Duat - The Ancient Egyptian Underworld
To understand Duat we cannot just relate our current concept of Hell with it. The ancient Egyptians connected many different realms together, with blurred boundaries between them. It wasn’t just a matter of dying and then going to either heaven or hell.
And actually, Duat was midway between earth and the afterlife. Yes, it was filled with scary creatures and difficult obstacles, but it was not where a soul went to stay for all eternity.
Again, we must be reminded of the fact that the ancient Egyptian religion was not standardized throughout the land with let’s say one specific text that applied to all adherents. Many religious beliefs and practices were specific to their locale and had their own deities.
And then there would be a more general state religion that the king would take part of.
Because of this, the different texts that explained different beliefs and practices were not considered an absolute. They mixed and mingled, some being evolutions of older texts and some just waxing and waning in popularity.
And so it was with the concept of the underworld…
But for the sake of coherence, we will take a look at the most prevalent ancient Egyptian belief about the land of the dead.
geography & mythology of duat
In ancient Egyptian cosmology, the earth was thought to be flat and oval-shaped, and surrounded by oceans. Underneath this earth lay the vast expanse of the underworld, which also had the primordial waters of Nun running through them.
For more on Nun and the primordial state of the universe before and during creation, check out the ancient Egyptian creation myth.
The Serpent Apep
The landscape was akin to the earth’s but with a more malevolent flavor.
There were trees, mountains as well as rivers, but also lakes of fire, dark caverns, evil spirits and serpents.
The ruler of the underworld was the God Osiris. Osiris was actually the King of the Earth prior to becoming “Lord of Duat”. But then his brother Seth murdered him out of jealousy… and although Isis, together with other helpful deities, tried to restore her beloved husband, he could only be revived on earth for a day and then had to become the Osiris of the Underworld.
Lord of the Underworld Osiris
But Duat was graced by many other deities as well as inhabited by other supernatural creatures. Some were helpful to the deceased on their path through the underworld and judgment, while others could be harmful and provide challenges for the deceased to overcome.
the nocturnal journey of ra
Sun God Ra on his Solar Barque
Although earlier I said that many of the texts that describe ancient Egyptian religious beliefs were not constant, with different spells in them being used in different ways and in different sequences, there are two that were actually set. They were used in sequence and followed particular themes.
Those were the Book of Gates and the Book of the Amduat. Together they were called “Guides to the Hereafter”.
These texts describe the nocturnal journey of the Sun God Ra, from when he would dip into the underworld with the setting of the sun until he rose the next day on the opposite side. The ancient Egyptians mapped out what his journey looked like during that time.
This would also become the same journey that the deceased would take right after burial.
The journey was divided into 12 hours, with each hour representing an obstacle that Ra had to complete in order to move onto the next. They include searching for the tomb of Osiris, facing his enemy Apep, navigating through the difficult realm of Sokar, and fully regenerating to come out as the rising sun from the eastern horizon.
Demons of the Gates of Duat
For the deceased each hour acted like a portal into the next, with gates in between.
Each of the gates had a demon guarding it.
To pass through each gate, the name of the demon had to be recited correctly.
If passed through, the deceased would be allowed in to the Hall of Judgment for the Weighing of the Heart Ceremony, one of the most beautiful of all ancient Egyptian myths in my opinion.
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