Friday, March 02, 2007

Did Egyptian Pharaohs Seek Immortality?

On a recent visit to the Portland, Oregon art museum, I saw an exhibit called “Egyptians: the Quest for Immortality.” It was a Disneyesque crowd-pleaser including a dimly lit mockup of a pyramid tomb room where you could see the writing on the wall. Despite the show-biz tone and the oxygen-deficient tomb room, I enjoyed studying the hieroglyphics, mummies, and other displays.

However, in examining the exhibit, it occurred to me that the Pharaohs were not questing for immortality at all. They simply assumed it, for everyone. The idea of personal nonexistence was probably inconceivable to them.

Why would you assume that at death you ceased to exist? You have never ceased before, despite having gone through innumerable transformations, from infant to adult. Always, you continued on. And so why would death be any different? Obviously, you would continue on as you always have, albeit in some other form. That would make perfect sense and would be beyond question for any normal ancient Egyptian.

When you think about it, the idea that death is oblivion only makes sense if “the person” is identical with the physical body. That view is recommended by modern science, but is far from being a fact. Intuitively, we feel there is more to a person than meat. Prescientific Egyptians would have no reason to doubt it.

It is more consistent with common sense and life’s experience to assume that one continues indefinitely. The ancient Egyptians were NOT on a quest for immortality because they knew they were immortal.

However, they did seem confused about what “the person” is. They put an enormous amount of resource into retarding the decay of the physical body. Why? They were unclear on the concept of immortality if they thought the physical body would continue after death, but they probably had not conceived of a physically transcendent soul or spirit yet. That would be for later monotheists to invent. So the Egyptians made do with what they could understand.

Nevertheless, if you assume immortality of “the person” (however that is defined), then the question would be, what can I do now to make my continued existence in the next world go better? For a pharaoh, the answer would be obvious.

A pharaoh would need the trappings of wealth and power, because that is the only way to distinguish a pharaoh from anybody else after death. Even the humblest farmer has the same number of fingers and toes as Pharaoh. Only wealth and social status make the difference, and if you’re leaving this social world for another, you are leaving your social status behind.

Therefore, the grand pyramids and their tombs are necessary for preserving one’s social status in the coming realm. For a big dude like a pharaoh, social status must be preserved at all costs, because that’s all you have, all you are. That IS your personhood. If you expect to have any clout with the gods on the other side, you will need credentials. The funerary art and treasure are the perfect calling cards (overlooking the awkward fact that they will remain tangibly located in this world).

Building a pyramid tomb is not a denial of death and it’s not a quest for immortality, it is like pressing your good suit in preparation for a party.

On the other hand, if you are a farmer in this life, and you have no social status, you don’t need a fancy tomb. You have nothing to lose and nothing to prove.

Early Neandertal or Pleistocene graves might have had a different purpose. Those people probably just accepted the evidence of the senses: at some point a person stops moving and someone declares, “He daid!” (That’s how early people talked).

They might put a few flowers in the grave out of respect for the memory of the living, a gesture of remembrance, without any thought of transition into another world. If people had little self-consciousness, the idea of personal continuation would not come up, and the idea of immortality would not come up.

It was the intellectual achievement of the Egyptians (or their forebears), to conceive continuous personal self-identity, and its corollary, immortality.

Today, we have lost that pharaonic certainty. Scientific naturalism tells us death is the end, the total, absolute, permanent, irredeemable end of everything you are. Religion assures us there is an escape valve: only the body dies, not the soul. We are not sure who to believe. It was easier for the Egyptians. They knew.

So I think the curators of the Egyptian show at the PAM misunderstood the meaning of the Egyptian tombs. Billing the exhibit as a “quest for immortality,” they projected their own existential uncertainty onto the pharaohs.

Of course, since we don’t really know what the pharaohs were thinking, it is all a mystery.

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