The underworld and the afterlife in ancient Egypt

To the ancient Egyptians, the underworld was a dangerous region that one’s spirit had to traverse...

Ancient Egyptian scarab amulet with wings

 © Australian Museum

...in order to reach the paradise that was the afterlife. The Field of Rushes was the afterlife for the ancient Egyptians – the paradise they had been striving to reach throughout their lifetime and the final destination of their journey through the underworld.

Journey through the underworld

Throughout the underworld journey, the deceased’s spirit would have to contend with gods, strange creatures and gatekeepers to reach Osiris and the Hall of Final Judgment. Here they would plead their case for entry into the afterlife.

Who is Osiris?

Osiris was the god and chief judge of the underworld. He was also god of vegetation and the annual Nile flood and was closely associated with death, resurrection and fertility. The ancient Egyptians believed him to be a dead king, a former ruler who had been miraculously restored to life after being murdered by his brother Seth. For this reason he came to symbolise the hope for eternal life that every Egyptian held.

The Final Judgment

Once the journey through the underworld is complete, the deceased reach the Hall of Final Judgment. Judgment involved a two-part process:

Part 1: standing before the 42 divine judges

Here they stood before 42 divine judges and pleaded their innocence of any wrongdoing during their lifetime. The Book of the Dead provided them with the correct words to use for each of the judges, ensuring that they would pass this part of the judgement process even if they had not been completely innocent.

Part 2: weighing the heart

The second part of the judgement process was the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ ceremony. The heart, which contained a record of all the deceased’s actions in life, was weighed against the feather of the goddess Ma’at. This feather was the symbol for truth and justice and helped determine whether the deceased person had indeed been virtuous. If the heart was found to be heavier than the feather, it was fed to Ammut, the ‘Devourer’, and the soul was cast into darkness. If the scales were balanced, the deceased had passed the test and was taken before Osiris who welcomed them into the afterlife. For those who were concerned about this test, they could recite the spell (usually Spell 30B from the Book of the Dead) inscribed on their heart scarab amulet to prevent their heart from ‘betraying’ them.

The Afterlife

Life in the Field of Rushes was a reflection of the real world they had just left with blue skies, rivers and boats for travel, gods and goddesses to worship and fields and crops that needed to be ploughed and harvested. The dead were granted a plot of land in the Field of Rushes and were expected to maintain it, either by performing the labour themselves or getting their shabtis to work for them. Shabtis (small statuettes) were often supplied with agricultural tools such as baskets and hoes and were often lead by a foreman or overseer (who appeared after about 1000 BCE), who carried a flail instead of tools.


Last Updated:

Tags life after death, afterlife, underworld, ancient Egypt, field of rushes, final judgement, divine judges, weighing the heart,