In every culture and era, death has been taken as an important period of human existence. This is characterized by the rituals, beliefs and items used during burial. The ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians also had their beliefs associated with death.
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This is evidenced by the rituals and the items used during the funeral practices as pointed out in the excavations. Consequently, this paper intends to highlight the importance of the krater as a monumental marker in ancient Greece and the mummy mask as another item used in the burial rituals of ancient Egypt. It will also highlight the rituals and beliefs associated with the two items.
Hornung (7) indicates that the ancient Egyptians’ belief in immortality was the basic reflection of their richness of rituals. The goods and rituals, according to Hornung were necessary items that would prove useful in the afterlife of the dead person.
Similarly, the ancient Greek culture had an equally strong emphasis on the phenomenon of death. The rituals and beliefs associated with it led to the development of several practices that would clearly reflect the meaning of death in the culture. On the other hand, the burial rituals of the ancient Greeks in the period of 750BCE and 700BCE were affected by the age of geometry.
Most of the decorations on the items used during burial were designed to acquire some geometric form. The krater, for instance is one of the items used during burials. It was the monumental marker of graves during the 750BCE-700BCE.This vase was clearly decorated using geometric figures that depicted a ritual referred to as prothesis. The general presentation highlights a series of vertical and horizontal arrangements of geometric figures that, under close scrutiny, reflect a scene (Boardman 26).
The paintings on the krater depict a dead person laid on a bier. This farewell ceremony depicted on the vase shows the emphasis laid on burial by the ancient Greeks. For instance, they emphasized more on the deceased person’s life on earth and his relations. This is pictured in the paintings on the vase. Standing at the head of the bier is the priestess who is usually present to perform certain rituals that would assist the deceased to navigate in the two worlds.
At the foot of the bier is a woman seated on a chair with her feet rested on a three legged stool. On her lap she carries a baby. Probably, this is the deceased’s wife and a child. At the foot of the bier are two figures, one slightly larger. These are depictions of the other children of the deceased. Women are seen mourning by pulling their hairs. This was the original sign of morning in ancient Greece (Boardman 27).
The paintings on the krater also show some gifts and presents offered to the deceased. Under the bier are animals both four legged and two legged. These are sacrificial animals that are offered during the ceremony to ensure that the deceased gets a decent farewell.
The presents of swords or other paraphernalia offered during the ancient Greek burial ceremony is a clear projection of their belief in life after death. They strongly believed that lack of decent burial would lead ghostly haunts (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, para. 3). The ancient Egyptians also offered items to the deceased.
Contrarily, the items were not meant for a decent burial but as Malek (351) argues, for a comfortable life after death, the ancient Egyptians buried their deceased with certain goods that would assist them carry on with life. The most basic goods that accompanied the deceased were everyday utensils like comps, cups, bowls and several other useful trinkets. In addition to this, the deceased would also be given food that would be necessary for his afterlife.
The economic status of the deceased also dictated the amount of items to be available for burial. For instance, wealthy people were buried with jewelry, furniture and anything that would add value to life. This however became a great attraction to tomb robbers. It was this ritual that led to tombs of the early dynastic period to be filled with utensils of daily use and other valuable goods (Murnane 63).
On the other hand, the ancient Egyptian’s item of burial was the mummy mask. This was a mask that covered the head and chest of the deceased. It was worn on the head of the deceased which would originally be wrapped. This mask was made from wet linen that was glued together and a thin layer of plaster applied. Once hardened, it could be painted or gilded (The British Museum, para. 4).
Just like the krater in the Greek culture, the mummy mask also had several decorations that had meanings. The decorations were a clear reflection of the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians concerning the afterlife. First, the Egyptians believed that the dead would live again after burial.
They strongly believed that the spirit, also referred to as Ba, would leave the tomb time after time. The mummy mask would therefore be the only way that the returning spirit would recognize its body which has its face wrapped in bandages. The belief in reunion with Re, the sun god is further evidenced by the presence of a winged scarab beetle. This was a symbol of the sun god and would therefore act as an identifier that would assist the mummy reunify with Re. it also symbolizes the issue of resurrection (The British Museum, para. 3).
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Behind the mask are other symbolic depictions that highlight the ancient Egyptians’ funerary practices and beliefs. There is a picture of a human headed bird. This is a symbolic representation of what they believed to be the aftermath of life. This was the symbol of Ba, the spirit that would resurrect.
Finally, there is the picture of a hawk whose wings are stretched out wide. This bird is a sign of protection. It represents Horus who protected his father Osiris. This would offer protection for the deceased in the afterlife. Typically, this falls within the beliefs that form the practices of the ancient Egyptians. Their basic belief was to ensure that the deceased enjoyed his afterlife and that he was well protected (Malek 354).
Furthermore, the mummy mask was coated with gold as a clear reflection of the belief that the mummy would be reunited with Re, the sun god. The gold coat would be a form of identification as the sun god Re was made up of a body of gold. The formation of the broad chest and raised relief at the collar provided space through which the funerary text would be placed. The funerary literature marks another ritual symbol used in ancient Egyptian burial ceremony.
Due to their profound belief in life after death, the ancient Egyptians believed that information on how to start life and carry on with it in the next world was necessary. As a result, they buried their mummies with what is referred to as the funerary literature. The information contained in the literature gave the mummy directions on how to navigate through to the next life. This information was kind of a secret that was never availed to other people but the Pharaoh during the 1st intermediate period.
However, the information started finding ways to other high ranking officials during the middle Kingdom before becoming necessary for all burials in the New Kingdom. In the 1st Kingdom, it was referred to as the pyramid text by scholars because it belonged to the Kings; it became the coffin texts in the Middle Kingdom before ending up as the Book of the dead in the new kingdom. The changes in names were also accompanied by changes in the content of the text.
The newer versions carried over the original spells but also had additional spells and slight changes. These books played important roles in the afterlife of the deceased. For instance, the pyramid text ensured that the pharaoh attained a royal resurrection and that there were no malignant influences in his afterlife (Murnane 45).
A distinct contrast in the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians is the destiny of the soul or spirit. The mummy mask contained a distinct wide open eye. This could be a clear reflection of their burial beliefs. It showed the mouth opening ceremony, another ritual involved in the preparation of a mummy in the ancient Egyptians’ burial. As mentioned earlier, the Egyptians believed in life after death.
They, therefore, wanted to ensure that the dead person would be able to perform his day to day activities in his life after death. The re-animation ceremony involved the mouth opening ceremony. This was a ritual conducted by a priest by touching the dead person’s mouth using a blade made of copper or stone also referred to as an adze. This practice was accompanied by utterance of certain words meant to cast a spell on the mummy.
The meaning of this ritual was to ensure that the dead person would be able to speak and breathe in his life after death. Apart from enabling the mummy to speak and breath, the priest also uttered some spells that would re-animate the dead person’s legs, arms and other body parts that are necessary for a normal performance in his life after death (Forman & Quirke 24). On the other hand, the Greeks believed in a decent burial.
It was only after a decent burial that the living would not be pestered by ghosts. As a result, the deceased had to be buried with closed eyes and mouth in order to ensure that the psyche would not leave the body before all the relevant rituals had been carried. They also believed that if the psyche left the body, it would meander between this world and the other world because it lacked enough information to guide it through the two worlds.
From both cultures, it is evident that both the ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians both believed in life after death. This is evident from the gifts that were accompanied by the deceased on his final farewell. However, we identify differences in the conception of the life after death.
In the Greek context, the dead, if not given a proper farewell would come back to haunt the living as evidenced in the feast of Anthesteria. This was a feast carried out every year that marked the chasing of ghosts. On the other hand, the ancient Egyptians do not believe in this. They believe that death was simply a transition period that enabled one to graduate from this life to life in the other world. As a result, they ensured that their deceased went away with adequate tools and utensils to ensure that their life was facilitated.
Boardman, John. Early Greek Vase Painting: 11th-6th Centuries BC. London: Thames and Hudson.
Forman, Werner and Quirke, Stephen. Hieroglyphs and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt, London: British Museum Press, 1996.
Hornung, Eric. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Afterlife, Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Malek, Jaromir. Egypt: 4000 Years of Art. London: Phaidon Press.
Murnane, William J. The Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt. (2nd Ed) Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1996.
The British Museum. Gilded Cartonnage Mummy Mask. n.d. 11 Nov, 2010. https://www.britishmuseum.org/
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Krater, Greek, Attic.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Oct, 2006. 11 Nov, 2010. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/14.130.14/