Death and Religion in Ancient Societies

Death has become a central aspect of human culture since we began living in communities. Every society suffers from death and each has different traditions and rituals that correspond with their culture and beliefs. One prominent ancient civilizations, the Ancient Egyptians, had their own burial system which included elaborate coffins and a long list of instructions for how to act in the afterlife (Lidz, 2023). The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Figure 1), which had been in private possession since the 19th century, was finally exhibited in the Getty Museum of Los Angeles for the public to see (Lidz, 2023).

Figure 1: A document containing spells and instructions on how to safely pass to the afterlife (Lidz, 2023)

This collection of documents shows us how the wealthy Egyptians were prepared for the afterlife, and shows us their cultures, beliefs and traditions regarding the dead. The documents contained a series of prayers and instructions on how they should be said which is supposed to facilitate the transition to the afterlife as well as obtaining control over your destiny (Lidz, 2023). These spells would protect you from harm such as snakes or being decapitated, but the objective of the entire document is to achieve safe passage to their version of paradise, lush fields that can provide sustenance for the gods (Lidz, 2023). In Ancient Egyptian culture, the purpose of their life on Earth was to be as morally good as they could be, so they are able to move into the afterlife safely and serve the gods for the rest of eternity. This shows how religion is a core belief in this culture as they live on Earth with the hope to work and feed the gods for the rest of their existence. 

This newly publicized artifact reminded me of the discussion about the human remains found in the mounds of the Native American city of Cahokia, and the role that religion may have played in this society. There are a lot of similarities between “Birdman” (Figure 2) and the burials of the Ancient Egyptian elites, as they all possessed lots of valuable grave goods (Seppa, 1997) as well as an elaborate coffin and support for an easy transition to the afterlife (White, 2023).

Figure 2: A depiction of how “Birdman” was buried, believed to be an important figure of Cahokia (White, 2023)

The stark difference between these two rituals are the remains of the many humans that were sacrificed found in Cahokia next to “Birdman”. Some were found right next to the supposed ruler, which are suspected to be close relatives, as well as over 50 other bodies placed in a line, which are believed to be human sacrifices (White, 2023). We discussed the possible reasonings behind these sacrifices, but I believe we can assume that religion played an important role. Looking at the Egyptians lifestyle, their entire lives seemed built around religion as they were eternally devoted to serving their gods. Although a completely different culture, the homogenous burial practices lead one to believe that the people of Cahokia may have shared a similar lifestyle that completely surrounded itself with one central idea, religion, which influenced their culture and the many human sacrifices.

Additional Information

More information on the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

More information on Egyptian Burial Practices:


Lidz, Franz. “Now Showing, an Ancient Spell Book for the Dead.” The New York Times, October 31, 2023.

Seppa, Nathan. “Metropolitan Life on the Mississippi.” The Washington Post, March 12, 1997.

White, AJ. “Cahokia.” Berkeley ORIAS. Accessed November 5, 2023.,religion%20and%20power%20at%20Cahokia. 


2 thoughts on “Death and Religion in Ancient Societies

  1. What do funerary practices and artifacts tell us about their owners’ social standings? When approaching these funerary sites, what unique archaeological methods/measures should we apply for preservatory purposes, and why might that be important?

    • Funerary practices themselves may not tell us much about social standing, but when compared to other funerary practices found on a similar site or from other civilizations of the time we can determine who was considered to be of higher social standing. For example, if we find a group burial with no elaborate decoration or order in the bodies that were buried, we can assume that these people were not taken care of when they were buried. Conversely, when we find the dead buried with many artifacts and with decoration, or in an isolated grave, we can assume that these people are of higher social standing as they have been given gifts and buried with care.
      For processes, usually a map or a drawing of the site will be done so that an idea of all the artifacts can be placed in relation to one another. For the artifacts, they should be treated carefully and some human remains may be treated with chemicals, called embalming, in order to preserve the material as it is so that it does not decay further. This allows for more research to be done on the sites and its artifacts at a later date. This is important because the site will probably be able to withstand limited damage from the environment or external factors such as handling from archeologists. By using these chemicals we can ensure that the materials don’t decay and that as much information can be withdrawn from the site as possible.

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