourns her absence.

These myths when considered together with the real life customs of gifts such as libations or offerings for hero cults create an image of food not as a literal form of sustenance as in Egyptian culture, but as a powerful catalyst for enabling the dead and living to interact. Both cultures held “feeding” of the dead in great import; however, the Egyptian practice treated it as a necessity, due to their perception of life and death as being very close together, and intrinsically similar in many aspects. The Greek’s perception of the practice focused more on the ritual aspect of the custom, viewing it not as a necessity in terms of the literal role of food in sustenance, but instead as a means to achieving or fulfilling certain bonds with the deceased or in the case of hero cults, the offering food had the function of honoring and petitioning a specific hero.

Raphael Leitz

Death and Afterlife in Egypt and Greece


– texts

garland, robert. The Greek Way of Death. 1st. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.

Antonaccio, Carla. Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Early Greece. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1995. eBook.

Taylor, Richard. Death and the Afterlife, a Cultural Encyclopedia. santa barbara: ABC CLIO, 2000. eBook.

Homer, The Odyssey

– Images

Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer. N.d. Photograph. British Museum, London. Web. 26 Apr 2013.

Nguyen, Marie. Sacrifice scene. Attic red-figure krater. N.d. Photograph. Louvre, Paris. Web. 26 Apr 2013.