Where do you go after you die? In fact, do you go anywhere after you die? That’s one of the big philosophical questions, and one that’s particularly impervious to investigation – after all, no-one ever comes back to tell us what it’s like. In some cultures there’s a belief in an afterlife where the deserving dead live an eternal blessed life, something almost to look forward to. And in some cultures the dead are, well, dead – even if there’s some sort of post-life existence it’s not something you want to be part of, and your “immortality” is through memory or your children. Think of the Greek Hades, or the way Gilgamesh’s reaction to knowledge of his own mortality is to seek to avoid it.
The Egyptians (as so often) embraced the power of “and” and believed in both. During the Old Kingdom normal people were simply dead, continuing to exist at their tombs if their names were spoken and offerings were made but not going on to an afterlife. But the king had a different experience – he was no ordinary man in life, and in death the Pyramid Texts tell us about his becoming part of the company of the gods or travelling with Re on his barque as he travels across the sky. During the First Intermediate Period and into the Middle Kingdom this sharp boundary between the king and normal humanity blurs in both the secular and religious spheres – and for the afterlife their beliefs undergo a shift that modern scholars sometimes refer to as the “democratisation of the afterlife”. Obviously this doesn’t mean that people voted for or against an afterlife! Instead it refers to a shift from having your entry into the afterlife determined by who you were to having it determined by what you knew. So potentially any Egyptian could navigate through the underworld to a blessed life, providing they knew the way and knew the right spells. This is what the Coffin Texts and the later Book of the Dead were all about – they contained all the knowledge you needed for a good afterlife.
So now it was open to everyone, where did the Ancient Egyptians think you went after you died? One of the possible destinations was the Field of Reeds, sometimes also known as the Field of Offerings (although sometimes this was a different place). The Field of Reeds does show up in the Pyramid Texts – there it was a part of the sky, and a place where the deceased king was purified before he passed on to his afterlife. By the Middle Kingdom it is also a destination for the more general deceased, and this is the role it plays in the Book of the Dead tradition. It’s not entirely clear where the Field of Reeds is supposed to be – it might still be in the sky, but it is also part of Osiris’s domain (and perhaps a synonym for the whole of Osiris’s domain) in the underworld. It is, however, in the east where Re finishes his night journey and begins his day journey – Spell 149 of the Book of the Dead announces “I know the gate in the middle of the Field of Reeds from which Re goes out into the middle of the sky”.
The Field of Reeds is an idealised version of the Ancient Egyptian landscape, where the deceased were to lead an idealised life. Spell 110 of the Book of the Dead talks about the deceased “ploughing therein, reaping and eating therein, drinking therein, copulating therein, and doing everything that was once done on earth by the reader”. This is where shabtis fit in, too – the eating, drinking and copulating clearly sounded just fine to the Ancient Egyptians, but servants were required for the ploughing and reaping! The crops here never failed, the waters never rose too high (nor did they ever fail to rise high enough). The Book of the Dead is also quite specific about what the crops would be like – larger than usual, but not to a degree that would be intimidating: “its barley stands 5 cubits high, with ears of 2 and stalks of 3 cubits, and its emmer stands 7 cubits high, with ears of 3 and stalks of 4 cubits”. 5 cubits is roughly 2.5m in modern measurements, so you can see that this is “the largest barley (or wheat) plants you’ve ever seen, taller than a man” but not so huge that you couldn’t see yourself harvesting it with a bit of effort.
As well as written descriptions the Field of Reeds is normally shown in a large illustration in copies of the Book of the Dead, sometimes the spells aren’t ever written out and the illustration stands in for them. It’s “read” from bottom to top and this reading matches the description in Spell 110. The registers of the illustration are separated by waterways, and at the bottom the deceased arrives by boat. There are normally two boats depicted – one belongs to Osiris, the other to the sun-god Re. Here the deceased meets the Great Ennead, a group of gods, and receives food & drink. Moving up a register the deceased has come to the place where the crops are grown. He (or she) is shown doing agricultural tasks – ploughing, harvesting, perhaps sowing the seed – normally dressed in their best clothes. Here the deceased receives an abundance of nourishment – symbolised by a depiction of the Heron of Plenty. And then in the top register the deceased comes to a place called Qehqenet where they may meet with their deceased parents, and once again travel by boat to meet the Great Ennead. As with so much in Ancient Egyptian thought this is a cyclical journey.
This conception of the afterlife has an afterlife of its own – I mentioned the Greek Hades at the beginning of the article as a place where the dead were dead, but the Greeks also had the Elysian Fields which were a place where the blessed dead lived an eternal blessed life. The Greeks themselves talked about this idea as having come from Egypt, and there are hints in the etymology of the Greek words used that back this up. Elysium has no obvious Greek origins as a word, but may be derived in part from the Egyptian for “reeds” – which can be rendered as iaru or ealu. Jan Assmann also points to similarities between the Greek word for blessed (makarios) and the Egyptian word for a deceased person who has reached the Field of Reeds (maa kheru, translated as “true of voice”).
All in all it’s a very Egyptian way of looking at the afterlife – that blend of esoteric and pragmatism that often characterises their outlook on life. First you travel through dangerous realms, meeting gods and demons, surviving your own judgement because of the knowledge and virtue that you possess. And then you get to the eternal life that waits for you, where you live a life very much like the one you had before death only bigger and better, and forever.
“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” ed. John H. Taylor
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson