According to Merriam Webster, the definition of an obsession is stated to be “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling” .(Merriam Webster) However, I feel as through the term obsession means much more. For me, obsession means a fascination with an idea or object where one’s entire day or life is spent revolving around the idea; where people are willing to do and sacrifice anything for the idea. However, when an “obsession” becomes common in everyday society, it is not termed an “obsession” anymore but instead becomes normalized and regular thought. When the first smartphones and computers came out, those who could afford them were “obsessed” and would never leave them. However, in current day almost everyone has a smartphone and rarely are people willing to go without them for even one hour. Throughout history, the things people were fascinated with changed over time. In the 1800s, people became “obsessed” with finding gold and would travel great distances, sometimes across the entire United States, in attempts to strike rich. But later, when this became normalized thousands of people were seen traveling across the United States in attempts for the same dream. In terms of ancient Egypt, however, the ancient Egyptians thought very highly of the afterlife. They viewed their life in this world as a mere stepping stone to the luxurious and carefree world of the hereafter; one in which they would live amongst the gods through their connection to the king, or Pharaoh. The story of a Dispute Between a Man and His Ba exemplifies this thinking in describing a dialogue between a man and his ba, or soul. In ancient Egypt, the ba is thought to leave the body at death and live in the afterlife. However, in order for a person to enjoy the afterlife, their ba must be with them at the time of death. The story is about a man who wants to accept death immediately, but his ba threatens to desert him if he does. From the story of a Man and His Ba as well as other ancient texts including Coffin Texts and the Harper’s Song, I gained the perspective that the ancient Egyptians glorification of the afterlife developed into an obsession, as seen through the building of great tombs, the feeling of captivity in the current life, and the idolization of the sun-god Re. An obsession that initially began amongst the elite class of ancient Egypt but eventually spread to the common man.
When most people think of Egypt, they immediately associate it with pyramid building. Pyramids in ancient Egypt were built as tombs for the Pharaohs, or kings, in ancient Egypt. They were viewed as stairways to heaven to connect to the gods in the afterlife. The greatness of one’s tomb was associated with the type of afterlife they may have. As mentioned in the story of a Dispute Between a Man and His Ba, the man planned to build a “tomb, whose burial a survivor tends” (165), showing the ba that it will be taken care of after death and trying to persuade his ba to allow him to die. After death, people were assigned to tombs to take care of them, including cleaning and removing the sacrifices and offerings others placed. By having someone take care of the tomb, the ba would have an easier transition to the afterlife, by being able to have food through its journey and sacrifices to offer the gods once in the afterlife.
Image of the Great Pyramids, which served as tombs for various Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, such as Khafara and Khufu (Image via LifeScience)
Establishing Their Legacy
In addition, through the building of great tombs, the obsession with the afterlife and establishing one’s own legacy is seen. Pharaohs spend their entire lives planning, directing, and commanding people to build these large monuments. They wanted to ensure that not only the gods but also the regular people saw everything they had accomplished in this life and to ensure they would be remembered after death. By establishing a legacy and being remembered after death, the Pharaohs felt more confident about being amongst the gods in the afterlife, as they did their “duty” in their life on Earth and had proved themselves to the gods. Having the Pharaohs build large tombs is also similar to how people in current day establish large companies in their names and donate large sums of money to companies in order to be remembered as well. Establishing a legacy allows one to ensure that they will never be forgotten and that they will have been able to fully establish their purpose in this life.
Image of the Sphinx, which served to protect Khafara and his pyramid and part of the establishment of his legacy (Image via Guardian’s Sphinx)
Transition from Obsession to Common Thought
Within funerary temples, like the pyramids, people would often write “coffin texts” on the walls. Coffin texts were an adaptation of pyramid texts from the Old Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom. They would be written on or inside the coffin and often include spells that protected the deceased after death and model the life they hoped to live in the hereafter. The text states that those “who knows [the] spell, [they] will be like Re”(133). Re was the sun god in ancient Egypt who was thought to have created everything. The statement emphasizes who it was not just the pharaoh who was able to enjoy a luxurious afterlife, but anyone in the society who believed in this ideology. The coffin text showcase how the initial concept of glorification began with just the pharaohs but eventually spread to the common man. What initially began as an “obsession” amongst the higher elite eventually turned into normal everyday thought. It no longer remained an “obsession” but instead just became a part of common reality.
Image of a coffin text, containing spells to assist and protect the deceased in life after death (Image via The Oriental Institute)
Unlike current day where people want to ensure they lived their life to the fullest and many fear death, in ancient Egypt people embraced death whenever it came in addition to living their life on Earth to its fullest. The Harper’s Song is a poem where the main concept was death and the narrator tries to reassure the person to whom the tomb belongs to of his goal in the afterlife. The song states that “death is a kindly fate” and that people should “make [a] holiday” after deaths in addition to “[doing] things on earth as [their] hearts command” (197). These statements highlight the view of ancient Egyptians willing to embrace death due to the adoration of the afterlife; as people saw it, what was the point of this life if one will eventually be able to live with the gods and have little to no responsibilities later on? In addition, the ancient Egyptians wanted to be sure that the life they lived on Earth was worth living and that although grief after death does occur, people should not be too taken aback by it; as it will occur and instead be celebrated as the decreased are moving onto a better life.
As seen, the glorification of the afterlife lead the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs being obsessed with the hereafter as seen through the pyramid building and The Dispute between a Man and His Ba. However, once this view became normalized, it no longer remained an obsession due to perforating into common, everyday thought which was seen through the Coffin Texts and the Harper’s Song. Some ancient Egyptians wanted to spend their entire lives ensuring they would be worthy of living amongst the gods in the afterlife, while others were willing to cut their lives short to attain the riches and luxuries of the afterlife sooner. Although these views may seem odd and obsession-like to people in current day, it was just regular life to the ancient Egyptians. It is similar to how in current day, some people are willing to do anything to get a certain name-brand bag, including stealing. To the ancient Egyptians, this want of name-brands may have also been viewed as an “obsession”. The main difference is views in common society. What may be normalized in our society was not to the ancient Egyptians and it is our responsibility to appreciate the differences in societies and learn how to understand them from the perspective of the ancient Egyptians.