One of the more common subjects that religion often attempts to address is that of death, or rather, what happens to us when we die. Nearly every religion that I’ve ever heard of or have studied provides some sort of explanation, either big or small, detailed or vague, for what happens after death. And let’s face it, for many people, the answer their religion gives them about death is often times a big part of what makes that religion comforting for them. After all, religion often tackles head-on the scariest aspect of death for us mere mortals: the fact that we know very little about it. Fear of the unknown, you know?
So where do we go when we die? In Kemeticism, we believe that we go to the Duat (or Dwat, depending on your preferred spelling). On a surface level, the Duat is the Ancient Egyptian concept of “the Underworld,” a concept one might be familiar with if he or she has studied other mythologies, such as the Greek ones, for example. Yet “Underworld” is a misleading translation; literally, the ancient word dwat has the connotation of morning twilight, of “dawn just before sunrise.” A better translation, then, would be “the Place of Morning Twilight.” In that sense, locationally, it can be understood that the Duat exists in a region that is between night and day, between darkness and light. It is said, mythologically, to exist “underneath” Nut (the Goddess of the Sky), but at the same time, “above” Geb (the God of the Earth). Thinking about it this way, mythologically and metaphorically, one realizes that the Duat isn’t an “Underworld” at all: it’s an “Inner World.” It is literally “in-between.”
So what actually happens in the Duat? The Duat is where the ba belongs, the concept within ancient Egyptian philosophical thinking which, for the sake of simplicity (since I won’t be addressing this in depth in this particular post), comes closest to our modern understanding of “soul.” Basically, the Egyptians believed that each human is made up of certain “aspects” – the khat, which is our physical bodies (from the Earth), the ka, which is the life force energy that animates our bodies (which comes from outside powers, such as the Akhu, the Gods, etc.), and the ba, which is the “soul” that individualizes each of our personalities/distinct characteristics – the “true” us. Above even these constructs is that of the Akh, the divine spirit, literally the merging of the human spirit with the Divine, with Ra Himself, the final “renewal”, the true sign of divine status. SO, as I have been able to understand it: we are born into the khat, the Earth, the material world, we live our lives with the energy blessing of the ka, and our personalities are defined by our ba, our “souls.” When we die, the ka leaves our khat, and the khat becomes a lifeless corpse (what it always was without the ka to begin with), and at that same time, the ba departs – and where does it go? The Duat of course.
Phew, so, with that explanation aside, we get back to the Duat. The Duat is the place where our ba go after death. Remember all that stuff we talked about above, about the Duat being, locationally, an “inner” world, not an “under” world? Well, what happens to the ba in the Duat mimics this very idea as well. The Egyptians believed that after you die, you’re not just simply ready to “go to heaven”, or as the Egyptians called it, “The Field of Reeds” (a fertile valley, much like their own Nile valley, but better, even more beautiful, and eternal) – You had to undergo some trials first. As Jeremy Naydler describes:
“It was a place through which one travelled, and one’s journey consisted of a series of contests and trials, each of which – if one succeeded in them – resulted in an inner transformation. (Naydler, Kindle Edition, Loc 3990)”
In many ways, the entire experience of the Duat is a trial in and of itself. The Duat is described as being in many parts like a giant, all-consuming marsh, full of dangerous creatures shaped like the familiar dangers of the Nile – crocodiles and hippos, for example. The many passages, gates, and trials endured and passed through during the journey one takes through the Duat are documented in detail in The Egyptian Book of the Dead, or rather, The Book of Going Forth by Day (as is the properly translated name). This text also provides many invocations/actions to say and take when confronted by the various dangers/trials of the Duat:
“Get back, you crocodile of the West, who lives on the Unwearying Stars! Detestation of you is in my belly, for I have absorbed the power of Wesir, and I am Set. (Papyrus of Ani, Faulkner translation, page 103).”
It should be noted and remembered that it is through the darkness of the Duat that Ra travels each night, chased by the creature Apep, only to emerge the next morning in the Eastern sky reborn. That Duat and the Duat we travel to after death are one and the same. In that sense, even Ra undergoes a trial every time He travels through the Duat. It is also why death – or the “place” or “condition” after death – is often oriented with the direction of West (as East is oriented with Birth, or Life – the place where Ra re-emerged each day). Thus the mentioning of “West” in the quote above – the “West” is, literally, the landscape of the Duat.
The final trial of the Duat is perhaps the most famous: “The Weighing of the Heart.” You don’t just get to this trial easily, however, first you have to traverse the vastness of the Duat (usually by boat), as described above, to reach what the Egyptians referred to as “The Hall of Ma’at.” In the “Hall of Ma’at”, the traveling soul is met by Anpu (Anubis), in His form as Upuat, or “Opener of the Ways.” Anpu takes the traveling soul to a set of scales, where the person’s “heart” (or essence – the culmination of a person’s life deeds) is weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the Goddess of Truth, Order, and Justice (see the “Making Bright?” page above on this blog to read my personal definition of Ma’at). Quite simply, if the heart is lighter than the feather, the traveling soul may move on to the paradise-like Field of Reeds (as described above), arguably then given the chance to ascend to Akh-level (a “return to the Gods”, so to speak). If the heart is heavier than the feather, well, then, it gets eaten by the monster Ammit…and yep, you’re basically doomed for all eternity. Harsh, yes. But consider this: the heart will only ever be heavier than the feather in cases of extreme chaos or extreme injustice. I like to think of it this way: you lie a few times, you steal from someone, maybe you even got into a fight once or twice – let’s be honest, these things aren’t going to end you in Ammit’s belly. So long as you have made up for whatever “sins” you’ve committed by learning from your mistakes, and continuing to uphold Ma’at, you should be good. Rapists? Murderers? Well, now we’re getting into trickier territory. I’m pretty sure those hearts are getting eaten. In the end, however, it’s a blurry line – some people kill in the line of duty, in the military; some kill in self-defense. Others are mentally challenged when they do terrible things – where do those hearts go? In the end, I think it’s not a subject to go into here – you could write an entire dissertation on cases for or against the heart being eaten by Ammit – I think it’s something only we can know about ourselves when the time comes.
I like to equate it to the scene in Lord of the Rings (you will quickly find that I equate a lot of things to Tolkien’s work, deal with it) where the Fellowship meets Galadriel for the first time in Lothlorien. Most of the Fellowship can meet her eyes, no problem. Boromir, however, can’t. Why? Because he knows he’s having an internal struggle with himself about the ring; it physically hurts to look at Galadriel, who represents so much Good, so much Order, because she directly opposes what is going on deep down within him. On a conscious level, he may not even know why he has such trouble dealing with her gaze – later, he blames “Elf Magic”, etc. for making him feel uncomfortable. Really, it is the darkness, the evil, the temptation already brewing in his heart. It’s not that the others in the Fellowship are saints necessarily; Aragorn has killed many, for example. It’s that the others have stayed true to their life quest, the Higher Good. In Temple of the Cosmos, Naydler describes coming into contact with Ma’at (the feather) as “feeling like a homecoming” if your heart is light. If your heart is heavy, however, She will feel deadly, dangerous even. A cold stare. So in the end, no matter how we feel we lived our lives, we will know when the time comes whether or not we upheld Ma’at to enough of an extent. We may even know while we live if what we are doing is true and just – depending on how in-tune with Ma’at we choose to be. And yes, I am suggesting it is all subjective in nature. This is our own battle, one that cannot be judged or decided by anyone else but you and Ma’at Herself. Every day, we should work to stay true to ourlife quests, our Greater Good. This is simply my opinion, though.
Back to the Duat! After the Weighing, Djehuty, Holy Scribe, records the outcome in His ledgers, and you are able to pass on into the Field of Reeds, or you are eaten. If you pass, before you continue on, however, you get to meet none other than Wesir Himself, King of the Duat. So much could be said about Wesir here, which I will save for another time, but know that He is Lord of the West, the God who was killed by Set but resurrected again by Aset and Her kingly son Heru – and this is a cycle that happens every year, reflected by nature (for the Egyptians, through the rise and fall of the Nile; for us here in North-Eastern America, the changing of the seasons from life-filled Spring and Summer to declining Autumn and Winter). So, in this sense, Wesir rules the Duat because He is eternally trapped in that state of “in-betweenness”, that “twilight.” You can read more about him here. Wesir then leads the travelling soul “into day.” You must see now that all of it is connected: the journey through the Duat for a ba mimics the journey of Ra through the Duat – trials, a final test, and then, a “going forth” into the new day.
Now that we have come to this point, I want to emphasize something here, because maybe all of this was already familiar to you (if you are a Kemetic), or, you’re simply asking yourself now, “So, what’s the point then?” The point is that for the Egyptians, the concept of death was not feared. It was simply accepted, and, in many ways, rejoiced over. So much so, that the “system and process of death” was studied so thoroughly, that the entire culture was fully prepared for what to do when it happened. All of the texts, all of the spells, all of the invocations, all of the mummification preparation, all of the tomb preparation – all of it was in order to be ready to face death. Why? Because death wasn’t an ending, not at all. It was the start of a new beginning. On one hand, this might seem obsessive, or neurotic – you might be tempted to ask, “Didn’t the Egyptians miss out on life because they were so concerned with death?” I don’t think so. No, I think they were equally concerned with both. For within Kemetic mythology, there is too much fertility, too much growth, too much bright light, too much enduring, for there to be a lack of concern with life.
Which brings us to an important quote from Temple of the Cosmos, about going beyond the physical landscape of the Duat, as well as the trials that take place within it:
“[The Dwat] is in reality less a place than a ‘condition of being’ that things have when they pass out of physical existence, and before they pass back again into physical existence. So it is where the dead go, and equally where the living come from.”(Naydler, Kindle Edition, Loc 3990)
See? It’s not about Life vs. Death, at all. I think, for the Egyptians, it has always been, and always will be (for us modern Kemetics), about balance.
- Budge, Sir. E. A. Wallis. (translation) The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Papyrus of Ani).MacMay. 2008 edition.
- Faulkner, Raymond O. (translation) The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. Chronicle Books, 1994.
- Naydler, Jeremy. Temple of the Cosmos. Inner Traditions, 1996. (Kindle edition)
- Wepwawet Wiki/related Kemetic Orthodoxy texts