Views of the Underworld & Afterlife in Greece and Egypt

A comparative timeline of the sources discussing beliefs regarding the afterlife.

Emily Roff, Lauren Nadler, Eli Walton, JoJo Weinberger, & Alex Sarkowsky

Depiction of Tantalus in the underworld as described by Homer

Looking at five texts from five different time periods, our exhibit explores Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Grecian beliefs about the afterlife. From Ancient Egypt we look at the Pyramid Texts (Old Kingdom), Coffin Texts (Middle Kingdom) and the Book of the Dead (New Kingdom), and from Ancient Greece we examine depictions of the afterlife found in Homer’s Odyssey (Archaic Period) and Plato’s “Myth of Er” (Classical Period). In addition to an analysis of each text within its particular historical context, we explore the possibility of connections between the texts.

The Pyramid Texts were a collection of funerary spells written on the inside of Old Kingdom pyramids; they are focused on helping the pharaoh successfully navigate the underworld in order to reach the eternal resting place.  While these texts were initially used for the benefit of the Pharaohs, the inclusion of funerary texts in burials evolved over time.  During the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom (ca. 2100-1650 BC), inscriptions made in coffins, sarcophagi, and tomb chambers – largely derived from the Pyramid Texts – were democratized and applied to more Egyptians than just the pharaoh. These spells, known as the Coffin Texts, were meant to aid the deceased in the afterlife, and the primary composition of the Book of Two Ways served as the main sources for the Book of the Dead.The composition of the Book of Two Ways served as the main source in the creation of the Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead was written on papyrus rolls and included intricate imagery alongside the spells and vignettes it contained. This set of spells became available to any Egyptian with the financial means to purchase it. The spells were able to be more individualized and allowed all members of Egyptian society to have the opportunity to reach the eternal resting place. The development of underworld literature reflects the changing socio-political values in Egypt over time, and this functionalist approach sheds light on the democratization of Egyptian funerary rites.

In the beginning of the Archaic Period we come across the first known Ancient Grecian text discussing the afterlife. In the Odyssey, Homer chronicles Odysseus’s journey to the underworld where he encounters a number of “shades” or “souls.” While some of the deceased are enduring tremendous tortures, most of the “shades” Odysseus encounters are idly flitting around in the underworld. As we move into the Classical period, we find many more texts discussing the underworld. In the “Myth of Er” Plato presents a vivid depiction of the soul’s journey through the afterlife including the judgment and later transmigration of the soul. Plato places ultimate emphasis on developing a proper philosophy to illuminate the virtuous path as the key to a “successful” afterlife and transmigration.

Excerpt from The Book of the Dead (Papyrus of Ani)

From a functionalist perspective, we will examine how each individual text may serve to shed light on the cultural norms of its society. We also utilize the cross-cultural and historical models to investigate the possibility that earlier texts may have influenced the later texts.



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