Most articles about death in ancient Egypt surround mummies. But I’m more interested in their funerary rites. How were the ancient Egyptians buried? Did all of them get mummies and sarcophagi? Let’s go back 5,000 years.
The Ancient Egyptian Soul and the Afterlife
Before we talk about the funerals, I want to clarify some beliefs about the Egyptian afterlife. Most sources talk about the process of the soul entering the afterlife and getting judged (as detailed in The Book of the Dead). But what happens after that?
According to scholar Margaret Bunson, author of the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian afterlife was not in the clouds or underground. The realm of the dead, known as the Field of Reeds, was a mirror image of life on earth. If the proper funerary rites were carried out, souls could eat, drink, and even party.
In ancient Egyptian theology, the soul consisted of nine parts: the khat, ka, ba, shuyet, akh, ab, sahu, sechem, and ren. For the purposes of this article, the most important ones are the ka and akh.
The ka was the vital force that joined the deceased during the burial. It is not the body itself; that’s the khat. The ka was basically a person’s second form that was present during the funeral. When the Egyptians presented offerings, they gave them to the ka.
The akh is the closest concept to our modern-day ghost. It was an immortal, spiritual self that operated within the realm of the living and the dead. In other words, the akh could affect day-to-day life. The Egyptians worked to keep the akh happy so that the deceased wouldn’t haunt them.
Hauntings were taken very seriously. They could cause illness, bring bad luck, or damage a person’s property. According to the World History Encyclopedia, ancient morticians would advertise their services as making a family haunt-free. On the other hand, the akh was also petitioned in curses. Family members could write to the akh and ask them to haunt another person.
During funerals, ancient Egyptians were trying to do two things: (1) help the soul be happy in the afterlife, and (2) prevent the soul from terrorizing them.
One last thing. There are three deities who will frequently pop up throughout this post, so let’s get familiar with Them:
You might be wondering about Anubis. It’s true that He governed funerals and embalming, but He was mostly worshiped by embalmers. Common folk usually called upon Anubis for protection spells (according to Murry Hope in her book, The Ancient Wisdom of Egypt).
Mummies: Were They Really That Common?
First off, not everyone was mummified. The process was expensive and time-consuming, so most of the time, it was reserved for the wealthy. During the Egyptian Empire (3150 - 332 BCE), mummification became affordable and therefore more common. Even if the poor couldn’t afford mummies, they still had a funeral.
Second, the mummification process changed throughout the centuries. It also changed based on the deceased’s wealth and the area they were buried in. Because of this, I’m not going to spend much time talking about mummies.
I’ll give you a brief overview of the mummification process, based on what I read from scholar Salima Ikram. Embalmers would first remove the brain and internal organs. They then covered the body in natron, a type of salt. According to the Smithsonian, natron would remove all moisture from the body, which would prevent the decomposition process. Once the body was dried, embalmers wrapped the corpse in linen (usually hundreds of yards long). They glued the linen together with gum. The entire process took 70 days.
What happened to the people who weren’t mummified? They were still embalmed, but not fully mummified. Instead of being wrapped in linen, the dead wore their old clothes. They were then placed in a coffin and buried, much like today’s dead. Many were also placed in a sarcophagus, a stone container that held the coffin.
The Coffin and Sarcophagus
Many families would also pay for a sarcophagus. The sarcophagus didn’t just protect the body; it also had spiritual uses. Many were inscribed with hieroglyph spells. One was written vertically down the back of the sarcophagus. It gave the soul strength to eat and move around. Sometimes, instructions were carved inside of the sarcophagus. These are called the Coffin Texts and are a fun read for any death worker. In short, they’re a series of instructions that tells the soul what to do and where to go for a happy afterlife.
Once the family had their coffin and sarcophagus, and the body was embalmed, the funeral could begin.
Most funerals started from the embalmer’s tent. The procession followed the coffin, which was carried on a cart pulled by oxen. Relatives walked along either side of the coffin. Usually, there were at least two priestesses there, one for Isis and one for Nephthys. Relatives carried offerings and the deceased’s belongings. If applicable, one person carried the canopic jar. This jar held the corpse’s organs and was buried with the body.
Herodotus described Egyptian funerals as being dramatic, as people plastered their faces with mud and beat their breasts while mourning. It was believed that the Gods and the person’s soul (ka) could hear everyone’s mourning. Also, larger processions were an indication of the deceased’s high status.
In fact, some Egyptians were even hired to join funerals and mourn. These groups were called the Kites of Nephthys (as Nephthys was often depicted with kites), and they were almost always women. During the procession, they would sing “The Lamentation of Isis and Nephthys,” about the two Goddesses weeping over Osiris. Definitely a dream job.
Some processions included extra priests, dancers, and musicians. Basically, the wealthier the deceased, the more dramatic their funeral was.
So where did the procession go? Like us, the Egyptians had cemeteries. Most were buried in a dry spot west of the Nile, since the corpse would dry out more quickly. In many cases, the coffin and mourners would have to board a boat and sail there.
Once they reached the open grave, priests performed a ritual called the Opening of the Mouth. Remember when I said that the dead could eat and drink? The Opening of the Mouth ensured that the deceased could move their arms, legs, and mouth to fully enjoy the afterlife. (This ritual first appeared during the Old Kingdom, 2613 - 2181 BC).
Pretty much every funeral includes some offering to the deceased. Nowadays, offerings are usually flowers placed on the grave. In ancient Egypt, offerings were buried with the body.
Most offerings were items that the deceased owned. Family members would bury their favorite belongings, believing that these items would join them in the afterlife. Food and drink were also common offerings, mainly bread and beer.
I want to thank these sources for providing me with most of the information in this post.
Why Most People Get Ostara Wrong
Before researching Ostara, I made a poll for my patrons: Are you more interested in the history of the holiday, or modern worship techniques? My patrons voted for the holiday’s history. In the Wheel of the Year, Ostara is one of the biggest holidays. I thought that I would find a lot of interesting history.
But when I started researching, I was shocked at how many people made incorrect claims. Claims that Ēostre was a major Goddess, that She is equivalent to Astarte and Ishtar, that the holiday had been going on for centuries–all of which are wrong. I am gobsmacked by how much misinformation is out there.
Before I explain why these concepts are wrong, I want to provide some advice. If you want accurate historical information on Pagan holidays, don’t trust the top Google results. Look for museums, universities, and historians who will provide nuance. Even Wikipedia has more accurate information than many of the top blogs listed. And, as I will show later in this article, even university websites can be wrong!
How Significant Was the Goddess Ēostre?
Pre-Christian Germans did not write much down, so even the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda were written later by Christians.
When reading these works, you must keep bias in mind. Although monks were well-educated, they did not know everything about history. Many scholars believe that some of these monks made stuff up, such as the “blood eagle” execution method (seen in Midsommar), which has no evidence in archaeology.
But back to Bede. In all of his writings, Bede only mentioned Ēostre once: in The Reckoning of Time (725), which analyzes medieval and ancient cosmic calendars. In the work, Bede claimed that the holiday came from a spring festival celebrating Ēostre. He also said that the date of Christian Easter was calculated by the Roman monk Dionysus Exiguus, who timed it with the full moon.
This is the only evidence we have of Ēostre. She was only mentioned in passing, and although archaeologists have found evidence of ancient spring celebrations, most did not point towards a specific Goddess. This has lead many scholars to doubt that Ēostre existed.
But if that’s true, where did the names Easter and Ostara come from? In a 2008 paper, linguist R. Sermon provided one possible explanation:
“More recently it has been suggested that Bede was only speculating about the origins of the festival name, although attempts by various German linguists to find alternative origins have so far proven unconvincing. Nevertheless, there may be a more direct route by which Ostern could have entered the German language. Much of Germany was converted to Christianity by Anglo-Saxon clerics such as St Boniface (C.AD 673–754), who could have introduced the Old English name Eastron during the course of their missionary work. This would explain the first appearance of Ostarun in the Abrogans, a late eighth-century Old High German glossary, and does not require any complex linguistic arguments or the existence of a Germanic goddess Ostara.”
To be explicitly clear: I’m not trying to invalidate people who work with the Goddess Ēostre. Personally, I don’t think that deities have to be ancient in order to be valid. That’s why I’m capitalizing Her pronouns. I’m bringing this up because so many blogs claim that Ēostre 100% existed, and that She was historically and spiritually significant. If She existed, She was likely a minor deity.
Ēostre, Astarte, and Ishtar
This time, it was Scottish protestant minister Alexander Hislop. In his book The Two Babylons (1853), Hislop claimed that the name Ēostre was a twist of Astarte, whom he incorrectly equated with Ishtar:
“What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Ninevah, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. This name as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar.”
All of this is wrong, by the way. Linguists quickly debunked this theory back in the 19th century. If you’re wondering where the word Easter actually comes from, there’s a succinct article in Time that examines the most popular theories.
Despite this, people are still writing about Astarte and Ēostre as if They’re related. And even if the theory were true, Hislop did not say that Astarte and Ēostre were spiritually similar. He claimed that the names were similar, not the Goddesses.
Can we stop repeating these “facts” without researching them first?
One quick tangent before we continue: While writing this post, my husband asked if naming holidays after deities has historical basis. Although it was not common, it has happened. The Roman festival Saturnalia is an obvious example. But it’s much more common for holidays to be named after Catholic saints, such as Brigid’s Day, which I discussed in my Imbolc post.
Did Ancient Spring Celebrations Exist?
All of these misconceptions aside, the core of Ostara is not Ēostre. It’s the spring equinox and the changing of seasons. Did the ancients really celebrate the spring equinox?
Yes, many ancient civilizations celebrated the spring equinox. Shintoism and Hinduism both have holidays around this time: Vernal Equinox Day and Holi, respectively. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, lands on this day. And despite the spread of Islam, Nowruz is still a national holiday in the Republic of Iran.
Remember that changing seasons were especially important for rural communities. By the time spring began, many new livestock had been born, and new seeds had been planted. There was plenty to celebrate.
I also want to note that Ostara, specifically, is part of the Wheel of the Year. This calendar was inspired by ancient Scottish and Irish calendars, with some other traditions thrown in. Gerald Gardner, who founded Wicca and helped establish the Wheel of the Year, believed that Wicca was the ancient religion of the British Isles. Although his theory was incorrect, it inspired a lot of people to revive ancient festivals and holidays.
In the British Isles, not much is known about ancient spring festivals beyond Easter. But some theorize that Stonehenge likely played a role. Druids have been celebrating the spring equinox since the 18th century, which might have inspired some Ostara practices.
Despite being one of the most popular modern Pagan holidays, Ostara has the haziest history. Little is known about it, and what is known is widely debated.
Where Did Ostara's Symbols Come From?
You can’t research Ostara without running into popular Easter symbols such as eggs and bunnies. Many have questioned where these symbols came from. I’ve seen a few people theorize that they were Ēostre’s symbols.
Although historians don’t have a 100% definitive answer, it is widely believed that these symbols were pre-Christian. But they might not have been linked to any specific deity. More likely, they were symbolic representations of spring, namely the land’s fertility.
Fertility is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Wheel of the Year. When talking about fertility celebrations, we’re not focusing on human fertility. It’s the fertility of the land. I’m sure you’ve heard that the soil becomes fertile during spring. Livestock also become fertile and give birth to baby animals.
Despite what some people say (mostly on anti-Wiccan rants), fertility celebrations are not inherently sexual. In some cases they can be, such as in a fertility spell. But remember that we’re talking about seasonal holidays. The Earth’s ability to grow crops was especially important in ancient times.
How Do We Celebrate Ostara?
If you’re like me, all of this information probably made you more confused about Ostara than before. With such limited historical information, some might wonder whether we should celebrate the holiday at all.
Personally, I think the lack of information frees us to celebrate Ostara however we’d like. Although the ancient traditions disappeared, the core of the holiday is still present. We’re honoring the fertile land, warming weather, equal days and nights, and fruitful days to come.
I haven’t performed a traditional Wiccan ritual in years. It’s hard to even call myself a Wiccan at this point. But I still follow the Wheel of the Year because it forces me to slow down. These holidays remind me to pause, spend time in nature, and be grateful for the Earth that I often ignore.
The spring equinox is a holiday of hope and gratitude. Do whatever reminds you of your blessings and provides hope for the future. If painting eggs gets you in the spring mood, paint. If you want to go on your first spring hike or picnic, do that. If there’s still snow on the ground and you want to stay inside, draw or journal. Just take some time to slow down and thank the Earth.